With a Little (Illegal) Help, Russians Rush To Drive in Style

With German technopop music blaring from the sound system, the Kyrgyz police officer drove his own sleek, spacious BMW sedan - just a few months away from a showroom floor - through the rutted, rock-strewn roads of the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia.

His salary, he acknowledged, is about $25 a month. How could he buy such a car? "I had help from friends," he said.

Of course, there was more to it than that. In Russia, 40 percent of all foreign-made cars on the streets were stolen in Europe, fitted with new documents in a third country, and either legally imported or smuggled into Russia. According to the Russian bureau of Interpol, the international police agency, the percentage of stolen cars may be as high as 60 percent among expensive luxury cars like the policeman's BMW.

The policeman had traveled across the steppes of Kazakstan, spanned European Russia and Belarus, purchased his German car in Poland, and driven it home. How the car got to Poland, he did not know. But it is very likely that his car has the same history as tens of thousands of similar BMWs and Mercedes Benzes that find their way into the former Soviet Union and other regions of the world.

Here is a typical history of a car, as told by law enforcement officials in Moscow:

A network of thieves finds a German having trouble keeping up with his payments for an expensive new car. They buy the car cheap and take it to Poland with its original keys and registration, which they use to legally re-register the car. The next day they return the keys and old documents to the German owner, who reports the car stolen to collect the insurance.

Then a Russian, Ukrainian, or Kyrgyz buys the car and takes it home. Most such buyers actually buy the cars legally and are innocent owners, says Dmitri Chuchuyev, director of the stolen cars department of the State Automobile Inspectorate in Moscow.

Back in Germany, Mr. Chuchuyev says, "nobody is interested." The carmakers sell more cars, the owners are paid by their insurance company, and the insurance companies raise the premiums on their obligatory policies to cover the costs.

In Russia itself, the explosion of car theft that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union is subsiding year by year, and the number of stolen cars that are recovered is climbing. The main tool used by Russian law enforcement is a web of documentation linking every car to its driver and both visible and invisible markings on each car. In Moscow alone, police flag down and check 8,000 to 10,000 cars every day. Car thefts in Russia this year are half what they were in 1992.

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