Minister's journey of discovery

As justice minister of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Vasile Sturza should have known better. When he set off to attend a management training conference in Vienna earlier this month, he assumed that all would be okay with the Audi 80 he had been given permission to borrow from a friend.

He was so confident that he thought nothing of parking the car in the yard of Vienna's training school for customs officers - a few rooms of which had been hired by the organisers of the seminar. But Mr Sturza had not reckoned with a beady-eyed Austrian customs official who took one look at the car and smelt a rat. Noticing that a lock was missing on the passenger door, the officer made a note of the chassis number and got in touch with Interpol. It confirmed his worst suspicions: the car had been stolen from Germany in 1994.

A red-faced Mr Sturza was forced to break away from his studies to answer the questions of the Viennese police, who had no idea of his ministerial rank or identity. He assured them that he, of course, had no idea that the car was stolen. The police took him at his word, but they did confiscate the car.

In the six-and-a-half years since the fall of communism, tens of thousands of stolen Western European cars have ended up in Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Once out of Western Europe, very few of the cars ever return - for reasons now only too apparent to the unfortunate Mr Sturza.