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Customs and revenue on the Russia-Ukraine border

The break-up of the Soviet Union made foreign travel for Russians much easier, except, paradoxically, over the internal Soviet borders that previously required no passports or visas. The border guards that now patrol these crossings have too little to do and often turn to extortion in an attempt to increase their modest salaries - recounts Mikhail Loginov.

The borders between most of the countries which used to be part of the USSR can be described as half-borders. If you are Russian, no visas are needed and you only need to have with you a passport. However, unlike the Schengen countries, the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) has very definitely kept its border guards at their posts. Yet these guards don’t have enough to do and are bored, meaning travellers crossing from Russia to Ukraine (or vice versa) often encounter more severe problems than they would at a ‘real’ border as, for instance, between Ukraine and Poland or Russia and Finland.

Water hole or robbers’ booty?

The ‘Moscow-Simferopol’ train crosses into Ukraine and stops at a station called ‘Cossack Lopan’. Curious passengers argue about the meaning of this name: the more educated assert that ‘lopan’ is an underground water source in a marsh; others that it means robbers’ booty i.e. other people’s property, which has become theirs. There are no Cossacks at the station, only Ukrainian border guards and customs officers, but passengers’ adventures there might well make them feel that the second (incorrect) translation of the station name is the more apt.

‘The borders between most of the countries which used to be part of the USSR can be described as half-borders.’

Russia and Ukraine have a visa-free regime and passengers may travel on Russian internal or international passports. The international passport is stamped to show that the bearer has crossed the border, whereas the internal passport is not. The problems begin after that. Both Ukrainian and Russian border guards enter the passenger’s name on a computer.  This fairly common means of monitoring the travelling public is not only to identify criminals on the Interpol Wanted List, however. The Russian and the Ukrainian authorities also have unofficial black lists with the names of politicians and political analysts.  The Moscow list contains the names of the people most active during the 2004 Orange Revolution; the Kyiv list features Russian nationalists and Stalinists who deny the right of Ukraine to exist.  These passengers are thrown off the train or deported to the airport and put on the first flight.

Are you selling your child for its organs?

Even if the passenger is fortunate enough not to find himself on the black list, this does not mean he will be without problems. Sometimes, Ukrainian border guards may discover a torn page in the passport, thus rendering it invalid. While these guards are less interested in the international passport, they study the internal passport very carefully indeed, as if it were a manuscript from the Middle Ages containing the answer to the problems of today. They might take against the photographs and ask the passenger to produce another form of identification.

‘Passengers who travel frequently between Russia and Ukraine find the Ukrainian border guards more pernickety than the Russian, but more amenable.’

The problems if there are children travelling are even greater. If they are with their mother, the border guards sometimes require certified proof that the father has given his consent to their travel. In exactly the same way, if a party of children is going to the sea, the border guard will study all the certified authorisations. Sometimes he can take issue with a notary’s illegible signature, or a rather faint stamp. After that the border guard turns into an ombudsman upholding the rights of children. He will suddenly remember that at one point during his working life a case of child trafficking into sexual slavery was averted, or, another time, a possible sale to a transplant clinic. He then hints, or even asks straight out, if the passenger is not intending to sell the child for its organs.

Misunderstandings relating to passports or letters of authority concerning children’s travel are sorted out in the compartment of the passenger car attendant, behind closed doors. The attendant himself has to stand in the corridor; the passenger is given the choice of remaining at Cossack Lopan to sort things out or paying a fine, which goes straight into the pocket of the border guard.  The usual bribe is 100USD, 100 euros or 3,000 Russian roubles.

'The Russian and the Ukrainian authorities also have unofficial black lists with the names of politicians and political analysts.  The Moscow list contains the names of the people most active during the 2004 Orange Revolution; the Kyiv list features Russian nationalists and Stalinists who deny the right of Ukraine to exist.'

Passengers who travel frequently between Russia and Ukraine find the Ukrainian border guards more pernickety than the Russian, but more amenable. Agreement can almost always be reached, whereas on the Russian border, the passenger has to get off the train and go back home.

Hide the laptop and don’t pick flowers!

Then there are the customs. Border guards will approach every traveller, but the customs officers are usually more superficial. They will only look into some compartments, asking the passengers what things belong to them and hurrying on when they get the answer. However, if a customs officer takes an interest in a passenger, or, more precisely, his property, that passenger could well be in for the most unexpected problems.

The passenger might, for instance, have decided to while away the time with his laptop.  The customs officer asks him if he has any forbidden material on it and he, absolutely sure he hasn’t and never has had any, allows the officer to examine it.  The officer goes first to the video section and in a short time points to a film, which he describes as pornography. Assurances that the film was awarded a prize at the Venice or Berlin Film Festival make no difference. The customs officer suggests that the whole question should be referred to experts, so the passenger has to leave the train and go to the police station.  The ‘pornographic’ film is viewed behind closed doors, in the passenger car attendant’s compartment, and the sum of money required will be fairly similar to the bribe demanded by the border guard.

