Combating corruption in Lithuania

  • 2000-12-21
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Corruption is a dirty word in Lithuania but does nevertheless remain a problem. Even the European Union in its most recent accession status report was critical of the problem and noted that more needs to be done.

Two organizations exist in Lithuania with mandates to deal with the issue. The largest is the Special Investigations Service that, since May 2000, has been reporting only to President Valdas Adamkus. It has been in existence since1997 as part of the Interior Ministry but an updated law has given it more autonomy.

He said that this is a fairly unique structure in present day Central and Eastern Europe. "Latvia is studying our model right now and it looks like they will implement it as well," said Junokas.

Valentinas Junokas has been the service's director since its inception. "Corruption in Lithuania is a legacy of the Soviet period. For fifty years we had one law on the books and one used in practice. Officially corruption never existed but of course everyone engaged in it simply to survive," said Junokas. He said that it was taken for granted that government workers simply used their influence to procure goods for themselves that were rarely available for sale in stores.

Junokas said that the corruption problems that have existed since independence are often due to low salaries for law enforcement officials. His service has a budget of 13 million litas ($3.25 million) but he won't divulge the number of agents that work for him. "All I can say is that they are young. Our service has an average age of thirty-three." The SIS has a 24-hour- a- day hotline that lets anyone phone in anonymously and leave tips. They pledge to follow-up on every single one. "Even if someone has been asked for a 50 litas bribe we take it very seriously," he said.

Junokas also stressed that agent selection is a rigorous process and that he

would show no mercy to any agent that misused his or her powers. "Not a single one of us is 'untouchable'," he said in reference to Elliott Ness's 'Untouchables' who fought Al Capone in 1930s Chicago.

The agents make a great sacrifice by joining the SIS. "You have to realize that our main job is to investigate corruption by law enforcement people: judges, prosecutors and police. So an SIS agent is sometimes viewed as an enemy. If he or she wants later on to get a job with another agency it probably won't happen."

Transparency International opened an office in Lithuania this year. This international non-governmental organization was created in 1997 by Peter Eigen, a former World Bank official who was fed up with the corruption he witnessed in Africa. They now have 90 offices worldwide and are privately financed by wealthy philanthropic foundations.

TI's Lithuanian director, Aleksandras Dobryninas, said that his group does not fight corruption. "Using the word 'fight' is pretty strong rhetoric. The people who fight corruption are those in the SIS who are ready to risk their lives," he said. "We are here to study the problem and educate society."

He said that legal instruments are not enough to lessen corruption in a society and that there has to be a common will to do something about it. "A survey from last year indicated that 74 percent of Lithuanians were against corruption but 63 percent were prepared to bribe officials if it served their ends," said Dobryninas. He said that by using bribery people in the society are just perpetuating the problem and only hurting themselves in the long run.

For Dobryninas TI is part of the fifth estate, the community outside of government that exists to provide checks and balances in the system. "Corruption is really the illegal privatization of state services. To prevent this a democratic society needs clear, transparent rules. It's when the rules are muddy that the problems happen."