MOSCOW - The navy blue Saab sedan was auctioned off in seconds. Buyers were so eager to snap up the Audis that one sold for $10,000 even though its right side was bashed in.
Seeking to present itself as austere and budget-minded, the Russian government began selling off its fleet of flashy imported cars in June. The money will be used to buy cheaper, less glamorous Volga sedans made at home.
The auction, the brainchild of First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, led to the sale of five out of seven cars on offer. It raised a little over $90,000, hardly enough to bail out a government that needs several billion dollars to plug gaping holes in its budget.
'The money the government spends for cars should go to Russian carmakers, not to German car- makers,' said Nemtsov, who arrived in a black Volga sedan for the event at a sprawling car lot east of Moscow. 'We're hoping one day to bring the Russian car industry to world standards.'
However, that day seems far off.
Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and other imported cars were extremely rare until the 1991 Soviet breakup. Overnight, they became status symbols for government officials and the new Russian elite.
For ordinary Russians, the high-profile imports have become sources of resentment in a country where only a lucky few have prospered while many have suffered in the struggling economy.
The seven government cars on sale were part of a larger private auction. Wealthy Russians, cellular phones in hand, repeatedly set off car alarms as they checked out selections before the sales.
All prices were listed in dollars; some were twice the value of the car when new. A 2-year-old Audi A6 was listed at $60,000.
When there was no interest in the top price, the auctioneer would lower it until a buyer raised his hand. Three government-owned Audis sold for just over $20,000.
The most surprising sale was an Audi that had been so badly damaged that the right front and rear doors wouldn't open. In an apparent attempt to distract attention from the damage, a sign in the window advertised the car as belonging to government minister Aman Tuleyev. One buyer promptly snapped it up for $10,000.