By Peter Zvagulis and Jan Cleave
Prague, 15 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recent World Bank study shows that corruption and the abuse of power among Latvian officials are widespread.
The study was carried out in the summer and focused on low-level corruption in the public sector. It also revealed that Latvians do not believe cabinet ministers have been serious in their efforts to deal with corruption. The findings were published in the local media earlier this month.
According to the study, corruption is most widespread among customs officials and road traffic police, two groups noted for their openness to bribery across the post-Soviet region and with which Latvians are most likely to come into contact in every-day life.
Companies surveyed for the study said bribes are required most frequently in dealings with road traffic police (33 percent of all cases of bribe payments) and customs officials (21 percent) Households identified pay-offs as most common in dealings with customs (48 percent), road traffic police (39 percent), and the judiciary (38 percent).
Thirty-seven percent of companies and 13 percent of households surveyed admitted they have made such payments. On average, companies spend 2.1 percent of their monthly turnover in pay-offs, while households pay an average of 1.2 percent of their monthly income. Sixty percent of both companies and households said they believe that corruption has increased over the past four years.
The study says that the reason for the high level of corruption in Latvia is the largely unregulated competence of civil servants and their arbitrary application of the regulations that are in force. One day after publishing the results, the Latvian daily "Diena" ran a survey among politicians of all stripes on their response to the study. Several of those politicians argued that the primary cause of corruption is inadequate legislation dealing with the problem.
Arguably the most damning finding of the World Bank study is the widespread perception among the population that cabinet ministers have not been serious about fighting corruption.
Asked to evaluate on a scale of zero to 10 the intention of the executive to carry out such a fight, 35 percent of companies, 28 percent of households, and 15 percent of civil servants gave a zero evaluation, reflecting the view that the "government does not have the slightest intention to fight corruption." Only one percent in each of the three categories gave the government the maximum 10 points in this regard.
The popular perception that the government is not committed to combating corruption can be attributed in large measure to last year's series of corruption scandals involving cabinet members, which led to the demise of Prime Minister Andris Skele's government in July 1997.
Under the 1996 anti-corruption law, several members of Skele's cabinet were found guilty of a conflict of interests and of concealing private business activities. None of them, however, was prosecuted since they were considered to have broken the law only "nominally" and their "crime" was not deemed to constitute a criminal offense.
But just weeks after the new minority government was installed last month, Andrejs Pantelejevs, head of the ruling coalition party Latvia's Way and chairman of the parliamentary commission investigating corruption cases, was himself found guilty of not
declaring all his assets as required by the 1996 law. He also was considered to have broken the law only "nominally" and therefore escaped prosecution.
Indeed, one of the ministers in Skele's cabinet found guilty of having broken the anti-corruption law was Vilis Kristopans, the head of the new government. At the time, Kristopans denied any wrongdoing, although he resigned his post as transport minister (only to be reappointed to that portfolio in the cabinet of Guntars Krasts).
Asked by RFE/RL's Latvian Service last week whether he believes the World Bank study is "accurate," Kristopans answered "yes." He went on to argue that "you cannot expect the legacy of Soviet mentality to disappear overnight" but pledged that his cabinet would seek to deal with the issue. So far, however, there has been no statement on what measures the new government intends to take.
Staking out a clear anti-corruption strategy would help convince both the Latvian population and officials in Brussels that the new government is serious about fighting corruption.
In its annual progress report on countries aspiring to become EU members, which was released last month, the European Commission noted that Latvia has taken some measures to tackle the problem. These included the establishment in September 1997 of a Council for the Prevention of Corruption and the adoption in January 1998 of a national program of short-term measures against corruption, which so far has been implemented only in part.
At the same time, however, the commission said that corruption remains an "important problem" in Latvia and, together with public administration reform and the strengthening of the judiciary, "requires continued efforts by the Latvian authorities."
(Jan Cleave writes for Newsline. Peter Zvagulis is director of RFE/RL's Latvian Service.)