TBILISI, DFWatch–The spread of the deadly brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) has caused such devastation of orchards that locals have been forced to return to illegal businesses, such as smuggling of goods, particularly cigarettes, from breakaway Abkhazia to Georgia proper.
This illegal trade was rife a decade and half ago but had been almost entirely suppressed by the mid 2000s. Now it seems to be on the rise again, due to dire hardship of Gali population.
“Many people used to be involved in this business, but most of them were forced to suspend such activities due to the arrests and high fines. Today, some have been forced to return to this job. The reason is hardship. All revenues for locals have actually disappeared, while cigarette [smuggling] leaves quite a big profits. Stakes are high – smuggling of only one pack of cigarettes gives a gain of at least 1,5 lari ($0.57), that’s urge people to risk,” said a Gali resident that DFWatch spoke with.
Those who get involved in this kind of business face major risks, as police and customs officials are conducting frequent checks on the Georgian side, which renders this kind of business effectively a pitch-and-toss, he said.
“If you cross the [Enguri] bridge, everyone is being checked. If you’ve ever been caught they rarely give you a second chance. People resort to different methods in order to evade arrest. If detained, the fine depends on the amount of cigarettes smuggled. The punishment is decided by the court [in Zugdidi]. Sometimes [the judge] rules leniently, taking into account the context, but sometimes punishment is quite harsh,” he said.
One of the detainees, the mother of three, even said that the court dismissed her without a fine altogether.
“I am a mother of three. All the burden of running the household lies on me. We had hazelnuts as the sole source of income in the village and now it’s ruined. There is nothing else here, so when it was time for the kids to start school, I couldn’t find another way to address this,” she said, adding that she decided to smuggle very small amount of cigarettes calculating her profit at about 20 laris (USD 7.50).
“I only wanted to buy something new for my kids for school. We all know how happy kids are going to school in new clothes on September 1.
“I honestly told all of this to the judge, which took my situation into consideration. Otherwise, a fine of 1,000 lari (USD 377) was awaiting me, which I didn’t know how to handle. I was feeling fear and stress. No one is pleased to do this [business],” a 29 year old woman who made it out of the situation without being fined, told DFWatch.
Local officials are also implicated in this business, people in Gali familiar with the situation say. Georgian police treat people caught smuggling rudely, they add.
On the other hand, Abkhaz customs officials demand bribes in order to permit passage across Enguri bridge.
By Georgian law, a person caught smuggling goods for the first time face confiscation of produce and a fine which varies from 1,000 to 2,000 lari (USD 754). If the individual is caught a second time, the fine is 10,000 lari (USD 3,770). They may also face administrative imprisonment for 15 days.