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East: New Problems Face Consumers In A Market Economy

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Non-existent in the communist Eastern bloc 10 years ago, associations to protect consumers from poorly made or falsely advertised products have since sprouted unevenly throughout the area. In a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky examines the consumer landscape throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Part One provides an overview of the region's consumer advocacy.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Consumer choice was little more than a fantasy in the decades of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Back then, few had the luxury of choosing what to buy. People stood in line for hours to snatch up whatever meager offerings were churned out by state enterprises. Most of it was of bad quality, but there was nothing else.

Today, choice abounds. The once barren shops have been replaced by upscale boutiques and malls, hawking almost all the consumer goodies once found only in the more bountiful West. The move to a free-market economy has also brought to the people of the former Eastern bloc another once virtual unknown: advertising.

Ads are everywhere: in newspapers, on television, on mass transit, on billboards, and even on entire sides of buildings. It is said there are more images of the Marlboro Man in Moscow today than there ever were of Lenin.

Anna Fielder is the director of Consumers International, a global federation of 245 consumer organizations in 111 countries that defends consumers' rights. She says the new cornucopia of products and the accompanying advertising blitz have brought new problems to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union:

"So the advent of 'a,' the choice of consumer goodies and 'b,' the bright lights and enticements of advertising, were something quite irresistible for most people. But also, there were very few controls on it. So the amount of misleading and false advertising was absolutely unbelievable. I mean, people got away with advertising what is absolutely against any rules in the West. "

Consumer advocacy groups exist in the West to promote what they call "consumer rights." Those include the right to a product that is well-made and safe, and that performs the way the ads say it will. Initially, there were few consumer advocacy groups in the eastern region. As Fielder explains, only two Central European countries have any tradition of defending consumers:

"In fact, there were two countries in that bloc that had consumer organizations before the communist regimes collapsed, and that was Poland and Hungary. And in Poland that was very much because of the tradition of the Lech Walesa movement and so on." Today, according to Consumers International, there are consumer organizations active in most of the countries in the region. Their level of success varies from country to country.

The most advanced is Poland, where the Consumers' Federation has 20,000 members and a staff of 65. In the Russian republic of Tatarstan, where the movement is still embryonic, two lawyers have created the first independent consumer group.

Other countries fall somewhere between.

In Albania, the Albanian Consumers Association has 12,000 members nationwide, with more than 400 volunteer helpers.

In Bulgaria, the country's Federation of Consumers boasts some 18,000 members.

In Russia, the KonfOp is a strong independent organization, according to Consumers International, with a 100-member staff, a website and a popular magazine.

Less populous countries, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, and Croatia, have mostly small, sometimes insignificant consumer movements.

For consumer advocates throughout the region, there is no shortage of worthy causes, from unsafe food and polluted water and air through misleading advertising to the cost of utilities. Fielder adds:

"The other big issues coming up are financial services, consumer credit, and so on, because they are beginning to develop there, and many countries are quite poor and banks are not regulated properly and they charge extortionate rates for services and so on."

Fielder says Consumers International has been active in a European Commission project called Program for Economies in Transition, or PROECT. The project promotes consumers' rights in the countries covered under the European Union's assistance program to Central and Eastern Europe (known as PHARE):

"We have been helping to develop the consumer organizations in the countries involved. We've been doing it mainly by training, training in things like leadership and management and development of organizations, and lobbying and negotiating techniques, working with the media techniques and consumer research techniques."

The hurdles still to be faced before consumer rights are adequately protected in the Eastern bloc are formidable. Most consumer groups there are still too weak to exert much influence on decision-makers. But a network is now in place in much of the region to empower citizens -- and that's part of building a civil society.

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