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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Customs Die Hard

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On the surface, the changes that have swept Russia over the past decade have also reached customs checkpoints -- at least those located on the northwestern border.

Checkpoints such as Ivangorod on the Russian-Estonian border or Torfyanovka, Brusnichnoye and Vyartsila on the Finnish border have new customs offices built in Lego-like blocks of green and gray that look more or less modern, stylish even. Another border post will soon start operating in Svetogorsk on the road to the Finnish town of Imatra. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has given millions of dollars to Russia to improve its border infrastructure.

The consensus is that the money has not been wasted and that Russia has been gradually opening itself up to the world. But at the same time, it is also fair to say that things would have proceeded even more smoothly if the authorities had just a slightly more enlightened attitude to change.

We already know that the three-day visa plan launched in February has got stuck in a bog of Russian bureaucracy. Nobody knows how it works, including the very officials who are meant to be implementing it.

It seems to me that most Russian officials are a special breed of people who have been brought into the world with the single aim of preventing good ideas from being realized. When they see something new, the authorities don't react with any interest, only suspicion. If the wheel had been invented in Russia, it would never have spread to the rest of the world.

That is exactly what happened to a British-Russian project to test an amphibious vehicle in the Bering Strait this month. Because the vehicle did not look "traditional" enough, Russian bureaucrats would not give permission for it to cross the Russian border. Before reading about this latest incident, I thought I had become immune to the stupidity of the Russian authorities, but I was mistaken.

A week ago, I was stopped by a customs official at the Russian-Finnish border for not declaring my Nokia mobile phone. This, you see, is "a high-frequency piece of equipment that should be declared for a temporary removal."

The official was interested in what type of telephone it was and how much it cost. These are things I don't remember. Happily, the official was brave enough to determine the type herself and agreed with my price, which I gave as $50.

But that was not all. Next came the passport office. Here I was told that the customs stamps that I had received in the past were not arranged in the correct order in my passport. I was asked why (like it's me who stamps my passport every time I go somewhere). Because of this, a Finnish driver who had nicely agreed to take me to the next town for free was made to wait outside for 20 minutes.

On my way back, I saw something even more ridiculous. Under Vyartsila customs regulations, every driver crossing the border in a private car receives a piece of paper the size of a tram ticket saying how many people are in the car. A hundred meters farther on, the driver must hand the piece of paper on to another border official, presumably to make sure that nobody gets lost on the way. It looks a bit like a children's game.

Anyway, I happened to witness one driver who lost this game. It was not his fault, of course, that a border official forgot to give him that all-important piece of paper. Nevertheless, he was made to go back and get it by a second official, even though his passport was already stamped.

The Vyartsila checkpoint looks Western and modern, with clean floors and well-washed windows. Although there is no music playing as at the Finnish checkpoint, the place generally looks good and helps to create a reasonable first impression of Russia.

But that is only the surface. You can wear an expensive suit and shiny shoes, but if you can't stop swearing, people will still turn away from you.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.