Latvian-Azande Parallel

Corruption as witchcraft for Latvia during the transition

Klavs Sedlenieks
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002, by Klavs Sedlenieks, Department of Sociology, University of Latvia

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Re-discovery of 'magic of corruption'
Corruption explains misfortune
The practical magic
Honourable witches
Conclusions: corruption as witchcraft of transition


To a certain degree corruption for the contemporary Latvians is what witchcraft is for Azande described by Evans-Pritchard (1976). It is a concept, a mechanism and method for understanding, explaining, dealing with and also controlling the changing world. Corruption has not always been the pivoting concept and perhaps it might happen that in comparatively short time it will be substituted by something else. At present, however, corruption is what explains not only misfortune, but also luck and a whole set of current situations. Latvian-Azande parallel here is more a starting point for a discussion than a serious attempt to prove an analogy.

Re-discovery of 'magic of corruption'

Corruption is a comparatively new concept in Latvia. During the Soviet period it was almost completely excluded from discourse. On the official level, corruption was something that was supposed to be characteristic exclusively for capitalistic world. Although it was not always stated so clearly, in fact corruption was pictured as one of the main characteristics of capitalism. The socialist or communist system was supposed to change the very basics principles of the state. Corruption was among the reasons why socialism was a more fair system. Among all the colourful and standardised epithets used to describe countries on the other side of the 'iron curtain', 'decaying capitalism' (pûstoðais kapitâlisms) was very popular in the Soviet Union. Thus it was pictured as decay and corruption on the 'other side' and quite the opposite on this side of the camp. Perhaps due to these ideological reasons corruption was not mentioned in the legislation of the Soviet state. Such terms as 'bribery' and 'abuse of public office' were used in the Criminal code but again they were quite distant from what now is understood by corruption. Connotations of these offences were mostly associated with the individual who had breached the law rather than the state system. More than that - most of the time norms regulating abuse of public office were only applied to the lowest level and in exceptional cases to the middle level. Only after the beginning of perestroika and glasnostj some cases where the top-level party members had illegally accumulated large sums of money were discovered and widely discussed in mass media of Latvia. However, the cases concerned far-off corners of the Soviet Union. Latvia was still (at least what concerns public discourse) free from corruption.

The concept of corruption did not exist on the everyday level either. There were some terms which could describe the activities one might now classify as corrupt, but the term 'corruption' was not among them. People were speaking about blat networks on all levels of society, about greedy party members and medical professionals, about the distance between the set of privileges available for the ordinary public and the highest party members and state officials (which always had to be almost the same). But corruption was excluded from the public discourse as effectively as from the official discourse.

This Soviet-time tradition in Latvia started to change only in the middle of 1990s when one after another newspapers began to publish articles which could be associated with political corruption. Before 1994 when the first articles discussing political corruption appeared in the mass media, the only term in which the criticism of the events happening on the highest levels of political life could be cast was 'communist mafia'. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and re-establishment of the independent Latvia, the term 'mafia' was mostly associated with organised crime (Sedlenieks 1999:16) but links between this criminal world and political elite were not supposed to exist.

A note has to be made here that use of the concept of corruption was not altogether freshly discovered in Latvia only in the middle of 1990s. Rather I should speak of re-discovery since in the period of first independence (1918-1940) several scandals of corruption surfaced and eventually led to an anti-corruption law which was drafted in 1927 but never accepted in Saeima (the Parliament of Latvia) (Vilks and Íipçna: 2000: 18; Tisenkopfs and Kalniòð 2002: 33). With the Soviet occupation in 1940 corruption, as already mentioned, was effectively excluded from all forms of discourse concerning domestic processes.

Since the middle of 1990s corruption found its way back into the discourse and became a crucial way of dealing with everyday situations: both, for understanding and explaining the course of events and for exercising active influence upon the surrounding political and economic environment.

Corruption explains misfortune

Two acquaintances of mine once held a discussion about a project they were currently working on. Recently a newspaper had published an article expressing allegations that the way how they had obtained the money for their project could be classified as corrupt. The topic was picked up by other papers and eventually the case became quite public. The conversation started with the acquaintances of mine ensuring each other that speaking of any kind of corruption in their case was just ridiculous. Both of them were sure that what they were doing was neither corruption nor conflict of interests. After the mutual understanding was established, they went on another level, trying to find out who could be the one who envy them. Although no specific person was mentioned, again a mutual understanding that there are lots of people who could feel envy towards this project surround them. One of these people perhaps was either paying or in any other way influencing the journalist who first started the allegations. So the two were supposing. Be there any kind of Azande-type oracle, they would have been able to find out who was the culprit, but since there is no such tradition, they just had to continue working on their project, keeping in mind their suspicions about the ill-wishers who look for opportunities to undermine their work by means of corruption.

