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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

15-Kilometer Lines Clog Finnish Border

MTTrucks waiting to cross the border into Finland from Russia on Sunday.
VALIMAA, Finland -- A directive from Moscow to crack down on import fraud has resulted in hundreds of truckers being stranded for days on the Finnish border in lines as long as 15 kilometers.

In an effort to recoup some $200 million it says it loses every year from fraudulent customs declarations in the Northwest region, the State Customs Committee on Oct. 24 ordered officials in its Northwest branch to perform item-by-item searches of vehicles carrying certain specified goods, including household appliances, furniture and coffee.

The result has been a row of trucks that stretches as far as the eye can see along the E-18 highway, one of Russia's busiest transport corridors, which cuts through the Finnish border town of Valimaa, just across from Russia's Torfyanovka customs station, halfway between St. Petersburg and Helsinki.

"I've been sitting here waiting since Friday," trucker Alexei Pilkin said Sunday. "I've heard that there are not enough staff working for the Russian customs here and, as we all know, they work very slowly as it is."

"This is just a nightmare," said Valter Velsman, head of the International Association of Cargo Importers, in a telephone interview. "They search 50 percent of all trucks coming to the border, which means they have to be fully unloaded first and then reloaded. That's what forms the huge lines outside.

"The best cargo checkpoint in Europe is located in Torfyanovka, but instead of having all eight lanes open, only one, two or sometimes three work. They can inspect 1,300 trucks a day, but they handle only 250," he said, adding that trucks lose $200 for every day they are idle and the total damage to the industry has been about $500,000 since the new regime was put in place.

Northwest customs officials said Monday the crackdown on certain categories of goods was issued as a result of an inspection carried out at Northwest region border points in early October by federal customs officials.

"Due to the large number of violations discovered during the inspection, a decision was issued Oct. 24 to search all transport trucks carrying goods from what were identified as risk groups," said Yevgeny Vensko, spokesman for the Northwest Customs Administration.

As many as 400 trucks have been stuck waiting at the border crossing at some points.

"This is not such a big surprise for me," said Sergei Ivanov, a trucker stuck in an overloaded parking lot on the Finnish side who said he was moving about five kilometers per day. "I've seen how they work. You pull up to the checkpoint, and there's nobody there. One has just left, another is having tea and a third is off just walking around somewhere."

The crackdown has also spread to the St. Petersburg port and produced some major personnel changes.

On Tuesday, PKT, the largest container cargo operator in the Northwest, said ships were being turned away from St. Petersburg because the customs processing time had grown to as long as 12 days and they were nearly out of storage space.

Last month, the top two customs officials in the Northwest region, Vladimir Shamakhov and his deputy Mikhail Prokofiev, both quit their jobs, ostensibly due to health reasons, and Alexander Puchkov, head of the Baltic Customs District at the St. Petersburg Port, was suspended by the State Customs Committee.

All three left after the investigation by federal authorities began, and their duties have been taken over by the officials carrying out the investigation.

"We discovered that Northwest customs had been losing about $200 million annually," Irina Skibinskaya, spokesperson for the State Customs Committee, said in a telephone interview. "Since the more stringent inspections started, tax collection has increased significantly." "I can't give you any numbers yet, but it's clear now that collections will be much higher than Northwestern customs initially planned," she added.

Skibinskaya declined to say how much the Valimaa post collects each year in customs duties. The International Association of Truck Drivers, based in St. Petersburg, said about 250,000 trucks passed through the recently refurbished and European Union-certified Valimaa post last year, and that number was set to grow by 20 percent this year before Oct. 24.

Northwest customs officials said about 30 percent of those trucked goods contained on the 100-percent-check list were being declared as different goods by importers.

"Coffee, for instance, was being listed as toilet paper because the customs duty is about half as much as coffee," said Vensko. "One company, for example, had imported 17,000 tons of coffee and called it toilet paper."

State customs officials said the complete figures for losses will be released after the inspection is completed Thursday. When the changes were announced in October, Mikhail Vanin, head of the State Customs Service, was asked how much money was lost and commented, "I hate to think about it," according to Interfax.

"I will name the exact figure only to the president," Vanin was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Transport companies and truck drivers aren't arguing with the clampdown on cargo listings. Their complaint is that, if the customs administration wants to implement the stricter examination process, it should properly staff the checkpoints.

"We have only 75 percent of the staff we need, now that it is fall and we have people getting ill very often," said Vensko of the Northwest Customs Administration.

The delays are also raising concern among Finnish officials, who said the only thing left for them to do in this situation is to wait for the Russian side to do something to resolve the crisis.

Lasse Koskela, duty chief for the Valimaa checkpoint said that the Finnish border guards direct all the vehicles finally reaching the border area to nearby parking lots. But this does little to help. "Last year, we had the same situation when the Russians introduced some new rules," said Koskela. "It only takes a couple of minutes to check all the documents from our side because we're dealing with export. Russians are dealing with import, which is a different thing and means a lot of papers to examine."

While Koskela is understanding, he knows that not everyone on the Finnish side feels the same.

"It's obvious that the locals aren't happy about it. You can hear about it by asking anybody who lives here," he said.

Lidia Benetska, who works in a local perfume shop, said that it's dangerous to drive around all the trucks.

"The main thing is the road. It's just not safe when there's a 15-kilometer-long line on one half of the road," Benetska said. "I've already damaged one of the mirrors on my car trying to drive beside all of the trucks."

Truck drivers have also raised safety concerns.

"The drivers are very tired, and the Finnish police have good reason to be concerned about accidents," said driver Slava Kuznetsov, while waiting for a green light on a road leading to the parking lot. "The road is narrow, so it's not that safe for cars coming the opposite way."

Nadezhda Helge, who owns the shop where Benetska works, said that the moods of tourists had also changed since the line of trucks had appeared.

"The other day, I met some tourists from Germany who had just arrived from Russia. They were tired and outraged, saying that they don't ever want to go back to Russia after spending six hours waiting to be checked on the Russian side," Helge said. "I haven't been to Russia in five years and have no interest in going there, thanks to the Russian border officials. They always want to look into my wallet, looking for money like it's their money."