I’ve read the back-and-forth posts on the FCPA Blog about Colombia with great interest. In addition to teaching me something new, the discussion inspired me to promote another country that rarely makes it to the top of the foreign direct investment list — Belarus.
On the Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus is ranked 119. Not a good start for my argument. But considering that the CPI is based on perceptions, I feel justified inserting my opinions.
First, I’m biased. I’m an American but I was born in Belarus. I still have family and close friends there. It’s also my personal (and professional) goal to help stimulate investment in Belarus over the next decade.
Toward that end, I offer some personal experiences . . .
In 2012, I participated in the legal clinic at the Russian Customs Academy in St. Petersburg. After I told the clinic director that I was originally from Belarus, she floored me with her response: “That’s a harsh country, Belarus. Really harsh country. I mean, they don’t even take bribes there!”
Russians believe that Belarusian authorities don’t take bribes, and they consider it (jokingly, perhaps) a bad thing! But should we believe that?
When my friend — who I’ll call “Bilya” — was nineteen and celebrating New Year’s in Minsk, the celebration went too far. Bilya found himself face-to-face with a “militiaman” at 5 in the morning. Militiamen are essentially national police.
Despite having disturbed the peace in a few embarrassing ways, Bilya wasn’t arrested. The militiaman decided to let him go. Grateful for the outcome, Bilya turned to the militiaman and asked, “Is there a fine?”
“What?” the militiaman responded.
“Is there a fine that I have to pay?”
The militiaman stared at Bilya for a couple of moments and just commanded, “Go home!”
In the sober light of the next day, Bilya appreciated what the militiaman had done for him. Being arrested in a foreign country is never a good thing. And though Bilya certainly wasn’t trying to pay a bribe, a corrupt law enforcement official could have easily spun it that way.
And this anecdote brings us to a more objective analysis. Shouldn’t any evaluation of a country’s corruption begin at street level — with its law enforcement officials?
The policy in Belarus is that by compensating militiamen handily (and punishing militiamen who break the laws), the government will strongly discourage the taking of bribes.
Yes, Belarus has plenty of room to improve its investment climate. But perhaps there’s a better foundation for FDI than would meet the eye.
In coming posts, I’ll talk further about why Belarus should be regarded as more than just “the last dictatorship of Europe.”