New book explores the dynamics of business-politics relations in Lithuania

Important | 2023-12-20

Lithuanian political scientist and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), Ainius Lašas, recently released a book focusing on relationships between business and politics in Lithuania. The book spans twenty years of a transition from a post-soviet country to an EU member state, adjusting to European policies and practices.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, Backstage Democracy: The Dynamics of Business-Politics Nexus in Lithuania delves into the intricate web of business and politics in Lithuania over the past two decades.

The monograph, based on 63 anonymous interviews with key figures in politics, business, and media, provides a comprehensive analysis of the evolving relationship between these sectors in Lithuania. Unlike static snapshots, Lašas’ work focuses on the dynamic changes that have occurred in the country’s political and business landscape.

“I am convinced that the case of Lithuania can serve not only to better understand the phenomenon of corruption and its dynamics but also to address similar challenges in other countries. For example, Ukraine and Moldova are now taking the first major steps on the road to Euro-integration. The insights from Lithuania’s successes and failures in the fight against corruption, could serve as a valuable material both for them and for EU institutions,” says Lašas.

Lašas KTU
Ainius Lašas, the Dean of KTU Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities

According to him, Lithuania can be seen as a modest success in its transition towards more transparent business-politics relationship practices.

Motivation for change

However, before discussing any specific policy recommendations, it is necessary to go one step back and ask a fundamental question: how do you ensure the motivation for change among politicians and businesspeople, who might have an interest in keeping the status quo?

Or, according to Lašas: “How do you make turkeys vote for Thanksgiving?”

In the case of Lithuania, this meta-motivation emerged from two types of external incentives/pressures: Russia (negative incentive) and the Euro Atlantic membership (positive incentive). The wariness of Russia pushed Lithuanian political elites to commit themselves to full integration into Western institutions. Once this strategic choice has been made, membership of NATO and especially EU, acted as the primary driver for internal change during the accession process and beyond.

“Since the majority of voters also consistently supported these political choices, there was a kind of societal consensus. Without it, I have hard time imaging subsequent success,” says Lašas, the author of a recent book on backstage democracy practices in Lithuania.

He believes that the issue of meta-motivation is relevant for all international organisations that seek to make change in highly corrupt countries. If one cannot construct an adequate meta-motivation for change, the policy related efforts are much more likely to fail.

“You need a foundation in order to build a house,” says KTU political scientist.

Digitisation of services adds to the transparency of the public sector

Backstage democracy Lithuania
The books spans the transitional two decades in Lithuanian business-politics relationships

One of the key insights from the book is the significant reduction in the prevalence of corruption in Lithuania since the early 2000s, especially in everyday encounters faced by ordinary citizens. Lašas attributes this positive shift to factors such as the digitisation of various services, which has enhanced transparency and quality in public service delivery.

“Overall, the quality of public services has risen, reducing the need to bribe someone to get something done. Also, the arrival of Western European business in Lithuania brought different business practices, which prompted the changes in the employee mentality. Last but not least, a new generation came of age. Having travelled extensively around the world, they returned to Lithuania bringing back different educational experiences and different values,” says Lašas.

Nowadays in Lithuania, according to the researcher, the more pressing problem is not necessarily political corruption but rather the incompetence of politicians and public servants. He points out a dearth of competent specialists in government roles, and the challenges in attracting skilled professionals to the public sector and politics. According to him, this is partly due to the uncertain and often unrewarding career path.

“There are no quick and effective recipes here. We just need to consistently improve the attractiveness of the civil service so that we can attract the best possible people,” says Lašas, one of the teachers of the Public Governance and Civil Society study programme at KTU.

Can serve as a study for implementing more transparent practices worldwide

According to the political scientist from KTU, in Lithuania, the question of why people keep voting for incompetent politicians is a complex and painful one. Lašas believes that not everyone sees professional competence as the most important criterion – people are often more impressed by other aspects: ideological similarities, a politician’s eloquence, attention to the electorate, electoral promises or even appearance.

However, populist political parties and politicians are not unique to any one country; likewise, corruption can occur anywhere.

“Politics is connected to power, opportunity and, of course, temptation. Moreover, it is often an art of compromise, and there are situations in which politicians are put under additional pressure. Luckily, there are instruments that can at least partially manage the risk,” says Lašas.

That is why his book, Lašas maintains, is not just a Lithuanian case study; it offers a broader perspective on the challenges and changes in business-state relations, making it relevant to readers interested in political science, public policy, and administration.

Backstage Democracy provides original theoretical and analytical frameworks that can be applied and tested in various national and regional contexts. Lašas hopes that the book will contribute to the understanding of opaque systems and inspire efforts to promote transparency worldwide.