RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has announced that she supports and intends to promulgate amendments to the Law on Conflict of Interests that Parliament passed on June 7.
The amendments aim to crack down on corruption and conflict of interests among state officials, a problem that Latvia has made minimal progress in addressing in the years since independence. The amendments increase efforts to improve transparency in the decision-making process, while in the meantime a discussion is underway on reforming the lobbying law.
Vike-Freiberga on June 18 sent a letter to Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and the State Administration and Municipality Committee expressing her support of the bill. A press release from the president's office explained that Vike-Freiberga felt the bill was fair and in the wider interests of the public.
The anti-corruption bureau (KNAB) had authored the bill, which, although controversial, is also supported by the prime minister.
The bill is aimed at preventing corruption among state officials by adjusting the amount and conditions of gifts, prizes and gratuity payments they can receive. The new law would allow officials to receive these gifts, but only in areas not pertaining to their work.
"The new law allows for state officials to receive income and prizes for their achievements in sports, science, educational and creative activities, as well as other areas beyond the responsibilities of a state official, which was previously allowed only by the relatives or in the amount of a minimum monthly salary," the president explained.
Vike-Freiberga stressed the fact that with the introduction of the new law officials who accept money "will be prohibited for a period of two years from preparing or issuing administrative acts supervising, controlling, investigating or administering punishment, as well as concluding agreements or performing other tasks that pertain to their official duties toward the donor of the gift or prize.
In an earlier evaluation of the bill, Providus, a transparency NGO, criticized the decision to increase the amount of gifts while restricting the ability of officials to work with donors.
Providus argued that the difficulty of proving a donor is in fact involved in shaping legislation would mean that the amendments actually facilitate political corruption.
The NGO argued that the updated law would not prevent lawmakers or the president from working with bills that benefit themselves and their family or business partners when direct gifts or prizes are not involved. Lawmakers could, for example, still work with a bill that affects land plot planning that could be advantageous to the lawmaker, Providus argued.
KNAB responded by stating that the amendments are only meant to prevent cases of explicit conflict of interests. They said that lawmakers would have to declare any gifts they received, which would facilitate the necessary transparency in the process.
They did not foresee any particular risks created by the bill.
The president said that implementation and functioning of the bills should work on a practical scale in "real life," as opposed to functioning only formally or in theory. She noted that "the control of restrictions on gift giving will largely depend on the efficiency of implementing the control over income and property status of individuals, including state officials, as well as the control over the lawfulness of their income sources."
In an effort to further improve transparency in the lawmaking process, discussions between Providus, KNAB and other government institutions are underway on amendments to the laws governing lobbying.
There has also been significant disagreement between the NGO and KNAB in this area. KNAB supports a version of the bill that would create a code of ethics pertaining to the transparency of lobbying and that must be followed by state and municipal institutions. It would also create a register of lobbyists.
Providus and other experts taking part in the discussion, however, argue that a better solution would be a law specifically outlining the definition of "lobbying" and "lobbyist" 's a point on which many experts have disagreed. This would clearly draw a line between lobbying and other, less ethical ways of influencing the government's decisions.
While KNAB initiated the discussion of reform over the lobbying laws, its specific version of the bills did not receive much support, and anti-corruption experts will now be forced to choose whether to go ahead with their version or re-evaluate the proposal.