Pskov: Smuggling routine of customs office
News of the Russian FSB arresting Pskov Customs Office Deputy Head Sergey Shubin stirred the customs world. People involved with international commerce claim it is just the tip of the iceberg of corruption, since the office is a battlefield both literary and figuratively.
Sergey Shubin was arrested in the Mama Roma Restaurant on Bakunin Avenue, St Petersburg, as the media reported earlier. The operation was carried out by the FSB Central Administration and the FSB Pskov Region Department. They found $10 thousand when inspecting the high-ranking customs authority figure. It was a bribe from a yet unnamed entrepreneur, according to available reports. Shubin was escorted to Moscow after being caught red-handed, arrested, and exposed.
Customs employees are divided on the issue. Some believe it was Shubin’s own people who informed on him. Others think Shubin had been extorting money from entrepreneurs for a long time and they gave a call to people in power. Anyhow, Shubin’s subordinates were not particularly saddened by their superior’s arrest, according to our sources. As for people involved with international commerce, they do not even try to hide their joy. Smuggling has grown immensely in the region despite Shubin’s immediate superior Major General Svetlana Stepanova vigorously reporting major achievements in their fight against customs law violations. She even went as far as to nominate her agency for the Best Border Customs Staff contest held by the Russian Federal Customs Service in 2016.
Pskov Customs Office Head Major General Svetlana Stepanova
The thing is, the Pskov Region that has a 30 km long border with three other countries has been under supervision by Russian law enforcement groups for a long time. These groups act as 'supervisors' for powers that be. Local smuggling system is worth several millions of euros, according to some people involved with international commerce. Smuggling is flourishing here. That is not a surprise really, given it is possible to not only engage in shady activities but confiscate a lot of things as well. The latter helps make activity reports quite epic.
The Pskov Customs Office was founded following USSR Council of Ministries Main Department for Customs Activities Federal Oversight Order No. 173 on May 23, 1991. The office went through reorganization in 2000; Pitalovsky and Pechorsky customs stations were attached to it. The Office has 9 customs stations today; 5 of them are located along a border.
Today, the office’s top goal is to "control cargo and vehicles moving across the Russian customs border," according to its official website. Sources think otherwise, saying the office is nothing but a cover for arms, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs smuggling.
What is it about the Pskov region that makes it so attractive to criminals? The answer is simple – its location; it borders three foreign nations, namely Estonia, Latvia, and Belarus. On one hand, it is an ever vigilant Russian army stronghold on the border between Russian and the NATO countries. On the other hand, it is a place that is ripe for establishing smuggling lines between Russia and Europe. In others words, one can make fast and easy money here (given one has enough resourcefulness). Borders are transparent. The transport corridor between the countries is just perfect for illegal trade. The office stations’ importance skyrocketed since the war of sanctions has begun.
The office oversees 470.7 km of external border - 223.7 km of the Russian-Latvian border and 247 of the Russian-Estonian border.
The recession and ruble devaluation made near-border smuggling an immensely profitable and large business. Let’s say there are reasons why Baltic countries have suggested building a wall between them and Russia. The bulk of the business in the region is based on smuggling. There is a saying among entrepreneurs wishing to trade: "You will get a visit from the local authorities if you have made 100 million rubles ($1.7 million) and from Moscow ones if you have made more than that." Trading sanctioned goods have become on par with such popular smuggling items as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
Pskov Customs Office
The Pskov customs border’s status changed drastically since the arrest of St. Petersburg oligarch Dmitry Mikhalchenko and the following criminal prosecution of broker Igor Khavronov, Boris Avakyan, and others involved with the North-West smuggling empire. Moreover, the majority of customers buying sanctioned goods live in St Petersburg and Moscow, not poor Pskov. Illegal goods are traditional for the two capitals, Pskov residents’ saying goes.
Cat-and-mouse game and history
In others words, the current state of smuggling at the Pskov borders looks a lot like after the WWI. Here is a description of how it used to be back then: "Smugglers were most interested in near-border areas close to large consumption hubs, Petrograd and Moscow above all. That is why the Pskov county ended up being the ideal corridor for smuggling in North-West Russia, being as far from Petrograd as from Moscow. A considerable portion of the local population engaged in smuggling, according to the Unified State Political Department. There was a distinct trend for professionalization of Pskov smugglers. Individual smugglers would soon unite into stable gangs working for hire and taking from 10% to 25% of the value of contraband they delivered."
Many decades have passed since then. Yet, the same gangs work for the same 10% to 25% rate. The only difference is that entrepreneurial police officers began protecting the smuggling. The police copied the criminal community’s practice of having 'supervisors', too.
The only difference between the historical and contemporary criminal intentions is the fact that contraband is now smuggled through green corridors by customs officers. They do it systematically, too. The northwest customs officers have a very tough anti-corruption task with three unknowns at hand, people involved with international commerce say when out of public view. Namely, they are to eliminate corruption without affecting their own business and keep their positions. It is no coincidence it was the office that has one of the highest numbers of public officials in the northwest.
Pskov Customs Office
That is why the Pskov Customs Office deputy head's arrest in St. Petersburg was not a coincidence. First, 'respectable people' do not make decisions in Pskov; St. Petersburg is much more suitable for that. Second, the $10 thousand confiscated from Colonel Shubin was either an installment or a shop contribution, according to sources. Or, it was a warning about appearance of mobile groups, according to yet another opinion on the reason for the scandalous arrest. Smugglers’ main enemy is the unexpected. Mobile police groups going after sanctioned goods are truly a nightmare for shadow commerce players. They are never to be expected and catch someone every day, including on the border between the Pskov region and Belarus.
According to the Russian Federal Customs Service, there are 35 mobile groups in Russia. They specialize in intercepting illegal goods and preventing their import to Russia. They were founded on the basis of customs agencies. They are stationed near the Russian State Border. The bulk of the work is carried out at the border between Russia and Belarus.
At a recent meeting in August, Head of the Federal Customs Service Main Department Valery Seleznev spoke about how interception of illegal goods was a priority for customs agencies. That is why a timely warning of a mobile group coming after someone is very valuable. $10 thousand is a sort of the standard rate for information from high-ranking customs officers, according to sources. Anyhow, Colonel Shubin’s currency story may clue the Russian FSB in on other, more interesting stories from lives of corruptionists and smugglers, according to some reports. The CrimeRussia will follow the developments.