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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Border Woes Slow Yuletide Flow

As you throw yourself into the frenzy of pre-Christmas and New Year's shopping, spare a thought for the peple who ensure those goods reach Russia in time.

Shipping officials say lines of trucks at the Russian-Finnish borders are reaching nightmarish length -- more than five kilometers at times -- on the eve of the festive season.

"It is usually this way around Christmas," said Tuula Oras of the Finnish Association of Transporters, adding that the average daily total of about 300 trucks crossing the border goes up significantly in December. The whole process takes 15 to 20 hours, she said.

The Christmastime woes merely add to foreign shippers' complaints that have been gathering force over the past year. Venal border guards, discrimination against non-Russian firms and a host of ever-changing customs regulations, say transporters, give them headaches year-round. The problems start even before entering Russia. At the Belarus-Poland frontier, trucks run by the German transporter Heilman sometimes spend more than 50 hours before they can start making their way to Moscow, said Heilman's Moscow representative, Kirstin Dauenheimer.

Officials say the congestion is largely a consequence of poor infrastructure, which is not equipped to handle the boom in trade volume that has occurred since Russia's move toward a market economy five years ago. The volume of freight crossing the Finnish-Russian border has more than doubled over the last two years, according to Jean-Pierre Reymondet, the European Union's transportation counselor in Moscow.

Reymondet said the EU has allocated 9 million ECU ($7.25 million) to upgrade several road and rail checkpoints on the Russian border and complete two northern port projects, Brusnichnaya and Torfyanovka, next month. The EU will also conduct training courses for Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian border and custom officials at a cost of 5 million ECU next year.

Shippers agree there's lots to be done. "All the time there are these new regulations, or so they say," said Dauenheimer, attributing the border mess to a combination of inadequate infrastructure, corrupt officials who demand "pocket money" and a lack of coordination between checkpoints.

The latest issue confusing shippers is a government decision to slap new tariffs on goods and individuals crossing Russian borders under a law approved earlier this month. Russian officials said new levies would go into effect early next year.

"This is a very strange tariff which does not exist in any European country," said Markku Maunula, head of Finland's trade office in Moscow. He said the Finnish transport sector is waiting to see how the law would be implemented.

The European Union also has protested to Russia about the new border fees.

Many foreign shippers are convinced that harassment of foreign truckers is aimed at steering business toward Russian transporters. The International Freighting Weekly reported in July that Russian firms had more than doubled their business over the previous year while the Finns' volume remained stable. The issue has sparked mini-wars between the two sides, including a two-day strike by Finnish transportation workers.