Moscow Times
August 11, 2004

Taxi Feud Turns Ugly at Kursky Station

By Valeria Korchagina

Gypsy cabbies and licensed taxi drivers are slugging it out in a turf war at Kursky Station, highlighting long-simmering rivalries in Moscow's notoriously unregulated taxi services industry.

The feud around the station has been going on for a couple of weeks, fueled by cutthroat competition between the well-organized groups that run illegal gypsy cab services and drivers from the New Yellow Taxi firm, which operates 1,500 taxis throughout the city.

A brawl between gypsy cabbies and the firm's drivers led to police detaining 11 people last Thursday.

"Lots of big guys came and picked a fight," said a New Yellow Taxi driver, who gave his name as Yury. "Some of our guys were beaten up, but at least this time the police actually detained somebody from the other side."

When the first fights started, Mayor Yury Luzhkov visited the square in front of the station, promising licensed drivers the city's support in the form of a new law regulating taxi services. It was not clear, however, when the legislation would be passed or how it would be enforced.

The situation at Kursky Station is only a tiny episode in the life of the city's taxi services industry.

An industry insider, who asked not to be identified, said that while the total number of official cabs does not exceed 3,500, there are about 30,000 to 40,000 unlicensed gypsy cabs working the city's streets on any given day.

He estimated that the city's unlicensed taxi industry is worth $500 million per year.

The army of gypsy cabbies is also divided into two types -- bombily, or those who work from fixed pickup spots like stations, hotels and airports, and shakaly, or jackals, the most numerous group, who cruise the city's streets looking for fares.

Under current laws on private enterprise, anyone can get a license to provide taxi services. Very few do, however, as paying taxes and complying with other regulations is considered an unnecessary and annoying burden.

Going on the gray side also provides a competitive advantage, since jackals can afford to charge less than licensed taxis. Many thousands of gypsy cabbies work when not busy with their regular jobs.

The gypsy cab tradition has deep roots in the city and is taken for granted by both drivers and passengers.

Even in the fairly strictly regulated Soviet Union, the authorities were unable to stop the use of gypsy cabs. Many Muscovites can tell stories of flagging down not just privately owned cars or officials' black Volgas, but also ambulances, fire engines, trucks and even snowplows and "off-duty" trolleybuses. Hailing a trolleybus, of course, is only useful if the trolleybus is going your way.

By the early '90s, these practices had become a common sight across the city.

Taxi drivers at Kursky Station are pessimistic about whether the city will be able to solve their problems anytime soon.

"There is no legal system to protect us," New Yellow Taxi driver Vyacheslav Goryachev said.

But the good news for the licensed taxi firms is that other cities around the world have gone through what Moscow is today, eventually clamping down on illegal taxi services, albeit sometimes after decades of efforts by city officials and police.

New Yorkers, for example, remember the numerous gypsy cabs that roamed the city's streets in the 1960s, '70s and even '80s.

But in the late 1980s, the authorities decided to get tough with the gypsy cabdrivers.

"Between 300 and 600 cars were towed away a month," said Bruce Schaller, a Brooklyn-based consultant on transportation issues who was director of policy development and evaluation at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s.

The one crucial ingredient for success, though, is that "you have to have a pretty incorruptible police," Schaller said by telephone from New York.

Schaller, who visited Moscow in 2002 while advising New Yellow Taxi owners on how to operate their business, said that the Moscow taxi scene reminded him of New York 30 years ago.

"It can change, but it will take a long, long time," he said.

The conflict at Kursky Station started, the New Yellow Taxi drivers said, when one company driver was beaten up after picking up a passenger on the square who ordered a car by phone. Previously, the firm's drivers insisted, they had stayed clear of the square, which is well-known as a gypsy cab pickup spot.

The firm's drivers responded to their colleague's radioed call for help, and not only got into a fight that day but started to come to the station every day in groups, gradually carving out a pitch for themselves.

At first glance, nothing out of the ordinary appears to be going on on the square. The only hint of trouble is that the yellow cab drivers tend to stand around their cars in groups, looking rather too vigilant for a crowd of casually chatting men on a hot and dusty summer afternoon.

Police do not seem to have been able to prevent the fights, which have continued to break out sporadically. Local police officers remain tight-lipped, often even denying that the dispute has turned violent.

"Maybe there was some verbal exchange, but no witnesses to any fight are coming forward," Igor Burtsev, an officer with the local police precinct, told Rossia television last Thursday.

But the licensed taxi drivers complain that by not doing anything, police officers are indirectly helping the gypsy cab operators.

"There were policemen here today, but none of them attempted to stop the beating," Goryachev said after Thursday's fight. "The attackers were beefy guys obviously trained for fighting."