Know thy neighbor - and his bank account

  • 2002-09-05
  • Paal Aarsaether

Finland celebrated the news last week that it was named the least corrupt country in the world for the third year in a row, a phenomenon experts attribute to a transparent and open society.

"Apart from an ongoing case in Helsinki, I can't remember the last corruption case we had. They are not very frequent," Robin Lardot, deputy chief of the National Bureau of Investigation which handles corruption cases, told AFP.

Lardot was referring to a possible corruption scandal currently being heard by a Helsinki court, in which a Norwegian firm allegedly paid off high-ranking civil servants with free credit card usage and exotic trips in return for cheap deals leasing the Finnish state's multi purpose ice breakers.

Other than that, the last time anyone can remember serious corruption allegations here was 30 years ago when the Helsinki metro was built.

"Of course, when we investigate a case involving the public sector, we do include bribing as a possible motive, but this very rarely turns out to be the case," Lardot said.

That seems to be the impression in international business circles here as well.

"Corruption itself is quite unknown in Finland, because society here is so open. If you did such things, people would recognize it instantly," said Timo Vuori, director general of the International Chamber of Commerce in Finland.

Not only is it impossible to open anonymous bank accounts, but tax authorities can also access information on all accounts in the country, said Pasi Horsmanheimo, an auditor in Helsinki.

In addition, tax lists of each Finn's income and assets are published annually - including those of government ministers - providing a field day for national and local media which print extensive articles on the fortunes of the rich and famous.

As a result, Horsmanheimo pointed out, it would be quite impossible for someone to buy a fancy new car without the neighbors knowing where the money came from.

Transparency International agreed this was one of the key factors.

"I think it is a combination of an open society, which is very transparent in many of its dealings, as well as a long tradition of autonomy, self-reliance and strong local governments," said Fredrik Galtung, head of research at Transparency International.

But he quickly added that nobody really could tell why Finland and Finns were so uncorrupt.

"If we knew that, we would have marketed the Finnish model quite effectively around the world," he said.