Bulgaria's battle of the videotapes pits entrepreneurs against state
Bulgaria is into video. But the government is not entirely happy about the new wave. Consistently one of the most ideologically circumspect of all the Soviet Union's allies, Bulgaria has nevertheless turned Western ideas about a market economy and corporate profit to good advantage.
It has also has gained a reputation for innovation. Bulgaria was the first of the East European nations to open its doors wide to Western tourism once the first dents had been made in the iron curtain.
And it led the others in picking up Western practices and taste - ranging from Coca-Cola production since the 1960s, to a Pizza Hut chain and Pierre Cardin couture.
Bulgarians loved it, and the government drew dividends in hard currency, links to the West, and a ''new look'' for a small country struggling to shed an old Balkan image, traditionally synonymous with backwardness.
But now - video? Ah, this apparently is not an unqualified success in the official point of view.
Initially, the authorities welcomed the new electronic wonder from the West as a new, sophisticated propaganda weapon of considerable value. In two years, more than 40 officially sponsored video clubs were formed.
A video enterprise was set up to work with the state film organization to provide educational, ideological, and officially approved advertising material. At the same time, it would act as a watchdog over public taste and determine who might operate a video set.
It hasn't worked out quite that way. Bulgarians, at first acquaintance, may suggest a stolid mien. But they have become increasingly intrigued - especially the young - with the Western world. They are eager to learn about it and from it.
This characteristic led to a video boom of some 3,000 privately owned recorders in the capital, Sofia, alone - despite the high prices of imported equipment. Moreover, there is a black market in pirated tapes and private (commercial) showings in an owner's home or in undercover clubs operated outside the official network.
''This country is infested with (hundreds of) black-market groups,'' the deputy chairman of the State Council, Georgi Dzhagarov, grumbled in a recent report in the weekly Literaturen Front.
''They buy and sell videotapes, run workshops for recording forbidden movies . . . (for) clubs and discotheques, and make huge sums of money.''
According to a recent article in the communist youth daily Narodna Mladezh, some of these entrepreneurs have been brought before the courts for engaging in unauthorized private business. They were fined and their recorders and tapes were confiscated.
The paper cited examples of private ''clubs'' charging five times the price of an ordinary (state) movie ticket and told of householders adapting their homes to squeeze in big audiences for ''something that cannot be seen elsewhere.''
Allegedly many of the tapes are obtained from foreign truck drivers passing through Bulgaria and selling ''masterpieces'' produced in ''the basements and bordellos between Istanbul and Calcutta.''
There is doubtless some validity to the purported official concern about ''blue'' movies and the vulgarity and pornography often featured on such black-market tapes. But it is also clear from these press attacks that the concern is not just that some of the tapes enable Bulgarians to see ''bourgeois'' Western films banned for ideological reasons from the public cinema or television. They also enable people to see harmless movies the state itself should show simply to meet a normal public demand.
The weekly journal Anteni (Antenna) quoted a teen-age boy who said he preferred video whodunits because those on Bulgarian television were ''parodies.'' A 30-year-old worker said he relied on videotapes for science fiction, which was rarely shown in Bulgarian cinemas.
At an ideological session of the Soviet Union's Communist Party Central Committee last summer Konstan-tin Chernenko, now the party's general secretary, demanded a much more political, ''class'' response to Western propaganda directed against the socialist system - and its youth - through films, plays, and books.
Whether as a direct response or not to this kind of signal from Moscow, the cultural reins in Bulgaria have become noticeably tighter.