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Russia to open duty-free shops selling western imports to foreign diplomats

Russia will introduce duty-free shops selling western imports to diplomats for foreign currency in a practice that will remind many Russians of the infamous beryozka stores that epitomised official privilege during the Soviet era.

The shops, which could open as soon as the autumn, will sell imported goods that may become hard to find in ordinary Russian shops as foreign brands flee the country over the war in Ukraine.

But in order to make a purchase, visitors will have to provide an official document to prove they are a foreign diplomat, employee of an international organisation or a family member. And the shops will also accept payment in dollars and euro, mimicking the beryozka stores function as a magnet for foreign currency.

“It’s a total USSR!” wrote Sergei Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of the Russian outlet Mediazona, which wrote about the legislation after its announcement in Russia’s official parliamentary newspaper.

Western brand names have already become more difficult to find in many shops in Russia. Shoppers have flocked to stores owned by major brands like H&M as the Swedish clothing retailer reopened its doors this week in a final selloff of its inventory before leaving the country for good.

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The duty-free stores will be owned by a company created by the Russian foreign ministry and another entity chosen in a competition. The shops’ goods will include alcohol, tobacco products, jewellery, cosmetics, perfumes and sweets, as well as smartphones and watches, Mediazona reported.

It is not yet clear whether the electronic goods will include products such as iPhones, which are no longer being directly imported to Russia.

The foreign ministry has considered opening a duty-free store for foreign diplomats since at least 2015, after Russia banned many European food imports as part of its counter-sanctions package following the annexation of Crimea, according to Russian news outlets.

In a 2014 letter obtained by the Russian news website Gazeta.ru, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the shops would help curtail “financial losses and delays” associated with delivering goods to foreign diplomatic missions in Russia, Radio Free Europe reported.

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