Today's Silk Road: 'Suitcase traders' shuttle cheap goods

As Bulgaria comes under scrutiny ahead EU accession, officials ask, 'Are all those 200 pairs of underwear yours?'

If only all Europeans had it as easy as Mumun Rakman.

As a "suitcase trader," he earns money in his sleep on the overnight bus ride between Istanbul, Turkey, and his home in Momchilgrad, Bulgaria. But it's a light sleep, because sometimes he has to explain why he's transporting, say, 200 pairs of underwear into Bulgaria.

"They [customs] are always asking you, 'Is this a trade product or what?' " he says. "I tell them they are gifts for my children, for my wife, for the ladies."

Suitcase traders are common in Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans, where uneven development and numerous frontiers create a perfect environment for cross-border deals.

But traffic on the Bulgarian-Turkish border has come under increased scrutiny from the European Union (EU), especially leading up to its announcement Tuesday that it is moving ahead with plans to admit Bulgaria early next year.

In a summary of organized illegal immigration into the EU, the European police agency Europol ranks Istanbul as one of the top departure points for illegal immigrants headed for Western Europe.

"Bulgaria's location ... makes it especially vulnerable to trafficking and smuggling of contraband and people," says an official at the British Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, who is not authorized to speak on the record. "It is believed that 80 percent of the heroin that arrives in the UK is trafficked through the region."

But experts say drugs aren't the only problem along the border, where truck traffic alone has more than doubled in the past five years. Chinese goods illegally imported into Turkey on a sort of modern-day silk road are also a concern. Last year, Brussels and Beijing agreed to limit Chinese textile exports into Europe after a 10-year-old treaty regulating the trade expired, triggering a flood of low-cost Chinese shirts, sweaters, and other garments into Europe that threatened to overwhelm textile companies there.

Much of that flood entered the EU through Turkey, say experts, some carried by people like Nicola Illiev, another suitcase trader from Momchilgrad.

Like others in his trade, he evades VAT taxes merchants normally pay, and risk fines up to twice as high as the total value of the products they're bringing across the border.

After transporting cheap sugar and whiskey to Istanbul, where it can be sold to those seeking to avoid Turkey's "sin taxes", he turns around with luggage stuffed full of cut-rate clothing purchased in Istanbul's endless bazaars.

"Chinese textile products are flooding into the Turkish market, and the products find their way out of Turkey and to other destinations," says Turkey's ambassador to Bulgaria, Mehmet Guguk.

While Mr. Guguk claims that Turkey has an interest in stemming the flow of Chinese textiles to protect its own domestic industry, Bulgarian experts say Ankara isn't doing enough.

Half of Turkey's $550 billion economy is essentially legal but doesn't generate tax revenue or comply with regulations, says Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a think tank based in Sofia. And the China trade - which supplies the bazaars where suitcase traders often shop - is an important part of that informal commerce. "The Turkish economy has an interest in selling Bulgaria these cheap goods and encouraging suitcase traders," says Mr. Bezlov, who estimates that 6,000 suitcase traders make their living on the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

Even if policymakers take action, however, corruption at the border crossing of Kapitan-Andreevo, Bulgaria, could hamper efforts to crack down.

Last year, Turkish police arrested 70 border guards on allegations of accepting bribes and other misconduct, says Guguk.

Mr. Bezlov and other experts say the Bulgarian side is better now that EU membership is imminent, but a reporter recently witnessed a driver ask a busload of passengers to contribute 5 leva ($3.27) apiece to speed their passage through Bulgarian customs.

Bulgarian officials say suitcase trading is far from being a crisis, however. "The problem with suitcase traders ... is similar to the problem which exists at the Mexican-American border, where everyday passengers carry cigarettes as duty-free import, Coca Cola, and medicines from Tijuana to San Diego," writes an Interior Ministry spokesman in an e-mail response to questions.

For Mr. Rakman, who is sometimes stopped with bags full of lingerie, it helps that he's a member of Bulgaria's ethnic-Turk minority. He speaks Bulgarian and Turkish, understands the intricacies of both cultures, and has relatives on either side of the border. But sometimes customs officers don't believe him, so he resorts to Plan B.

"I give them a bottle of whiskey," he says.

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