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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flower Smuggling Nipped in the Bud

MTViktor buying bouquets for his mother and his girlfriend at a kiosk on Ulitsa Narodnogo Opolcheniya on Wednesday.
Operation Hyacinth has foiled a ring of contraband flower sellers, garnering more than half a million dollars in additional customs revenues, customs officials announced Tuesday.

"During Operation Hyacinth, customs duties collected increased by nearly $600,000," Yaroslav Andreyev, deputy chief at the Federal Customs Service's central operative unit, said on Tuesday.

The customs service mounted the operation to clamp down on undeclared flower imports in the peak time for flower sales -- from Feb. 13 to March 11 -- when prices nearly double because of International Women's Day on March 8.

"All flowers, which are [currently] sold in Moscow, have passed a strict customs control and are not contraband," said Igor Kirpach, a central operative customs unit official.

During Operation Hyacinth, customs officials have uncovered several violations on Dutch imports, Kirpach said. Nearly all flower imports to Russia come from the Netherlands in winter and early spring. They arrive by truck, with 80 percent heading for Moscow first, as the city is best equipped to handle the specialized customs checks required in the flower market, Kirpach said.

Some flower importers try to lower their customs payments by declaring a lower weight or a cheaper flower type for shipments. Flowers from countries without a special trade agreement with Russia, including the Netherlands, are subject to a customs fee of 9 euro cents (11 cents) per kilogram, but no less than 15 percent of the shipment's total value, according to the customs service.

Unlike counterfeit medicines and other fakes, illegal flowers are not destroyed -- customs fees are simply recalculated to reflect the true amount due.

Kirpach said that a crackdown last year on an illegal imports ring had resulted in a drop in contraband flowers this year, declining to be more specific.

Customs officials conduct special anti-smuggling operations every year ahead of major flower-giving holidays, such as March 8 or Sept. 1, when most schoolchildren present their teachers with bouquets on the first day of school.

The latest crackdown did not jack up prices because import firms do not normally pass on their unpaid customs fees to shoppers, officials said Tuesday.

The price of as much as 150 rubles ($5.40) per rose, nevertheless, sent some shoppers reeling Tuesday at a flower stand in the underpass at the Tverskaya metro station. "This is outrageous," a woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, said after being offered a choice of roses for as much as to 200 rubles ($7.20) per bloom. Despite her protest, the line of other shoppers continued to grow.

"We have top quality flowers, from Holland and Ecuador," said the stand's salesman, who introduced himself as Sasha, as he masterfully tied a bow around a bunch of yellow roses.

Kirpach said all imported blooms, including flowers from Ecuador and Columbia, are flown to the Netherlands before being transported to Russia.

The Netherlands exported 101 million euros ($121 million) worth of flowers and potted plants to Russia last year, an 8.2 percent increase from 2004, said Jan Lanning, marketing director at the Horticultural Wholesalers' Board of the Netherlands, which represents flower and plant exporters. The figure does not include flowers that are grown outside the Netherlands but pass through on the way to Russia.