- Judging by international rankings, situation in Lithuania does not seem awfully bad. How do you see instances of corruption in our country?
- Lithuania's corruption growth index is 4.8, which is not a shining result. We are average compared to other EU countries. We are number 50 in the world. The most appalling thing is that there hasn't been any progress in years. We're stagnating, as I see it. We haven't done our homework. We failed to rein in on corruption in healthcare, the police, municipal government. In terms of health care or police corruption, we're more in the company of other former USSR republics than EU states.
- On the other hand, we are prompt to point out that Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, have fared best among former Soviet countries.
- And it is true. I think we can set an example to former Soviet Union states. But is this the standard we should live up to? We are an EU country. Many years ago, we made a decision to create a democratic welfare state, therefore we should follow after Sweden, Germany, and the UK, not Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or Russia.
- How would you assess the term of the outgoing Seimas? Did the situation improve or get worse? The Lithuanian authorities vocally declare war on corruption.
- You put it very accurately – they often declare war on corruption. What's even worse, in my view, is that when they do that, they focus on criminal prosecution and law enforcement institutions only. As if it is up to them to change things. If officers exerted greater pressure on offenders, more of them would end up jail, and everything would be better.
But that is not the way to solve the problem. Certainly, more efficient work of law enforcement institutions is crucial. Last year, the Special Investigations Service opened 81 preliminary investigations, 45 cases were handed to court, 71 people were convicted. But these are tiny figures compared to how many people give bribes. Last year, 17 percent of businesspeople and 22 percent of the population admitted in a survey they had given a bribe at least once. These are huge numbers.
In terms of bribery, we are among the “leaders” in the EU. According to Corruption Barometer data from several years ago, 34 percent of Lithuanians admitted they had given a bribe at least once over the previous 12 months.
At the time, it was the highest rate in the EU. It might not mean that we are pathologically inclined towards bribery, but at least it shows that problems that force people to resort to bribes are not being tackled. What people usually encounter is banal everyday corruption. It is widespread in healthcare, traffic police, municipal government – fighting this kind of corruption is not the job of law enforcement.
Law officers admit, for instance, that it is not in their power to solve problems in healthcare. The issue needs the attention of public administration. Doctors themselves must look for solutions. We must calculate how much the state would have to pay for the change and, gradually, make it happen. There's no other way.
- Not all doctors feel it is in their interest to raise the issue and deal with it, since their income depends on it. You said that 34 percent of Lithuanians admitted to having given a bribe and that it was a huge number. I think the number is small, probably many people simply lied. It seems that almost everyone who needs a surgical procedure feels the need to give money to doctors. Or is it not so?
- I would disagree that the situation is so hopeless. In many cases, we, the patients, just assume that there is no other way around it. In general, healthcare is one area where people are ready to give a bribe, without much thinking whether or not they are indeed asked to.
Sure, all the myths about the necessity to pay up add to the situation. But I myself have heard about cases when young people decided not to pay – it was against their principles – and they had all their medical issues resolved just the way it was supposed to be. Doubtlessly, the issue is complicated and resorting to moralizing, when it comes to someone's health, is unfair.
But bribing police officers is a different matter – saying that there is no other way is not an excuse. We simply calculate that bribing is in our interest.
In general, Lithuanians are pragmatic people. Corruption is not a cultural heritage. It is, firstly, a result of poor public administration. We give a bribe because we want to speed up the process and ascertain the result we need. We would not do it, if we saw that the result would be the same even without a bribe.
I am happy that Lithuanians are gradually embracing the taxpayer logic. People begin to realize that they should not be forced to pay twice. And bribe is exactly that – payment for services we must receive for free. That is why we must raise the issue clearly and publicly. Much depends on specific sectors where corruption is thriving.
If politicians understood that people's perceptions about the general level of corruption comes from their direct experience – and they encounter bribery in healthcare and traffic police – they would pay more attention to these sectors. We, as patients, cannot change things from without – we can only draw attention to certain problems.
People who have never directly experienced it, still perceive the Seimas as very corrupt, they think that corruption is politicians' fault, that courts are corrupt. I believe that people are prone to see corruption in places they do not entirely understand. And politicians do not do enough to make people understand what they do.
Imagine what would happen if parties stopped talking about whether they are “in favour” or “against” a law obliging members to disclose their interests and instead just went about making everything public. Say, they reveal private interests of everyone in their parties, before a law is passed to oblige them. They could do the same with their tax returns.
These would be beautiful examples. If they also shared their day-to-day schedules, people would be able to follow what politicians do. It would be a powerful message – if all information is publicly available, taking risk does not pay. So there are ways to fight corruption without passing new laws – merely by showing personal examples.
-Perhaps our mistrust of politicians also comes down to a failure of communication? For instance, before the referendum, everyone talked about Visaginas NPP. The main point of criticism was that there was no information about the project. It might as well be a good project, but without all the details, people were scared of corruption and of those in power simply stealing everything.
- I have been following the way that Sweden was informing the society about its nuclear energy. Those in charge were touring the country, meeting with people, answering their questions – and this is but one possible example of how much more attention projects of this kind could get. I am not sure that insistent ads about how great a project is increase people's confidence.
Let's recall other major construction projects in Lithuania, like the basketball arena – in many cases, we know very little about them. Despite huge amounts of public money involved, which makes such projects subject to particularly robust requirements of transparency.
- You must have analysed what our politicians say about their fight with corruption and looked into their platforms. Do they suggest anything useful or are these but declarations?
- Most parties do not present clear anti-corruption policies. Naming the problem is not enough. And I haven't spotted any new methods proposed by the parties.
- Has any politician approached you about suggesting mechanisms to fight corruption?
- I get the impression that politicians, in their talks about corruption, try to evade any responsibility. Instead, they must set an example as leaders of the society.
Many things could be changed, if everyone started with themselves. For instance, 80 percent of young people admit that they have cheated at least once while taking school tests. They do not see it as something unacceptable. But if parents started talking about it, if schools included into test instructions a paragraph about intolerance for cheating, if students were given to sign a pledge against cheating – it would be a big step forward. Studies have show that if people make a pledge publicly, they feel more obliged to stick to it.
I've had a great deal of contact with people from the Government over the last four years. In many cases, I did not even know where my suggestions went, what was being done about them, and why no one seemed to pay any attention. At the same time, I'm happy that there actually were efforts to do something. For what it's worth, the current corruption fighting programme is better than the previous one.
- Perhaps any government decisions should be judged in the light of how much it raises the risk of corruption, even those directly unrelated to the issue? For instance, raising excise tax on fuel and tobacco gives a boost to the black market.
- I've recently attended a very interesting presentation by a political scientist, showing a link between people's readiness to accept undeclared pay and inclination to pay a bribe. She showed a clear relation between social attitudes towards the two. In a broader context, Lithuania looks rather poorly. People in our country are still quite tolerant of “envelope wages” and bribing.
In countries where people do not give bribes – Sweden, Denmark, Germany – they do not accept undeclared pay either.
I have noticed that our politicians, in their quest to fight corruption and the black market, somehow concentrate on tiny smugglers and almost completely neglect to talk about large-scale flows of black trade. I have never heard of any major raid in Klaipėda port or railway stations. Yet these are the gates that most smuggled goods pass through.
- Our society is eager to outwit laws and tax authorities. If people come across a loophole that allows them not to pay taxes – or pay less – they even take pride in their wits. And all because people do not trust the authorities?
- That is why I maintain that the public sector must set an example. The society must gain trust in it. But not only for trust's sake – it is appalling to see how our money is spent inefficiently. The public sector must work in a professional way.