BUSINESS AND THE LAW: Truckers Allege Customs Gouging

ST. PETERSBURG -- Russian customs has been violating international trade agreements on border regulations, milking millions of dollars from transport firms, representatives from the Association of Northwest Russian trucking companies said last week.

Customs officials last month began to overcharge trucks crossing the Finnish border with products destined for St. Petersburg and Moscow, said Konstantin Sharshov, a spokesman for the truckers. The practice has continued since then, he added.

Two private companies under contract with the State Customs Committee - The Union of Customs Service Veterans and Rosteck - charged up to $1,300 for each truck entering Russia from Finland.

The charges were for escorting the trucks from the border to their final destination. The two companies were taking advantage of a decree signed during the first week of October by the head of the State Customs Committee, Mikhail Vanin, Sharshov said. That edict required all truck drivers traveling from the Finnish border to St. Petersburg and Moscow to pay for an escort to accompany them to their destination, Sharshov said.

The maximum amount that drivers can be legally charged is the equivalent of 60 monthly minimum wages (about $185), according to Yevgeny Vensko, a spokesman for the Customs Committee's northwest branch.

Ostensibly the decree was intended to thwart false claims that cargo had been stolen before it reached its destination, thus relieving truckers who made such claims of the need to pay any duty on the goods. Customs law requires companies who order merchandise to pay duties on their cargo only after it is delivered to its final destination.

"We needed new regulations because very often companies that are supposed to receive cargo do not pay customs tax by saying they lost their freight somewhere on the way from the border to the customs terminal," Vensko said.

In addition to the allegations of overcharging, truckers have slammed the new decree as a breach of the International Convention on Road Haulage, of which Russia is a signatory. Member nations are required by the convention to warn all freight companies operating on the local market in advance of any changes that will be made to their customs laws.

Sharshov, of the Northwest Association of Freight Companies, said the State Customs Committee didn't bother to tell anyone of the new regulation, which not only affected Russian operators, but also those from Finland, Sweden and several other European countries.

Finnish freighters, who deliver 12 percent of all the cargo coming through the Russian-Finnish border, were among the hardest hit by the new regulation.

"We did not like the new regulation. But if it helps customs officials to collect taxes, maybe it is a good thing," said Anti Seppala, international affairs director for the Finnish transport company SKAL.

"[Some] of our drivers were held in a customs terminal and forced to pay more then $1,000 for their lorries to be escorted to Moscow," Seppala said, adding that Finnish trucks are often stranded in the St. Petersburg terminal for up to 10 days because customs sends all their paperwork to Moscow. Each day the trucks are stranded, they are assessed a penalty of 1,500 to 2,000 Finnish marks ($260 to $350).

The Association of Freight Companies showed The Moscow Times receipts of four separate bills, signed by customs officials and totaling 33,460 rubles ($1,300), charged to a single truck crossing the border a single time Oct. 26. Written on the receipts was "money received by The Union of Customs Service Veterans."

Sharshov of The North-West Association of Freight Companies said that on average the Union of Customs Service Veterans pulls in about $700 per truck and, multiplied by the 200 or so trucks that cross the Finnish border every day, millions of dollars must have been collected in the month the escort law was in effect. "Just imagine how much money they collected this way in just a few weeks. ... Obviously somebody reaped a fat profit," he said.

Anatoly Avdeyenko, deputy director of the Union of Customs Service Veterans, denied his company collected millions of dollars and said it didn't even have enough money to operate.

"Usually drivers had to pay from $380 to $500 to have their trucks escorted, depending on the weight of cargo. I do not understand where you got this number $1,300," he said in a telephone interview. "I think some kind of a criminal structure works under our name at customs."

"If you can prove we collected millions of dollars you can take it," he said.