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East: Consumer Protection Advocates Achieve Some Successes

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. This concluding feature sums up the region's consumer-advocate successes and failures.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago, consumer rights -- let alone, consumer advocates -- were little known in the Eastern bloc. Today, the consumer landscape in the region has changed, with protection associations in place in most of the former communist countries.

Of course, their success varies, as do the issues with which they are most concerned. At the lower end of the spectrum is Bulgaria, where National Consumers Association head Asen Kanev complains that simple, reliable data on consumer issues is sorely lacking:

"We still do not have reliable statistics on the most frequent violations of consumers rights. But what we see is that consumers lack the necessary information to make informed choices [when making purchases.]"

Kanev says his group is the sole organization protecting consumers in Bulgaria. He says it is underfunded by the government, which gives it only about $6,000 a year. That is far from enough, Kanev says, to defend the rights of 8 million Bulgarian consumers.

At the other end of the spectrum is Russia's KonfOp, or confederation of consumers. Boasting a staff of 100, a website and a popular magazine, KonfOp is one of the stronger consumer rights organizations in the former communist states.

Oleg Komarovsky, a KonfOp spokesman, says his group is involved in many areas tied to Russia's newly evolving -- and poorly regulated -- private sector:

"Right now, we are focusing on defending the rights of candidates for higher institutions of learning because there are a lot of violations connected with access to information, reliable information, complete information about the rights of studying at private institutions. There are also a lot of problems associated with private medical services. And we are beginning -- it's our long-desired dream -- to battle with the severe drop in the number of food products being tested and certified."

Komarovsky says that efforts are under way to harmonize consumer rights and regulations across the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS. He notes CIS officials signed an agreement earlier this year (Jan. 25) aimed at furthering that goal.

In Slovenia, the national Consumer's Association has been campaigning for lower interest rates on home mortgage loans. The group's chairman, Breda Kutin, says that is one of its biggest successes to date:

"One of the best known and most significant examples of our activities is related to home loans, which usually were not available to average people because of high interest rates. Thanks to our efforts, the law has been changed and now citizens with average incomes can afford to buy a house or apartment."

In Lithuania, the Association of Consumers' Rights Protection helped draft consumer legislation six years ago. But now, says one member of the group's governing board, officials in Vilnius are paying little heed to consumers' concerns. Stanislovas Juodvalkis says that Lithuania will have to address consumer rights in order to join the European Union:

"As Lithuania prepares for membership in the European Union, one of the main issues [to be addressed] is the protection of consumers' rights. This question is one of the first on the agenda for [EU] negotiations. The Lithuanian government still pays too little attention to the rights of consumers and to the organizations which protect these rights."

Whatever their experiences so far -- failed or successful -- one thing is clear: Consumer rights' advocates voices are being heard as never before in the former communist states -- and are bound to grow even louder.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.