• 2007-10-31

Cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

In recent days the sour smell of corruption 's always wafting through the Baltics but usually subtle enough to ignore 's came out in a full-blow, gag-inducing stench.

This time it was Estonia, which likes to think of itself as more "Nordic" and therefore more transparent than its Baltic brethren, that was the scene of the crime. On Oct. 24 the governor of Valga County and three company officials from Go Bus were taken into custody after the businessmen allegedly paid the governor somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 kroons (1,900 - 2,500 euros) in hopes of getting a higher government subsidy.

In Latvia headlines were made by an old 's but still sickening 's story of three Riga police officers who, in 2005, were running the time-honored shakedown scam on a cafe owner. During an "inspection" of the cafe, the officers pocketed 82 CDs and a CD player, threatening to report the owner for playing the music without the proper copyright licensing. The three officers came back later demanding he give them 300 lats or they would continue the inspection and he would be in "big trouble." This story, which happened two years ago, at least ended Oct. 26 with three-year jail sentences for the cops. But it reminds us that cops in the Baltics can, and often do, still act a lot like playground thugs.

Then of course there's the usual deranged circus that is Latvian politics.

Closing the book on the mysterious story of the lost-and-found briefcase, Former Parliamentary Speaker Indulis Emsis confessed to having given investigators false testimony in a criminal investigation and paid a 5,000 lat (7,114 euro) fine on Oct. 26. We may never know for sure why Emsis was carrying so much cash in the briefcase he accidentally left in the canteen at a government building, or why he changed his story to say that it held $6,500, not $10,000 as he originally claimed. If press speculation is to be believed though, the cash is somehow related to the defense of Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who himself is currently under house arrest facing charges of bribery, money laundering and a host of other abuses.

Then of course there's the latest in the saga of the Latvian government vs. its own anti-corruption watchdog, KNAB. The bureau's much-anticipated report on breaches of the campaign spending law during the run-up to the 2006 elections found that Prime Minister Kalvitis' People's Party spent nearly three times its legal limit. It was an attempt to stop investigation into this spending, some say, that prompted Kalvitis to try to sack KNAB chief Aleksejs Loskutovs, a move that sparked mass demonstrations in Riga and widespread calls for Kalvitis 's and the rest of the government 's to take a hike.

If there's a silver lining around these clouds of madness it's this: The reaction to these cases of corruption has been swift. Perpetrators have been arrested, jailed and fined. More importantly was the outcry by the press and public, who have lost patience having their countries run like third-world republics.

Sketchy politicians should take heed: no longer do Balts turn a blind eye to officials and police getting fat off their positions of power. Those who can't mend their ways should probably pack up their ill-gotten gains in a sack and move to Aruba. The jails in the Baltics always have room for one more.