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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

Corruption remains major problem in Latvia Finnish businesses complain of bad administrative practices By Jukka Rislakki in Riga In its fresh country report, the European Union calls on Latvia to bring its corruption problem under control. Experts differ on whether or not the problem is worse there than in the other Baltic States, but many top businesspeople feel that they are hurt by corruption. According to the World Bank, an average 1.4% of the turnover of companies in Latvia is spent on bribes. In Estonia the figure is 1.6% and in Lithuania, 2.8%. "I dont see any light at the end of the tunnel", sighs a high-ranking Western diplomat, whose mission in Riga includes monitoring the fight against corruption. Corruption, bribery, and various types of illegal financial dealings are everyday topics of discussion and something of an open secret. According to studies, the Latvians confidence in their police, customs, courts, tax authorities, and the privatisation office are virtually zero. Latvia ranks number 59 on a list compiled by the worldwide anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. The larger the number, the worse the perceived corruption problem. Ranking number one, as the least corrupt country, was Finland. "Corruption is difficult to measure, and we must keep in mind how the list was drawn up", says Inese Voika, head of the Latvian section of Transparency International. "It reflects the perception that people in the country have about the issue. In Latvia the people have a very negative view of their government." EU expert David Wallis returned home in December somewhat disappointed after working in Latvia for two years. He was part of the first EU experiment of its kind in a country that has applied for EU membership. Previously Wallis had taken part in anti-corruption work for the British police in Hong Kong. Wallis recently had a private meeting with 25 Finnish businessmen. He also managed to anger Latvian officials by criticising the governments measures as insufficient, and by speculating that the problem might make it more difficult for Latvia to join the EU and NATO. Wallis found it difficult to get appointments with top officials, and many of his recommendations were ignored. He did meet with the Prime Minister before leaving the country. Experts are quite satisfied with the Latvian President, but in their view, the Presidents aides shield her from unpleasant facts. "Fighting corruption requires political will and the commitment of the government", Wallis says. He recommended the establishment of a single strong, independent institute. Latvia now has dozens of bodies which all deal with the prevention of corruption. It is difficult for citizens to know whom to turn to. The government has started a new anti-corruption campaign, and in May it is to set up an investigative body, if Parliament passes the motion. Foreign experts are not convinced by the initiative. "Why so late, just before the elections? And why is the body to be made subordinate to three ministries? It is the wrong way, and it is not credible." Inese Voika is satisfied with small steps, noting that the Latvian constitution will not allow the establishment of a completely independent body. There has also been some concrete action: the Minister of Finance had webcams installed in the ministrys offices, allowing anyone with Internet access to see what is going on there. Newspapers often uncover scandals, but the revelations rarely lead to charges being filed. "Most cases in my time stopped at the office of the head prosecutor", says an American expert who used to serve in Latvia. The prosecutor would respond to inquiries, saying that "The state has not suffered any monetary harm", or "The person in question is no longer in office, and the case is therefore obsolete." The present head prosecutor says that corruption is the biggest problem of his office. He does not deny that prosecutors are susceptible to taking bribes. Police recently arrested the deputy head of Latvias tax police and the head of the environment office on suspicion of corruption, accused of pocketing money in connection with a Danish aid project. The director-general of the Bank of Latvia Einãrs Repse recently resigned from his post and went into politics as the head of a new party. He is expected to win an election victory with his anti-corruption platform. Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.1.2002

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