They say you can’t understand people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I just walked across Belgrade in a brand-new pair of Nikes. Now I understand something
The citizens of this city are the vanguard of a new phase of capitalism. They’re busily subverting conventional multi-national commerce and creating a dark parallel process – call it black globalization.
My new shoes look authentic, but they’re a scam of ominous sophistication. The insole logo is silk-screened on; my socks erased the Nike swoosh in a single afternoon. The stitching is coarse and sloppy – the pull tab at the heel ripped loose the first time I tried to use it. The sporty soles are slippy, not grippy. The tag proclaims MADE IN KOREA, although the product is almost certainly a fake churned out by a Chinese factory. Adding insult to Nike’s injury, the phony barcode denotes a pair of Reeboks.
These shoes cost me only $10 in dinars, but they weren’t a bargain. They’re like a phishing scam, an international email message that looks official and goes through all the proper, high tech, image-making motions – with the intent to rob. Will anyone ever catch the perpetrators? Hell no. These shoes probably scampered across a dozen national borders on their way to Belgrade, and the hucksters involved must number in the thousands, each one pitching in his bit, in P2P fashion.
During the 1990s, Serbia and Montenegro (the latest official title for this part of the former Yugoslavia) suffered under United Nations sanctions that deprived the populace of imported goods. Today the locals suffer from brand fever. Here, the golden arches of McDonald’s are viewed as voodoo protection against cruise missiles. People can’t afford Western luxuries, so they have a warm, affirmative feeling for smugglers. Global branding makes it easy to create fake products with broad appeal on someone else’s promotional dime. So stores are filled with upscale-looking, marginally functional fakes in food, clothes, cosmetics, even car parts.
The Chinese-run shops in Serbia and Montenegro, known as kineskae, carry products in every possible variant of honesty and dishonesty. Running shoes most Westerners have never heard of – Die Xian, Gui Ren, Renke – sit alongside knockoffs with Nike-like names such as Wink, not to mention blatant acts of deceit like my bogus shoes. Of course, you can also buy real Nikes for the crippling international price. The shiny, glass-fronted stores that sell them grimly alert shoppers to their anti-shoplifting technology; mom-and-pop kineskae make no such fuss.
Kineskae represent the former Yugoslavia’s choice to step outside the global economy and embrace the criminal underground. Phony brand-name items – which account for 6 percent of international trade – have become an integral part of the pernicious flow that includes narcotics, small arms, oil, and the sex trade. They have the relationship to genuine products that corrupt government has to legitimate representation, rigged balloting to fair election, captive press to free expression. Bogus products are part and parcel of the worldwide marketplace – more so than dated symbols of globalization like Coca-Cola.
Serbia and Montenegro isn’t a failed state like Iraq or Sudan, but a faked state. This purported country, which has had serious problems settling on an anthem and a flag, is best understood as a giant covert operation, like Iran-Contra or Enron. Nobody is less likely than a Serbian to collaborate with the ever-more-anxious overlords of intellectual property: the World Trade Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Customs Organization, and Nike’s own clique, the US Council for International Business. For all their treaties and trade agreements, these paper tigers might as well be waving bread sticks as billy clubs.