International -- Spotlight on Bulgaria
Where Fakery Is an Art Form...There's No Help to Kick the Habit (int'l edition)
As a gaggle of Yankee sightseers pile out into the sunshine at the end of their guided tour of Sofia's Alexandar Nevski cathedral, a young souvenir vendor rubs his hands. It's a bitter, blustery day, but Petya Konstantin's thoughts aren't so much on the wind as on the windfall waddling its way toward him, drawn by his unique sales patter. "Hello sir. I make you special offer," chirps the 21-year-old graphic design student, waving an expansive arm over the rows of crisp new $10 bills pinned neatly to the velvet lining of his display case. "You give me $5--I give you $10."
They're forgeries, of course, as the handsome rogue artlessly admits. He first started running up his greenbacks as part of a college class project but began marketing them as curios. Still, to anyone who doesn't work at the Denver Mint, they look damn near perfect. And it's Konstantin's brand of professional pride that now has Washington and the European Union dusting off their intellectual property lawbooks. For in Bulgaria these days, cloning is something of a cottage industry. Over the past two decades, all manner of ne'er-do-wells have headed here in search of high-quality, cut-price weaponry, computer software, perfume, currency, and even spare parts for top-of-the-range automobiles. In all, claim the likes of Microsoft, BMW, and Chanel, Bulgarian piracy costs them collectively as much as $3 billion a year in lost revenue.
"The point is, these are educated people--or at least skilled artisans. They're not selling garbage. These copies are as good as the originals," insists the American manager of New York Radio City, a downtown private drinking and dining club whose membership includes several local-boys-made-bad. "Bulgaria is the counterfeit capital of the Balkans. It's a tradition."
Not that it dates back very far. In the early 1980s, Moscow gave the Bulgarian security service the task of circumventing Washington-brokered trade regulations aimed at preventing high technology from reaching the Soviet bloc. To do this, the authorities set up front companies abroad to buy cutting-edge products and ship them through the Iron Curtain, where Bulgarian scientists could dissect and duplicate them. After the communist regime fell, many eggheads simply went into business for themselves, backed and protected by an unholy triumvirate of steroid-enhanced weightlifters, former secret policemen, and ex-party apparatchiks with contacts to overseas Mafia organizations and terrorist states. And while Western monitors denounced the racket, they were primarily worried about more socially pressing post-cold-war problems, such as Bulgaria's role as base camp for smugglers trafficking in refined Turkish heroin.
But it was the outbreak of war in neighboring Yugoslavia that really gave the scams their kick start. With transportation routes effectively closed to legal commerce, the only way westward was via Romania--which tripled its border tariffs. "Suddenly, your hardworking entrepreneur was faced with a choice," recalls Kiril Radev, head of Sofia's fraud squad. "Do you make virtually minus profit exporting your legitimate merchandise via Bucharest, or do you make profits of 1,000% sneaking stuff to the Serbs?" Now, however, with sanctions on Belgrade about to be lifted, and with Sofia negotiating for EU membership within the next decade, Brussels is insisting the government get tough, even with honest crooks like Petya Konstantin.
No matter. As he pockets his haul, Konstantin claims he's almost ready to go straight. For him, the sideline was always more of an advertisement for his skills than a long-term living. "Hey, maybe one of your readers will give me job," he muses. "I make you better offer: You write about me in your magazine, I give you $10 for free." Petya, it's a deal.
When Bill Clinton visited Sofia this time last year, he tied potential future aid to a crackdown on phony goods. The government has shown some willingness: This summer, it deported hundreds of Yugoslav and Russian "import-exporters" and jailed Bulgarian extortionists who had been squeezing businesspeople into bankruptcy.
"It hasn't done us much good, though. So far, most of the aid money is going to Belgrade," laments human-rights lawyer Zdravya Kalaydjieva. "Maybe if we'd massacred our Muslim minority, we'd be eligible, too." Memo to incoming U.S. President: Give credit where credit is due.By James Drake in Sofia; Edited by Harry MaurerReturn to top