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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diplomats turned pirates

While imported Western goods are flooding the Russian market, more and more foreign diplomats are caught red-handed trying to smuggle Russian goods out of the country.

"Every month four to five diplomats are detained with contraband items in their baggage", says Alexei Bektimirov, heard of Russia's customs department responsible for contraband and the breaking of customs laws.

A Tuesday article in Rossiskaya Gazeta highlighted the problem. A few recent examples: the wife of an Italian Embassy official was caught with two icons in her luggage; the director general of the World Health Organization was detained when he tried to smuggle six valuable icons out of Russia; and a Syrian Embassy employee was caught with 51 contraband items, worth 220, 000 rubles, including icons, old silverware and a polar-bear skin.

The easy availability of Russian antiques is evident from any weekend stroll through Izmailovo Park, Moscow's biggest open-air market. Hidden in row upon row of junky souvenirs are prerevolutionary samovars, paintings, antique carpets, old coins, gold Orthodox crosses and icons.

Due to trade liberalization, customs laws have largely been ignored by firms since many rules no longer apply, said Bektimirov. At the moment a new law is being prepared which he expects will label something as "contraband" if an item is more than 100 years old. Today's laws prohibit export of anything manufactured before 1945.

"According to the 1964 Vienna Convention, despite diplomatic immunity, any official is allowed to be searched", Bektimirov said, "as long as we have a fundamental reason to believe that they are breaking customs laws".

But caviar and icons are not the only items favored by diplomatic smugglers.

"On several occasions we have detained diplomats who were shipping home huge containers carrying literally tons of goods", said Bektimirov. "One diplomat claimed his five containers were filled with items of personal use. When we inspected we found thousands of soccer boots, tennis rackets and Soviet watches".

Bektimirov's department has no control over diplomatic mail, however, which is shipped out of the country in special sealed pouches. At the American Embassy, for example, diplomats must fill out a customs declaration form but these are not checked. An embassy employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said any parcels that look suspicious are handed over to embassy security.

"To my knowledge there is not much abuse going on concerning shipping forbidden goods home, but theoretically anything can get through", the employee said.

Only 3-5 percent of all goods smuggled out are intercepted by Russian customs. In the West the figure is estimated at 10 percent, Bektimirov said.

Added Bektimirov: "We always give diplomats a chance to talk. If they admit they have an icon, for example, we safeguard the antique and they are allowed to collect it when they return from abroad. If they deny, however, we confiscate".