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Seeking to Tame a Smugglers’ Paradise With AM-Russia for Sale

April 10, 1993

PANIKOVICHI, Russia (AP) _ ″When can we go, boss?″ the truck driver called down to the security official. Col. Valery Vasilyev just smiled. The precious load of nickel was not going anywhere soon.

Suspecting contraband, Russian customs detained the 100-ton cargo of nickel, worth $600,000 at world prices, when it arrived at this border post in four Latvian trucks with export papers from Kyrgyzstan.

The goods are likely to be released when the investigation is over, however, because the Russian penal code mentions only the state border of the now-defunct Soviet Union. At most, the smugglers face a fine and confiscation of their cargo.

During most of 1992, smugglers rolled easily through Russia’s open border with the Baltics, taking out valuable metal, oil, and other raw materials.

Then Russia decided to tame the 600-mile border with newly independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, favorite destinations for contraband from the former Soviet Union.

The white, blue and red Russian flag was raised at major border crossings. Newly recruited customs officers took up their posts at about midyear. Armed border guards appeared in late autumn.

Compared to the tight boundary with nearby Finland, a holdover from the Soviet period that Russian security officials wish existed everywhere, the Baltic border remains porous. It is no longer as easy to cross, but catching the crooks is not a simple matter.

″We see less contraband now because it involves more conspiracy,″ said Col. Vasilyev, an officer of the Security Ministry, successor to the KGB.

Smugglers have devised new tactics. They hire locals to guide them through the woods, offer bigger bribes at checkpoints, show fake export and transit documents, bribe officials for export licenses.

Vasilyev said he had been offered a $20,000 bribe this year, more than 3,000 times the rate last May. Vasilyev’s salary is 21,000 rubles a month, about $32.

Some smugglers work in groups, with armed guards to protect wares stolen from as far away as Siberia.

A major transit point for contraband to the Baltics is Pskov province, a historic Russian region with old Orthodox churches and monasteries 370 miles northwest of Moscow.

Security officials say Pskov smugglers are well-armed and have links with criminal groups in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, 180 miles away.

Several shootouts have occurred. At least two guides have been slain by rivals and the wife of a businessman was killed when a bomb exploded under his car.

″If there are problems, the boys from Petersburg come here,″ said Vasilyev, the senior Security Ministry official in Pechory, not far from the Estonian border. ″I would call them mercenaries or hired guns. They are being hired to carry out this dirty settling of accounts.″

Security Ministry officials, police and border guards in Pskov province monitor the 300-mile border with Latvia and Estonia, about half the total Russian boundary with the Baltics.

Border posts have been set up on 16 of the 70 roads leading to the Baltics, but forest routes are unguarded.

Two border guards man the Panikovichi crossing, raising a makeshift wooden rail to let vehicles pass. Customs officials work out of several small shacks, with poor telephone communications and no computer.

At the nearby Kunichina Gora checkpoint, a guard said it would be easy to cross by going through the woods half a mile away.

A favorite ruse of smugglers is to declare the destination as Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave beyond Latvia and Lithuania. Customs does not stop the cargo because it is bound for Russian territory.

Nearly all the goods ostensibly headed for Kaliningrad remain in the Baltics and are exported later to the West, said Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Smirnov, Security Ministry chief for the Pskov region.

In the past year, Smirnov said, his men seized goods worth about $1.8 million, including cash, metal, a helicopter, thousands of pistols, icons - even Russian crackers, which can be sold in Estonia at a 300 percent profit.

Widespread corruption helps the smugglers.

The head of the Pskov regional administration, Anatoly Dobryakov, and his deputy were fired in May 1992 for alleged involvement in smuggling oil out of Russia. Smirnov said 67 criminal cases were opened last year against the region’s public servants on suspicion of corruption or dealing in contraband.

Officials see little chance of halting the traffic soon.

″We can limit this flood, but with the economy falling apart and the ruble devalued, we won’t be able to stop it altogether within the next few years,″ said Maj. Nikolai Yeliseyev of the Security Ministry.

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