Tag Archives: Costas Simitis

When US presidents meet Greek premiers: Tales of high significance and low expectations

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

As he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras might allow himself a wry smile. For so long an outcast of Greek politics and more recently a pariah among European peers, Samaras has seen international leaders rally around him since he came to power last June. And now, the big one: A meeting with Barack Obama in the White House.

Leaving aside the moment’s personal prestige, Samaras is actually following a well-trodden path, which has led Greek premiers from Athens to the White House over the course of eight decades. Since Konstantinos Tsaldaris left the civil war behind in December 1946 to visit Harry Truman and ask for financial and military assistance, eight Greek leaders have made a beeline to Washington in the hope of finding some succour. In fact, Costas Simitis, who met George W. Bush in 2002, is probably the only Greek prime minister who arrived with something to offer. The ex-PASOK leader gave Bush a new euro coin and a sweat shirt with the Athens2004 Olympics logo on it.

Samaras will be in Washington when Congress is not in session. Some have seen this, along with the fact he was not offered a working lunch with Obama, as a sign that his visit is of minor importance. The Greek premier, however, can take comfort in knowing that his arrival will be less of an inconvenience to the US President than the April 1961 visit of Constantine Karamanlis. The conservative leader was having lunch with John F Kennedy at the White House on the same day that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched in Cuba.

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When silence is the best policy

KaramanlisPapandreou_Gump

Despite receiving a bullet in the post and having an MP from the Independent Greeks suggesting it won’t be long before someone shoots him, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is more likely to be concerned by this week’s “friendly fire” rather than any other kind.

Unhinged Cretans and boorish opposition MPs are hardly the worst that Stournaras is going to face during his time in the scorching hotseat at the Greek Finance Ministry. Attacks from within are a different matter, though.

A number of New Democracy lawmakers lined up to take pot shots at him over the past few days for a number of reasons, top of which was his decision in recent interviews to discuss the fiscal derailment that took place between 2004 and 2009, when Greece was led by Costas Karamanlis and his conservative government. In doing so, Stournaras has broached a somewhat taboo subject.

“I will show you a chart with annual public spending as a percentage of GDP,” he told Sunday’s Kathimerini in an interview. “From the early 1990s until 2006, when it reached 45.2 percent, there were few fluctuations. Immediately afterwards, in 2007 it rose to 47.6 percent, in 2008 to 50.6 percent and in 2009, it skyrockets to 53.8 percent. The only way I can describe what happened after 2006 is an economic derailment.”

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Greece and the euro: The end of the affair

Graffiti by Absent

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a Danish journalist in front of Parliament. He took out a 2-euro coin, flipped it over and showed me the engraving depicting the mythological story of Europa being whisked off by Zeus, who transformed himself into a bull to achieve the task. It’s a scene that is usually known as the seduction, or even abduction, of Europa. “This coin shows the Rape of Europa,” the journalist said. “Do you think Greece is raping Europe or is Europe raping Greece?”

After picking up my jaw from the floor, I gave an inadequate answer about Europe and Greece having a consensual relationship that was going through a rough patch. “We knew all about each other when we climbed into bed together,” was my final repost to his jarring question. Of course, the truth is that seduction only really works when you don’t know all about each other. And, as we’ve discovered over the last few months, Greece knew little about itself, let alone about Europe, before becoming part of the euro.

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Disposable heroes of hypocrisy

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

Is Greece corrupt? If it’s possible to quantify such things, as the graft watchdog Transparency International does regularly, then the answer is yes. Does that make all Greeks corrupt? Emphatically, no. Does it mean that Greece is forever destined to walk Europe’s corridors of power feeling like an inbred among lots of thoroughbreds? Again, absolutely not. It’s really as simple as that. But over the past few days, much of the media and political world — no strangers to the odd corrupt moment themselves — decided it would be more fun to muddy the waters. At a time when thousands of people’s jobs are on the line and the country’s immediate future still hangs in the balance, they chose to play a childish game of pinning blame for the corrupt image that haunts Greece.

At the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Washington last Friday, the head of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, held a news conference. During this session, which was not attended by any Greek journalists, Juncker referred to a Greek prime minister openly admitting that his country was corrupt. When his comments were later reported second- and third-hand, it sparked faux moral anguish from scores of politicians and journalists. Suddenly, there was a hunt on to uncover this dastardly Greek premier, who so heartlessly sold his country down the river to snobbish European bureaucrats. It was a game that PASOK and New Democracy played with glee.

Forgotten for the past few months in the fusty attic that politics reserves for retired leaders, Costas Simitis sprang into life like a well-oiled jack-in-the-box to vehemently deny he’d ever claimed Greece was corrupt — even though this was the same Simitis who, as prime minister, in a frank assessment of his nation’s deep-rooted incompetence following the sinking of the Samina Express passenger ferry in September 2000 had said: “That’s Greece.” Another ex-premier, Costas Karamanlis, the talking bear whose pull string no longer works, also let it be known via his friends that he would never bring such shame on the country he served for five and a half years — even though this was the same Karamanlis who six months after coming to power in 2004 had told a select group of MPs over souvlaki and beer that he was determined to confront corruption by taking on the “five pimps” (industrialists and publishers) that controlled the country.

