More than 25,000 Russian "matryoshka" dolls each concealing a half-liter bottle of vodka inside were seized by customs officials at Riga's port last week.
The shipment of colorful wooden nesting dolls — popular souvenirs among tourists — was sent by a company in Russia and arrived aboard a ship to Riga's port on July 7. But customs officers said the accompanying paperwork was suspicious.
When no one claimed the shipment and police opened the dolls, which contain miniature versions of the original inside a hollowed-out frame, they found contraband vodka.
The dolls were addressed to a Latvian company called SIA Viktorija, which police said is a massage parlour.
"We found out that the company here in Latvia doesn't have anything to do with this cargo," economics police spokesman Viesturs Briedis said.
Police are coordinating an investigation with counterparts in Russia. Briedis said police became suspicious of the shipment when the dolls were valued at far more than they were worth. At first police believed it was an attempt by a Russian firm to collect value-added taxes on the dolls by inflating the prices.
"The company in Russia which sent these dolls set a value of $66 for each one. But in reality, they are probably not worth more than $1 a piece," he said. "The reason why a company would want to do this is so that it can claim a 13 percent VAT return on the exported cargo from the Russian state, and as far as we know, this money has been paid out already."
With a total value of $1,676,400, the Russian exporter pocketed $217,932, but the receiver of the cargo in Latvia would have to pay up to 30 percent of the cargo's total value just to clear it through customs, Briedis said.
"This means this cargo was most likely never intended to stay here in Latvia," he said.
The vodka, he said, was an unexpected find.
Tests will be performed on the content and afterwards the alcohol will be destroyed, Briedis said.
Police say they have been on the lookout for an increase in alcohol smuggling in the wake of a new nationwide law that bans alcohol sales between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., but Briedis said he saw no links with this case.
"When this law was being discussed in the Parliament, we were concerned. We will have to train more to deal with this situation," he said. "Although consumption of alcohol will not be affected much by this law, retail in illegal alcohol and smuggling will probably increase."
The Viktorija massage parlor could not be reached for comment.
Customs officials seized 171,000 liters of illegal vodka last year.