Attorney: Seizing cars with Russian plates more complicated than thought

Passenger car in front of the Narva-1 border checkpoint.
Passenger car in front of the Narva-1 border checkpoint. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

The Estonian government banned the entry of cars with Russian plates at the border starting Wednesday morning, but it has yet to be decided what will be done with those cars that are already in the country. Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) is in favor of confiscating the vehicles, but attorney Norman Aas says that this could prove more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Currently, vehicles with Russian plates already in the country will be permitted to leave Estonia and/or cross the EU's internal borders.

On January 8, the European Union banned the import of Russian-registered vehicles for commercial purposes into the EU. With new guidelines issued last Friday, the European Commission specified this sanction, noting that it actually makes no difference whether a vehicle is brought into the EU for commercial purposes or for private use; the vehicle is subject to this sanction either way.

The minister of the interior is in favor of confiscating cars with Russian plates already in the country.

"In fact, this raises the question for me as to why these cars with Russian plates are driving around Estonia, or why someone who lives in Estonia would own a car with Russian plates," Läänemets said during Thursday's government press conference. "There may be some very good reason for that, but generally speaking, these cars shouldn't actually be here like this."

On Wednesday, the government banned cars with Russian plates from entering Estonia from Russia. Prior to that, Läänemets said, some 40 vehicles a day were crossing the border thus. Just how many such cars may currently be in Estonia, however, the state doesn't know.

"We have an overview of how many vehicles with Russian license plates have entered and exited through Estonia's border checkpoints," explained Külli Kurvits, head of Customs Formalities at the Customs Department of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA). "We don't, however, have information on how many vehicles with Russian plates have entered the EU, i.e. the Schengen area, from other neighboring countries."

The confiscation of vehicles with Russian plates isn't actually as simple as it seems. Attorney Norman Aas explained that Estonian customs or other countries' authorities have permitted these vehicles to enter the EU perfectly legally at the time. Should the state now change its stance, that could be challenged in court.

"Another thing is that if you look at that section in the sanction regulation, then the purpose of it is still to reduce the financing of the Russian war machine, first and foremost off of the import of vehicles," Aas continued. "Therefore public authorities are also obliged to assess on a case-by-case basis whether this particular vehicle falls under that category or not."

He cited a simple example of a war refugee from Ukraine who for whatever reason has arrived in the country with a car with Russian plates. "No doubt seizing this car from them won't help prevent the financing of the Russian war machine at all," he pointed out.

Whether and how exactly cars with Russian plates could be confiscated is currently being investigated by experts at the MTA and other authorities.

Enforcement mandatory for EU states

According to the updated guidelines published by the European Commission on September 8, the ban on cars with Russian license plates applies not just to private vehicles, but also to company transport operations. Enforcement of these sanctions is mandatory for member states.

In accordance with the Commission guidelines, the motor vehicle entry ban applies regardless of the owner or driver's grounds for their stay in Estonia or the EU.

Upon the arrival of a vehicle with Russian plates at an Estonian border checkpoint, the MTA will perform the relevant procedures. The driver or owner of a vehicle subject to the entry ban will thereafter either have to return to Russia together with the vehicle or cross the border without it.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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