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Macedonia: Customs Corruption Cleanout

New customs service management to tackle widespread corruption losing the state millions of euro annually.
By Spasijka Jovanova

Macedonia´s new customs boss has vowed to rid his service of dishonest officials and criminal practices, after it gained a reputation as the country's most corrupt institution.


Since taking over last December, Ljubomir Mihajlovski-Dzango has fired or disciplined some 35 officers from the Customs Administration of Macedonia for abuse of their positions. He's described the graft that riddled the organisation as systemic.


"It was a regular phenomenon, starting from ordinary officers and leading right up to the management," he told IWPR. "Officers received bribes, while the management organised more sophisticated forms of corruption."


The first audit of customs operation carried out by the new management, showed the state had lost millions of euro to fraud between 2001 and 2002.


"The smuggling of a single truck carrying goods such as cigarettes, alcohol or coffee lost the state up to 60,000 euro, when the importer failed to pay customs, excise duties or VAT," Mihajlovski said.


Corruption was most endemic where imported goods passed through customs clearance, with bribes varying from 20 euro to speed up the procedure to several thousand for bigger favours, the audit found.


The director of customs from 1998 and 2002, Dragan Daravelski, last year defended his record and denied presiding over institutionalised rackets. In an interview with the Skopje weekly magazine Kapital, he insisted, "This institution is not corrupt."


He admitted knowing of individual offences but rejected suggestions that crime was pervasive and organised.


The period of Daravelski's directorship is now under review by a team from the interior ministry. Daravelski, meanwhile, left Macedonia in October. His whereabouts is unknown.


The new customs administration found it owed creditors millions of euro for unpaid telephone, electricity, heating, and vehicle repair bills.


An initial inspection of accounts at the end of last year revealed that in 2001 the customs service purchased 75 Skoda Felicia vehicles, 27 of which ended up as gifts to persons outside the service. The senior customs official who revealed the fraud was beaten up by unknown assailants.


The International Crisis Group last year published a damning report on corruption in Macedonia, which drew attention to the operations of the customs service as the most blatant example of official corruption in the country.


Research by the group Southeast Europe Legal Development Initiative in February 2001 and February 2002, using a sample of 1,000 interviewees, showed that the public saw customs officers as the most corrupt officials in Macedonia, ahead of ministers, parliamentary representatives and party political leaders.


It found that 72.2 per cent of Macedonian citizens in 2001 believed customs officers were the most corrupt officials, with the rate increasing a year later to 83.1 per cent.


According to Slagana Taseva, director of Macedonia's anti-corruption commission, the prices of bribes were standardised. "At the customs there is a corruption price list," she said. "The tariff is known upfront, so no one has to wait to hear how much the customs officers will ask for."


The centre-left government of Branko Crvenkovski has unveiled a national strategy for fighting state corruption, but it has yet to be put into practice. For the time being, the task has fallen to the anti-corruption commission, which tries to track the situation in the field.


The new management of the customs service, meanwhile, has already introduced its own concrete measures. From the beginning of this year, officers have been forbidden from carrying more than 1,000 denars or valuable jewellery while working, and have been offered rewards for reporting misdemeanours.


"Every customs officer who reports that he or she was offered a bribe will be rewarded by the same amount that they were offered," Mihaljovski said.


A special intelligence service is also to be set up to deal with collating information on smugglers and other offenders.


Starting from this month, notice boards have been put up at frontier crossings in Macedonian and in English, clearly stating the rights and responsibilities of citizens and companies passing through customs control.


A system of electronic tracking for trucks entering the country, following their movements through Macedonia, will be introduced, and mobile customs teams will also be constantly in the field, entrusted with following and controlling the movement of vehicles and goods through the country.


Spasijka Jovanova is a journalist at the Skopje magazine ZUM.