In Russia, never too young for tax collection

In post-Soviet Russia, where tax evasion has become an art form, a new generation of very young, elite tax enforcers is learning to do more than inspect account records.

"The tax policeman protects his country, prevents crimes and thievery, and collects tax for state coffers," recites cadet Alyosha Rodionov, a short-haired 11-year-old with dark-brown eyes.

Juli Grigoryan may be best at chemistry, but the uniformed 14-year-old can't wait to begin marksmanship classes next year. "I will do it with pleasure," she says.

If you thought IRS agents were a hard-nosed group, meet Russia's next generation of tax enforcers, training at the newly opened Third Moscow Tax Police Cadet Corps academy in Moscow. Despite the name, it is the first of its kind.

Hand-to-hand combat is part of the regimen here, along with a host of martial arts, but so is etiquette, as the school aims to create an elite "dynasty" of defenders that will persuade Russians to respect and pay tax to their cash-strapped state.

Tax police already have a tough reputation: A series of high profile raids in the past year by commandos wearing black ski masks and carrying assault rifles has turned the tax police, for many Russians, into the most feared arm of government.

"Society has a negative attitude to the tax police, who have inherited the niche once possessed by the KGB," says Yevgeny Wittenberg, head of the Russian Independent Institute for National and Social Issues. "Russians are not fans of paying tax. It is a relic of the Soviet mentality, when the oppressive state cheated its citizens," he says.

Tax officials say that while crusading to restore the primacy of the state in Russians' lives, they are also trying to create a "kinder, gentler" image. The moves fit into a broader campaign by President Vladimir Putin, who has promised to impose a "dictatorship of law."

A new tax code comes into effect on New Year's Day, designed to bring more people, and some of Russia's large "gray economy" into the often-ungainly tax system. Mr. Putin said on Sunday that the "reasonable" 13 percent flat tax was "necessary ... with the goal to increase the level of trust toward the state."

The Russian Orthodox Church has even appointed the Biblical St. Matthew - a tax collector before becoming a disciple of Jesus - as patron saint of tax police.

The tax showcase, however, is the well-appointed school in Moscow for 160 budding tax enforcers, where old-style martial arts mix with new methods.

In the gym, cadets strap on padded gloves, body protection, and facemasks. Wrestling, judo, and kick-boxing are de rigueur. There is also "fighting without rules." Marksmanship classes begin in the New Year. The curriculum also includes choir, drama, and even etiquette. Students address each other as "comrade cadet," and visitors are met at the door by a boy-guard with a nightstick.

"Our ideology is respect for state power," explains director Vyacheslav Romaikin, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. "We instill in their consciousness the rules of the state, such as the obligation to pay taxes."

Military-clad pupils here, boys and girls alike, are orphans, the children of military and intelligence officers, or of those who died in government service. The school motto is: "With faith and truth, we follow the law." Every morning, Mr. Romaikin says, teachers remind the students: "You are unique pupils of the best tax-police cadet corps. You must be the best in study, discipline, and sport."

To help dispel the negative image of the current tax police, officials say the force may soon be renamed the more benevolent-sounding "finance" police. "Black masks and automatic guns are only the most visible part of our work, but it is only 1 percent of our whole work," explains a tax-police spokesman, who asked not to be named. "Most of it consists of paperwork, analytical research, and examination of financial documents." High-profile raids, he says, have now been abandoned because of "negative public opinion."

Twice as many criminal cases were launched in 2000 as in the previous year. In the first quarter of this year, tax collections were one-third higher than the target sum.

Analysts say it will take decades to instill a tax-paying attitude in Russians, even though the state now is so poor that remote areas of the far east are increasingly without heat in winter months. Russia's huge military is collapsing, and most state-run health and education systems - the tax police school is a notable exception - have been gutted.

For the past decade, seemingly arbitrary and constantly changing tax laws have eroded official credibility and made Western investors wary. At one point, businesses were supposed to pay 1.09 rubles of tax on every ruble earned.

"Mass nonpayment in Russia is a result of wrong reforms in the 1990s," says Anvar Amirov, with Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank. "The new code is at least transparent, and avoids double and triple interpretation."

Still, he says, it is more profitable for the tax police to go after big companies than to scrutinize the receipts of 1,000 smaller ones. Cracking down on Russia's oligarchs - elite and influential tycoons - is considered key. But raids on the holdings of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, who was detained in Spain Dec. 12 on a Russian extradition order, are seen as politically motivated. Mr. Gusinsky was close to former President Boris Yeltsin but has fallen out with Putin.

Jumping into the tax system chaos, instructors hope, will be the true-believer graduates of the tax police school. Last fall, the list of applicants to get a spot was very long.

Instructors say that military training enables pupils to defend themselves, and to "counter evil" by "defending the weak."

"Those best able to fight have the best intellect," says martial-arts teacher Constantine Semyonov, a former Soviet tank driver. "Don't think we are just fighting. We talk a lot about its meaning, its spiritual aspects, and self-discipline. It's an inseparable part of education."

Other courses, too, are geared toward creating well-rounded enforcers. Singing in the choir means "understanding what it is to be part of a hierarchy," says director Romaikin. Lessons in world history show "that people have always had to pay taxes, and how law defines the life of society." Etiquette classes, he adds, recognize that not all tax enforcement will be done staring through the eye-holes of a ski mask, and that the "ability to listen and speak to people, without imposing on them," will be important.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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