22 August 2010

Perils of Passage, Part IV

Moving is a difficult proposition.  After getting married, I moved three times around the San Francisco Bay Area.  Each instance proved rather challenging.

My move to Russia is the fourth post-marriage move.  It is the most challenging of all.  To begin with, my wife and I moved the household internationally.  To put the icing on the cake, we moved to Russia, where customs regulations are known to be notoriously onerous.  To put the cherry on the icing, the Russian government decided to surprise everybody on 1 July through new legislation that levies a hefty "import" tax on the goods brought into the country by expats.


In my case, this law made the "importation" of my household goods more expensive than the transportation across the North American continent and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Russian legal surprise coincided with two events.  New rules easing immigration for qualified professionals was to kick in on 1 July.  It was also the same day that Russia, Belorussia, and Kazakhstan unified their customs regimes.

Whether the imposition of the new taxes had more to do with either coincidence is besides the point; in either case, the coincidence is embarrassing for the Russian government.

One explanation of the new taxes, punishing any immigrant that has more than 80 kg of goods (basically anyone who is not poor or a student - which is precisely the type of immigrant that Russia is trying to attract with the 1 July "qualified professional" immigration act), is that governmental antibodies became activated in response to Mr. Medvedev's modernization agenda.  Under this explanation, those with a political axe to grind or yearning for the yesteryears of the Soviet Union, tried to muck up the cogs that move Russia forward.  This is an unlikely explanation and, surprisingly, the less embarrassing explanation because it suggests decentralization of power within the Russian government, hence some degree of checks and balances.

The more likely explanation, and the less fortunate one, is that inexperienced, inept, or inattentive bureaucrats did a marvelous cut-and-paste job with customs regulations from Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, thereby creating a legal Frankenstein that was easy to create but had no correlation to Russian national policies or interest.  In other words, Russia unintentionally allowed one of the two much smaller nations, Belarus or Kazakhstan, set its national policy through new custom regulations.

This is a pity particularly because there is a clear object lesson from the United States that points to the cost of appointing a feckless  bureaucrat to a seemingly unimportant governmental position.  Michael Brown, a professional horse judge and an active political contributor, was appointed as the head of Federal Emergency Management Agency.  While Mr. Brown was highly qualified in judging a horses head from its backside, he had no qualification in managing any major emergency, like Hurricane Katrina.  Luckily, in the case of the 1 July Russian customs law debacle, the outcome - besides the embarrassment - is only the major inconvenience and expense of a few expatriates like me and not nearly as significant as what happened to New Orleans.

I am indeed lucky.  With significant efforts from my employer*, I am (hopefully) getting my household goods sometimes in the next month.  At some point in the near future - I hope - my children will finally have a suitable home and sufficient infrastructure where they can pursue their education and other childhood activities with some degree of comfort.  I look forward to that day.

Russia Today TV has more coverage of this issue here.

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* I am sincerely grateful to my colleagues who spent countless hours on my behalf to resolve this situation.

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