Estonia: Life's a gas on the Russian border
3 February 2010
At the border crossing in the town of Narva, people queue for over two days to take advantage of cheaper petrol prices in Russia. With the Estonian economy faltering, small-time smuggling is on the rise.
According to Vladimir Mižui, who is the director of Transservis-N – a company which manages Narva's border crossings – only 5% of people crossing into Russia are going there as tourists or for bona fide business. All of the other visitors to Ivangorod – the Russian town on the other side of the border where service stations have been springing up like mushrooms – simply fill their cars with petrol and drive straight back to Estonia.
With unemployment on the rise, large numbers of small-time smugglers are attempting to earn a living from the difference in fuel prices. In Russia, petrol is almost twice as cheap as it is in Estonia, and crossing the border is particularly easy for holders of the special gray passport – which is usually attributed to members of the Estonia's Russian minority – because they do not need a visa. In the past, many locals in Narva earned a living by selling contraband cigarettes, but this source of income has now dried up with the introduction of a new law which has made it illegal to bring back more than two packets of cigarettes from Russia.
In Narva, the availability of cheap petrol has brought more and more taxis onto the streets, with drivers charging fares of just 20 to 25 Estonian crowns (approximately €1.50). "A lot of young people from Narva have come back from Finland or Sweden because there is no work there. When they find that there is no work here either, they decide to become taxi drivers," explains Mižui. We also spoke to a a 43-year-old unemployed man who makes a living as a benzovoz or petrol smuggler: "Smuggling petrol Russia is a lot like smuggling cigarettes. Today, a lot of people are doing it. With a full tank you can earn 500 to 700 crowns [33 to 46 euros]."
You need a ticket to queue
He told us that he needed six hours for a round trip and two and a half days of queuing to cross the border. " When I get back from Ivangorod, I go straight back into the queue. But I don't manage to do more than ten trips a month. In a good month, you can earn between 3,000 and 4000 crowns (€200 to €266)." The queuing system at the border crossing offers two types of passage. A fast-track solution that guarantees your passage at a particular time mainly used by people who are going further than Ivangorod, which requires an advance payment of 300 crowns (20 euros) two or three days before you cross the border.
The benzovoz, do not have the means to pay this sum. But the system also offers them a second solution that allows them to queue from their homes. To take advantage of this option, they collect a ticket, which indicates the number of their place in the queue and the license number of their vehicle from the Transservis office. Thereafter, they can follow the progress of the queue on the Internet. When their turn comes, they simply drive to the checkpoint, and from there on to Ivangorod. Advanced queuing system or not, the benzovoz fear that their smuggling days are numbered. "The government can put an end to this scam whenever it likes, just like it did for cigarettes. If it puts a limit on the transport of petrol, people will have to resort to crime. When there is no money, crime always increases."