Grand Theft Auto Seats Adds to Mother's Cares

Two babies, husband away, no milk, no nappies -- and, the coup de grace, no car.

This is the third time my car has been stolen in just over five years, although not, naturally, the same car. What is particularly galling is the fact that with it went the two children's car seats, which means the thief knew just how much inconvenience he was causing. It also meant a heartstopping trip to Moscow's Mothercare to shell out over $200 for a car seat I know costs ?35 (about $53) in Britain.

Mothercare, a British staple where you can expect safe, quality products for reasonable prices, causes palpitations in expatriate Moscow mothers and fathers. We've all struggled back through Sheremetyevo with ridiculous packages, cot mattress, pram and baby bouncer in our case. I know of one woman who has just flown back to London to buy a full-size wooden cot which she plans to bring back as cabin luggage on Transaero, and a high-powered American banker who never returns from trips to the West without a briefcase full of disposable diapers.

On trips home you desperately try to predict exactly how much the children will grow and when the seasons will change. Then, they grow at the wrong rate, the weather doesn't follow the forecasts and you end up with a little boy in pink dresses.

The advent of Mothercare nearly saved our lives -- but then, like all the Western chain stores, the price transformation they undergo in the move to Moscow turns them from ordinary shops into playgrounds for the Russian nouveaux riches.

Mothercare U.K. says Mothercare International is a franchise operation: "Mothercare sells U.K. products to the franchisee and they sell them as competitively as possible in their own country. The reason the car seat appeared expensive is because the franchisee has to cover duty of 30 percent on car seats in addition to VAT and freight charges."

Over to the franchisee: for an impenetrable but typically Russian reason, import duties on "safety goods" such as car seats, fall into one of the highest tax categories -- particulary perverse in a country which could do with a few "safety goods." Add, on top of overland transportation, four categories of tax: freight tax, customs duties, import tax and a VAT which is higher here than most countries. Although a spokeswoman admits that "on face value it might look like overpricing on a grand scale, the margin of profit for Mothercare Russia is considerably lower than in the U.K."

She makes another moot point. Mothercare is doing everything legally. "When you see western prams selling in Russian shops at less than their western cost price somebody somewhere may just be bending the rules."

So I have a fully legal car seat now. Can anyone out there offer me a car to go with it?