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East/West: Nordic Nations Tops In Anticorruption, But Are Their Methods Exportable?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Nordic states of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark always top the list of countries with the least amount of corruption. At the other end of such a list, typically, are countries such as Russia and Nigeria. So what are the Nordic ingredients of successful probity, and are they exportable to those nations that score less well, such as the transition states of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic republics?

Prague, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Snow, plentiful in the Nordic region, is often associated with purity. So it seems only fitting that the countries of the region always achieve top ratings in surveys dealing with integrity in public life.

An organization called Transparency International, which measures levels of corruption around the world, rates Finland as the least corrupt of more than 90 countries surveyed in its 2001 report. Denmark scored second, and fellow Nordic countries Sweden and Norway were also among the top 10.

The same organization, in a separate survey, measured a specific aspect of corruption, namely bribe taking. Again, Sweden was at the top in resisting that practice.

Why is it that the Nordic nations appear to have achieved such high levels of public and private probity, when so much of the world is mired in business and political corruption? What are the ingredients to this success? Is it a question of the Nordic character, or is it related only to good laws?

Jeff Lovitt, a Berlin-based spokesman for Transparency International, says the traditional openness of Nordic societies is one key factor: "It's increasingly clear that overall transparency is the most conducive thing to fighting bribery, and if you have very high levels of open flow of information, then corruption can be detected at a much earlier stage, and that certainly seems to be true of Sweden and also Finland."

In Stockholm, Lars Ryding, the foreign editor of one of Sweden's major newspapers, "Svenska Dagbladet," agrees. He traces the origins of today's situation to the 18th century and the reign of King Gustavus III. That monarch began a tradition under which Swedish citizens have the right to know what the bureaucracy is doing. "You can demand almost any paper out of the state administration or any official administration -- local councils or anything. You can read their letters. You can read anything they [produce]. You have that right as a citizen, not only as a journalist."

Ryding points out that, by Swedish standards, a corruption case involving as little as $500 is considered a major scandal.

In Helsinki, the chief political correspondent for the leading "Helsingin Sanomat" newspaper, Jouni Moelsae, says the traditions of sturdy independence among Finns have contributed to minimizing corruption in society: "The Finnish character is very much that everybody stands on his or her own, and you basically still think that people are honest, and when they say something, they mean it." He said that survival in such a climate is hard and depends upon each person taking responsibility for his actions -- creating an atmosphere conducive to probity. Another key factor in Finland, according to Moelsae, is the existence of a professional civil service with an almost unbreakable tradition of strict legality.

Anticorruption expert Heikki Jouste -- a counselor in the Finance Ministry -- takes up the story. He says that for more than a century, from 1809, Finland was incorporated into the Russian empire. The Finnish civil service resisted decades of Russian pressure, remaining intact because of its determination to stick to the rules. "One can say that we had maybe 20 or 30 years of heavy legal warfare going on towards the Russian pressure. That's a very important heritage when we seek to find out reasons for the situation as it is in the independent Republic of Finland."

The counselor also points to the key role played by an active and independent press. "Finland has a very, very curious media looking carefully at what is going on. And its media, coupled with openness and transparency in the Finnish public administration, means that they do find unethical, immoral actions, and it immediately comes into open discussion -- the question being whether we should allow such kind of behavior or should we not."

It seems from these comments that the Nordic sense of propriety has its roots partly in the character of the people and partly in long-standing and specific historical factors. Thus, it is not a ready-made formula that can be exported to other countries easily. Rather, it is a gradual accumulation of the customs, rights, and rules of civil society over many years.

In this context, Jouste points out that Finland is helping the Baltic states in the construction of their civil societies. For instance, it is helping restructure public administration in Estonia; in Lithuania, it is helping develop a civil-service training institute.

Transparency International's Jeff Lovitt explains that his organization is also active in creating barriers to corruption in the Baltic states: "Certainly in Latvia, our chapter there, called Delna, has been very active in monitoring political corruption, particularly party finances. They have been applying something called 'visible candidates,' which was pioneered in Latin America by Transparency International."

In this program, the activists look, for instance, at the stated funding of the candidates, and compare it with the amount of advertising actually bought by the candidates. If the two figures are incompatible, then the candidate has some explaining to do.

Lovitt says that the Transparency International chapter in Lithuania has launched a campaign promoting "e-government," meaning the use of the Internet to make government information available to the public.

He also says Estonia can claim at least one achievement in the anticorruption stakes. "Estonia, along with Slovenia, is one of the only countries from among the [European Union] candidate countries which actually features better than some of the EU countries [themselves]."

Lovitt explains that in the 2001 comparative corruption list, Estonia came in 28th out of 91 countries -- which placed it between EU member states France and Italy. The other Baltic states did not fare so well. In the same list, Lithuania finished in 38th place and Latvia in 59th.