HISTORY OF CUSTOMS LAW AND CUSTOMS TARIFFS
“Customs profession, one of the oldest trades (emerging immediately after the clerical, ruling and military professions) withstood many turbulences and assaults, but it persevered, survived and developed. The number of customs officers and customs houses reflects the greatness of a state. And there lies also the greatness of the customs profession.” These words end a text written on his profession by Veljko Velikić, a customs officer from Vršac, published in the magazine “Carinik” (Customs Officer) in November 1926.
This view of our colleague from early XX century was based on historical facts, since customs duties, in the form of tolls or taxes, were known back in the Old Ages. They were levied by the state or individual cities. The Old Greeks in Athens imposed a duty of 2% on imports and exports over the Pierian Mountains. The Romans also used to levy such duties as state and provincial or city taxes. As early back as the Roman times customs duties made up a significant part of public revenues for the state treasury. At certain communication points in the provinces there were customs stations (stationes) where the duties were charged for the goods passing such points. The amount of duties was 2.5% (quadrogesimo) of the value of imported goods. The collection of customs duties was also farmed out, at the beginning granted even to farmers from the ranks of domiciled population, and later on, from mid-2nd century on, duties were collected by officials that in our territory were called publicum portarii Illyrici et ripae Thraciae. In the Middle Ages, in addition to import and export duties, the so-called transit duties were also levied.
The oldest preserved customs law related to our region was the Dubrovnik customs statute – Liber Statutorum Doane – from 1277 A.D. in Serbia, in addition to case law and national written legal sources, as early back as 13th century the first written legal source of Byzantine origin was applied. Sava Nemanjić, Saint Sava, on declaration of autocephaly of Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, issued the Nomokanon, a collection of ecclesiastical and civil law regulations.
It was the basis for Dušan’s Code, drawn up at the times of developed feudal state in 1349, and amended in 1354, and this Code provided rules for the largest number of social relations. Medieval Serbian rulers usually farmed out the collection of customs duties, most often to Dubrovnik citizens. After the arrival of Ottoman Turks in the Balkans the structure of revenues was changed entirely. The most important tax was the one paid in money, the so-called desetak (tithe), and also in “fruit of the land” and in labour; also levied were a district surcharge (nahijski prirez), fines, and revenues were also collected from customs duties, transportation and fishing taxes. On liberation from Ottoman Turks, the revenues from customs duties and charges on ferry transportation started to be collected for the first time in May of 1804, when Karadjordje established a customs house with a ferry at Ostružnica. Similar to the rate during the Ottoman rule, the customs duties stood at 3%. The vassal Serbia had to establish its customs tariffs in line with the then applicable provisions of agreements with the Holy See, and Prince Miloš fully complied with the Holy See’s instructions in that area.
Prince Miloš prescribed the first customs tariffs on March 1, 1819 and amended them on December 16, 1822. The tariffs involved the total of 31 items (the highest duty was to be paid on horses and cattle, 2 grosch per head; for swine it was 20 para, and for sheep 10 para per head). As for other goods, it was prescribed that 2 para were to be collected for each grosch of the value of goods. The stated tariffs were in place until March 7, 1828, when they were replaced. The new tariffs involved 71 items and they were somewhat lower than the previous ones. The import and export duties were charged against other territorial units, pashaluks, as well. Seven years later, on July 3, 1835, a “short addendum” was enacted as amendment to the 1828 tariffs, prescribing the customs duties on 8 items (seven species of cattle and wheat), on products exported to Turkey, and the amounts were very high (for horses it was as high as 20 grosch, and for oxen and swine 10 grosch per head).
The 1836 tariffs ceased to apply when the first Customs Law on General Customs Tariffs was enacted on June 5, 1883. The new tariffs abolished transit duties, after the model of European countries, and the imported goods were classified in 18 categories, with 63 headings per trades, not alphabetically as before. The new customs tariffs of April 2, 1892 contained also protective customs duties. Our first Customs Law dates from May 21, 1850, and it was followed by customs laws of 1863 and 1897. The Customs Law of the Kingdom of Serbia was enacted on January 23, 1899 and it regulated in detail the customs clearance procedure, provided the option of warehousing of the goods as well as the procedure for reimbursement of the duties wrongly collected. The same law, slightly amended, applied also in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as well.
After World War Two, in the devastated and ruined country, the first regulations governing certain issues in the customs field were enacted in 1945, and the first Customs Law came into effect in 1948. It was the first law to prescribe the institutes of customs systems, such as customs goods, customs area, customs line, near-border area, measures of customs surveillance. The next Customs Law was promulgated in 1959, followed by the adoption of the Decree on Provisional General Customs Tariffs. It contained also the provisions on customs preferences and exemptions for various categories of importers.
Since the development of the society called for modernization of the customs system as well, the new Customs Law was enacted in 1973, and its essential characteristic was that it was more comprehensive in regulating the customs procedure matters in railway and road traffic. Further modernization of the customs was continued by the new Customs Law from 1976, amended several times (1979, 1982 and 1984) in an effort to acknowledge the changes in the economy and the needs of the parties in modern customs procedures.
The current Customs Law has been in effect since May 3, 2010 and it is a very important step in the harmonization of Serbian legislation with the European Union regulations, which involves the standardization of procedures and modernization of the operation of customs authorities. Since the time of signing and ratification of the Harmonized System Convention by former Yugoslavia in 1987, customs tariffs have also been subject to changes due to bringing in line the customs nomenclature with the technical and technological development level in modern society. The customs tariff nomenclature, applied to product classification, was aligned with the European Union Combined Nomenclature, and it is constantly amended and adjusted in compliance with the Harmonized System. In a word, today the customs service is a professional, competent and modern system where intensive efforts are invested into institutional modernisation and transformation for the purposes of achieving the best practices in the world.