The accusations leveled at the three Lithuanian MPs underscore one of the perennial, even mundane, problems in the Baltics: corruption. That many of the 340 or so national legislators in the three countries are pocketing bribes is common knowledge and, when mentioned, fails to raise an eyebrow at any conference or sowing circle. But the fact that prosecutors are actually pursuing individual MPs on suspicion of corruption makes banner headlines.
Lithuanian prosecutors are accusing three MPs, each from a different party, of accepting large payments - ranging from 7,200 euros to 27,500 euros - from the head of the Rubicon Group, a conglomerate with interests in various sectors. The charges are part of a wider probe into graft that prosecutors and Special Investigation Service agents began in March and culminated in the raids of four parliamentary parties' offices on June 22, just days before the runoff presidential election.
There are two curious aspects of this case: the affiliation of the accused - they include a social democrat, a social liberal and a conservative, so prosecutors can hardly be accused of picking on certain parties - and the private entity involved. The Rubicon Group is undoubtedly one of Lithuania's most diverse and rapidly developing conglomerates. The group operates over 20 companies in a wide breadth of sectors: industry, energy, real estate, media. This year the group has gone on a major acquisition spree, and Chairman Andrius Janukonis doesn't hide its ambitions. In May he said that investments would total some 20 million euros, equivalent to one-third of the group's revenues last year. With that kind of aggressiveness, a company is bound to draw attention.
Unfortunately, prosecutors failed to convince the three MPs' colleagues to strip them of their immunity so that a full-fledged investigation could begin. Despite pleas from President Valdas Adamkus and Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, lawmakers did not give law enforcers the chance to complete what they began in March. It's a shame, because there will definitely be a public backlash. Come October, when voters go to the polls to elect a new legislature, they will remember lawmakers' cowardly behavior and protest by voting for the upstart Labor Party. The populists will therefore dominate in the next Seimas, and members of this Parliament will have no one to blame but themselves.
It's one of society's timeless conundrums: politicians have influence, businessmen have money. The two groups, by virtue of their professions, must work closely to (ostensibly) improve the economy (i.e., the public welfare). So it is not at all surprising that an exchange of influence for money occurs. In the Baltics and other young democracies, where the discrepancy between lawmakers' salaries and businessmen's wealth is staggering, the temptation to give and take under the table must be tremendous. Talented politicians see that entrepreneurs are building posh homes and driving luxury automobiles, and, realizing it would take countless years before they could accumulate the funds to afford the good life, they give in to the seduction of a wad of cash. It's a crisis that is part mentality and part economics. Headway will require time, patience and courage. Lithuanian politicians showed this week they lacked the latter.