TALLINN - The prosecution of 17 customs officials on bribery charges 's they allegedly accepted up to 1.5 million kroons (.95 million euros) in bribes from Russian cigarette and alcohol smugglers 's has raised concerns about the integrity of Estonia's border controls. A police investigation lasting over a year discovered on May 15 that officials at the Koidula checkpoint on the country's southeastern border "systematically" collected bribes in return for ignoring shipments of contraband goods.
The 17 officials have been relieved of their duties and remain free on bail awaiting trial. Seven Russian nationals have also been charged with offering bribes. A spokeswoman for the Office of the State Prosecutor said procedures would be fast-tracked in order to bring the charges before a court "quite quickly." Similar charges were laid against 19 customs officials from the Luhamaa checkpoint in September last year. Ken-Marti Vaher, a former Justice Minister and current member of the opposition Res Publica party, called for a complete overhaul of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board.
"Both cases leave no doubt that bribery has been widespread in the customs office," Vaher said. "Since both cases refer to systematic and organized corruption, the entire customs office should be analyzed to find out what can be done to cut off the possibilities of taking bribes."
Meanwhile, the Estonian Tax and Customs Board said it had already taken steps to crack down on official corruption.
The seizure of illegal cigarettes has increased by 70 percent compared to 2005, with 1 million packs discovered at border checks, a spokeswoman said. Director General of the Tax and Customs Board Enrik Aav admitted the risk of corruption was high in the field of cross-border goods exchange. In response, workers' salaries have been increased by up to 30 percent, but Aav said it was important to also change management and working methods. He said management of the Koidula and Luhamaa checkpoint offices had been entirely rearranged since the corruption was brought to light, with new shift heads and directors appointed.
Aav admitted there were also problems with delays at border crossings. The capacity to process traffic has deteriorated and does not correspond to the demands placed on customs officials. In response, he suggested establishing joint customs clearance officers with neighboring countries.
The flow of contraband cigarettes from Russia has also affected other Baltic nations. Last week Lithuanian border officials reported cracking a large and well-organized smuggling ring following a dramatic car chase. The State Border Guard Service said the chase began when two suspicious vehicles failed to stop at a checkpoint in Taurage in the west of Lithuania on May 14.
Guards fired a warning shot and then opened fire when one of the vehicles attempted to run down a border official in its escape. The accused smuggler was found in a nearby hospital.
The two vehicles were found to contain about 30,000 packs of Russian cigarettes. The car chase followed months of investigations into the cigarette trafficking operation. A series of searches carried out on May 14 led to the arrest of 12 residents who are suspected of involvement, while 15 Subaru vehicles were found in the garage of a building believed to be used as a base for the smugglers. Two border guards were also arrested, accused of colluding with the smugglers.