Bribery study indicates a blurring of the lines

  • 2009-12-17
  • By Arta Ankrava

RIGA According to the news agency LETA, a study commissioned by Transparency International has revealed that one third of the population of Latvia “would be ready to bribe state officials to back their or their family members’ interests.” One tenth would certainly agree to give a bribe while almost a quarter stated they would rather agree to a bribe than not. While there is still a majority of people in Latvia that opposes giving bribes of any kind, the 33 percent number of those ready to bribe state officials could be seen as quite alarming. For fairness’ sake it must be mentioned that the percentage of those lenient about bribery was even higher in 2007, when the number almost tipped 40 percent.

This seems slightly bemusing, as one would imagine the trust in the state and bureaucracy to have been diminished by shaky economic conditions and underlying political stirrings, resorting to a society that places more responsibility into its own hands. Yet, seemingly less people would agree to disregard the law in order to back their interests. Is there no need to break the law? Or is it simply hopeless? The same study also reveals that fewer people today would consider reporting an incident of bribery to authorities than would have a couple of years ago.

This could surely been seen as a signal of a drop in trust for the Corruption Prevention Bureau; as a state institution, one would expect it to have lost some credibility over the last year or two. The study also confirms a decrease in controversial activities such as “envelope payments and gifts to doctors and medical staff ” after the issue was brought to light during the election of President Valdis Zatlers, an esteemed doctor and head of a major hospital at the time. Thus, while the polls suggest there is less corruption and bribery than there was a couple of years ago, at least as far as the general public goes, fewer such activities are being reported, too. Who knows if the average person sees giving some money to a traffic cop as ‘bribery.’

Perhaps this is something only people in the news engage in - cutthroat politicians, oligarchs and shady businessmen. Institutions like the Corruption Prevention Bureau seem detached from the everyday life of the residents of Latvia, while doing favors for a friend is not seen criminal. The two realms do not mix, as the general public perceives itself disconnected from making a difference in the greater scheme of things. The numbers of people expressing a readiness to report corruption have gone down because they feel – what is the point after all? Being proven time and time again that massive amounts of cash can disappear from dying banks, in plain daylight, leaving the state to fix the massive holes with trapping obligation, the public does not want to waste its time on petty issues like a police officer asking for tea money.

The taxes currently imposed on small businesses are rather exacerbating, so owners get by however they can - by cutting on official wages, etc., as otherwise they would go under almost immediately. So, there are thousands of people receiving the official minimum wage, and are receiving the rest in an envelope, which is not seen as a crime, but almost as a norm. Asking your employer to raise your official salary just might give you the boot, or may result in some of your colleagues looking suspiciously at you. There is nothing quite like explaining to your boss why you do not want to have 168 lats (240 euros) listed on your official payroll - and then feeling embarrassed and angry about it at the same time. Who do we call out when such situations occur?

Do we punish even more of the private sector for not paying taxes or turn a blind eye in some sweet illusion that, if we let this one slide, we might help small businesses to get on their feet? The reality is that we all know someone who is not receiving a full official salary, and in that sense we are all looking out for our friends and family’s interests. Thousands of people in Latvia are living in a little lie and have been doing so for years. The line is so blurry that we just cannot be bothered to keep track of it at all times. In looking at the state, it has the same problem, so what are our petty transgressions in comparison to theirs, we ask? There is nobody to look up to. o