Dealing with corruption

  • 2010-05-27
  • Interview by Mihai Bica

Sergej Muravjov, the 30-year old Executive Director of Transparency International Lithuania’s Section (TILS), finished his high-school studies in the U.S. before going on for higher education in the Netherlands and Belgium. Studying English literature for a couple of years when he was a young teenager has really done wonders for him, as English has been an everyday language ever since. Still, he considers that, especially in small countries like Lithuania, people should know at least three foreign languages.
The Baltic Times met with Mr. Muravjov to talk about issues of transparency.

You have been Executive Director of TILS for how long now?
I’ve been an executive director since the end of 2008, but I’ve been working within Transparency International for almost 5 years, so one could say I’m a home grown product.

During this time, what are, in your opinion, the best achievements of your organization?
Others should judge your achievements, and I don’t want to sound pretentious. What I can say is what we are doing, what we’ve done. We have been paying great attention to social products as a means of engaging the public, spending a lot of time understanding what we have on our hands in Lithuania, because in the beginning, in 2004-2005, there was no clear picture of what we were dealing with when it came to corruption, transparency, accountability. Now we know much more because of our research in the healthcare, pharmaceuticals, construction sectors, which globally are considered to be one of the most corruption prone sectors. We have spent time in media accountability and transparency, NGO integrity and accountability, which give us a more holistic view when it comes to institutions, the reactions of people.   We are spending much more time on youth integrity, so this year we have the Summer School of Integrity - a long-term engagement,  because you offer people knowledge on how to change their behavior.

Last year one big issue that you dealt with was the development of legal instruments for protecting whistle-blowers in Lithuania. Do you think these effect organized crime, or political and state institutions?
It’s a preventative measure. The point of the law is that at least you have the status-quo fixed, and you don’t seem to recklessly promote reporting mechanisms and hope that people call you, because I could not imagine who in their sane mind, being afraid of the repercussions, would really call. The point of the law is to enforce the protection of the people, to make it safer to report, and in this way to discourage people that would potentially engage in corruption from engaging in those kind of acts, because the logic would be that if you would think that there was a greater likelihood that you would get caught, and somebody would report, you would think twice.

One aim of TI in Lithuania is to organize all kinds of training on anticorruption-related subjects. How is that working so far?
Our research shows that NGOs in Lithuania often don’t understand themselves what transparency and accountability means. Other national research shows that the public doesn’t trust NGOs a lot of times - and you need to make sure that there’s that connection and relationship. Quite few Lithuanians engage in civic actions, or are members of various NGOs. The reason, I think, is that often they don’t understand what NGOs do, they don’t trust them. They don’t believe that what they do, or what they would do, would be to change the status quo… 

TI is also a strong lobbyist. Is it a difficult thing to do, given the corrupt and generally negative public image of lobbying activities?
You are right in saying that we could be perceived as transparency lobbyists. According to Lithuanian law, we would not be considered lobbyists. A lot of people would not even be sure that there’s a need for lobbying law in Lithuania. Most other people, to my knowledge, lobby unofficially, sitting in positions of power. I think that if somebody wants something, by definition they lobby. As long as you’re clear about where your financial sources come from, what work you carry out, whom it is that you deal with and you are able to answer every single question, you’re fine - but this culture of openness is essential.

Other than analysis of the corruption phenomena, TI prides itself in promoting civic anti-corruption initiatives. How are Lithuanians responding to that?
We see that more and more Lithuanians are willing to get engaged in anticorruption activities; the numbers of those people are growing. What we also see is that people are getting more and more tired of empty promises, are much better versed in this rhetoric now than they were 5 or 10 years ago. Now they want change.

Is this the case for such collaboration with the other Baltic States, or other countries?
Absolutely, we have a lot of regional projects - TI chapters, other NGOs - because I think it’s essential to compare with the numbers that you get from other places; that’s what we do. When it comes to whistle-blowing, for instance, we came up with the guidelines that originated from almost a dozen EU member states. When it comes to public procurement, for instance, just last week we had a TI Czech Republic public procurement expert, one of the best in the region. Two weeks ago someone from TI Norway was helping us deal with private sector integrity.

Where would one find the most corrupt sphere here in Lithuania?
When you speak about personal experience you will have people say that usually, most often give or are demanded bribes in healthcare institutions or in their interactions with the police, and it’s been that way for the last 10 years. When it comes to procedures it is also very interesting, because people would say that the most problematic areas are actually the receiving of permits for construction or reconstruction, or the change in land use zoning. So that’s what you can see - healthcare, police, when it comes to institutions.

Is corruption in the media strongly related to politics?
I think the media is indispensable in the governing of the State. For many people the media is the fourth pillar that democracy relies on, and that is the reason why there is so much attention given to the media. What I have heard, and what you see from our research on media accountability and transparency, is that at least a few years ago it seems business people had experienced even acts of extortion from media outlets. A lot think, or thought, that the media in Lithuania is not exactly transparent. I’m not sure that the situation has changed drastically. There is a need for a different economic model, where people need to trust media more, need to see media as something that they can rely on and would pay for. When it comes to accountability, most media outlets in Lithuania don’t really publish corrections. Quite a few media outlets would not indicate whether it’s a paid advertisement. A lot of things have become more intricate, where people would be hiding advertisements in between the lines.

One of this organization’s aims in Lithuania was to create teaching devices in order to introduce anti-corruption-related subjects in the secondary school curricula.
I am convinced that there is a need for an anti-corruption education presence in high-school curricula, even in secondary schools. Ultimately people have to understand that they need to start from themselves. What I see in Lithuania is that people are very keen on blaming others - not asking themselves what it is that they could have done better.

Do you have any sources that confirm misuse or corrupt activities involving some EU funds in Lithuania?
With EU structural funds there is a lot to say. We have experience on project applicants and you see that the results were quite mixed. Bribes are the most widespread and the most simplistic shape that corruption may take. I think in Lithuania, what we often face is nepotism. It’s those kinds of relationships that I think pose the biggest threat concerning democracy here.

How difficult is it for foreign investors to start their business here, from the corruption and legal point of view?
What I hear is this: one person joked that he felt that Lithuania was special simply because a business person that would come here would often not only be asked to give a bribe to solve a particular issue, but that he would also not be guaranteed that once the bribe is given, the problem would be solved. By giving a bribe, you not only risk your reputation, but you also put yourself on a liability list, because you don’t know what that public servant would do, and with national laws becoming stricter I think it’s becoming more and more risk prone. The question is what businesses really do about that. A lot of times the private sector is the one that is in the position to change.