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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

In Russia, the new European Commission (EC) rules on the import of sanctioned goods by Russian citizens has caused quite a stir. As part of the policy of sanctions against Russia in connection with the conflict in Ukraine, Brussels has banned the import of a wide range of Russian goods. These include a number of items for personal use. In July 2023, the first signs emerged that such goods could be seized by customs. At the time, we were talking about the cars of Russians being detained by German customs officers. The EC's clarification sheds light on the EU's approach to German enforcement: the import of sanctioned goods is prohibited, even in cases where they are intended for personal use. If the letter of the law is followed when these new rules are rolled out, the nature of the implementation may border on the absurd.

In Russia, the new European Commission (EC) rules on the import of sanctioned goods by Russian citizens has caused quite a stir.

The EU sanctions policy against Russia includes a wide range of measures. These include blocking financial sanctions, sectoral restrictions, transport and visa bans, export controls on a wide range of goods, as well as a ban on the import of a number of goods from Russia. The latter measure can be described as import controls. Its goal is to deprive Moscow of income from the sale of these goods on the markets of EU member countries. Brussels has banned the import of a number of strategic raw materials from Russia, including oil, petroleum products, coal, ferrous metallurgy products, gold, and others.

At the same time, a number of other items were also banned. This norm is fixed in Art. 3i of Council Regulation 833/2014. The direct or indirect import of certain goods from Russia to the EU is prohibited, as well as the related provision of intermediary and financial services. Appendix XXI reveals the list of titles. It is very diverse: you can find products ranging from caviar to cement, chemical products, fertilizers, soap, rubber, paper, pumps, refrigerators, bearings, engines, telephones, cars, cameras and much more. Obviously, shipments of such goods had no chance of passing customs.

But what should be done if a Russian citizen imports this or that product for personal use? The most obvious example is entering the EU in a private car. At the beginning of July this year, German customs explained that entering Germany by car is regarded as grounds for arrest.

In fact, German customs proceeded from the fact that Art. 3i of Regulation 833/2014 does not provide any exceptions for goods for personal use. It contains Clause 3a, which allows import for such use by EU citizens and members of their families. However, the permit does not apply to Russian citizens. A couple of weeks later, German prosecutors closed the investigation. In particular, a Russian citizen, Ivan Kova, had his Audi Q3 returned to him. In other words, the mechanical implementation of the EU norm by German customs was compensated by the common sense of the prosecutor's office.

And now, a couple of months later, the EC supports the practice of German customs. A clarification was issued on September 8. It indicated that the norm of Art. 3i does not discriminate between cars for sale and for personal use. In other words, the customs authorities of EU countries can now use the German precedent and, based on the commission’s explanations, seize Russian cars. The clarification tangentially affects other products from Annex XXI of Regulation 833/2014. In theory, this means that a conditional Russian entering an EU country may lose more than just his car. He faces the possible confiscation of his mobile phone, camera, toilet paper, products made of precious metals, cigarettes, cosmetics, soap, suitcases and bags, women's clothing (jackets, dresses, skirts, shorts), etc. In other words, in accordance with Article 3i customs officers have the power to literally strip Russians entering an EU country. There has been no such practice yet. But it cannot be ruled out.

There are several practical implications here. First of all, sanctions regulations potentially place any Russian citizen crossing the EU border in a vulnerable position. Of course, the implementation of EU law differs from country to country. In some countries, customs may occasionally show zeal, as happened in July in Germany. In others, they do not pursue it to the point of absurdity. However, a typical Russian can hardly know in advance exactly what practice will develop. Again, in theory, Russian citizens can try to challenge the customs decision in court. But not everyone decides to pursue extensive litigation, for fear of legal fees and wasted time. It is far from clear whether the court will side with them. Russian tourists are distinguished by courage - they often venture to more extreme jurisdictions, and being deprived of toilet paper or a camera might seem trifling. But if the practice becomes widespread, another nail will be driven into the coffin of human ties between Russia and the EU. Previous nails included the tightening of the the visa regime, bans on deposits above a certain amount, and the arbitrary freezing of Russian accounts by EU banks simply on the basis of their Russian origin—just in case. Practice and time will show the limits of the escalation of absurdity.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.

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