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Big Yard Sale: MIGs, Copters, Grenades, Bases

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picture it: a bevy of Moscow’s finest military officers standing around in a tank shed at the largest Soviet base in this city hustling an impressive array of arms and equipment to anyone with ready cash to buy.

A slightly used MIG-23 attack aircraft? It’s there.

So is an MI-8 helicopter--at $140,000, the best deal going, confided Col. Alexander Pordunov, who squired visitors through the air force part of the sale.

Something else? A few thousand 57-millimeter hand grenades, perhaps? Or how about a gas mask, a landing boat or one of the 29 Soviet air bases in eastern Germany?

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They also are up for grabs, as part of a one-time-only series of special offers tied to what amounts to a Soviet military going-out-of-business sale in Germany.

Before the Soviets complete the withdrawal of their 380,000 troops and 180,000 dependents from eastern Germany by the end of 1994, they hope to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment, plus buildings and other base structures valued at $7 billion.

To promote the sale, the Soviet military threw open the gates at its sprawling Berlin garrison in the southern suburb of Karlshorst earlier this month to show prospective buyers just what they had to offer.

While a certain lack of flair and a few hidden catches make it less than the sale of the century, in terms of sheer novelty the affair is hard to top.

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Indeed, the exhibition--initially scheduled for only one week--has been extended indefinitely, although it remains unclear whether the extension was due to the sale’s success or its failure.

Either way, the reality of such an event is still tough to digest for Berliners, who in the past 18 months have watched the Berlin Wall collapse, the Marlboro Man invade Checkpoint Charlie and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters stage a rock concert for a quarter of a million people in the death strip that once divided East and West.

“In my lifetime,” exclaimed a resident of the former East Berlin named Rolf Schmidt, shaking his head. He said he had come to look and not to buy.

The Soviet officers, too, seemed a bit baffled by the capitalist concept of a “sale” and even more unsure on items with a negotiable price.

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“We offer one price, they offer another,” explained an army colonel who declined to give his name and was quickly dubbed Col. Glum by a group of Western visitors. “Often, the goods stay here.”

If the colonel had a sales pitch, it was hard to see in his stoic face.

Visitors believe the Soviets may have overestimated the lure of some of their items, such as the dilapidated barracks and other buildings at some of the 700 military installations they hope might be converted into vacation centers.

“Only the shiftiest of tour operators would share such a presumption,” huffed the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

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That is not to say there have not been interesting nibbles.

An unnamed German auto manufacturer has reportedly expressed interest in using the runways at one air base as a test track, but no sale has been reported.

The more amiable Col. Pordunov also noted that one German businessman wanted to buy a MIG-21 jet to place atop his restaurant, while another businessman wanted a vintage MI-2 helicopter for his back yard garden.

“Our price was too high,” he said. “There was no sale.”

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Like other aircraft on sale, the engines and electronics components have been removed, so they are effectively museum pieces. Ammunition and grenades are being offered only for their basic metal and explosive materials. The Soviets have already contracted with a German firm to dismantle the munitions before they are handed over to potential buyers.

So far, the big sellers have been the massive steel axles and chassis components from the Ural 375 heavy troop transporters, parts from T-72 tanks and the steel bodies of armored personnel carriers--all apparently for scrap metal.

“We don’t know how much we’ve sold, but there have been lots of people around,” noted the colonel known as Glum, whose faced darkened even more at the idea of selling some of the 15,000 Soviet military hats piece by piece.

“We’re not a shop--we’re an army,” he said with some indignation. “If we sold everything piece by piece, we would no longer be an army, would we? We would be a shop.”

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So far, he said, 20 hats had been sold.

Despite the breadth of the selection--which includes a portable bridge, deep-sea diving equipment, old batteries, MIG refueling tanks, gas masks and chemical warfare protection suits--some shoppers left disappointed.

A Cologne doctor who hunts deer failed to find the night vision enhancing scope that he wanted.

“All they have in that line are flashlights,” he said. “And I’ve got one of those.”

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