Our man in Moscow

Meet Bernard Klappe, the Dutch customs attaché in Russia. "Intensive cooperation and better logistics serve both our countries."

Bernard Klappe has been stationed as a customs attaché in Russia for over two years now. Halfway through his term, he explains how he commits himself to improving logistics, with due regard for the economic sanctions of the EU against his host country. “The similarity of policies and the relationship of trust put cooperation on a sound footing.”

Klappe created his first network of contacts even before his predecessor took office. “This was back in 2009. I had been working as a customs attaché in Poland for barely a year – a post that has since been closed – and visited Moscow about once a month. At the time, even though the Dutch and Russian customs services had in fact concluded a treaty, no intensive cooperation had, as yet, been set up. This changed as the Russian economy picked up. Our government recognised an added value for Dutch trade and industry. Both parties would also benefit from better logistics.”

And so it happened. “My colleague made his way to Moscow in 2011”, Klappe continues. “For in order to be able to build such an intensive cooperation with a country like Russia, direct presence is indispensable. A few telephone calls or a monthly visit from Poland are not sufficient. You have to take time to slowly gain the trust of your counterparts and regularly get together around the table. You must be open to your Russian colleague and be open about yourself. People want to know what you think of Moscow, whether you like it here, if you are alone here or with family. When I became attaché five years later, this also applied to me. It does, however, also help that you are part of the worldwide customs family – this creates a mutual bond.”

Patience and flexibility
What also helps is to realise that Russia is fundamentally different from the Netherlands, thus Klappe. “Take only the scale. There are about 60,000 customs officers working here. It is a 9-hour flight from Moscow to Vladivostok – and you are then still in the same country. Or take the large parade on 9 May, Victory Day. Just seeing the massive crowds, shouting enthusiastically along the streets... you don’t often see that in the Netherlands.”

To be able to work in Russia you also need to be patient and flexible. “For example, a working visit to the port of Saint Petersburg – an interesting place as a lot of freight arrives from Rotterdam – requires an official request. You must submit such a request at least four weeks in advance. A reply will usually not follow until a week before the planned date. As the informal contacts are good, we can inform in advance whether there is a view on permission. This, incidentally, does not mean that you will get a definitive ‘yes’. Expect something along the lines of: ‘I have not heard any negative, so you may assume that...’ Or: ‘We are still awaiting the final signature’. And this is how it works at all levels. Want to have a quick lunch with a Russian customs colleague? You first need formal consent from his boss.”

Smoother trade flow
“Our main contacts within the Russian Customs Administration are the Customs Cooperation Department and the Center for Enforcement”, the attaché continues. “These two divisions are well structured, with dedicated contact points. The focus of the cooperation is on strengthening control and enforcement by, inter alia, the exchange of risk alerts and risk analyses – on a 24/7 basis – and on sharing best practices. This ultimately allows us to better facilitate the bona fide business and industry.”

“When I arrived here in 2016, I found a service which was in the midst of a modernisation exercise and which line of thought was more and more steering in our direction”, says Klappe. “Meanwhile, the realisation had come that companies should not only be inspected but also facilitated. The concept of 100 percent inspection had been abandoned. The percentage of physical inspections now lies between 5 and 10 percent: they have thus clearly taken steps that contribute to a smoother trade flow. The Russian Customs Administration is also cautiously experimenting with a type of direct consultation with the business and industry, as I could observe during a visit to Vladivostok recently. Similar to Rotterdam, this city has a port system which companies may supply with information prior to arrival. They are also at an advanced stage in the field of risk management, especially when it comes to customs value – which forms an important part of Russia’s tax collection. After all, when the customs value is correct, you are certain that you receive the correct amount of taxes. And import and export duties account for 40 to 50 percent of GNP, partly due to the amount of oil and gas taxes. Moreover, the rates are higher than within the EU.”

Clever sniffing
The similarity of customs policies and the built up relationship of trust put cooperation on a sound footing, Klappe says: “You look to see how we can move forward together, who suffers from what.” Laughs: “Customs is good at distribution, however, this should off course not apply to all products. Where we in the Netherlands are faced with illegal cigarettes and money smuggling from Russia, the Center for Enforcement has its top priority in combating synthetic drugs entering via Germany and the Netherlands. Intercepting ten pills in a letter, however, is more difficult than intercepting a container filled with a hundred kilos of hard drugs. Yet the Russians think it is just as important to stop those ten pills. This sometimes leads to pointing out Germany. Can we not act more firmly like our eastern neighbours? You then explain why you cannot copy someone else’s approach one on one. You explain that Germany has a different legal system, and that Customs is structured differently there. Additionally, you now and then invite a Russian delegation to visit Schiphol Cargo, you show the visitors our Joint Inspection Center and how the port of Rotterdam operates. This enables us to create understanding and to demonstrate that we certainly take the problems seriously.”

How is concrete substance given to that cooperation? “Russia and the Netherlands are setting up a Joint Action Plan that covers multiple themes, including training, risk management and the control on imports”, Klappe explains. “Do we, for instance, apply the same terms and criteria with respect to risk analysis? The plan also provides for the exchange of best practices, for example regarding the use of detection dogs. Both countries are working on so called remote odour detection, a technique in which air is sucked from a container and ends up in a jar. A detection dog merely has to sniff the jar as opposed to an entire container, allowing it to process more containers in less time. We further hope for a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed by the end of October concerning a small-scale cargo pilot with the airports Schiphol and Sheremetyevo in Moscow. This provides for a type of priority lanefor reliable companies, so that they spend less time with customs formalities.”

Political aspects
Of course, there will always be something to be desired. Klappe: “The delay at the border takes longer than at our end. According to a recently adopted law, a consignment ought to be processed within four hours. Still, the consignment sometimes remains unprocessed for a day when there is no transporter available. Or, because the Russian Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority has yet to inspect the consignment, something which is not done jointly, and therefore not simultaneously. Some places do have a pilot set up whereby Customs verifies the documents on its behalf. However, when something is really up, the customs officers will have to wait for the other public authority to arrive. Is there a power cut and you submit the declaration electronically, you simply have to wait for the system to be in operation again. There are no emergency procedures like those we are used to. Companies who have been doing business in Russia for some time already, are used to this. And if there is something structurally wrong, they know where to find us. For example, I was approached by a company once of which all consignments were physically checked from one day to the next. Where the company normally could cross the border within two hours, this suddenly took one day up to a day and a half. Whether I could make some inquiries: was this harassment or politics? When asked, it turned out that fraud had been committed with the same type of goods in another region. Consequently, the risk management system turned all signals flashing red as soon as someone wanted to import the same type of goods. This was thus not conducted arbitrarily. The company was happy with that explanation, despite the inconvenience that was experienced.”

Politics – the word had to pop up eventually. The sanctions which the EU imposed against Russia in 2014 delayed certain developments. “A pilot initiated in 2013 to achieve more rapid logistics and fight against contraband prompted a standstill. Own initiatives were not appreciated for a while”, thus Klappe. “There is still sufficient basis for cooperation, otherwise I would not be here. However, our mandate is now being established in consultation with Foreign Affairs. A possible introductory visit of the new Russian Director-General, for example, we need to coordinate in advance with this department. And then there is the European Commission we have to consider. However, it is exactly for this reason that I am so proud of the steps that we have been able to take. By the way, there is never the slightest discord when I tell people where I am from, neither in business nor in private life. I have a great, multifaceted job, travel throughout the largest country in the world and live just ten minutes away from the Red Square. I pinch myself from time to time, just to make sure I am not dreaming.”

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