‘For many years Ukrainian customs officers have derived their best income from Russian political analysts travelling home from Ukraine. They are almost always paid in cash, and the fairly large sums of money are, of course, not declared.’

There can be other problems. Many Russian tourists pick aromatic grasses and flowers in the mountains of Crimea, for instance.  If they don’t dry them themselves, then they buy them dried in the market. A customs officer might describe these pressed flowers as drugs, threatening to put the passenger off the train for further checking. Any insistence that you picked the mountain flowers yourself can be risky. The customs officer then accuses the passenger of attempting to smuggle plants listed in the Red Data Book (containing rare and endangered species of animals, plants and fungi). Though the crime of picking flowers does not merit the same punishment under criminal law as trafficking drugs, the sum required to get off is the same – 100 euros.

For many years Ukrainian customs officers have derived their best income from Russian political analysts travelling home from Ukraine. They are almost always paid in cash, and the fairly large sums of money are, of course, not declared. Competitors from other parties frequently slip customs officers the necessary information, and they then simply confiscate the money. For Ukrainian customs officers and border guards this is a show of patriotism: money should be brought into Ukraine, not taken away from there to Russia.

‘...if a customs officer takes an interest in a passenger, or, more precisely, his property, that passenger could well be in for the most unexpected problems.’

The Russian customs are less skilled in extorting bribes, but they can also quibble over trifles. During the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych’s wife announced that ‘spiked oranges were being sold in the Maidan.’  In December 2004, a Kyivan who was going to Moscow took some of the oranges with him. The Russian customs officer, whether jokingly or not, tried to find out if they had been spiked with drugs, and even confiscated them – either for expert analysis or for his own use.

A service you don’t turn down

By comparison with other former USSR borders, however, the border between Russia and Ukraine could be considered extremely civilised. A Ukrainian border guard examining a laptop, for instance, will only threaten the passenger with prison. On other former Soviet borders one has to be more careful about films stored on the hard disc.  Recently in Uzbekistan, a Kazakh student was sent down for 5 years for clips on his laptop, considered to be extremist material promoting separatism and terrorism. The accused asserted he had received the computer from his cousin and didn’t know what was on the hard disc, but it didn’t help him.

Travel between most of the Central Asian republics and Russia requires no visa. But this doesn’t make the journey any easier. A philologist professor from Moscow told of his adventures in Dushanbe (Tadjikistan) airport: he was approached by a border official, who offered, for 1000 Russian roubles, to take him through to the waiting area bypassing the queues, and all the checks. The official also told the professor that if he refused this offer, then drugs would almost certainly be found in his luggage. The professor naturally agreed.

‘Travel between most of the Central Asian republics and Russia requires no visa. But this doesn’t make the journey any easier.’

Migrant labourers from Tadjikistan or Uzbekistan are less willing to talk, but they could tell a great deal about their own adventures when they are leaving Russia. 

The police, acting jointly with the customs officers and border guards, are fairly open about demanding bribes from them and in a way that they would never use with Western tourists. Those workers who are not willing to hand over up to a quarter of their earnings are also promised that drugs will be found on them. Or that their names will appear in some kind of ‘list of extremists.’

Why can’t we be more like Europe?

The leaders of the CIS like to reiterate that the borders between their countries are as notional as they were before, and can be crossed with just an internal passport in one’s pocket. The citizens of these states, however, don’t like this simplicity. Yelena is a Muscovite, who often travels round Europe in her own car. She prefers to go via St Petersburg and the Finnish border, and from there on 2 ferries to Germany. She likes the shorter route through Belarus or Ukraine much less.

‘Finnish border guards won’t take bribes, but if they do find anything wrong, you can be sure that it isn’t your money they’re after. I should be glad if the borders between Russia and Ukraine didn’t exist at all, as in Soviet times. If this isn’t possible, then the rules should be as strict and clear as they are between Russia and the EU. Playing by the rules is always better.’

Alas, the governments of Russia and the neighbouring former Soviet republics rarely pay any attention to the problems and whims of their citizens. 

About the author

Mikhail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller "Battle for Kremlin".

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Border Crossing with Russia, Abandon the Cube blog, 18 September 2010

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Thomas Jefferson is my friend

‘Three guards asked me for a present. I said I didn’t understand and flashed my best ‘don’t I look like Drew Berrymore’ smile. They smiled back and said, “You know, Thomas Jefferson is my friend. All the presidents are my friend.” I smiled and said they were my friends too. What a creative way to ask for money, really. I wasn’t unimpressed. The guard held up a small Ukrainian coin and said “Thomas Mark, you have?” Bill and Mike, having come up behind me, interpreted this to mean he was a coin collector. Someone rushed to the car and found a nikle that had been rolling around the back seat for the past two weeks. The guard took it, laughing, and then asked for a coin from the British team behind us. Perhaps he really was a coin collector. So, after about 2 hours, we were officially out of Ukraine! Does a nickel count as a bribe? I’m going to say no on that.’

Border Crossing with Russia, Abandon the Cube blog, 18 September 2010