15 September 2008

Baltic Criminality Below the Radar

Emily Green from Georgetown University suggests that criminality in the Baltic region often does not receive the attention that it warrants. She claims that criminality in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remains robust and well-organized, and describes how the Baltic States continue to appear near the top of various measurements of crime and corruption in Europe.

As the newest members of the European club, Romania and Bulgaria have received a lot of criticism over their failure to reduce public corruption. Earlier this year, the European Commission decided to freeze aid to Sophia to encourage Bulgarian officials to tackle this unrelenting vice. Romania too has its own reasons for notoriety – it ranked first among EU countries in a 2007 survey of citizens who have accepted a bribe. Few noticed, however, that Lithuania followed closely on Romania’s heels as the European Union’s second-most-corrupt nation.

This illustrates an important point: While countries in the Balkans grab most of the headlines about criminality, the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – tend to slip through the cracks. Records of crime and corruption in the Baltic States should strike us as particularly jarring since these states closely identify themselves with countries like Poland, Sweden, and Finland – who rank far ahead in many of these indicators.

Certainly there are reasons to celebrate development in the Baltic States. Between 2000 and 2006, the so-called Baltic Tigers had the highest economic growth rates in Europe. But in contrast to the encouraging growth in economic and political stability, criminality in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remains robust and well-organized.

Even though this region is used as a model for others who hope to join the EU, the Baltic States continue to appear near the top of various measurements of crime and corruption in Europe. Since current statistics such as bribery in Lithuania, though alarming, fall slightly under the level needed to motivate immediate action, it makes one wonder: should more attention be given to crime and corruption in Baltic States or are these issues simply the growing pains of newly emerging liberal democracies?

When Forbes Magazine named Latvia one of the “Crime Capitals of Europe”- second only to Turkey for the most steeply increasing crime rate on the European continent – it  failed to cause much of a stir. The article cited Latvia’s criminal drug and vehicle trafficking as well as white collar crimes as causes for alarm. But with a simple, official denouncement and a few op-eds in The Baltic Times, the matter was closed.

In another search for the “Crime Capital of Europe,” Gallup Europe conducted an EU Crime and Safety Survey for the UN Crime Prevention Agency. This survey found the likelihood of falling victim to petty crime the greatest in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Third on the list? Estonia.

In 2007, the World Health Organization ranked the three Baltic States as the most violent countries in Europe, with the largest number of violent deaths per 100,000 residents. In addition, the U.S. Department of State lumps Latvia and Estonia with countries such as Albania and Zimbabwe when reviewing their standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Also, according to the latest Eurobarometer Survey, citizens in Estonia and Lithuania rank crime among their top two concerns more often than the average EU citizen.

Certainly there are three paths that the level of crime and corruption in the Baltic States can take, depending on the actions of each respective government.

First, by denying the problem, crime and corruption could actually increase in this region, as it allegedly has in Latvia. Denial is arguably the easiest reaction to such statistics. But while it is true that statistics can be manipulated and taken out of context, maintaining a more than healthy dose of skepticism can inhibit a country’s ability to move forward in ways that would improve its international standing and the quality of life of its citizens.

Second, the Baltic States could continue to show up in the top three slots of surveys of crime and corruption in Europe, avoiding international attention because other countries are fraught with more crime and more corruption. Ignoring the problem may seem easier in the short run – but in the long run, behaviors such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and public corruption can become entrenched and harder to uproot.

Third, the authorities in these three countries could make it a priority to crack down on crime and corruption – be it adhering to the international standards for eliminating human trafficking in Latvia and Estonia or taking a harsher stance against official bribery in Lithuania. Obviously the progress that these governments have made since their integration into Western structures should be applauded, but there is always room for improvement. 

Good governance should be the ultimate goal of any government, not settling for anything worse. With the help of EU institutions, the Baltic States should step up their efforts to decrease crime and corruption within their countries before it becomes headline news. And since the Baltic States are now part of the Schengen Treaty, such efforts will yield long-lasting, positive results not just for citizens of the Baltic countries, but for the entire European Union.