Officials at the Kalashnikov factory are seething over Kalashnikov-type
rifles produced in Bulgaria, China and Poland for a fraction of the 'original's' price
Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the world's most famous assault rifle, is angry with what he calls "counterfeit" production of his gun and the rifle's producer has the culprits in its sights.
"They just use the brand, the fame. It's not fair," Kalashnikov, 87, said at a press conference in the industrial city of Izhevsk, 1,300km east of Moscow.
Officials at the Kalashnikov factory estimate their losses at around US$360 million every year because of Kalashnikov-type rifles produced in Bulgaria, China, Poland and the US.
"It's a major problem for us ... . It's against international law and it's against our factory," the facility's director, Vladimir Grodetsky, said this week during a rare visit to the plant organized for foreign journalists.
"I'm surprised that there's always this furious reaction against the pirating of CDs and DVDs, but I haven't seen the same reaction in countries that produce counterfeit Kalashnikovs," Grodetsky said.
Around one million Kalashnikov-type assault rifles are produced in the world every year and only 100,000 of them come from Russia. Izhmash officials insist only the Russian gun is true Kalashnikov quality.
The counterfeiting issue originates from licenses for Kalashnikov production given out by the Soviet Union to fellow Communist countries during the Cold War in order to arm against the US and its allies.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these countries continued producing assault rifles similar to the Kalashnikov but with different names and often at far lower prices.
"That's a sore point for them. During the Communist era, the state made no attempt to patent any of their designs," said Richard Jones, editor of British-based Jane's Infantry Weapons, a specialist journal.
"Other countries are making them and make them cheaper," Jones said.
The average Kalashnikov bought from the Izhmash factory costs around US$400. A similar gun can cost as little as US$80 in China, or some US$120 in Poland, Izhmash officials said.
The main culprit identified by Izhmash is Arsenal, a Bulgarian company that produces Kalashnikov-style assault rifles called AR and SLR in Bulgaria and at a plant in Las Vegas in the US state of Nevada.
Arsenal did not immediately respond to the counterfeiting accusation.
"The US thinks it can do anything ... . Of course it's business competition. It's discrimination," Nikolai Bezborodov, a Kalashnikov designer, said at a gun fair in Izhevsk to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Izhmash.
The issue is becoming more pressing as Izhmash gains commercial strength after difficult times in the 1990s. The company now exports to around 15 countries, Grodetsky said, adding that the contracts were secret.
Last year, Izhmash signed a contract to arm the Venezuelan army with 100,000 Kalashnikovs. Construction of a factory to produce the guns and bullets under Russian license is to start in Venezuela later this year.
The total value of the contract between Russian arms export monopoly Rosoboronexport and Venezuela, which included helicopter gunships and fighter planes was more than US$3 billion.
At the same time, the alleged counterfeiters are also doing good business.
Earlier this year, Iraqi authorities announced that a contract had been signed with China to arm the country's fledgling police force with Kalashnikov-type assault rifles.
After years of legal battles, however, Grodetsky said that President Vladimir Putin is finally taking their cause seriously. "Now that there's a political will from the president, it will be resolved."