Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rash of Car Thefts Hits Diplomatic Corps

Australian Ambassador Cavan Hogue had barely taken his seat at the Bolshoi Theater when his car was stolen as the driver, stopping off at McDonalds, was accosted by two men and driven away at gunpoint.

The brazen carjacking was part of a rash of embassy auto thefts that has left some diplomats nostalgic for the good old days, when embassies worried more about being bugged than being burgled.

At least 24 cars have been stolen from embassies and their employees since August, including official cars belonging to South Korea, Germany, Ghana, Japan and Peru as well as Australia, embassy workers said Thursday.

"They don't discriminate any more," Australian Counsellor Glenn Waller said of Moscow's car thieves. "Maybe if they see a foreign number plate they know it's not another mafia gang, so they go for it."

The Australian ambassador's driver, Sasha Sharkov, told his employers that shortly after 7 P.M. Tuesday the carjackers had forced him to drive the ambassador's Mercedes 300 SEL from McDonalds to a spot beyond the Garden Ring, holding a gun to his head. There they dropped him off and sped away.

Sharkov's story was somewhat more complicated than at first appeared, however, as the driver, who has worked at the embassy for 25 years, gave police a different version of events.

He told police that he had not gone to McDonalds after dropping the ambassador off, but had tried to make a little extra cash by giving a woman a lift to Oktyabrskoye Polye in northwest Moscow. There the men forced him out of the car, Moscow police Colonel Alexander Puzerevsky said Thursday.

Since the Australian loss, a Japanese diplomat's Honda became the fourth in a year to disappear from outside the embassy on Wednesday. The Japanese embassy is within sight of a police station.

"It's really embarrassing," said a Japanese embassy spokesman. The Interior Ministry vowed to take action, he said, "but we don't see any change."

Puzerevsky, who heads the Moscow police's car theft division, said such thefts were on the rise, but declined to give statistics. He attributed the rise to hikes in car import duties that raised the value of foreign cars and to loose border controls that allow thieves to sell their booty in Ukraine or Moldova.

"These hijackers don't look at whose car it is, if it's a good car," said Valery Menil, deputy head of the police section in charge of theft from foreigners.

But he said diplomatic plates tell thieves a car "is a little more up to date."

This brand of special treatment has some diplomats waxing nostalgic for the Soviet mania for looking good in front of foreigners that once kept them virtually untouched by street crime.

"Levels of respect for diplomats have decreased," said one Western diplomat who asked not to be identified. "I was just in Cuba, and there diplomats are very well treated."

Embassy spokespeople said Thursday said they had no plans for extra measures. Menil of the Moscow police had one suggestion: "Drive in our Soviet cars, with Soviet plates."