Occasions where suspicious, misunderstood or just unlucky course of events are explained with corruption are not rare. While working at Delna (an NGO, the local chapter of Transparency International) I have had numerous possibilities to observe people who find in corruption the only explanation to what has happened with them when contacting state or even private institutions. People come to Delna to tell about their difficulties in trying to obtain documentation or to privatise state property. Recently a lady visited the office of Delna with allegations of corruption when she could not find a proper place in the local supermarket where to drop in her coupon of some kind of lottery. When she approached the sales personnel she received impolite replies and as a result could not think of anything else than some kind of fraud or corruption in organisation of the lottery.

The same principle comes into use when discussing more general topics of political processes in Latvia. Inability of the officials to explain their decisions, unclear and unpopular regulations, lack of transparency all may serve as indicators which allow the public to suspect corruption among the state officials. By saying this, however, I do not want to insist that allegations based on such indicators are always misleading. It is quite possible that part or even most of them actually show where corruption is at work. The non-transparent and closed system of decision-making that still predominates in Latvia (UNDP 2001) is a good breeding ground for corrupt activities. Most usually when put under close scrutiny of public attention some decisions of state officials indeed may be only explained if one keeps corruption in mind.

An example from a still on-going struggle against privatisation of so called Sun-garden (Saulesdârzs) may illustrate the idea.

Sun-garden is an estate on the outskirts of Riga, near lake Íðezers, which in 1913 was bought by a group of Latvian intelligentsia in order to establish a centre for education of children and promotion of Latvian identity. After the establishment of the independence in 1918, Sun-garden was taken over by the state and at present still remains to be a state property. During the Soviet period and in the first years after re-establishment of the independence, Sun-garden continued to serve as a centre for environmentally-oriented education of children. Kids (including myself) used to come there and work in green-houses or in the surrounding gardens. Situation changed in 1999 when a company who owned the nearby properties apparently made plans of how to privatise Sun-garden. It is important to note here two things. First, at present, the district where Sun-garden is located, is the most expensive area in Riga. Second, privatisation of state property usually goes along one pattern - the person who wants to privatise a property, first rents it, then submits a request to privatise rented property and according to the law receives the right to buy it first-hand, usually for a very favourable price (incomparable to the market price of the property). Putting the long story short, the centre for education of children was dissolved, the property rented out to the interested company which soon made an application for privatisation of Sun-garden. During all this time a group of local activists protested against this process, arguing that the renting out of Sun-garden would lead to privatisation, which in turn would mean transformation of the public space into closed territory for private cottages. Such version of the future development was intensively denied by the state officials although it became more and more evident (with disclosure of certain documents serving as a proof) that this was exactly what the would-be private proprietor of Sun-garden was planning to do. Even more - it became clear that the state officials knew about the plans of the private company to privatise the land in order to build cottages there and consequently sell them. By early 2002 the case of Sun-garden became widely discussed in public and the mass media with individual and numerous NGO protests against privatisation pouring in. Despite of that the Prime Minister, who had signed the act to privatise the property and the Minister of Education who had promoted the privatisation of Sun-garden, refused to take into account the public protests, arguing that 'everything was done according to the law'.

Although allegations of corruption were widely communicated on the private level among the protesters against privatisation of Sun-garden, publicly corruption was mentioned only once. The allegations were based on the fact that the company who wanted to privatise Sun-garden was among the group of companies belonging to one of the main sponsors of the political party to which the Prime Minister belonged. More than that - the same sponsor had also supported the political party to which another active advocate of privatisation - the Minister of Education - belonged.

Thus through the concept of corruption the public could understand and interpret the position taken by the government officials who intensively opposed any suggestions to halt the privatisation process.

At the same time the concept of corruption was used also as a powerful weapon against the corrupt officials for whom association with corruption could prove disastrous when the next parliamentary elections would come. The government was insisting that their only intention was to develop the territory of Sun-garden. In order to attract the would-be investors, the argument went, the property must be privatised. However, in the light of all the suspicious circumstances in which the process of privatisation was organised, their arguments seemed very unconvincing. Especially when compared with the idea that their rock-steady position could be explained by willingness to re-pay the generosity of the sponsor. In such a situation the only possible way to escape close association of their names with corruption was to stop the process of privatisation. While the article is being written the confrontation still goes on but with some clear indications that the government already is going to stop the privatisation.

