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Belarusian tobacco contraband big problem for neighbors

Smuggled cigarettes are brought under the guise of boards, building materials, and more / Euroradio​

Lithuanians and Poles have sounded the alarm for months over smuggled Belarusian cigarettes brought by land, water, and even air into the European Union across Belarus' western border. In 2020, the volume of illegal shipments increased markedly. Since the beginning of 2021, there has been a real boom in cigarette smuggling.

According to Euroradio estimates, during the first months of 2021, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian customs officers arrested 5 million packs of Belarusian cigarettes disguised as others shipments. Here's how it works.


Lithuania: 1.7 million packs of smuggled cigarettes since the beginning of the year

"Even old-timers at Lithuanian customs can't remember such a busy year. In addition to challenging working conditions caused by the global pandemic, officers have also faced a sharp increase in cigarette smuggling flows in 2020," said Lithuanian customs summing up the year. Here, a sharp increase in smuggling of cigarettes from Belarus was noticed back in the fall. And another "wave" of smuggling happened in February 2021.

"Production of surplus cigarettes in Belarus is rampant," said the director of the Customs Department of Lithuania, Jonas Miškinis. "I do not know how the [interstate] relations will develop, but there is a certain interstate problem, as such volumes require certain steps on the political level as well."

Number of smuggled cigarettes found (million pieces)

Of all contraband cigarettes smuggled into Lithuania, about 93% are produced in Belarus. Lithuanian customs officers found about 16.6 million packs of illegal cigarettes in 2020. That means that more than 15 million of them are Belarusian. It leaves six cigarrette packs for every resident of Lithuania, including non-smokers.

And that's just the cigarettes found at the customs.

According to Euroradio, since the beginning of 2021, Lithuanian customs officers have arrested more than 1.7 million packs of cigarettes worth more than €6 million on the border with Belarus. Two essential clarifications are necessary: these are only large shipments, and only those reported seized.

Poland gets the major blow 

In Poland, every tenth cigarette smoked is of illegal origin. Just like the Lithuanian ones, the Polish customs officers are trying to fight the Belarusian smuggling. 

Based on our calculations, they have found at least 3.2 million packs of cigarettes in two months. The cost of this cargo alone is more than 12.8 million euros. We considered here only large shipments.

Like the Lithuanians, the Poles have also recorded a sharp increase in shipments of Belarusian cigarettes. In 2020, 469% more cigarettes were found than the year before, in terms of value. 

In comparison with other countries, Poland and Lithuania have found significantly more smuggled Belarusian cigarettes. Latvian customs found 155.5 thousand packs in 2020, while Ukraine found only 50.5 thousand packs.

Russia: 750 million packs a year

In 2020, the turnover of Belarusian smuggled cigarettes in Russia was estimated at 750 million packs, according to "Proiect". The problem is so big that even (!) Tina Kandelaki unexpectedly spoke about it.

"Already through my channels, I have received specific information about the beneficiaries of this story. In addition to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, sitting at the top of the counterfeit pyramid, I have received information about the specific contributors in this story. Meet Alyaksei Aleksin, a friend of the president of Belarus and a kind of creative producer of a TV series about billion-dollar profits from smuggled tobacco," Kandelaki wrote in late 2020.

Euroradio sent inquiries about cigarette smuggling to the relevant Russian authorities. However, they left our questions unanswered.

Information about the confiscation of Belarusian contraband cigarettes by Russian customs officers does not often appear in the public domain: Belarus and Russia do not have an official border. Thus, cutting off contraband "at the entrance" is not possible.

NZ masked as boards

Most often, large contraband consignments are smuggled under the guise of boards, building materials, and nails. The scheme is as follows: cigarettes are hidden in a truck, the cigarettes are "adorned" with other goods for the sake of appearance, and the people try to declare them for import. Cargo is only found during additional checks, so some of the contraband gets through.

Polish customs officers have found Belarusian contraband even in the doors.

We do not consider small shipments, but they are sometimes funny: some people try to smuggle cigarettes across the border on a raft, others - by drone, and some just hide them in the trunks of their cars.

All cases of cigarette smuggling that we know about concern the products of Hrodna tobacco factory "Neman.” First of all, they are the most budget brands - Minsk, NZ, and others. The logic is simple: their cost is several times lower than that of the cheapest European cigarettes. And it is the fact that the Hrodna cigarettes are smuggled that raises questions about how the whole process is organized.

500 packs a year per smoker

For several years now, the authorities have not published statistics on the volume of tobacco products or exports. The last known data is from six years ago. Then the volume of cigarette production at the Hrodna Neman factory was estimated at 28.5 billion cigarettes, i.e. about 1.4 billion packs.

Cigarette production at the Neman factory

In addition to this factory, Belarus also produces cigarettes at Tabak-Invest of Pavel Tapuzidzis and Inter Tobacco of Alyaksei Aleksin. Their production volumes and current market share are unknown. The share of Tabak-Invest used to be estimated at 20%.

According to outdated but still official statistics, Belarus used to produce about 35 billion cigarettes a year. It means about 1.75 billion packs.

Simultaneously, the Belarusian domestic cigarette market was last estimated at 20 billion cigarettes per year. In other words, Belarus used to produce 1.5 times more cigarettes than it smoked. The rest is export, official, and not so much.

According to World Health Organization statistics, 48.4% of men and 12.6% of women smoke in Belarus. Twenty billion cigarettes a year is about 500 packs per smoker or one and a half packs per person each day.