Sterling on the counterfeits of Belgrade

Bruce Sterling's Wired column this month is about his travels in Belgrade in Serbia/Montenegro, a city that is dominated by counterfeit goods dealers.

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.