I do not intend to analyse if allegations of corruption correspond with the actual corrupt practices. While corruption might be very good as a concept to understand behaviour of the state officials or the government in general, there are still possibilities that these decisions in fact are not influenced by corrupt deals and agreements. Rather, the role of the concept of corruption in interpreting the activities of the state officials is important. Different historical and cultural settings may lead to different paths of interpretation. For example, Trish Nicholson (1994:76) describes situation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where '[a]ny unpopular promotion, award of contract or allocation of grant is likely to be described by the unsuccessful applicant as a 'clear case of wantokism' when in many instances this is not the case'(1). While noting that Western consultants and analysts usually describe wantokism as just another word for corruption, Nicholson rejects such attitude. He argues that the same deviations from the officially accepted rules can be observed in, e.g., Great Britain. But in Great Britain these violations are not associated with corruption but rather with ' 'positive' initiative in pursuing the values and policies of the organization' (ibid.: 75). Like indigenous people of PNG, Latvians are confronted with change of the system of governance. The new system is approached with different expectations. What was acceptable or seen as 'natural' in the settings of inherently unfair Soviet state (as it was often perceived) now is described in terms of corruption.

The practical magic

The application of the concept of corruption to understand and interpret political processes, however, is not just based in some abstract ideas about motivation of people who are involved in political decision-making. They come from quite practical experience of the general public when dealing with the state. Corruption for Latvians has on the personal level the same applicability as magic for Azande. Corruption can be used to counteract the results of another corruption. As the following dialogue of two of my informants - Ceclija and Peteris - shows:

'Ceclija: I myself went to [a particular municipal institution in Riga] to obtain a permit in order to enlarge my business. But I did not get the permit because I am a simple mortal [i.e. without the necessary private channels to influence the decision of the officials].

Pçteris: But I would put it another way. If you had asked me and we had found a person there who could be bribed, Riga would have had obtained another nice enterprise. And all the people in Riga would have benefited from that. In the situation that you describe nobody has gained anything. I would conclude that in case of bribery Riga is benefited, because an ideal situation when nobody takes any [bribes] is simply impossible.'

The open advocacy of corruption, however, is exceptionally rare. Most people who admit being involved in corruption express regret and blame some outer circumstances that had forced them to do so. Their own use of corruption is thus justified because they have to counteract the corruption of other people or indeed the state who has put them all in the situation where they have to use corruption in order to make ends meet.

By doing so corruption on the private level again is explained and justified by corruption on a more general level. At the same time, corruption is also means for dealing with corruption. This at least is how the story is told by the participants themselves. In practice, there is no need to counteract a particular case of corruption. The idea that corruption is permeating the environment is quite sufficient. In fact some businesses are either directly based on systematic bribery of the decision-makers or find an invaluable support in occasional bribes as the following dialogue from an interview demonstrates:

'Kristīne: Of course the state is corrupt from the very top till the bottom.

Klavs: What makes you think so?

Kristīne: Well, actually I come in touch with this every day. Not with the highest levels but see: the company where I work, it's a retail company. It buys and sells and provides after-sales service. So it is our practice that we regularly pay to somebody so that this person would buy something from us. We count on this with almost every offer we make. Very rarely, yes, extremely rarely we can do without paying somebody.'

One can of course try to avoid the practice. But it means that entirely different approach to managing the business must be employed. There, however, is also one route of escape from the over-arching corruption. Some five years ago managers often were seeking for possibilities to learn the technique of bribery. Today an increasing number of them is taking 'clean' business as a particular challenge towards their professional capabilities. If they can manage to organise their business avoiding corrupt activities, they would be able to increase significantly their self-esteem.

Honourable witches

'Often they are respected fathers and husbands, welcome visitors to homesteads and guests at feasts, and sometimes influential members of the inner-council at a prince's court. Some of my acquaintances were notorious witches.' writes Evans-Pritchard. Exactly the same can be said about the people who are widely acknowledged to be involved in corruption. Unless they had also been connected with the criminal world (except this white-collar one), they do not lose any prestige the political or financial capital grants to them. As Inese Voika, the leader of Delna once described the situation - one would not take pride in a story how he or she had just stolen some money from a neighbour but a story about a successfully performed corruption scheme may be told to friends freely. Of course, these must be very close and trustable persons, but in any case - on a general level bribing an official is not seriously stigmatised.

