The Ukrainian parliament is notorious for its debating culture. Differences of opinion are sometimes settled with fists. But in most cases the arguments are not about politics but about holding on to perks. That was the case last week, when the country's 450 elected representatives argued over an €80,000 ($106,000) German luxury car.
Valery Konovalyuk, a presidential adviser and member of the governing party's parliamentary group, made the accusation that Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, the country's highest-ranking law enforcement officer, was being chauffeured around Kiev in an SUV that had been stolen in Germany, a 306-horsepower Mercedes-Benz GL 420.
It's also important to know that Konovalyuk has been hounding the minister for weeks, because the two men are fighting on opposing sides over the pending award of a government contract worth billions.
Lavrynovych declined to comment on the charges. But his rival Konovalyuk managed to come up with a vehicle registration that was issued to the Justice Ministry and included a chassis number that matched that of the Mercedes, which was already reported to Interpol as stolen. This is clear evidence, provided the evidence is genuine.
A spokesman quickly pointed out that Lavrynovych "personally" doesn't even own a Mercedes. But the charge that the minister's official car is stolen shines a spotlight on the relationship between Ukrainian politicians and criminals in Ukraine, a country that wants to join the European Union -- and yet tends to look the other way when it comes to organized crime.
Not Breaking the Law
A number of years ago, the Ukrainian government decreed that the state could sell confiscated cars that were stolen in other countries or add them to its motor pool. This even applies when the vehicles are on an Interpol list. In other words, Justice Minister Lavrynovych wouldn't even be violating Ukrainian laws by driving a car that was stolen in Germany.
The black Mercedes GL 420 (chassis number WDC1648281A522903) was originally registered to a Stuttgart company called Mercedes-Benz Leasing GmbH, and was used as a company car by a component manufacturer in the southwestern German region of Breisgau. The company has since gone under. The police became suspicious when the almost-new car was reported as stolen in January 2010. According to their investigation, the two managing directors of the company had been illegally moving large numbers of leased luxury cars and semi-trailer trucks to Ukraine and Russia -- including the Mercedes 420 GL. Now the two men are in prison, serving five and nine years, respectively.
The Ukrainian authorities confiscated the Mercedes at the Ukrainian border after it had been reported stolen. But instead of turning it over to the German authorities, a court in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod declared the luxury car to be government property. On April 14, 2011, the traffic police apparently registered the Mercedes as the property of the Justice Ministry, essentially legalizing the theft.
This is a practice that German police have long viewed as a license to steal cars. Some time ago the so-called Russian mafia, whose backers are in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, discovered organized car theft as a lucrative business in addition to human trafficking and the drug trade. More than 40,000 cars were reported stolen in Germany in 2010. Many ended up in Eastern Europe.
Condoned by the State
Cars are stolen to order in the west for customers in the east. Buyers in Odessa, St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Kiev pay far less for stolen luxury cars than they would at local dealerships. The most popular makes are high-end SUVs made by BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Oleg Nazarenko, the president of the Association of Ukrainian Auto Importers, estimates the gray market in stolen cars at "about 10 percent." According to Nazarenko, 162,000 cars were sold in Ukraine last year, whereas 177,000 were newly registered.
"The difference of 15,000 can be attributed to cars that were stolen in Western Europe and then moved to the east," says Nazarenko. Two thirds of those cars, he adds, are coming from Germany.
The police in Germany are becoming increasingly concerned about auto theft that is practically condoned by the state. It makes it vastly more difficult to search for the thieves if the stolen cars are confiscated in countries like Ukraine, where officials do not notify their counterparts in Germany.
Little Interest in Changing the Law
By virtue of his office, it ought to be the responsibility of Justice Minister Lavrynovych to introduce legislation to contain the market for stolen cars. Most of all, he should cancel the order that permits the government to use cars that were stolen and then confiscated. But he seems to have little interest in doing so.
A photo depicts Lavrynovych in front of a government building in Kiev, as an employee opens the door of his official car. It is a black Mercedes 420 GL -- precisely the same model that disappeared in Germany in January 2010.