Latvia - a smuggler's paradise

  • 2001-10-25
  • Valdis Berzins
Ten years after it regained independence, Latvia is awash with smuggled goods - and there is little hope that the authorities have the desire to stop the nasty practice. Latvian smugglers do not need to climb mountains to haul their stuff into the country. They can use boats, trains and trucks and store their goods in well-equipped warehouses.

During these 10 years there have been almost as many ministers of the interior who have visited Riga's central market and solemnly vowed to do away with smuggling. The politicians' promises have long since died. Yet the battle cry of black market dealers offering any brand of hard drink or cigarettes at any time of the day in the center of Riga has risen tenfold.

The black market in Latvia has developed into a well-organized and profitable business. Retail traders offering a bottle of corn whisky or a pack of Marlboro of unknown origin is just the tip of the iceberg. They get it from middlemen who often keep their supplies at home or in the garage.

More serious types of middlemen are the owners of large customs warehouses, where goods worth millions of dollars are stored. These warehouse owners are well connected with the border guard service and customs officials.

But even they are not the biggest fish in the smugglers' pond. They have their protection amongst the political establishment, which is involved in dirty tricks but in public tries to keep its hands clean.

Former head of the Latvian criminal police Aloizs Blonskis known locally as the Latvian Maigret, in analyzing the political and economic situation in this country, makes the conclusion that "an invisible hand rules in the government and Parliament."

Smuggling goes hand in hand with corruption, but there is no political will among the ruling elite to eradicate or at least start fighting these evils. "Nobody in the government or Parliament wants to create a unit to fight corruption and smuggling," Blonskis claims.

There are 113 officially certified customs warehouses in Riga - not counting a great many "unofficial depositories." Their whereabouts are well known to the State Revenue Service but not much has been done to close them.

The European Commission has been voicing concern since 1997 that there are too many customs warehouses in Latvia to be controlled efficiently.

For a number of years there was stiff resistance to the introduction of electronic documentation, the computerized processing of information and data exchange in the Latvian Customs Service.

These modern methods would have curbed the freedom of smugglers to fish in muddy waters. But dishonest customs officials allegedly solved the problem of electronic tutelage by simply unplugging the network and disrupting the unified database.

In Russian they say that no method can be used against an iron bar.

One of the first and biggest customs warehouses in Riga was built in the early 1990s by a shady entrepreneur called Georgs Lansmanis. His hobby was running a workshop for making kitchen furniture, but he made his money from storing smuggled alcohol. On several occasions his business was on the brink of collapse, but well-oiled connections in the establishment and donations to a certain political party in the governing coalition saved him.

Then somebody let him down. A few thousand tons of smuggled spirit worth several million dollars were found in his warehouse. This time Mr. Lansmanis decided not to rely on his lawyers and fled the country. Now he plays the role of respectable businessman in Azerbaijan and managed to get a place at the table alongside Azerbaijani and Latvian dignitaries during the Latvian foreign minister's recent trip to Baku.

In Latvia the "Lansmanis spirit" case is far from over, and it may well serve as a test of the will of the judiciary to solve it according to the law, and a proof of the authorities' need to stay neutral.

This summer several large cargoes of smuggled alcohol and cigarettes were found in a customs warehouse at the port of Riga, but no guilty party was named. According to the authorities, "for the benefit of the investigation any further information is precluded."

Several years ago there was the same situation, aggravated by the fact that State Revenue Service chief Andrejs Sonciks was accused of wrongdoing and a cover-up by his deputy. The case dragged on for two years and ended with Sonciks' acquittal and his deputy's dismissal. The establishment breathed a sigh of relief.

Last August the head of the Latvian Customs Service, Aivars Krastins, praised for his professionalism, honesty and toughness, unexpectedly resigned after criticism by Finance Minister Gundars Berzins for "serious miscalculations" in his job.

Krastins refused to give concrete reasons for his resignation, but it has been suggested that he was dismissed for turning deaf ear to "diplomatic requests" to leave some import cargoes "in peace."

In the last couple of months, several thousand tons of smuggled poultry have been found at several warehouses. People in the know say that there is a struggle going on for the redistribution of the illegal meat market in Latvia. Latvian Saeima (parliament) deputy Peteris Apinis has admitted that high officials in Latvia are "untouchable" and political parties are receiving money from "muddy sources."

Karlis Leiskalns, head of the Saeima commission on economics, said in a TV interview after meeting a policeman from an antismuggling squad, "I want to live and therefore cannot tell everything."

Mr. Leiskalns intends to collect enough deputies' signatures to form a parliamentary commission for an investigation of the involvement of high state officials in the cover-up of smuggling operations.