Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Bribes, lies and fraud tarnishing clean Nordic image

ETHICS DECLINE?A region once renowned as a bastion of integrity now appears awash in scandals in the worlds of government, private business and sports

REUTERS , HELSINKI

A Swedish official spends almost US$4 million on call-girls, Finland's former skiing coach gets sentenced for drug smuggling and a Norwegian chief executive risks nine years in jail for fraud.

From the fall from grace of Finland's once idolized national ski team after a doping scandal to executive greed in Swedish savings group Skandia, tougher media scrutiny and a public focus on ethics have revealed a seedier side to the Nordics.

"It's not a pretty picture that appears. It's a picture of cheating, bribery and a never-ending ability to enrich oneself. Has everything become worse?" asked a column in Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. "It could just as well be that more things are coming to light."

So, what has brought the change in the Nordic's squeaky-clean image -- a region once renowned as a bastion of corporate and official integrity?

"I don't think it's anything new [here], that people exploit trust, and that some do so whenever they have a chance," said Lena Mellin, a political columnist and reporter at the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.

"But the mentality has changed. People are less fearful of authorities than 15-20 years ago and have actually started questioning practices that are inappropriate," she added.

News that several managers at the Swedish alcohol monopoly Systembolaget took gifts from producers was one of last year's top stories in the country, but only one example of dishonesty in welfare states priding themselves on openness and fair play.

The financial officer of a communal property firm in western Sweden was sentenced to five and a hafl years jail earlier this month for embezzling 30 million crowns (US$3.97 million) to support his sexual habits.

In Norway, prosecutors are demanding a nine-year jail term for the founder of debt collection firm Finance Credit, after his company collapsed, losing 1.4 billion crowns.

And Finland, the world's least corrupt country according to the global watchdog Transparency International (TI), has also had a torrid last 12 months, starting with a document leak scandal that toppled its prime minister Anneli Jaatteemaki.

Last month the country's top pulp and paper firms were accused of fixing prices by European competition authorities, the fourth cartel case involving listed Finnish firms since December.

"Finland's reputation has always been good, but this causes serious damage," Trade and Industry Minister Mauri Pekkarinen told the daily Helsingin Sanomat after the pulp and paper cartel allegations surfaced.

"I have always admired the Finnish economy, its competitiveness and innovativeness. Therefore I am also very sad to see it seems you have as many cartel cases as anywhere else," EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti told the business daily Kauppalehti.

The revelations have caused disillusionment among Finns, just as when they learned of cheating by some of their skiing idols, said Vesa Puttonen of the Helsinki School of Economics.

"Then, we realized that we are not cleaner than any other nation and now it's pretty much the same in business," Puttonen said. "We would say: `we might be lousy marketeers and sales people, but at least we are honest.' Now it's not even clear how honest we are."

Finland and Sweden boast corporate success stories like Nokia, Ericsson and IKEA. But regulated and protected for most of the last century, they also have a less attractive tradition of business practices, TI said.

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