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Scandals Ruin Image : No Longer Untarnished, Swedes Find

November 11, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

STOCKHOLM — The late Gunnar Myrdal, the world renowned Swedish sociologist and economist, used to muse, "Why has this country never experienced corruption?"

Like Myrdal, most Swedes were proud of their government's lofty reputation for efficiency and probity: Other nations might have to battle corruption and incompetence, but Swedes assumed they were immune.

But, now, something has gone wrong with Sweden's squeaky clean self-image, and possibly with the country itself.

In recent months, Sweden's confidence and sense of superiority have been tested by a series of embarrassing scandals in its government and law enforcement agencies that have left the country shaken and querulous.

Palme Investigation

The scandals have ranged from the botched investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme--whose killer has never been identified--to charges that Swedish weapons makers were paying bribes in order to get contracts. Even the chief ombudsman, the once-irreproachable guardian of the Swedish civic conscience, has been challenged for fiddling with his expense account.

In Stockholm's handsome Parliament building, Anders Bjoerck, a leading member of the opposition Moderate Party, reviewed the growing list of scandals and commented: "We Swedes took the view that corruption could not happen here. It only happens abroad. So we have been more naive and less suspicious, without built-in safety checks."

On the other side of the building, another member of Parliament, Sture Ericson of the ruling Social Democrats, said: "There has certainly been damage to our national image. Swedes used to be convinced we were right in most respects. Now we have to face some hard facts. We may not be any more ethical or competent than our neighbors in Europe."

Closer to Normal

And the independent daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter editorialized: "We are no longer holding the Swedish model intact. We are gliding closer to a normal European type of society and humanity."

"I'm afraid the Swedish national psyche is not as good as it was," said Olof Ruin, a professor of political science, in an interview in his high-rise office at Stockholm University.

Sweden's troubles--at least the national appreciation of them--began with the still-unsolved slaying of Palme on a downtown street on Feb. 28, 1986, as he was returning home from a movie theater. The police were slow in arriving on the scene, in cordoning off the area and in setting up roadblocks and airport surveillance to catch the assassin.

Later, Police Commissioner Hans Holmer issued a number of statements about suspects but reported no significant clues. At one point, he ordered the roundup of a score of Kurdish immigrants but had to release them for lack of evidence. He resigned under fire earlier this year, and since then the police ombudsman has disclosed that the Kurds' civil rights were violated during the search for the killer.

'Just Don't Know'

"The sad thing," said Bjoerck, the Moderate Party member of Parliament, "is that we just don't know who killed Palme."

In the wake of the Palme investigation came the ombudsman affair. In 1809, Sweden developed the concept of the ombudsman, an officer designated to protect the rights of the citizens from the government. Sweden gave the word to the English language, and many other governments and corporations have since borrowed the concept.

But a few months ago Sweden's chief ombudsman, Per-Erik Nilsson, was accused of mixing pleasure with business on official trips abroad--specifically with taking his secretary along on a vacation to Portugal, which he claimed was an official government trip.

Rather than face a long investigation, Nilsson resigned.

More recently, the Swedish security services were involved in another embarrassing incident, the escape of Sten Bergling, who in 1979 was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and was serving a sentence of life in prison.

Both Had Disappeared

Under Sweden's liberal penal rules, Bergling had been allowed to make a conjugal visit to his wife in her suburban Stockholm apartment. His guard, who had checked into a nearby hotel, went to pick up his prisoner the following morning only to find that the Berglings had disappeared.

Again the police bulletin came hours too late. And it was disclosed that Bergling had been allowed to change his name to Eugene Sandberg as part of the prison rehabilitation process and had obtained a passport under the new name.

"This was another example of police incompetence and lack of coordination of the various security authorities," Ericson, the Social Democrat, said. "These conjugal visits may be a worthwhile penal experiment, but I don't think you should experiment with spies."

Justice Minister Sten Wickbom resigned.

Medical Pension

The investigation also brought out that Bergling/Sandberg had been given a medical pension of $9,000 a year for what were described as the "strains of prison life."

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