Lithuania provides new IDs for hot cars Phony documents await autos taken from Western Europe

October 12, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- At a used car lot in central Vilnius, rows of Mercedes and Audis and other cars shimmered in the hazy sun under a dingy array of torn pennants as a dealer wooed a prospective buyer.

"Stolen?" the salesman asked, as the customer gazed dubiously at the rock-bottom sticker price on the metallic green Chevy minivan. "Don't you worry about it being stolen. We can fix you up with whatever documents you need."

Law enforcement authorities say Vilnius is chock-full of such clearinghouses for cars stolen in Western Europe, which are brought here for ersatz documents and then, most often, wind up in Russia. But people interested in hot merchandise don't come to Lithuania only to enhance their driving pleasure.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania -- wedged among the ruins and makeshift boundaries of the former Soviet Union's European border -- has become a favorite transit point for smugglers. Two years ago, people here found out just how widespread the problem had become, when the Mercedes belonging to Lithuania's top police official turned out to have been stolen in Germany and smuggled in from Poland.

Cigarettes, alcohol, home appliances, oil, amber, gas, and narcotics are among the commodities officials say are illicitly spirited in and out of former Soviet territory through Lithuania. And authorities fear there may be more.

The arrest June 30 in Miami of two Lithuanian nationals on charges of conspiring to smuggle Bulgarian- and Russian-manufactured nuclear armaments into the United States raised a chilling specter: that weapons of mass destruction could leave Russia via the same route.

Although Lithuania's 3.5 million residents overwhelmingly backed independence in August 1991, nearly five decades of Soviet occupation left this land ill prepared for sovereignty.

"There were no state structures to speak of," said Rimvydas Valatka, an editor at Lietuvos Rytas, Lithuania's main daily newspaper. "This is the greatest weakness of Lithuania."

As a provincial Soviet outpost, Lithuania had no air links to the outside world, and no airline, save for a handful of aging Yak40 jets left behind only because local officials thwarted Russia's plan to have pilots sneak the planes back to Moscow.

More significant is the country's lack of clearly marked borders with its new neighbors, Belarus to the south and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest.

The task of fixing the problem has fallen to a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, Romas Kilikauskas, a Lithuanian-American who returned to his homeland in 1994, 50 years after his parents fled the Soviet occupation that followed World War II.

"There is nothing here to tell you that this is a border," Kilikauskas, now Lithuania's chief border guard official, said in his Vilnius office, indicating on a wall map the marshes, forests, and unused farm roads that make up most of Lithuania's 380 miles of border with Belarus.

But even tightly controlled borders will not end smuggling. Stolen car smugglers now travel from Western Europe by ferry to Lithuania's Baltic Sea port of Klaipaeda with forged documents to get past customs. Another popular route is through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, according to Aurelijus Racevicius, the senior Interpol officer in Lithuania. There, he said, local police assist smugglers in getting documents for Lithuanian customs.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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