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Latvia: How speaking up against corruption can lead to change

DELNA

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the Transparency International Latvia (Delna) website in Latvian.

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to stay quiet than to speak out against corruption.

For many government workers who dedicate their lives to public service and their country, this can be particularly difficult. Speaking out against your employer could result in losing your job or facing harassment or even violence.

That’s why when citizens like Liene decide to speak out against secret deals between politicians and government officials, their actions are so inspiring.

It requires great courage to speak up and do the right thing, especially when the road to change can be very long and bumpy.

Encouraging whistleblowers to speak out

Our team at Transparency International Latvia Delna (TI-Latvia) spends considerable time supporting individuals who can no longer remain silent about corruption. Often, our cooperation with these brave whistleblowers lasts for several years — and through complicated court proceedings.

In 2016, Liene, a former employee of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) came forward after witnessing a corrupt act in the course of her everyday work.

Environmental corruption

While on duty, Liene saw an illegal deal take place regarding funding for an important environmental program. The program, which focuses on reducing carbon dioxide emissions by building new low-energy buildings and rebuilding or renovating existing buildings, granted 15 million euro to a project in Ventspils, a port city on the Baltic Sea in Latvia.

The city wanted to build an energy-saving high school for music, with a series of new concert halls.

Sounds like a simple and worthy project. However, at closer look, we discovered issues with the project application, which raised serious concerns that the proposed school would not meet basic program requirements nor international climate commitments. Yet, despite flagging these concerns, the project was given the green light to move forward by VARAM officials.

An opaque competitive process

After carefully reviewing the original call for applications, Liene thought that the proposal was written specifically for Ventspils, at the expense of other municipalities, and gave the city an unfair advantage. In addition, the project seemed to fall short in producing a sufficient reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to merit the award.

TI-Latvia helped Liene to protest the award at a meeting held by the Cabinet of Ministers, but our claims were not taken into consideration and the overall process was not transparent.

Later, we submitted a complaint to the Constitutional Court about violation of the Constitution and the Law on Pollution, but it too was rejected.

A court ruling

When we requested to review the project application in its entirety, VARAM denied our request, claiming it would violate trade secrets. So, we took VARAM to court to demand full access.

After two years of litigation, the Administrative Court finally ruled in our favour and we succeeded in gaining access to the full project proposal. Surprisingly, the Ministry didn’t appeal and issued the required documents in late December 2018.

Next steps

Our next job will be to assess the impact of the Ventspils project on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. A 2017 audit by the State Auditor’s Office already signalled that the program achieves little progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the audit suggests that the program is 35 times less effective than before.

Meanwhile, the construction of the music school is moving forward.

Small gains mark progress

While the result may be disheartening, Liene’s decision to speak out achieved two things, by setting a precedent for similar applications to be publicly accessible and encouraging authorities to disclose standards and improve public consultations.

Stories like the Ventspils project often perpetuate a feeling among Latvian citizens that corruption bears no consequences, particularly when there is no official violation or conviction.

Unfortunately, the high school project is not the only case to raise concerns about unfair competition in Ventspils and the impartial allocation of state funding.

Other doubts exist about the need to finance large-scale infrastructure projects from funding initially allocated for different purposes and about the non-transparent way funding is allocated, which may deviate from national priorities.

Previously, Ventspils received other generous earmarks, including 4 million euro for three specific projects: an Olympic sports centre, an international radio astronomy centre and the previously mentioned Ventpils high school. The high school ultimately received an additional 10.9 million euro from national and EU funds.

With approximately 40,000 residents, Ventspils is the sixth largest city in Latvia with a port that moves oil products from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The de facto mayor of Ventspils is barred from governing by an earlier court decision, amidst ongoing criminal proceedings for bribery, money laundering and other crimes dating back to 2008. Despite this, the mayor is still very popular and receives substantial public support.

How the public can fight back

To stop suspicious allocations, it is important for Latvia’s civil society, individuals and entrepreneurs to:

1) demand greater transparency around public tenders, including the selection criteria, aims and results.

2) abandon the attitude of “I can’t influence anything anyway” or “it doesn’t concern me” or “it happens” and reiterate that corruption is not normal or acceptable.

3) encourage national institutions to promote civic participation.

A new whistleblower protection law will enter into force on 1 May 2019 and will hopefully be a game changing tool to fight corruption and encourage reporting. The law provides an opportunity for whistleblowers to turn to organisations such as TI-Latvia for help.

The corruption challenge comes down to the preparedness and attitude of state institutions as well as society’s ability to overcome apathy and vulnerability — common issues for many former soviet countries.

This blog is part of a 25th anniversary series showcasing anti-corruption efforts from chapters around the Transparency International movement.

For any press inquiries please contact press@transparency.org