Moscow and Rubles

Moscow — This is a strange time for consumers in the Soviet Union’s largest city. If they shop in the state-owned stores, they find supplies short and lines long. If they go to a large open area where private markets have sprung up, they find supplies ample but prices very high. The former is communism and the latter is called capitalism — soiled by a protection racket that snakes down the stalls and shops.

It is a strange time also because the ruble buys less and less these days, not just because of a moderate inflation, but because there are fewer goods to buy. Medicines, clothing, some foods, appliances and even tobacco are in short supply. Hoarding makes the supply problem even more serious.

The ruble has more than fallen from grace. Never a convertible currency abroad, it is now avoided wherever possible by Soviet sellers. Hotels pressure tourists into paying with hard currency or convert dollars, marks and Lira into what is called “a golden ruble” — a mythical but ridiculously tough exchange rate. Restaurants try to do the same with foreign tourists. Even prostitutes in hotel lobbies are known to be either “hard currency” or “soft currency” solicitors.

But it is the Moscow cab driver — forever puffing on cigarettes — who provides the best insight into the ruble. Standing outside hotels, these cab drivers ignore their meter and try to get hard currency or ten times the rubies on their meter. Pirate cabs roam the streets. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes becomes “hard currency” because they can sell it for good money on the streets in the booming black market.

Meanwhile, in a small suite of offices, not completely furnished, on Solyanka Street 9, a new consumer movement is underway. The USSR Federation of Consumer Societies, a non-governmental association, is underway with chapters in 100 cities and towns throughout the Soviet Union and with many journalists willing to freelance for its twice-monthly newspaper and the forthcoming monthly magazine.

The Federation is less than two years old, but its grasp of the meaning of consumer protection is impressive. It is exposing heavy metal (mercury, arsenic, cadmium) contamination of food supplies. Around Moscow, industrial wastes and human sewage sludge is used as fertilizers over food-growing areas. Heavy metals come from this sludge. Pollution and consumer rights are not viewed as separate issues.

Moreover, the Federation wants grass-roots connections and is developing regional and local initiatives linked with access to various testing laboratories so that data can be accumulated. Their emphasis on data is due, in part, to the absence of any reliable or available information from their government.

The president of the Federation is Anatoly Sobchak, a legislator and newly elected Mayor of Leningrad. He is a former lawyer who represented victims in Southern Russia and a scholar on the requisites for a democratic society. Sobchak, a rising political star in the Soviet Union, should giver greater visibility and influence to the consumer protection movement.

Later this year, a consumer protection code is expected to De enacted by the Soviet legislature. It represents and unprecedented opportunity to learn from both the successes and mistakes of other nations laws just as the Soviet leadership is moving away from a command economy toward more markets.

Without a corporate lobby to oppose basic consumer empowerment rights, the consumer code could be a trailblazer. But in a few years, with business trade associations already forming and with the coming rush of foreign multinational corporations, enacting consumer rights may be much more difficult.

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