Finnish corruption: subtle, but by no means non-existent
By Veera Luoma-Aho
Finns love it when they do well in international comparisons, and there is every reason to be pleased with this particular achievement.
Finland repeatedly places high on the list kept by Transparency International of countries with little corruption. For a long time Finland was listed as the least corrupt country in the world. In the organisation’s first report, Finland got the maximum number of points - a full ten.
Last year there was disappointment when Finland fell into fifth place, following a furore over election campaign funding. However, in spite of a small dip, Finland is still seen as one of the least corrupt countries in the world.
While the Finnish maiden no longer rates an even ten, she still gets a full nine points. And anyway, even without special lists on the subject, everyone knows that bribery does not flourish here, and that civil servants cannot be bought.
But does the list, which has been enthusiastically quoted in public, tell the whole story about Finnish corruption?
Transparency’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is based on experiences concerning the actions of officials, and not on actual empirical data. The method is understandable, as it is impossible to accurately measure the real amount of corruption, and the results of different countries would not be comparable with each other.
The index is not seen by everyone as proof that Finland is a squeaky clean country.
“I have never liked the thinking of Transparency. In the index, corruption is seen as a synonym of bribery”, says researcher Paavo Isaksson, the writer of a book titled Korruptio ja julkinen valta (“Corruption and Public Power”). Above all, Isaksson is upset at the image that the results get in the media.
“I don’t believe that the index is capable of taking issue with Finnish corruption. The methods and mechanisms that are used in Finland are different”, he says.
At the Ministry of Justice, Matti Joutsen, chairman of an anti-corruption network, feels that Transparency’s index is useful, but he also concedes that it has weaknesses.
“It certainly does give a general direction, but that is only one dimension”, Joutsen points out.
In fact, the anti-corruption organisation makes no other claims. On the contrary, it emphasises that Finland should not be complacent. The index is primarily a tool, and far-reaching conclusions should not be drawn from small variations in the ranking on the list from one year to another.
The weakness of Transparency’s index is that it does not easily detect corruption in the structures of society - the kind in which money does not necessarily change hands in return for favours. Ultimately, the only thing that the index tells about Finland is that officials here are not bribed.
In fact, that finding is quite credible. Each year, only about 15 crimes involving bribery are reported to the police each year. A large proportion of those attempting to bribe officials are foreigners, who try their luck with customs officials, for instance. Such attempts seem quite astounding to law-abiding Finns.
“If someone tries to bribe someone with money, it simply causes confusion”, Matti Joutsen explains.
No wonder then, that corruption is not a major concern for Finns.
“When country inspections have been made concerning Finland, the good, and bad news has been that there is hardly any corruption, and even if it did exist, the Finns would not recognise it”, says Pekka Mäkinen, deputy chairman of the Finnish chapter of Transparency International.
It is this naivete that has brought some criticism from the Council of Europe's Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).
Everyday corruption in Finland goes far beyond the cliche involving envelopes stuffed with banknotes slipped to a civil servant.
Or as Paavo Isaksson puts it: “Old boy networks, party funding, and other contacts of the elite are so systemic here that you don’t even have to actually bribe anyone.”
Before saying anything about corruption in Finland, it is first necessary to agree on a definition for the concept. The word has not been defined in any Finnish legislation.
The definition used by Transparency is often employed: corruption is seen as the misuse of a position of power in the advancement of personal benefits. Minor corruption can include slipping an official some money to get something done. In extensive corruption, those in power make decisions affecting the lives of other people - for instance, in the passage of laws.
The problem is that it is not easy to see endemic corruption, or to produce evidence that would hold up in court.
Furthermore, corruption does not hinge on what is illegal and what is legal.
In the corruption status report of 2008, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) notes that corrupt activities are not necessarily punishable under the law, even if they are considered immoral, or bad administration.
Transparency International also speaks of legal and illegal corruption.
“If corruption means the misuse of a public position in the advancement of personal gain, it is possible to do it in many ways that are legal”, notes the organisation’s chairman Santeri Eriksson.
“In Finland’s politico-administrative system there are certain practices and methods that are so in-built that the terms ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ shed no light on disputed and questionable practices and procedures”, researcher Isaksson says.
Finnish thinking on legality is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it protects us against blatant street corruption. However, adherence to the law becomes a travesty if the letter of the law is seen to be the absolute dividing line between right and wrong - that simply not breaking the law automatically means that a person is behaving in a moral manner.
The law is not always a sufficient measure of morality. One example is the flashing of the Nazi card: even in Hitler’s Germany formal obedience to the law was one of the most important values of society.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) speaks about the black and grey zones of corruption. The black zone involves activities that are punishable under the law. In the grey zone, the definitions are less cut and dry.
In a small country, much happens in these border zones. The more the elite of politics, public administration, and business, for instance, have to do with each other, the greater are the possibilities for corrupt activities.
And now we get to a topic on which all those who have studied Finnish corruption seem to agree. The famous old boy networks are at the core of Finnish corruption.
According to Isaksson, they do not necessarily involve any exchange of money. Instead of a bundle of banknotes in a brown envelope, the system can produce good positions, honorary titles, jobs, and many other ways of promoting one’s social position.
The NBI also feels this way. In its situation report on corruption from 2008, the NBI suspects that the old boy systems are a greater problem in Finland than one might conclude on the basis of criminal complaints alone. Finnish corruption involves cooperation and debts of gratitude, rather than any overt quid pro quo arrangements.
“For instance, public projects and privatisations involve the risk of corruption in Finland as well. There are conflicts of interest, and excessively cosy relationships. Attention needs to be focussed on how personal relationships affect decisions by civil servants and political decision-makers, even though these kinds of things are terribly difficult to prove”, ponders Eriksson of Transparency International.
