Lithuania-Russia: Stubbing out Kaliningrad’s illicit cigarette trade

Shipment of illegal cigarettes seized by customs in Lithuania, March 29 2012.
Shipment of illegal cigarettes seized by customs in Lithuania, March 29 2012.
27 September 2012 – 15min (Vilnius)

In spite of the installation of increasingly sophisticated surveillance equipment, Lithuanian authorities are still struggling to eradicate a highly lucrative cross-border traffic in cigarettes with the neighbouring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Their task is made all the more difficult by the wide variety of interests served by the illegal trade.

The surveillance system installed on the Lithuanian border with Kaliningrad [the Russian exclave located between Poland and Lithuania] has considerably facilitated the work of the country's border guards. Last year, in the area around Viesvile [a border town in western Lithuania], the quantity of contraband cigarettes seized was 200 times lower than it was five years ago and only one smuggler was arrested.

However, authorities have no intention of lowering their guard in a context where smugglers, who are using increasingly sophisticated transportation and child lookouts, are able to disappear into thin air in the space of a few minutes. Teachers in the region tell stories about some of their pupils who receive mobile phone calls before abruptly leaving the classroom to take their turn to keep watch.

Teenage lookouts monitor the movements and the routes taken by the border guards and pass on this information with mobile phones that the smugglers have given them for this purpose. Then a car comes to pick them up and take them home. Initially, the criminals employed children from Viesvile, but recruitment has now spread to other areas. “When we see unfamiliar children, we know that something up”, explains the mayor of Viesvile, Valentinas Kucinas.

Nonetheless, over the last two years the number of young recruits has begun to decline. A dozen surveillance thermal surveillance cameras have been set up on the banks of the Neman River. At any time of day, the guards can monitor the border and the surrounding area, and send out a patrol if the slightest suspect movement is detected. If the lookouts involved in the smuggling are not yet 16, their parents can be punished with an administrative sentence for not supervising their children.

“No system can provide unbreachable protection”

But on occasion when it is time to release a teenager from custody, the police find there is no one to call. Sometimes lookouts are from high-risk families or their parents have left the country to work abroad, so brothers or uncles have to be found. In a lot of cases, the parents are unemployed and the child lookout is the main if not the only breadwinner in the family.

Lookouts are paid up to 100 litas (28 euros). Carrying a crate of cigarettes from the river to a car can be much more lucrative. The smugglers can afford such expenses, even with several people sharing in the profits, because a pack of cigarettes in Kaliningrad costs around 2.5 litas (€0.70), while selling in Lithuania for up to 6.5 litas (€1.90 euros).

B. Burzdzius, who is in charge of the station in Viesvile, explains that cigarettes with Russian packaging are becoming rare. Contraband sourced in Belarus is increasingly the norm in the trade across the Neman. And in spite of the high technology cameras, the cigarettes are still ending up in Lithuania.

Smugglers do not organise their deliveries at night, as they used to do, but seek to take advantage of poor visibility. The surveillance cameras function efficiently in darkness, but their effectiveness is reduced by fog. “There is no system that can provide unbreachable protection,” explains B. Burzdzius with a sigh. “There is no more than five five minutes between the moment when the operator notices the presence of an offender and the loading of the contraband into a car. And they are 20 kilometres from us…”

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