BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- A rush for rice. Salt by the shopping cart. Pasta by the pallet.
In some of the eight former communist countries joining the European Union tomorrow, a panic over possible price hikes has driven tens of thousands of residents to hoard basic foods in a spectacle reminiscent of the old days of communism.
Back then, the "five-year plan" -- recurring attempts to match supply to demand far in advance -- sometimes led to shortages, precipitating wild runs on anything from rice and sugar to toilet paper.
Five-year plans died with the hammer and sickle, and some former communist nations have progressed far enough into democracy and capitalism to qualify for membership in the EU, the club of the more prosperous Europeans.
But with that achievement comes widespread fear that EU membership will mean harmonizing customs and taxes, so that Slovaks or Latvians will pay the same price for a pound of sugar as a German or Swede earning five times their income.
The end result is the same as in communist times: Shop till you drop so you're not caught short in the future.
The Hungarian daily newspaper Nepszabadsag attributes the "hoarding fever" to the fear of price hikes, but also to "reflexes left over from the old socialist times of the 'shortage economy.' "
Not all former communist countries have been hit -- Hungary, for instance, has reported no shopping craze, possibly because the prices of basic foods have been at EU levels for months.
But in neighboring Slovakia, consumer groups are predicting that the price of rice and other basics could rise by up to 25 percent. The buying frenzy also is being fanned by supermarket advertising campaigns urging shoppers to buy now, before the prices go up.
"Everything is going up; only our pensions remain the same," Maria Krajcovicova, 79, said. Pensions average less than $200 a month in Slovakia, but Krajcovicova recently stretched her budget to buy 22 pounds of sugar and 11 pounds of rice.
Merchants speak of similar fears in the neighboring Czech Republic.
Libor Marton, a director of the rice importer and packager Lagris, said retailers ordered "four to five times" more than normal at the peak of the rice rush several weeks ago.
"What we usually distribute in a month disappeared in a week," he said.
Irena Vychopenova of Prague described a desperate phone call from her mother lamenting that stores in her eastern town of Valasske Mezirici were swept clean of rice.
The daughter came to the rescue with an Easter present of two packages of rice. "They were all very happy," she said.
In Poland, the Auchan chain temporarily limited customers to one 22-pound bag of sugar apiece. In Tallinn, Estonia's capital, sugar wholesaler Hajas said it sold 2,000 tons in March -- four times the monthly average.
"People are afraid prices will go up when Estonia joins the EU," Hajas's purchasing director, Vladimir Marchenov, said. "And they are right."
An employee of Tallinn's SuperNetto chain told local television that shelves in one store were repeatedly swept clean of sugar and salt, with customers "grabbing the products from each other within seconds."
Latvia last month experienced a similar run on coarse salt used for pickling.
A Russian TV station seen in the countryside had falsely reported that the salt would cease to be available once the country joined the EU.