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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japanese Cars Flood Into Far East

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- In a gravel parking lot off Admiral Kuznetsov Street, Valery Kazantsev spent a recent Sunday afternoon kicking the tires of used Toyota minibuses.

After he clinched a deal, Kazantsev, 39, faced a 3,300-mile drive to his home in Abakan, Siberia. He will travel potholed highways and hit at least two roadblocks where police extract $50 to $100 from each new owner of a Japanese automobile, he said. Still, it is worth the effort to shop in Vladivostok. "Cars at home are even more expensive," he said. "I'll save about $1,000 by buying it here."

The open air car mart in this city on the Pacific Ocean is the center of used Japanese car sales for a vast stretch of Siberia and the Far East. The market -- which winds for nearly two kilometers along an unpopulated hillside -- represents a sweeping change in transportation in the region since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Once the roads were thinly populated with clattering Ladas, Volgas and other Russian models; now right-hand drive Toyotas and Hondas clog the highways and jam the streets of major cities.

The flood of used Japanese cars is the result of both geographic proximity and better automobile technology abroad. Eastern Siberia and the Far East are thousands of kilometers from the industrial centers of European Russia, yet Russian ships regularly visit Japan, only 640 kilometers from Vladivostok. Sailors carry special passports that allow them to import cars duty-free for personal use. This, combined with the Japanese custom of getting rid of cars after only a few years of ownership, provides Russia with a steady supply of Japanese automobiles. Some dealers from Khabarovsk and Novosibirsk buy as many as 20 cars at a time and ship them west on the trains.

Admiral Kuznetsov Street is a mix of used car dealerships and hundreds of individual owners selling their cars. Four thousand cars, minivans and scooters crowd the shoulders of the road, throng hillside clearings and fill the occasional unpaved parking lot. Gypsies in floral dresses and velvet coats wander the crowd, begging from customers. Stalls sell hubcaps, tires, oil, fan belts, fenders and cans of body paint.

Halfway down the road, Alexander Belyayev, 40, sits in the back of a flatbed truck, waiting for customers. Belyayev, a sailor, is trying to sell three Toyota cars and a truck for prices ranging from $3,500 for a 1991 Corsa to $6,000 for a 1991 van. All transactions are in dollars. Russian sailors, he said, buy used cars and haul them back on freighters and passenger ships. Sometimes a car dealer will travel with sailors and bring back a load of automobiles on their passports. He pays the sailors a kickback, which provides a little income at a time when cash-strapped shipping companies often do not pay wages.

Once in Russia, importers often bribe customs officials to process their cars quickly and to re-register them as a more recent model. "If your car was made in 1989 and you want it registered as 1991, you have to pay $50," Belyayev said.

As Belyayev spoke, a police car slowly cruised the street. An officer announced on the loudspeaker, "Move your cars from the right side of the road." Nobody stirred.

"It's our mafia," Belyayev joked.

In fact, a criminal syndicate is deeply involved in the car market, according to police and the Vladivostok mayor's office. Though Admiral Kuznetsov is a public street, a protection racket extracts a daily fee to do business there: 10 rubles ($1.70) per car per day, or 40 rubles per day on weekends, said one car seller, an off-duty police officer who asked to be identified only by his first name, Sergei.

In recent months, the market has grown so big it has spilled into surrounding neighborhoods. Cars were parked around apartments and on playgrounds, and the thugs protecting the cars refused to move them. The mayor's office has opened a new auto market across town, but the interest in the new site is low. Finally, police descended en masse and cleared out the neighborhood.

"We had to fight with people who just don't understand words," said officer Alexander Shapovalov, 19. "A lot of special forces police came and got rid of them. If the owners didn't come for their cars, we just towed them away."