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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petersburg Prosecutors Say Customs Art Tax Is Illegal

ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg aviation and transport prosecutor’s office has stated that a 100 percent tax imposed by customs on the export of cultural valuables is illegal.

The decision, made in a letter sent to Pulkovo airport’s customs last week, supports complaints over the tax first raised by officials from the Culture Ministry.

Valery Sokolov, acting aviation and transport prosecutor, said customs officials have one month to respond to the letter. If the tax is abolished, the case could set a precedent for the rest of the country, allowing people to sue the customs service if they are taxed for exporting cultural objects, according to a statement from the Culture Ministry’s board for the preservation of cultural objects in St. Petersburg.

The board must evaluate the worth of cultural valuables before they are taken out of the country and then issue a certificate of permission. Last month, the board stopped placing a price tag on cultural objects and only stamped them as able to be exported.

It said that the customs tax violated Russian law and effectively meant that people were paying twice for what they bought. In response, customs officials refused to let anyone take anything considered culturally valuable out of Russia, claiming that they had no way of knowing the worth of what they were taxing.

The issue stands right in the middle of a legislative gray area. A 1993 law stipulates that those exporting cultural valuables should pay an export tax, but fails to say what rate is to be levied. The customs service subsequently took matters into its own hands and set the tax at 100 percent, but the move was never backed up by the passing of a law.

Sokolov said Monday in a telephone interview that the culture officials were right in their observations. Any instructions from ministries acting independently without legal backing could not serve as a base to levy a tax, he said.

Furthermore, the definition of "cultural valuable" is unclear: Between mass-produced souvenir dolls, which may be waved through at customs without a second glance, and a cultural object over 100 years old, which cannot leave Russia at all, the interpretation of what is "valuable" is open to debate.

Sergei Pankov, a spokesman for Northwestern Customs, said the tax has been suspended.

Pankov said that the State Customs Committee as examining the document.

"An official reaction will follow in about a week," he said.

Sokolov said that if the tax is finally declared illegal, technically those who have paid it in the past will be able to apply to the courts for compensation. To be on the safe side, however, those in doubt as to the value of what they have purchased in Russia should go to the Culture Ministry’s board.

Without a certificate of permission to export, customs are still able to confiscate a cultural valuable, according to Alexander Savin, acting head of the board.