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Corruption Gap May Work in Latvia's Favor

(Washington, DC--April 9, 2001) Latvians view corruption in their country as far worse than it in fact is, a perception that may actually help them to overcome this legacy of the Soviet past.

That was the message of Inese Voika, the president of Transparency International's Latvian's affiliate, to a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office last week.

Voika noted that there is a wide "gap" between how corrupt Latvia actually is and how corrupt Latvians think it is. A 1999 World Bank survey found that Latvian businessmen pay on average far less in bribes that do their counterparts elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

But, she said, Transparency International's 2000 survey of national perceptions of corruption found that Latvians think their country is far more corrupt than the residents of either of its Baltic neighbors or most other Central and Eastern European countries view their societies.

The reasons for that gap, Voika said, are varied. First of all, Latvia's mass media have reinforced the perception of high levels of governmental corruption, through their coverage of various scandals over the last several years. Such exposes are important, Voika said, but they also have had the effect of leading people to conclude that everything is so corrupt that nothing can be done.

At the same time, she said, Latvians overwhelmingly believe that corruption is a bad thing and must be fought. As a result, they represent an important political base for those in the government who want to fight corruption.

One indication that the Latvian government is interested in fighting corruption, Voika said, has been its willingness to involve her organization in monitoring the long-delayed privatization of state-owned Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), and its acceptance of the need for an "integrity pact" requiring all involved to forswear bribes or other dishonest conduct.