THE CUSTOMS AGENCY SWELLS WITH IMPORTANCE
Just another broken record, an achievement unheard of in the 125-year history of the customs. Definitions like these dominated almost all reports written by the Customs Agency in 2004. Obviously, the agency thinks quite well of itself. As a matter of fact, a number of indicators for its activities in 2004 sound quite impressiveFor example, by December 31, 2004 the Customs Agency is expected to have paid more than BGN4.015BN. Moreover, for eleven months it has detected 7,321 violations. Between six and eight smuggling cases on the average have been revealed every day. Customs officers have seized undeclared foreign currency amounting to BGN1.814MN. Fake banknotes seized at the Bulgarian borders are worth EUR176,200 and USD568,350.What is more, departments specialized in customs investigation and customs intelligence started setting up in both the headquarters and the regional structures of the agency in 2004. This is one of the requirements Bulgaria was obliged to meet within the commitments taken to the European Commission under the Customs Union Chapter 25. Another requirement set by Brussels which the country is still to begin meeting is the more efficient application of the post customs control (the control exercised once the goods are cleared). Although there is a whole section dedicated to the issue in the Customs Act, traders were rarely subject to inspection after duties were imposed on their goods. In accordance with the amendments to the legislation approved by the Council of Ministers in mid-December, inspectors are authorized to act as investigators and will be allowed to seek offices and warehouses of importing companies.The results reported in the fight against drugs traffic are traditionally good, too. According to the Customs Agency, some 1.5 tons of drugs have been seized from January to November 30.Considering these figures as well as the successful PR organized by the Customs Agency, there is only one thing we can add - a few facts have been suppressedOne is that the financial results of the customs units attained during the ruling of the National Movement Simeon II cannot be compared to those registered in previous periods. At least because in the past two years customs officers began to collect as well as impose value-added tax on imported goods (which used to be done by the tax authorities in the past). Therefore, the revenues are now reported on the customs accounts.Moreover, we should not forget the favourable macroeconomic environment. In 2004, the head of the IMF mission to Bulgaria Mr. Hans Flickenshield and the IMF Resident Representative Mr. James Roaf often repeated that the accumulated budget surplus was due to a great extent to the growth of import and not to the increased collection of duties, taxes, etc. One should neither ignore the fact that some of the ecological and road fees were included in the value of the excise duties that the customs collect for imported fuel. Still, the Customs Agency Director Assen Assenov has a different opinion. Before Christmas the agency prepared a detailed analysis which showed that only half of the revenues growth (14%) was due to objective economic indicators. The fact that part of the grey import came to light as well as the improved organisation of work are pointed out as major reasons for the 28.3% increase of revenues that the agency reported for the period January-June, Assen Assenov said.However, tightening the discipline appeared insufficient to uncrown the customs officers as some of the most corrupt state officials. On one hand, customs managers kept explaining to the media how efficient the ethics code was and how the unregulated practices were attacked without mercy. On the other hand, customs officers remained on top of the sociological corruption rankings. Even a study that the authoritative Transparency International organisation conducted among the citizens of 64 countries on the level of corruption in the state departments showed the same - in Bulgaria, the customs are the most corrupt of all.One of the biggest scandals exploded in early April. It turned out that the notorious smuggler Nikolay Metodiev-Pileto had a channel at the cross-border station of Kalotina except the one he was already known to have at Kulata. In fact, the case started disentangling in the summer of 2003 when economic police officers stopped five trucks owned by a company of the smuggler near the Sofia village of Dolni Bogrov. The trucks were full of Chinese goods registered at the station of Kulata as construction materials. In the course of the investigation it turned out that the same scheme had also been applied at the Serbian border. For more than 180 trucks. The scandal only harmed a dozen inspectors who were fired by Assen Assenov. Then the officers who were found guilty at Kalotina admitted in front of national TV reporters that they had let the smuggling trucks pass without checking because they had been ordered to do so by senior customs directors. The fired officers also made a hint that the shift managers had been giving them lists with the numbers of trucks they had to let in. Still, the confessions brought no serious results. According to Assen Assenov, the fraud had been implemented due to the reserve seals which guilty officers gave to the drivers of the smuggler. The goods were exchanged along the road between the cross-border station and the internal customs. Boryana Emilovathe former head of the Sofia Airport customswas much luckier. She became known when the media announced that her name had been mentioned in a report of the Ministry of Interior from the spring of 2003. The report charged her with being connected to criminals. After spending more than a year in holiday without pay, she came back to work last July, although to a lower position. She was lucky, though, unlike her colleague Margarita Petsanova, head of the Sofia customs, who was accused of committing service crime.In the meantime, the 29-month extension of the November 2001 consulting agreement between the Ministry of Finance and Crown Agents did not draw much attention. The annex to the agreement became officially valid on August 1, 2004. It means that for the five years spent in Bulgaria the British company will be paid a fee exceeding BGN60MN plus compensations for all related expenditures.It would hardly be a mistake to predict that in January 2005 the rulers of the country will declare the passed year quite successful in the field of customs reforms.The exact number of customs officers who will be laid off as the country joins the EU in 2007 and the control along the Greek and Romanian cross-borders is removed will be known next year. Moreover, the Parliament is going to vote the new Excise Duties Act. According to this act, the right to collect excise duties imposed on deals signed within the country will be transferred from the tax authorities to the Customs Agency. Finally, there will be parliamentary elections which are usually followed by serious changes in the top customs management.