WHO ARE TRUMPETS AT THE CUSTOMS PLAYING FOR?
Half a year after the new time staked on the expert principle at the customs in the person of Assen Assenov, Director of the Customs Agency, insiders are more and more often trying to blow the trumpets. Judging by official reports coming from No 1 Aksakov street in Sofia and those on the operation of the British consultants Crown Agents, there is no room for anxiety. At least on the surface, the new managerial team seems to be going ahead with its business and is about to pull out this institution from the morass it has been buried long ago. And this means putting an end to the suitcases with money intended for party headquarters and achieving a steady growth of customs revenues into the budget, limiting contraband and bribing of customs officers.On August 30 the mobile groups project (prepared for a long time) was officially launched by an inauguration ceremony. Thus, the five teams of customs officers, British consultants, and employees of the National Service for Combating Organized Crime (NSCOC), have already been given the God's blessing to fight the evil that roams through the borders.However, everything in the reports seems too good to be true about the Bulgarian customs. The truth is rather somewhere in the middle and now we are witnessing something like a feast at time of spreading contraband.The noise around the contract with Crown Agents and the politicizing of the matter have to a large extent diverted the public attention from the activities of the customs' managerial team, headed by Assen Assenov. On assuming the post he promised to calm down the escalating tension and increase the revenues from customs dues and taxes. Six months later the customs are no longer the well-known focus of scams, but the desired financial boon has not been achieved yet.The first months of Mr. Assenov's term in office (as acting director of the Customs Agency) were marked by a warming up of the relations with the British consultants, but also by a certain hesitancy in making more radical decisions. For example, the choice of banks to service the Customs Agency's deposit and budget accounts was delayed too long, and the activity of the mobile groups (set up hastily by the former Customs Agency director Emil Dimitrov) was suspended.Mr. Assenov's personnel policy has been subjected to far less criticism than that of his predecessor. However, it is still not known if his deputies were chosen by himself or if they were imposed on him. Pundits claim that Georgi Grigorov and Alexander Rakov were the only members of Mr. Assenov's team, appointed by him, while the choice of Dimitar Tolev as his right-hand man, responsible for investigation and intelligence matters, was a surprise for him. Mr. Tolev (a former head of the Plovdiv Regional Customs Department) became notorious by the scam regarding the biggest smuggling of cigarettes in the mid-1990's. The prosecutors office even launched several investigations against him for insufficient control. But according to the incumbent management of the Customs Agency, he is as clean as morning dew and all accusations against him have turned out groundless. Interesting events accompanied the reappointment of Elka Vladova, who was restored to her position by court. However, Ms Vladova has stayed at the Customs Agency for three days only and was for a second time fired by the person she had proposed for promotion three years ago. Arguments were provoked as well by the return in the system of Hristo Koulishev, who had headed the customs during the governments (emblematic for the failed Bulgarian transition) of former premiers Lyuben Berov and Zhan Videnov. The appointment of Mr. Koulishev as Director of the Sofia Regional Customs Department in the beginning of July, 2002 arose the first more serious suspicions that the appointments at the customs were decided outside of the building at No 1 Askakov street in Sofia.Of course, customs revenues are the most objective indicator about the operation of the managerial team. In that respect, the beginning for Mr. Assenov was more than fair. In the first three months of his tenure the customs reported increased collectibility. Thus, in May 2002 statistics showed that proceeds in the first five months of the year rose by some BGN70MN from the same period of 2001, and it was proudly reported that the grounds for a steady growth of customs revenues from dues and taxes has been laid. Later on, however, something went wrong and the Customs Agency's press centre announced that revenues from customs proceeds into budget in July 2002 were BGN5.7MN less than in the same month of last year. As in June 2002 when the drop was some BGN5MN year-on-year, that time again the worse performance was explained by the depreciation of the US dollar. But the lower proceeds for these two months can only partly be explained by the fluctuations of the US dollar exchange rate. After all, almost half of Bulgaria's trade turnover is with the European union and payments are effected in euro.A certain relief for the customs can be the pre-term fulfillment of the BGN100MN revenues from dues and taxes, projected in the 2002 budget. By July, Mr. Assenov's employees posted BGN103,733,755 into the public purse. At the same time, the customs are still far from fulfilling the 2002 financial plan, envisioning total revenues from customs dues, taxes, excise duties, VAT, etc. at BGN2.7BN. Proceeds in the first seven months of this year amounted to some BGN1.5MN. This means that real efforts should be made in the time left till the year-end. Restriction of smuggling should be the focus of these efforts.Regading drugs trafficking things are traditionally good. In January-July 2002 customs officers caught a total of 535.954 kg of narcotics: 410.565 kg of heroine and 111.496 kg of marihuana. The border check-point of Kapitan Andreevo has a considerable contribution to these good results. However, this does not hold true about illicit import of goods. The Customs Agency Director himself often reiterates that in addition to their obligations to the budget, the customs should also protect the interests of Bulgarian producers and traders from the unfair competition of the grey imports. But no matter how much the Government and customs managers would like to believe in the successful combat with smuggling, the protests of poultry breededs, meat-packers, vegetable producers, etc. against dumping imports are indicative of the situation. Different estimates about the volume of contraband goods passing through the borders vary between BGN1 - 2BN. The problems regarding illicit imports have even made General Boiko Borissov, Secretary General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Roumen Milanov, Head of the NSCOC, point to the border crossings in Rousse and Kapitan Andreevo as wounds from which the Treasury loses money.The voice of business circles had to be heard also by the Consultative Council with the Customs Agency, where representatives of branch organisations participate. For the time being, however, local producers and the customs cannot reach an agreement on the demand for setting minimum prices in the import of some goods in order to limit the frauds with invoices, where smaller than the actual value of imported goods are entered. Mr. Assenov's explanation is that such a measure would be in contradiction with Bulgaria's participation in the World Trade Organisation. Mr. Assenov's order for cancelling the obligatory laboratory tests of imported fuels at the borders is somewhat strange too. On the discretion of the customs officer the fuels can be tested inland. Justifying this measure the Customs Agency Director said that this would facilitate prompt payers and European practices are being introduced in that way.One way or another, the mobile groups are to act now. They are almost expected to work wonders and will have to act accordingly. Otherwise, the inauguaration ceremony might have to be followed by a public prayer for the failed customs reform.