Recently one of the most popular analytical TV programs Nedçïa presented a list of the most influential "grey cardinals", i.e., people who are not visible on the official political stage but actually influence decisions. Perhaps in some cases the "grey cardinals" could possess expert knowledge about certain issues. Most often, however, their influence is based in their social capital, capability to serve as mediators between influential economic groups and the state officials (UNDP 2001: 51, 65). Their knowledge about corrupt deals of state officials and politicians may be another reason of their influence. Knowing who was involved in which deal, perhaps controlling documentation of the corrupt deals, may give these "grey cardinals" exceptional power over politicians and state officials.

The fact that they are widely known as executing illegitimate power over the decision making process, does not make them less honourable in the eyes of the people who surround them. They continue to be respected businessmen or lawyers. Rather the public blames politicians who are consulting the "grey cardinals". Curiously, 80% of deputies of Saeima believe that "grey cardinals" influence their decisions to a very large extent while almost all deputies (94%) admit that they do not trust in capabilities of the "grey cardinals" to make competent and fair decisions (UNDP 2001:46).

At the same time activities of "grey cardinals" go in accordance with the practical application of "the magic of corruption" par excellence. By means of corruption these persons directly can influence the politics and also fulfil their financial needs since they can extract generous rent for their services. However, it may happen that just as it is on other levels, that they themselves do not interpret their activities as corrupt but rather describe them in terms like 'doing politics for sake of hobby' or 'quite normally lobbying'.

Here I might ask, like Evans-Pritchard did, 'are witches conscious agents?' Agency in many cases is carried out of the actual actors who either perceive themselves as counter-acting corruptness of rent-seeking officials or as victims of the unfair system. In both cases participants only see themselves as reacting to the events rather than being active initiators. Response to accusations in corruption therefore may be met with the tranquil position some Azande would take when accused in witchcraft. What can an 'ordinary mortal' do when confronted with the corrupt environment apart from responding in the same corrupt ways? Even active scheming and planning of corrupt activities then may be seen without perceiving oneself as an active agent, because, as Pçteris said: 'a situation when nobody takes any [bribes] is simply impossible'. In order to survive then it is necessary to be active even if it involves corruption.

Conclusions: corruption as witchcraft of transition

Corruption is often described as a phenomenon characteristic for transition countries. As World Bank experts write:

'The simultaneous transition process of building new political and economic institutions in the midst of a massive redistribution of state assets have created fertile ground for state capture and administrative corruption' (World Bank 2000: xix).

Yet, there is more than only changes of economic and political environment. The new concepts and ideas which came with transition (like 'free market' and also 'corruption') combine with older ones. Lobbyism, lack of transparency, dissatisfaction with the style of governance and ways one can deal with the state - all are packed together under the concept of corruption. The ways of achieving political and economic success are changing and sometimes a corruption-free operation may serve as basis for personal pride. However, the old patterns of blat networking and party membership which allowed people to gain both economic and political benefits, are still existing here. "Grey cardinals" and politicians who use their services or simply are under their influence; businessmen who sponsor political parties in order to gain protection or pursue their economic needs on the political level; company managers who tip officials for signing a purchase contract - they all operate under the same paradigm.

At the same time, public (and in many instances also people involved in corrupt deals) expect the new system of governance and decision-making to be impartial, transparent and public-oriented. Everything that does not fit in a frame of these expectations may be labelled as corruption.

Attitudes, expectations and practices as well as discourse are changing but currently corruption for Latvians is what witchcraft is for Azande - a concept for understanding, interpreting and manipulating the world.


Vilks, A., Ķipēna, K. 2000. Korupcija. Riga: Lietišķās informācijas dienests

Tisenkopfs, T., Kalniņš, V. 2002. Public accountability procedures in politics in Latvia. Preliminary report. last accessed on 10.04.2002

Sedlenieks, K. 1999 'Between 'Market' and 'State': an anthropological analysis of corruption in post-Soviet Latvia' MPhil thesis, University of Cambridge

UNDP 2001. Latvia Human Development Report 2000/2001, Riga

Nicholson, T. 1994. 'Institution building. Examining the fit between bureaucracies and indigenous systems'in Susan Wright (ed.) Anthropology of organizations. London: Routledge.

Evans-Pritchard, E.,E. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press


1. Wantokism is a term used in Papua New Guinea to describe a local form of nepotism.