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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dollar Crackdown Causes Airport Chaos




New regulations strictly limiting the amount of hard currency foreigners can take out of Russia have been creating havoc at Sheremetyevo Airport as foreigners abruptly discover they cannot take even a single cent out of the country unless they can present a stamped entry declaration.


Missed planes, angry standoffs with customs officials and lines at currency exchange points have been almost a daily occurrence at the Sheremetyevo-2 international terminal in recent weeks.


"What do you mean I can't leave with dollars?" asked Tone, a Norwegian tourist rushing for a plane to London after a two-week vacation in Moscow.


"Nobody said anything about this when I arrived. When I went through customs then I showed officials the entry declaration, but they waved me aside and told me I did not need it," she argued.


An angry 10-minute standoff ensued as a customs official tried to explain to the incredulous woman that new laws meant she couldn't take out cash without her original and stamped declaration.


A representative for Finnair at Sheremetyevo, who was contacted Tuesday and wished to remain anonymous, reported cases of passengers missing their flights because of lines at customs, especially in the first week after the laws were implemented.


But Finnair, British Airways, Delta and Lufthansa also said there were no reimbursements for passengers missing planes because they fell foul of the currency laws.


The problems are being caused by amendments to the law on foreign currency that were drawn up by the Central Bank, passed by parliament and then signed into law July 5 by President Boris Yeltsin. Aimed at stemming the tide of capital flight, they allow foreigners, or nonresidents, to take currency out of Russia only if they can present documents proving they arrived with that sum or that the money was transferred to Russia from abroad.


Customs authorities f who only began enforcing the law recently f are now stopping all foreigners attempting to leave Russia and requiring them to present a stamped customs declaration from the last time they entered Russia, stating how much foreign currency they arrived with, officials said Tuesday. If the sum carried exceeds that amount foreigners are being turned away and told to hand over any hard currency over to friends accompanying them or to change cash for either traveler's cheques or Russian rubles at the nearest exchange point. Should the departee lack a declaration, they are banned from taking out any hard currency whatsoever.


Thousands of passengers have had their travel plans turned upside down because they simply do not possess stamped declarations. Customs officials had previously declined to stamp declarations on entry unless the traveler was declaring more than $500 in hard currency.


Meanwhile, no official documentation exists for proving that funds have been transferred from abroad f the Central Bank has yet to design it.


Even though it was a relatively quiet weekday afternoon on Tuesday at Sheremetyevo-2, foreigners trying to go through customs time after time ended up in heated arguments with officials. Unwilling to go through the hassle and lost money involved in changing money into traveler's cheques f let alone rubles f many preferred to argue the toss, only to lose later and retire to nearby Sberbank currency exchange booths.


"It's even worse at the weekends," said Natasha, a cashier at a Sberbank exchange point. "We even ran out of traveler's cheques then," she said, shaking her head.


Sergei, a customs official at Sheremetyevo, said up to 40,000 people go through customs at the airport at the weekends.


The Central Bank, which drew up the new currency law, says it hopes the new documents will be drawn up soon.


"It might be a matter of weeks or months," said a spokesman for the Central Bank, who wished to remain unidentified. "These processes can take a long time, but we hope the problem will be quickly decided. We don't want foreigners to suffer."


"The problems arose because of the traditional Russian disease of lack of communication between executive organs and lack of preparation for implementing the law," he said.


Until this documentation eventuates, foreigners f except for the lucky few who actually managed to acquire and keep a stamped entry declaration f will not be able to take out foreign currency.


Even bank slips from ATM machines are not considered as valid, neither is proof of purchase at an exchange point.


Customs authorities still have no idea how foreigners wishing to leave with money obtained from bank machines in Russia f many of which dispense dollars f can provide the necessary documentation proving the funds were transferred from abroad, Yelena Starozhilova, the head of the State Customs Committee's currency control department, said Tuesday at a news conference.


"The changes to the law mean that foreigners can no longer take out of Russia currency they have bought with rubles," Starozhilova said.


Even if foreigners present letters from commercial banks saying the funds have been transferred from accounts abroad, customs officials cannot accept them as proof of the transfer, Igor Volkov, the deputy head of customs at Sheremetyevo-2, said in an interview Tuesday.


"Customs officials can't accept any form of documents foreigners may obtain from commercial banks for this purpose until the Central Bank has approved an official version," he said.


Foreigners used to be able to use the green certificates that commercial banks issue when changing money from rubles into hard currency as proof that they had acquired the currency legally. However, those certificates can no longer be used by foreigners.


Russian citizens can use such certificates should they be taking out more than $500 in hard currency. They are allowed to take out up to $10,000. Should they be taking less than $500 out, Russians are not required to declare it.


But while the enforcement of the new laws caused chaos and upheaval for some foreign passengers Tuesday, others managed to slip by regardless.


For John Conlin, the president of Sakhalin Energy, who was leaving for London on Tuesday, the whole process was something of a lottery.


"I managed to get through with $22 in cash," he whispered conspiratorially after passing throughcustoms. "They seemed to be satisfied with an unstamped entry declaration and didn't bother checking the Dutch guilders I was taking out," he said.


He'd already passed on most of his dollars to colleagues at the office before leaving for the airport.