30. November, -001
This autumn’s outburst of political activity across the whole spectrum of the population testifies to the possibility of the emergence of a civic society in Latvia, as discussed already for years by political scientists, sociologists, the newspaper Diena and non-governmental organisations. Even the satiated and comfortable voters have noticed that their influence on the political process is not limited to participation in elections and referenda. Although nobody can answer the question asked by journalist J. Domburs as to what will be the critical mass of no-confidence that will make the political elite leave their seats and “go home”, it is obvious that the elite is nervous.
In this context, not only politicians should be cautious and nervous but also the sectors of the economy which cater to the consumption bubble. Although the consumer may vote with his credit card every single day and in a market economy, at least theoretically, dishonest fraudsters and corrupt politicians lose out automatically, the effect of the “seven years of great plenty” and “stepping on the economic gas pedal” (optimistic statements of leading politicians a couple years ago) is the same as in politics: it is only possible to choose the lesser evil. Either choose one of two supermarkets with long queues and a chance of buying into expired products or a third supermarket where you don’t have to stand in a queue but the prices are significantly higher.
In such a situation the average Latvian acts just like in politics around a year ago – he will grumble to himself but will not complain, because it is obvious that all salespersons have fled to Ireland and “he himself should have noticed that those tomatoes were rotten”.
Luckily, consumer protection is not left only to the consumers themselves. We have the Consumer Rights Protection Centre, to which anyone can turn if they believe that their right to buy good-quality products or services has been infringed. However, it is obvious that these rights are not exercised widely enough to match the service providers’ tendency of using questionable business techniques.
For instance, as can be read in a LETA news article, the Consumer Rights Protection Centre has received only one complaint about the recent airBaltic campaign where it was possible to purchase e-coupons in supermarkets which - if you very lucky - could be exchanged on the Internet for tickets to your desired flight destinations. Although quite many of those willing to travel discovered that this campaign was more like a lottery because, for the most popular flights, all of the offers available for coupons ran out in a very short time;still the rights of consumers in this case had not been infringed severely enough to lead to active measures.
European and US non-governmental organisations have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to influence the behaviour of big and powerful corporations. Since the flourishing of social networks on the Internet, it is technically simple and cheap to rally those who think similarly to an organised boycotting of a particular manufacturer or vendor. Such a protest is not like a spontaneous outbreak caused by irritation – instead, it can be sustained, insistent and result-bearing.
Depending on the region, subjects of protest also differ. Europeans have always been concerned with what they are eating: whether their food is not genetically modified, whether a product contains no harmful additives, whether a dairy product sold as yoghurt may actually bear the name “yoghurt” on it, etc. On the other hand, it is doubtful if even technologically and socially active people would be ready to participate in the fight against DRM (digital rights management), which imposes restrictions on distribution of music, films and literature through digital channels. Meanwhile, the Danish dairy product giant Arla Food suffered daily losses of EUR 1.3 million caused by consumers in the Middle East boycotting their products during the notorious cartoon scandal.
In Latvia, global problems do not work as a motive for protests. As could be seen recently during the international Buy Nothing Day announced by the environmental protection organisation “Green Freedom”, neither sales staff in supermarkets nor buyers themselves were interested in following the appeal to “turn off you mobile phone, avoid driving a car, have a bath in candlelight”.
It is easy to foresee the failure of such campaigns also in the future as long as those who organise them are not able to refrain from moralising and patronising and instead react to things that have a real impact on people’s lives and will be able to show a realistic way of how life could be made better. In fighting against misleading advertisements, poor service and the breaking of promises, organised protests have a much better chance of attaining co-operation from the public and hence also results.