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Tuesday 13.11.2018 | Name days: Jevgēņija, Jevgēņijs, Eižens

Lithuanian authorities mull expanding lobbyist list to NGOs and legal persons

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

Although Lithuanian legislature, Seimas, opted not to include non-governmental organisations (NGO) in the list of lobbyists last year, the Ministry of Justice is revisiting the idea anew. It wants not only to add NGOs to the lobbyist list, but also allow legal persons to become lobbyists.

Representatives of several ministries and NGOs were invited this week to a meeting in the Ministry and asked to analyse and provide their opinion on the amendments to the Law on Lobbying Activities. According to the ministry’s spokesman Audrius Kutrevičius, these are only preliminary draft amendments.

Their initiators say lobbying activities will become more transparent following the adoption of these amendments. Critics say however it would be wrong to attribute NGOs to lobbyists as they often represent the public interest and do not seek a profit.

Should the Ministry move with the proposals forward, even flower growers and a gathering of amateur knitting enthusiasts could be potentially deemed lobbyists, the critics say.

The proposal to allow legal persons to become lobbyists has come under fire too as it would reduce legal persons’ responsibility for lobbying activities.

Why the Ministry wants to expand the list of the country’s lobbyists is unclear, however media sites that Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis himself has backed up the idea.

According to Audrius Kutrevičius, of the Ministry‘s Communications Division, representatives of different ministries as well as nongovernmental organisations will convene next week and will be asked to voice their notions on the draft amendments.

To date, 64 legal and physical entities registered themselves as lobbyists in the country.

Martynas Nagevičius, one of them, told BNN that the idea to put NGOs on the list is not «bad» , as most of them exert to influence the politicians, he says.

«Greenpeace and the Catholic Church are not any exceptions in the regard. With the expanded list, we would avoid indefiniteness – who is lobbyist and who is not, where lobbyism starts and where it ends. In a nutshell, every person and every organisation, regardless of its kind, should be seen as lobbyists if they attempt to influence the decision-makers,»  Nagevičius emphasised.

He also argues that with the expanded list, the image of all of the lobbyists would improve.

«Unfortunately, now it is not the way it should be,»  he added.

The Ministry suggests that only those who submit more than five lobbyism proposals per year should be considered lobbyists.

However, not all embrace the proposal, saying that the number of initiatives does not matter, but the influence (of the lobbyist) does matter.

Žilvinas Šilėnas, president of Lithuania’s Free Market Institute (LLRI), says that the intentions of the Ministry are «understandable and justifiable», however the methods through which it seeks to make lobbyist activities more transparent raise doubts.

«Both the current law and the draft amendments contain one big problem. There is danger that authorities will start to divide people and organisations in lobbyists and non-lobbyists without clear criteria. There is a possibility that those in favour of authorities will continue to operate without given the name of lobbyist. Meanwhile those disliked will be attributed the name,»  Šilėnas cautioned.

The determinant who should be deemed lobbyist and who not is who the initiator of a proposal was. If it stems from the authorities and, say, an NGO weighs in on it, then the nongovernmental organisation should not be considered lobbyist, according to one of the proposals. However, if the case is vice versa, the organisation risks being attributed to lobbyists.

«The pretty free interpretation who and when proposed one thing or another poses many dangers. Especially that the draft law envisions alternative definition to those who give authorities advice. I mean the term «public interest defender». However, those who oppose the Government and its structures risks of obtaining the title of lobbyist,» the LLRI head underscored.

«Those on the lobbyist list simply risk of being excluded from the legislative process at the end of the day,» he added. “There is much opaqueness so far that has to be cleared,»  he accentuated.

Povilas Urbšys, member of the parliamentary State Governance and the Municipality Committee, also disapproves of the proposed amendments.

«The nongovernmental sector has never been tantamount partner of Government. Neither on the state nor the municipal level. Alas, NGOs are often seen (by state institutions) as second-hand organisations, which are effectively eliminated from the legislative process. Leave alone their ability to do influence on it,» the MP said. «With the inclusion of nongovernmental organisations on the lobbyist list, their situation will become just worse».

Meanwhile, experts agree that the lobbying community in Lithuania is underdeveloped, often corrupt and mostly negatively perceived by society. Lithuanian interest groups do not usually use sophisticated lobbying practices and access is largely based on personal connections and corrupt practices.

These pessimistic public attitudes towards lobbyists are amplified by the fact that the Lithuanian Lobbying Law, amended several times over the last years, still presents significant obstacles to the formation of interest groups due to the extensive registration processes. Thence the difficulties in implementing lobbying activities.

Meanwhile, the business community, which has been a powerful lobbyism force in the country, made transit to sophisticated interest group and lobbying systems a while ago. This is due to its extensive resources and contacts that businesses have developed with Lithuanian Parliament and Government, the executive branch.

MG Baltic, a business holding which owns a major TV channel (LNK), several news portals and which executives now fight corruption charges in court, embodies the latter kind of lobbyist.

According to experts, the lack of a professional lobbying community in Lithuania may persist in the future because the use of personal contacts to contact public officials makes the development of a lobbying bodies redundant, the lack of knowledge among groups about sophisticated lobbying tactics may include a lack of knowledge about the value of professional lobbyists, and the small population of Lithuania infers that informal politics prevails as a result of personal contacts.

Another factor that should be considered is still pretty weak civic society in Lithuania, and many citizens know little about the importance of legal means aimed at influencing governmental institutions, according to analyst Alvidas Lukošaitis.

«These factors encourage tolerance of corrupt behaviour and the use of illicit methods to influence political decisions. The socio-cultural standards inherited from the Soviet system have conditioned the corrupt societal mentality that in political process is manifested in a variety of corporate corruption, like guidance by narrow interests, clientelism, illicit lobbyism and so on,» he pointed out.

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