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Russia visited mainly to fetch food

Pühade eel ei taha autode rivi Narva sillal lõppeda. PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Gone are the days when the eager ones in Narva did multiple daily walks across the border hauling home vodka and cigarettes, to do business in native Estonia. Now, it’s «just for me» that they fetch stuff from there. Meanwhile, goods increasingly flow from Estonia to Russia.

At the Narva customs post, it’s more peaceful now, year-on-year: stricter controls and tougher laws have significantly cut smuggling. Even so, customs officials need to constantly be all eyes. 

Upon arrival, Tax and Customs Board Narva border point head Voldemar Linno receives us under a big multicolour picture of the new border checkpoint long dreamed about – a contemporary one. «Next year, as you come, the picture will be totally different,» promises the man. The present building is somewhat small indeed, and work out. And not normal, one finds, to have the exit/entry sides separated by a flimsy partition. 

We are more interested in the incoming path, which is split in two as well: one has green stripes, the other sports red. People will decide, if they have things to declare or not, and walk accordingly.

Wednesday before noon, not many people are coming. So the pretty young customs girls order almost all bags to be opened. The rule is to do that by sampling. «Absolutely all are checked in North-Korea only,» says Mr Linno.

When something «extra» gets discovered, the border-crosser is invited to another room for additional check.

Locals know rules

According to Mr Linno, most crossers are locals, well acquainted with rules regarding goods carried and norms of behaviour at customs. No trouble with them. Still, errors do occur.  

Mr Linno warns us we might not see contraband during our short stay – but we didn’t come for that; we just came to see how things are done and what is currently being brought from Russia.

Here comes Mikhail, a dweller of Narva. He is nice to us, ready to reveal what he bought in Ivangorod. 

The bag is full of foodstuff, mostly baby-food which is 20 to 30 percent cheaper over the river, says the man. For the family of the young man, currently unemployed, this is great help. He goes to Russia twice a month, according to as is allowed. And he rarely brings alcohol – he doesn’t drink that.

There is less contraband, basically. As helped by good job dome by customs officials, as the toughened law vastly restricting both the amount of crossings and amounts of alcohol/tobacco allowed in.

It used to be that some crossed the border multiple times a day, carrying back huge loads of vodka and cigarettes; not, goods under excise are only allowed once a day. And: only two packs of cigarettes may be brought, twice a month. And a litre of vodka or four litres of wine, once a month.

By this, waiting lines have been cut both sides of the Narva River. Also, at the moment the weather helps – underneath the flimsy summer clothes, what can one hide? Especially not a vodka bottle...

As a positive phenomenon, trade flows have increased from Estonia to Russia. A trend definitely good for the Estonian economy, yet adding work load to customs staff. By the way: Narva locals are used as «mules» who carry both clothes, electronics and car parts to the East, for a fee. They take the stuff across by hand, wheelbarrow, and car. Sales work, and accumulation of supplies, is dome by other people.

The Russian tourists also keep constantly increasing. This Wednesday, as Postimees paid a visit, buses rolled in from Russia like anything – doe to upcoming independence day, they had a shortened work-day. All buses are thoroughly inspected with drug dogs.

Eyes and ears of customs officials must be opened, at all times. In addition to that, constant risk analysis is going on based on earlier cases and hints received. Guided by that, certain select individuals and their cars undergo a search more thorough and diligent.

A smuggler will face confiscation of contraband and a misdemeanour procedure. Even now, two young men show up to get their due.

Either intentionally or out of ignorance (as will be clarified by investigation), they have brought electronic devices from Russia, such to which customs tax applies. Probably, they will need to pay a fine now.

If large amounts of contraband are discovered, and it is obvious that taxes were being wilfully avoided (like with goods concealed in walls of cars), the person’s visa may be annulled in cooperation with Border Guard Board.

Old man and car

Right now, a tired VW Passat is sent to «X-ray». Is this a suspicious mark? Who knows, Rein – a pensioner car owner – will have to stand by and see his car «dismantled». The gray-headed man is stoic, knowing there’s nothing they’ll find.  

«Once a year id does happen, I’m used to that. I cross the border once a month. Mainly for food, they have a greater variety,» says Rein and shows us oh-how-long macaroni – very tasty according to him. In Estonia, these aren’t available. The man quit drinking many years ago, but he still does bring some spirits. According to rules, and just for his friends who may visit. A decade ago, alcohol, tobacco and car fuel was big business. Not anymore. Says Rein.

Earlier, Rein used to cross the stream for gasoline’s sake. Namely, the Passat gas tank contains 70 litres according to the papers, but in actual fact it takes 100 litres. Maybe that’s why they used the model for contraband fuel.

During the search, a bag that jingles is lifted off the car. These are empty jars to prepare fish in. These are more expedient to bring from Russia. Four specialists work at the car, with their specialised tools, Then a pitch black drug dog does his thing.

All is okay, Rain may drive off towards Narva. His last trip for a while, as the one-year visa, to get which he had to find a job, is soon expired. The man is sorry, as he also uses to visit graves of relatives across the border line.

The border point head says this kind of vehicle is searched a couple of times in a shift; this was routine check. Sometimes, people’s behaviour feels suspicious (such as not answering questions clearly) or something has been pointed out by risk analysis.

The border point features a curious «museum» showing how contraband has been carried across the border. For cigarettes, vests with inside pockets have been used, as well as car tyres, car doors and other car-cavities, and things to carry kids. Alcohol has been found in fuel tanks and other such places. Strategic stuff has been confiscated, from police uniforms to electric shock apparatus. Plus all kinds of items with falsified marks and skins of animals forbidden to trade.

Asked if the crooks are ahead of them, Mr Linno says not quite. «By half a step, perhaps... And we are catching up.»

Carriage of goods

Limits of repeated border crossings reduced flow of goods from Russia (December  2013 as compared to December 2012):

•    alcohol 19%

•    cigarettes 26%

•    fuel 42%

Meanwhile, growth came regarding:

•    vehicles crossing border once a month 20%

•    persons entering Estonia on one-off basis (tourists) 12%

In 2013, contraband included:

•    11.2 million cigarettes (44% less year-on-year)

•    11,000 litres of absolute alcohol (64% less)

•    122,000 of fuel (9% increase)

•    The night after the Wednesday when Postimees paid a visit, Narva customs staff apprehended two vehicles with a total of 63,000 undeclared cigarettes hidden within.