CUSTOMS OFFICES - BETWEEN SUCCESS, CORRUPTION, AND FOREIGN CONTROL
Is customs officers' welfare a reality of a myth? An answer to this almost rhetorical question is given by the high-speed cars and posh houses of a large part of officers in grey uniforms. However, not a single customs officer has been sentenced so far for large-scale jobbery.
The major arguments, which customs chiefs point out in reply to public mockery and accusations of corruption, are the impressive proceeds into the budget and the detained quantities of drugs. Indeed, Bulgarian customs offices are among the leaders in Europe in that respect. A total of 30 cases of attempted smuggling of narcotics were discovered in the January 1 - July 3, 2001 period. More than 1,100 kg of drugs were seized, according to official reports of the Customs Agency. The customs officce of Svilengrad is the indisputable leader in fighting the drugs traffic. A total of 680.590 kg of narcotics were caught at the border crossing of Kapitan Andreevo, which is a strategic point on the road of drugs from Asia to Europe. Sofia Airport and Kalotina have respectively registered eight and four cases of attempted drug smuggling. However, anybody acquainted with the operation of border check-points knows that grugs smugglers are usually caught upon a signal and nobody checks all the 100-200 TIR-trucks, which are waiting at the Bulgarian border crossins almost anytime.
In the beginning of July the Customs Agency bragged that the amount of money collected by it in the first half of 2001 rose by 13.9% as compared to the same period of last year, when revenues into the budget totalled BGL1,077.2MN. Total proceeds from customs duties, excise duties, VAT, and fees for the first six months of this year amounted to BGL1.226BN. In June alone, the customs deposited BGL216.8MN to the Treasury.
The increase of imports in the pre-election period is one of the main reasons for the rise in proceeds, experts claim. This statement is confirmed by data of the customs info system, according which the cargo flow through the customs bureaus at Kremikovtsi, Ilientsi, and Souhodol increased several-fold on the eve of the parliamnetary elections. The Sofia Regional Customs Office, to which these check-points belong has collected BGL620.2MN since the beginning of the year till end-June, and has the highest share in the total amount.
Customs officers at the Sofia Airport say that in end-June and early July the cases of attempted import of foreign currency have steeply increased. An attempted illegal import of USD10,000 was frustrated. Foreign currency worth a total of BGL2,057,180 was detained at all customs check-points from the beginning of 2001 till end-June.
Despite the reported success, allegations that the customs are a source for replenishing the black funds of the governing political force do not stop. The scheme of granting customs relief to companies that are close to the ruling circles in exchange for a respective sponsorship to their political campaign is completely realistic and easily applicable. In customs circles there is some talk that contraband paths are well-known and smuggling channels could not function without the patronage of high-ranking officials.
Other tricks are played by customs invoices. Two invoices are prepared: one with the real price of the goods for VAT-refunding, and one with a lower price on which customs duty is charged, for temporary import or ficticious export of excisable goods. Another fraudulent practice is the import the so-called sensitive agricultural products, that are entered in documents as sub-products and the duties levied on them are several times lower than the usual.
Excisable goods - cigarettes and fuels - are the most frequent object of contraband. Mobile telephones follow on the list of attractive goods to be smuggled. Goldsmiths also complain of unfair competition, as low-quality gold jewelry is imported from Turkey. These articles have neither documents for their origin, nor for the price of the inputs. There are also frequent cases when part of the goods are shared with the customs officers as a guarantee for preferential treatment when levying the duty.
Violations such as the above-mentioned can be limited by the introduction of an unified computer system in the customs offices. Currently, it is operating in all the 120 customs check-points. However, it is not known why its integration into a network on a nationwide level has been delayed for more than seven years. The State has spent much money on the project and its delay results in new losses.
The programme of the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII), which undertook the ruling of the country, projects measures for increasing tangibly the collectibility of customs duties through international supervision and management of customs activities. However, the BANKER weekly's inquiry at the border check-point of Kapitan Andreevo established that customs officers are against foreign presence. The people working there boast that they detain drugs almost every week. They believe that the methodology of analysing the risk is also successfully implemented.
The Customs Agency refused to comment on the idea of NMSII's economists to place customs offices under international supervision by the motive that this is a political decision. The idea is yet to be publicly discussed. The first critical remarks that it contradicts the agreements so far reached in the negotiations for EU membership have been already heard. In Brussels, however, they will hardly object to putting in order Bulgarian customs offices, which will become the outer borders of unified Europe. However, political and legislative goodwill is necessary for getting the upper hand of corruption in Bulgaria.