Week 4: Thoughts on the Baltic Criminological Seminar

This past week I had the awesome opportunity to attend the 29th annual Baltic Criminological Seminar in Tallinn, Estonia. The seminar brought together university and NGO researchers from eight different countries to present their work on “Crime, Culture, and Social Control.” The work of the criminologists was very illuminating on many issues faced in the Baltic States and beyond.

First, a quick note on the Baltic States as a whole. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are all small countries (Estonia has a total population around 1.3 million, for instance) that all recently gained their independence from the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet occupation, there was very little focus on soft sciences such as sociology and criminology. This seminar was created shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union to address this deficiency, but criminology (and other legal subjects) is still a young discipline in the Baltics, and therefore somewhat undeveloped and borrowing heavily from the West. I have encountered this issue in my own work with VIL IAS. While researching commercial bribery (e.g. a rogue employee of a company takes a kickback from a supplier in return for favorable treatment, a kickback that he does not report to his company), I decided that civil actions might be a way for these companies to recover the bribes or kickbacks and other damages (reputational damages, for instance) from these employees. I discovered that Lithuania’s Civil Code includes provisions on agency and fiduciary duties that are almost identical to the United States. When I brought this to the attention of the director of VIL IAS, he informed me that it was probably copied from the West, but completely ignored by Lithuanian lawyers in practice.

There was a definite sense that the criminologists present at the seminar wished to bring awareness and recognition to research conducted within their respective countries. This is made more difficult by the fact that each country has its own separate language that is really only spoken inside that country’s borders. As one NGO worker put it, “when you want people to pay any attention to your research, you don’t write it in Estonian.” The best language to publish in is English, because that will get the widest readership. But while English was not banned during the Soviet occupations, it was certainly taboo, and is not spoken widely by those who grew up under occupation. While academics are more likely to know English, I did feel a level of discomfort on the part of many of the researchers presenting in English. This discomfort is likely to transfer over to their written work, which may lead to great research being taken less seriously than maybe it should be.

I talked about this difficulty over lunch with another Estonian who runs a hotline for trafficking victims. She expressed these concerns laid out above and also a concern about the presentation abilities of Baltic researchers generally. In Estonia, there is not the same focus on public speaking that there is in the U.S., and she was concerned that this creates a barrier between researchers and those primarily government organizations that would put research into practice.

There is an importance in putting this research into practice. For example, a researcher at the University of Tartu, Estonia (the most prestigious university in the Baltics) found serious deficiencies in the ways that social workers and other prison employees interact with juvenile prisoners, leading to frequent breakdowns in communication that harmed any attempts at juvenile rehabilitation. My colleague from VIL IAS found that legal norms are not utilized in Lithuania to combat stalking, and that victims are frequently blamed for their own predicament and left with no legal recourse. Some researchers attempted to find solutions to problems, such as using drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration (shows promise, but is rarely utilized) or using neutral visual aids to assist child eyewitnesses in recalling information (leads to more false information). One researcher from Germany (while most presenters were from the Baltics, there were also presenters from the U.S., Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the Czech Republic) examined feelings of safety and security and found that parts of a city where people feel unsafe and parts of a city that are actually unsafe are not necessarily the same. Another researcher looked at the experience in states such as Colorado with cannabis legalization and how that could look in Estonia. Overall, there was a wealth of interesting information, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Luckily for me, one of the presenters was also an expert on corruption. I spoke with a professor from the University of Manchester about my work on measuring corruption. Measuring corruption can be a very difficult endeavor for many reasons. For one, paradoxically, the more corrupt a country is, the less likely you are to hear about it. Romania has had a string of high-profile corruption scandals recently, but this does not necessarily mean that Romania is becoming more corrupt. It more likely means that more people are willing to blow the whistle when they would not have before. Commercial bribery, mentioned earlier, is even harder to measure, because there are no statistics. It is also not widely seen as criminal, since it merely involves transaction between two companies, rather than transactions with the government. For these reasons, it is not included in any major models that measure the prevalence or costs of corruption. The most famous model is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but the model has some major flaws. For one, it measures perception only, which is tricky for the reasons I’ve talked about. Even thornier is that these perceptions come from so-called experts who are usually expats of the countries they are reporting on, and may not have a great handle on what is actually happening in the country. As the professor pointed out to me, being based on perceptions, the CPI merely reinforces itself, and barely reflects any changes in a country’s corruption levels from year to year.

Overall, it was a very interesting, and educational experience in Estonia. I’ll be sure to include some thoughts on Tallinn in my next post, which could merit a post all by itself.