Wait, fill up, wait ... making money at the border

  • 2002-05-02
  • Richard Lein

For most people filling the car with gasoline is an expensive chore, but for Andrejs it is a way to earn his daily bread, exploiting the huge price difference between Latvia and Russia.

In under two years this remote northeastern corner of Latvia may become the outer frontier of the European Union, but today with registered unemployment of 22 percent many are forced to scrape by with whatever means at their disposal.

For Andrejs, who asked that his real name not be used, it's his aged Volkswagen Passat station wagon with a 100-liter (26.4 U.S. gallon) gas tank. Like many young Latvians he headed to Western Europe to earn some money, pocketing $10,000 dollars from two years working in a German meatpacking factory.

It was enough to buy a used car and a house in Balvi, but finding good work since he returned home to this small town of 10,000 people has proved difficult.

Andrejs threw his back out a couple of years ago, ruling out most jobs in this area where forestry and farming are the main employers, and last year he gave up a job pumping gas to start ferrying it over from Russia.

He sets out for the border at a little before 7 a.m. in order to avoid "the rush," and cover the 50 kilometers past small farms and through woods in a little more than half an hour.

There are no cars waiting along the Latvian side of the border, and he completes all the formalities in 10 minutes.

But Russian customs officers are changing shift, and he queues up in sixth place on the bridge across a small stream that marks the border.

It's time for a smoke and a chat with the other drivers - almost all of whom Andrejs knows - about the best fishing holes in the region and what new restrictions the authorities will think up next.

"Every day it's like this," said Andrejs. "Drive, wait, fill up with gas, wait some more and then drive home.

"If I was healthy I wouldn't be sitting here," he confided. "I'd go to Germany or Denmark or somewhere else to earn some real money."

The Russians also just barely glance at his car, but it takes well over 20 minutes to get his passport checked, and it's already after 9 a.m. when he heads out for the town of Pyatalovo.

He makes a beeline for the gasoline station. It has an ancient pump with a face like a clock. After five minutes of loud rattling his Passat has taken 100 liters of 92 octane unleaded gasoline at a price of 7.70 rubles ($0.25) per liter.

When Andrejs gets back home, usually around midday but occasionally after dark, he drains most of the gasoline out of his tank and sells it for 0.28 lats ($0.45) per liter, pocketing around 16.80 euros ($14.87) per trip.

For his clients the savings are 0.08 lats or 0.14 euros per liter from prices at the local filling station.

Last year when he could make several round trips per day and also take through the legal limit of two bottles of vodka and one carton of cigarettes, Andrejs said he could easily earn some $50 per day.Some 1,000 people were shuttling gasoline and goods across the Russian border last year costing Latvia around 10,000 lats in lost excise and value-added tax per month according to official estimates.

"They were crossing the border 10 to 20 times per day," said Dita Klavina, a spokeswoman for the Latvian State Revenue Service.

Latvia tightened its customs regulations in January, allowing only one trip per day through the border where drivers do not pay duty on the gasoline in their tanks, and if they go through daily they can't take anything else through.

"This is not a job, this is just survival," Andrejs grumbled.

But even now it pays around 500 euros per month, nearly double the average gross wage in Latvia of 282 euros per month.

Andrejs said he looks forward to Latvia joining the EU, but admits to being concerned as well.

"I don't know how much longer I'll be able to continue to do this as I suppose they'll tighten up border controls further when we join the EU, but I don't have anything better to do yet," he said.