This is exactly the kind of activity that has been examined in connection with the public debate on election funding. Companies pay election campaign support to parties, while politicians decide on town plans, building permits, and plots of land. But it is almost impossible to say when a link exists.
Perhaps it is again time to turn our gaze toward Sweden.
In Sweden, hidden forms of corruption have been studied more closely than in Finland. One observation in the report on Swedish corruption sounds familiar - that of the close personal relations inherent to a small country, which make it difficult to prove the exchange of favours or inappropriate influence peddling.
But there is a saying that Finland is a club, and that it is impossible to avoid close personal relations. Favours, thank-you gifts, and other benefits with sentimental value are simply not experienced as corruption, and in fact, they often are not.
“Especially in the municipal sector and at the local level, there are various kinds of dual roles that come up. But naturally, a small country needs to have people involved in decision-making. There is a limited number of active people”, ponders the NBI’s Jenni Juslén, who is currently investigating corruption in Finland.
Naturally, not all networking is negative. A times it is actually a matter of professional skill. For instance, a skillful politician knows the right people. For a company, good social ties are capital worth money. In a democracy everyone is allowed to promote his or her own interest.
And in a small country, it is not possible to monitor every bowl of pea soup, glass of beer, or sauna party.
“Strong social capital is an advantage in Finnish society. Decision-makers know each other, and citizens have direct contacts with them. It is inappropriate, if the wrong kinds of personal advantage is sought through a network”, explains Mäkinen of Transparency.
Isaksson says that the election funding furore comprises a number of individual cases, but as a whole they give an image of structural corruption in Finland.
“It shows that we have many practices teetering on the boundaries of business and municipal decision-making, which seem to involve a strange effervescence of sorts. Certainly it cannot happen out of the fervour of political ideology alone”, he sniffs.
On the other hand, he says that the core of Finnish corruption has not yet been reached.
“These businessmen are a second-ranking chain of sorts. There are no high-ranking CEOs of big companies there. They have other ways of wielding influence. These are people for whom this kind of channel of influence was built with the help of money.”
So who suffers from Finnish corruption?
This is no harmless puttering around. Corruption encumbers administration, weakens democracy, and distorts the market economy. Close-knit networks between decision-makers and business will easily lead to a situation in which decisions are not made on the basis of facts. Fair competition does not happen.
“The presence of business in decision-making is powerful in Finland. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre) is undoubtedly right in saying that it is not completely unlawful, but he does not take into consideration the kinds of impact that it has on decision-making”, Isaksson points out.
But it is not easy to grapple with the problem through legislation and police action.
“The areas that are corrupt in other countries are well regulated in Finland”, Mäkinen says.
And exception to this rule is the infamous election funding law. The shortcomings in the openness of political funding were so blatant, that the Council of Europe's Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has compared Finland with Belarus.
During the furore on election funding, there has been much talk about bribing Members of Parliament, for instance. Under current legislation, this is something that is almost impossible to prove, says the NBI’s Juslén.
“The description of the crime states that there must be a promise to do something in exchange for money. How is a police officer supposed to prove the existence of such a promise? It would actually require a direct confession, and if there is no readiness to cooperate to any degree, then the fact that the police need to find the evidence buried in tens of thousands of pages of project documents, is a massive task.”
Taking issue with structural corruption in Finland seems to be a rather hopeless task.
But there must be some way!
The answers are the old and familiar ones: transparency and openness.
“I can’t come up with anything else. There should be as few decisions made in secret as possible. But this is not always possible, because those wielding power do not always want to have ears lurking around, if we use this favourite slogan of the National Coalition Party”, Isaksson observes.
Transparency International’s Mäkinen notes that in the grey zone corruption becomes a question of attitude, depending on how one feels about services received and rendered, and what one would like the other side to do.
Mäkinen feels that Finland would need a change in attitude extending to all citizens.
“Then the legislation and the severity of the consequences would not be so important. One would imagine that China would have uprooted all corruption, because they impose the death penalty, but it does not seem to have worked.”
The media has an important role in uprooting corrupt activities, but as has already been pointed out, it is difficult to prove direct wrongdoing, and it is always possible to appeal to the legality of the activities.
And the media has been a bit lazy as well.
For instance, criminal investigations into crimes of bribery are rarely launched in Finland as a result of the active input of journalists. In the material compiled by Jenni Juslén in 2008, there are only two requests for investigation made by a journalist. In many other countries, there are many more.
Journalists naturally have pitfalls of their own. The media does not operate in a vacuum. Journalists can easily be as blind to their own tendencies toward corruption as other Finns are. Slight corruption, such as direct bribery, is condemned outright, but many kinds of personal networks and debts of gratitude are left unnoticed.
But perhaps there has been enough of this flagellation. It is so much nicer to talk about things that bring us praise.
In January, the American researcher Darren Zook wrote an article in the publication Journal of Democracy, looking for reasons why Finland does so well in assessments of corruption.
Zook feels that corruption is reduced by a critical civic society, where ordinary people are able to influence decisions. For instance, in Finland the right to appeal is often seen as a nuisance, which slows projects. Zook sees this as an important impediment to corruption.
A typical feature of corrupt activities is that of trying to push through decisions as quickly as possible.
“Certainly the right to appeal slows things down! But because of it, the decision maker is strangely more meticulous!” says Joutsen of the Ministry of Justice.
“It sounds dull, but the best way to fight corruption is for people to know their rights, what has been decided, how laws have been applied, and that decisions can also be appealed.”
What would Finland be like, in which there would be as little corruption as possible?
“A vibrant civic society which supports openness, moderation, transparency, and responsibility.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.7..2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland again among least corrupt countries - in Russia corruption runs rampant (27.9.2007)
VEERA LUOMA-AHO / Helsingin Sanomat