The Lengths Ukrainians Go to in Their Quest for Foreign Cars

Buyers wary of import duties discover novel work-around
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Cars on a snowy Ukrainian street

Photographer: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Take a close look at the cars crawling through Kiev’s traffic-laden streets and you’ll notice something odd: a surprisingly large number of them aren’t registered in Ukraine.

The explanation isn’t a sudden inflow of tourists, but rather a work-around by local drivers who crave foreign-made vehicles and refuse to pay restrictively high import duties to buy them. Instead, schemes have popped up where buyers effectively acquire cars from nearby nations and bring them across the border on temporary arrangements. They must then leave and re-enter Ukraine every year, or sometimes more frequently.

“It’s amazing,” said Oleksandr Zadnipryaniy, a 30-year old entrepreneur who paid about $3,000 for a second-hand Opel Vectra from Lithuania. “Taxes are exorbitant. Why must poorer Ukrainians pay three times as much as richer Europeans?”

Such cars represent a headache for the government. Dodging import duties trims budget revenue and complicates tracking vehicles’ de facto owners -- for instance, after an accident -- because they officially belong to foreign companies. Also, some cars are older than permitted for official import, while many drivers flout the requirement to periodically leave the country.

Cracking down is also tricky. Many Ukrainians suffered severe economic hardship in the wake of the country’s pro-European revolution in 2014 and most aren’t prepared to stump up import tariffs or pay over the odds for what they deem inferior locally made vehicles.

Drivers blame the government, accusing it of pandering to local car lobbies by setting high import duties. Zadnipryaniy was part of a small group of drivers who congregated outside parliament last month to warn the authorities against punishing them. With the 2019 election cycle starting, a delicate solution may be required.

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