South Ossetia: customs regs giving rise to food and goods crisis
There is a serious food and product shortage forming in South Ossetia.
This time it was not because of snow covering the pass, as has happened before, but the complicated procedures for processing cargo on the border of South Ossetia and Russia. Because of this, it is not possible to bring even the most necessary products into the republic on time. The problem has not been solved for years, and South Ossetia is now completely dependent on Russia for food supplies.
With quick, sharp movements the man grabs the cardboard boxes and puts them in the back of his truck – tea, coffee, dried fruits, sweets. I meet Givi, the owner of a store in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinval, at a market in Vladikavkaz [ed. the capital of the Russian region of North Ossetia], where he buys in small quantities.
The packages are followed by a keg with pickles, vacuum packaging of sausages and various smoked meats. Givi loudly slams the door and with one swoop gets behind the wheel of the car, ready to carry the cargo home – across the border.
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Givi says he has always transported goods in small batches, counting on understanding from the customs officials, who helped to avoid the complicated and lengthy clearance procedure.
“Usually we do not complete the customs declaration for goods transported through Zaramag (border checkpoint). The customs made concessions, closed their eyes to many things. If, for example, a cargo of several hundred names of goods is imported, then it was allowed to declare only a couple of dozen items. So we managed to deliver the goods on time, we do not stand in lines and quickly manage to sell our goods,” says Givi.
A batch of dairy products from North Ossetia received in Tskhinval
The essence of the problem
From the beginning of August, everything began to change – Russian customs officers became stricter.
The rules for the carriage of goods across the border were approved back in 2016, when an agreement was signed on the integration of the customs authorities of Russia and South Ossetia.
According to the document, all procedures must comply with the customs rules of the Eurasian Economic Union – this union includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. South Ossetia, whose independence Russia recognized in 2008, is not part of this association.
Accordingly, goods crossing the border must be cleared in full form, both on the Russian and South Ossetian sides.
Food and industrial goods in South Ossetia come almost entirely from Russia. Large entrepreneurs import products in large quantities, but many residents of the republic are engaged in small businesses and carry small quantities of goods.
Both are mainly purchased on the Russian wholesale markets of Vladikavkaz or Goryachevodsk.
“It is necessary to fill in the declaration electronically, the procedure takes time, people complain that it has become more difficult to import food and goods. This is not the first time this has happened, it happens periodically, when customs officers do not let us through with food,” complains Givi.
In addition, according to the rules of the Eurasian Union, businessmen must submit a certificate of goods from the manufacturer when registering the goods.
They are issued only to those who purchase large quantities. But usually large shipments on the small market of South Ossetia are not in demand. Therefore, entrepreneurs from South Ossetia usually do not have certificates.
As a way out, many traders use the opportunity to import up to 50 kilograms per person without registration. Russian customs officials often turn a blind eye to this. However, due to monitoring by higher departments, they are periodically forced to have South Ossetian shippers fully declare their cargo.
In addition, since the beginning of August, customs have launched scales that weigh the entire truck, the weight of the goods is automatically recorded by a computer.
The population of South Ossetia suffers the hardest from problems at customs – the delay of goods immediately leads to a shortage of vital food products and medicines.
Store shelves are empty
A shortage of food in the republic has already begun this year. In February 2020, cargo at the border with Russia began to be delayed.
Then the authorities warned shippers that the customs clearance procedures would become more complicated, and the customs temporarily allowed them to work “as before.”
However, now the problem has been compounded by the closure of the border with Russia due to the coronavirus pandemic and the inability for ordinary citizens – not shippers – to travel to North Ossetia and stock up on cheap food for future use.
People have begun to express dissatisfaction with the fact that store shelves were empty, and the prices of the existing goods increased – the prices for dairy and sausage products went up.
Shop owners also criticize the authorities.
“For example, I enter the cargo, I have 50-100 items of goods, and for each I have to fill out a declaration, and there are dozens of people like me, it takes a lot of time. And we carry products that are perishable, we will not be able to sell them,” says businessman Murat.
How to solve the problem
For more than three hours, representatives of the South Ossetian authorities and the North Ossetian customs discussed this issue on August 18 during a meeting at the border.
At the end of the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister of South Ossetia Gennady Bekoev said that Russian colleagues “took into account” the proposals of the South Ossetian side.
“A road map will be drawn up, which will indicate joint steps to solve existing problems, and I think that by the end of the week concrete proposals aimed at solving them will be known,” Bekoev said.
He added that this problem did not arise today, and for the last eight to ten years, the solution to these issues was temporary.
“Today we have to solve all these problems finally and irrevocably, as we stated during the meeting. That is, the matter has moved from dead center,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
Similar meetings have taken place in the past, particularly during the food crisis in winter. But in the end this did not solve the problem.
Then the head of the customs of North Ossetia, Sergei Trotsko, said that it was necessary to resolve the issue “by political means” – neither the Russian customs service nor the leadership of South Ossetia could amend the current legislation of the EAEU.
Until then, the maximum that the North Ossetian customs officers can do is to turn a blind eye to the violations of the Tskhinvali traders so that all the necessary goods can enter the food market in isolated South Ossetia.
In the winter, MPs of the South Ossetian parliament already appealed to the State Duma and the Federation Council of Russia with a request for help. Later, the president of the republic, Anatoly Bibilov, discussed the problem with Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the presidents in the Kremlin on March 13.
“One gets the impression that the problem is ‘stuck’ and the responsibility has been placed on the heads of lower levels. It remains to be hoped that it will nevertheless be resolved. On the other hand, there was an excellent chance for the development of national production. In any case, competent management by the leadership of South Ossetia is needed,” said Soslan Dzhioev, the owner of a grocery store.
Another businessman named Vaso sees the solution to the problem in removing the customs barriers between Russia and South Ossetia:
“This situation is repeated from time to time. If the situation is to be fundamentally resolved, then only by erasing the borders, removing customs between Russia and South Ossetia. The border should be moved further, to the border with Georgia. In our country, nothing is going on in transit outside South Ossetia.”
The authorities in Tskhinval and Moscow do not intend to cancel the border yet, but they are considering the possibility of facilitating procedures by integrating the South Ossetian customs with the customs authorities of Russia. This is provided for in an agreement signed in 2016.
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