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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Fairy Tales, at Least, People Pay Their Taxes




Once upon a time there was a prince named Igor. Apart from ruling over his subjects, his job was to collect taxes from every corner of his empire. One day he saddled his horse and set off to levy dues.


"Are you mad?" the people in the nearby village shouted. "Your taxes are too high. We will not pay them." And they beat him black and blue.


On his return to the castle, his wife, Olga, a brassy woman of mammoth proportions, stamped her foot. "Of all the cheek!" she shouted, and she galloped to the mutinous village and burned it to the ground. The moral of the story: Pay your taxes or face the consequences.


That, at least, is what the Moscow tax police had in mind when they designed three cartoon advertisements, each less than a minute in length, to be broadcast on television networks across the capital beginning in April.


"Our aim is to lodge the word 'tax' in children's minds from an early age, so that when it is time for them to pay their taxes, they will know what to do," said Alexander Borisov, head of public relations at the Moscow branch of the tax police.


The second in the series of advertisements features two chess-playing cavemen who sacrifice their belongings, including a 6-meter tall behemoth, to their gods. "Tax-paying is part of human nature," proclaims the slogan at the end of the ad.


"The cavemen made the choice to pay their taxes, in the form of presents to their gods, of their own volition," Borisov said. "This is what we are encouraging children to do in the future."


In the third cartoon, French Protestant martyr Joan of Arc rides across the screen on her horse. According to mythology, the inhabitants of the town of Domremy, where the fearless crusader was born, were exempt from taxes because they had raised a French national hero.


"This is the only legal way to avoid paying your taxes," says the jovial commentator, before the tax police insignia is flashed up on the screen.


The tax police launched a series of advertisements in September, but these are the first aimed specifically at children. There is also a series of advertisements, currently airing, aimed at adults. The 30-second clips warn men they will lose their appetite and even their libido, if they are forever worrying about the tax police catching up on them, and should therefore pay up.


The tax authorities have also been resorting to other unorthodox measures in a bid to fill state coffers. Late last year, tax service chief Alexander Pochinok lectured a room full of showbiz figures -- including stars like Filip Kirkorov and Alla Pugachyova -- on the importance of setting a good example to their fans by paying taxes.


The current blitz on tax collection is intended to prevent a repeat of the disastrous levels of tax returns in 1997.


At the end of last year, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais said tax authorities collected only 52 percent of the targeted amount in the first nine months of 1997. Some estimates put the sum of uncollected taxes at $100 billion.


"Of course it would be possible to force people to pay their taxes," said Borisov. "But we feel it is better to convince them through advertisements, that paying their taxes in the first place is a lot simpler."


Analysts, however, consider that the advertisements will have little effect on the population. "People are not going to come out about their tax returns, because they are frightened," said Scott Antel, a tax lawyer at accounting firm Arthur Anderson.


He said that the real problem lies not with tax dodgers, but with the government, who are making no effort to reform the present taxation system. "[Tax-payers] don't trust the government so they will not come into the system. If the state reforms itself they might be prepared to pay."


He added, "There is a presumption by the authorities that the people are thieves. I don't think they can change the fundamental psychology of the people without state reforms."


Others are less skeptical. "[The tax police] are obviously taking a very long-term view on this," said Chris Moore, an attorney at Coudert Brothers law firm. "It seems as though they have given up on the adults and are now trying to get kids to grow up with proper values."


He said anecdotal evidence has shown that there were longer lines of people lining up to pay their taxes last year than in previous years. "Ultimately, the problem stems from a cultural aversion in Russia to pay taxes, and to that extent advertisements will have some effect," he said.


"Perhaps they should show Prince Igor riding his horse to all the big entertainers in Moscow."