Cutting down on corruption in the Baltic Sea Region

A recent seminar in Warsaw on relations between corruption, democracy and human rights in the Baltic Sea region, organised by the CBSS Working Group on Democratic Institutions, showed once again that a crucial condition for reducing corruption is the creation of an environment in which corruption has as little living space as possible.

The long-standing traditions of transparency and open government in the Nordic countries have earned these states a high place as the most corruption-free countries in the world. What can the other countries around the Baltic Sea do to move up in the international Corruption Perception Index table, for example, which is drawn up by Transparency International?

What separates Finland and Estonia, in addition to the 70 kilometre stretch of the Baltic Sea, so that Finland ranks as Number One in the Corruption Perception Index ranking, while Estonia is the 26th? And Estonia is the cleanest former post-socialist country around the Baltic Sea (and the cleanest of all Central and Eastern European countries).

Different history

One thing that separates us is the recent history. In order to overcome the distortions of the Soviet period, a clearly stated political will is needed in the post-Soviet space. This would help to create a climate in which corruption can be minimised.

The seminar in Warsaw on 15 May 15, 2007, bringing together government officials and experts from the NGO sector from the countries of the Council of the Baltic Sea States and together with Belarus and Ukraine, heard encouraging examples of the role of civic education in raising awareness about corruption in Lithuania and Latvia, as well as in the most corruption-free countries of Finland and Sweden. As a representative of an anti-corruption NGO from Estonia, it was instructive for me to learn of the experience of both my Baltic colleagues and the Nordic countries.

e-governance helps

Estonia’s own success in stamping out corruption can be attributed to the wide use of e-governance and a well-working law on public information legislation that works well. The two are related, as the law on access to public information makes it compulsory for the holders to make the information available on official Internet home pageswebsites. In the year 1999, when the law was debated before it took effect in 2000, this requirement caused considerable anxiety and opposition from some public institutions, in particular in small local government bodies.

TBy today, though, this requirement is a the norm, and it has made the life of public institutions – and information-seekers – so much easier than it was ten years ago. All the information they need is available in a systematic manner online. There is no need to find answers to simple requests by going through piles of papers in archives or on cabinet shelves.

Less paperwork, less corruption

The less paperwork there is, the less contact with civil servants, the less the chance of asking for or giving a bribe. The new possibilities to for handlinge things matters electronically have definitely reduced corruption risks. If you add clear-cut rules for all sorts of licences, you get another factor curbing corruption. Leaving little room for arbitrary decisions by officials is another key to less corruption. In Estonia, there have been conscious decisions to abstain from over-regulation in various fields. Thus, for example, in order to set up a new newspaper, there is no need to register the publication with the Justice Ministry or some other government agency. You just launch your newspaper and that’s it.

A welcome feature of Estonia’sthe Public Information Law Act 2000 of Estonia is that it created public document registries, making it possible to track down correspondence and applications with authorities. Before that, a lot depended on individual government bodies. Lessons were learnt from respective corresponding laws in Sweden and other countries. But the law was more contemporary because it applied the principle of e-governance. A special training institution, the e-governance academy, has now been set up in Tallinn, which imparts the Estonian experience to other countries.

Conflict of interest

Among the corruption-related topics that need more attention in the transition countries of the Baltic Sea Region is that of the conflict of interest. Unless specifically mentioned in a concrete law, public officials and top civil servants, as well as the general public, often fail to realise that a conflict of interest rules out sitting on two stools at the same time.

A recent embarrassing example comes from Estonia, regarding the private farm of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Following public accusations that running the farm as a family business for tourists and being the president of a country do not go together very well, the president’s office announced at the end of July that the president will be renting the farm for himself from a private business - owned by his wife.

The announced bizarre transaction announced by the president of renting for himself the ancestral home of his family has raised many an eyebrow in Estonia. During the Warsaw seminar, representatives of Finland stressed the need for political leaders to lead by example. Accountability builds up is created from the top to bottomdown. The presidential case is not helpful in raising awareness of the incompatibility of certain actions.

More interaction

In conclusion, as stated at the start of the article, countries which used to be part of the Soviet system need to overcome the shortcomings of that period. Closer interaction between the countries in the region is helpful in fighting corruption. One reason why Estonia was able to shed off some of the shady practices of the past was the close ties it had with the Nordic countries, in particular with Finland. As Finnish business people set up shop in Estonia in the early 1990s, they brought with them clean business practices. They demanded a clear book-keeping system, with no unofficial salariespayments. These close ties helped mould a new business climate in the country, so easing the adoption of democratic, free-market principles.

But there was a warning from a participant in from Latvia at the Warsaw seminar about the double standards that the Nordic people sometimes apply in the Baltic States, applying the “bad local habits” when doing business in the Baltic Region. This was a reminder that corruption is never stamped out fully anywhere, and that the fight against it is a never-ending process.