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29 November, 2011  ▪  Stanіslav Fedorchuk

Ukraine Without Serfs

An informal consumer rights movement is gaining momentum in Donetsk, but some of the activists are now facing criminal charges

Some politicians have done their best to make Donetsk look like a territory free of civic protests, but the city residents have been proving the opposite. The first informal civic initiative to defend consumer rights in Ukraine was launched in Donetsk. This decentralized and voluntary project has a symbolic name – Ukraine Without Serfs. Its story began in June 2011 when Pavlo Kolesnyk, a noted Donetsk-based journalist and blogger (pauluskp.livejournal.com), entered one of the city’s numerous supermarkets. When he saw that the candy department was violating sanitary regulations, he reached for his camera. The guards took exception and demanded that he erase the images. They physically prevented him from leaving the store. Kolesnyk insisted their demands were completely unlawful. In Ukraine, there are no legislative restrictions on photographing and filming in supermarkets, neither for mass media representatives, nor for ordinary people. But as often is the case, citing the law produced no results.

NETWORK MARKETING

On his blog, Kolesnyk suggested making a joint trip to the supermarket to see how much the guards and the administration have become aware of consumer rights violation and what it entails. “After I posted this on my blog, 10 people with cameras showed up, and the guards could no longer counteract us,” Kolesnyk says.

When they saw how efficient this approach was, Donetsk bloggers launched an informal movement that called on people to make similar trips to various stores. The main purpose of the visits, which brought together total strangers and people of different walks of life who were linked by a social network, was to prove that every person has the right to photograph and film in stores, as well as to monitor the quality of products.

After each raid, the participants promptly posted their detailed reports complete with photos and videos. It appears that supermarket administrations are now closely following these postings and even try to quickly act on them. After seeing bloggers for the umpteenth time, two Donetsk retail networks issued official permission to allow photographing in their stores without any restrictions. The internet community encourages such moves by posting this information and thanking the administrators in blogs. Moreover, the participants’ web pages now feature thanks from some supermarket administrators who stress the importance of public monitoring.

JUST THE BEGINNING

Far from aiming to attracting publicity, this activity is a practical expression of the philosophy of freedom: “I want to be a free man and be guided by laws common to all people, rather than by some regulations pulled out of thin air or the rules of the underworld. It is not easy and sometimes it's even frightening. But I don’t want to remain a willing serf of the ‘rulers of life’,” Kolesnyk says. He has lost some nerve cells in the line of his activity and has been roughed up by security guards, but these experiences also spurred him to launch new fronts of public resistance. Public activists identified and made records of many expired products. They filed a number of complaints to the sanitary inspection service and the Directorate for Consumer Rights. However, police have refused to open a criminal case over unlawful actions and even theft of the journalist’s technical equipment in a supermarket, even despite the fact that it took place in the presence of security guards and was recorded on surveillance cameras.

Dmytro Korobko, an attorney who voluntarily accompanies some bloggers on their visits to stores, said he believes the effort is "just a random initial direction of our activity which attracted a number of people ready to act and defend their rights. This is the most important thing. Our immediate plans include public monitoring of school cafeterias and access to government agencies.”

Some participants view their public activity as the main tool they have for counteracting corruption. People in Donetsk are now checking bus fares on different routes and have already found that passengers are charged above the legal limit in Donetsk and Makiyivka. Moreover, shopping centers have been subjected to a number of official checks following written complaints filed by the activists. However, they have little hope of finding justice among officials. Instead, they rely more on ordinary citizens equipped with legal knowledge and driven by a desire to defend their rights to run sweeping checks. Journalist Vlad Bespalov, another participant of the Donetsk-based movement, says that success will require changing consumers’ ways of thinking: “Nothing will begin to change if people just complain in their own kitchens. It’s all in our own hands. We need to take our problems to official addresses: talk to administrators in shopping centers, write to the sanitary inspection service and defend consumer rights.”

The practice of civic raids has spread from Donetsk to other cities in the region. Notably, similar actions took place in Druzhkivska and Kostiantynivka. It looks like the blogger-inspired consumer rights movement is just gaining momentum and may reach a nationwide scale.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREWD

Naturally, not everyone is pleased with this movement. During one recent raid, a monitoring group was attacked by security guards in the Décor Donbas trading center who, ignoring the police which arrived at the scene, threw the citizens out of the building for attempting to photograph and film inside. Paradoxically, the only thing that representatives of the Donetsk police want to find out now is the name of the organization that sent the people on their mission, rather than the identity of the guards and the lawfulness of their conduct.

Furthermore, the Kyiv District Court of Donetsk ruled to open a criminal case against three activists, including Korobko, on charges of forcible assertion of their rights (Article 356 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code). The lawsuit was initiated by the Amstor trading house. The activists are facing what seems a ridiculous charge: by identifying expired products, they allegedly disrupted the operation of the stores and damaged the network’s image. That a criminal, rather than civil, case was filed speaks volumes about the intent of those behind it.


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