As it turned out, Juncker had not recounted a private conversation with either of these premiers. The head of the group of 16 countries that use the euro currency had simply referred to one of several public comments over the last 12 months by current Prime Minister George Papandreou about his country’s unsuccessful battle against graft. This appeared to settle the dispute but, aided by compliant members of the media, ND and PASOK tried to squeeze a little more playtime out of the affair, launching claims and counterclaims at each other. Oblivious to the hypocrisy of it all, ND even demanded an apology from PASOK on behalf of Karamanlis for implicating the ex-prime minister. Meanwhile, nobody spared a thought for the Greek people, who were the ones really deserving of an apology.
All this flapping over trivialities meant that an added, more important dimension to Juncker’s comments went largely unnoticed in Greece. The Luxembourg prime minister said he’d known for some time that the Greek economy would hit a brick wall but he “could not go public with the knowledge.” The crisis could have been avoided, in Juncker’s opinion, if Greece had adopted different policies in the past. “It was clear that this problem would occur,” he said, according to the Irish Times, which was actually at his news conference. “We knew it would, because we were discussing it among the Germans, the French and myself.”

How gratifying it is to know that Greece’s failed policies, for which the same Greek taxpayers have been paying for so many years, provided a hot topic for conversation between our continental partners — partners who, for reasons that Juncker did not clarify, decided to remain silent about these catastrophic shortcomings. Could it be that as long as Greece was useful to Germany and France as an importer of goods and purchaser of weapons, nobody wanted to rock the boat? Or, was it that they feared the impact on the single currency if widespread corruption and mismanagement was uncovered in one of the eurozone’s member states? Maybe Juncker will eventually reveal what prevented Europe’s big players from enforcing the strict terms of monetary union and forcing Greece to put its house in order, allowing instead one of the members of what was once known as a “community” and now as a “union” to dig an ever deeper hole for itself as they looked on in silence.

Of course, Juncker and other European leaders would argue that they cajoled their Greek counterparts in a way that avoided publicity so as to minimize the damage to the country’s credibility. Presumably, they would also argue that, ultimately, it was Greece’s responsibility to implement the changes its eurozone peers had recommended. Both arguments are valid. After all, it would be a serious dereliction of duty if a country’s leader consistently ignored warnings that disaster would strike unless specific measures were taken, wouldn’t it?

It was illuminating, therefore, to read Tony Barber’s account in the Financial Times last week about how European leaders arrived in April and May at the decision to provide, with the assistance of the IMF, 110 billion euros of emergency loans to Greece and then set up a 750-billion-euro “stabilization mechanism” for the other eurozone countries. Barber describes how on May 7 in Brussels, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, spoke bluntly to the leaders of eurozone countries about the dangers to the single currency. “Mr Trichet told the leaders that the crisis was partly their own fault because they had too often turned a deaf ear to ECB appeals for fiscal discipline after the euro’s launch,” writes Barber. “The ECB, he said, had repeatedly warned of the need for strict control of public borrowing and spending.”

Well, what do you know? Could it be that at the same time Greek leaders were unwilling to heed advice because it involved taking non-politically expedient measures, their European counterparts were doing exactly the same thing?

The furor over Juncker’s comments should not disguise that Greece has a serious corruption problem, which is clear to all regardless of whether our leaders admit it publicly or not. But the dust that’s been kicked up this week by politicians and journalists should also not cloud the fact that although hypocrisy is a Greek word, it’s not an exclusively Greek trait.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 15, 2010.

Judgment day

Earlier this year, I landed in London a few hours before former Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to face the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. It was the first opportunity the British people had to see Blair answering questions about his deeply unpopular decision to send British troops to Iraq since he stepped down from office some three years earlier. It had all the makings of a watershed moment for British democracy: a prime minister who was perceived as mendacious being brought to account by a team of experts. The reality, though, proved much less fulfilling.

Time did not stop for Londoners, apart perhaps for the few dozen protesters outside the hearing, brandishing their “Bliar” placards, and the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq who attended the sessions. In fact, most people went about their normal business. This sense of normality on what was in many ways a historic day suggested Britons had long ago accepted Blair went into Iraq for the wrong reasons and they had since moved on with their lives. For the rest, the hope of any politician — let alone one as skilled in the art of communication as Blair — being forced into a corner by an inquiry panel had long since passed.

As Andrew Rawnsley, a political commentator for the Observer weekly, wrote at the time: “There was never a chance that the former prime minister was going to break down in a blubbering confession to atrocious errors before handing himself over to the protesters outside who had mocked up a jail for him.” The British public, just like savvy voters in many other countries, had come to accept that inquiries may embarrass and inconvenience politicians and public officials but they rarely hold them to account for their acts. However independent the hearings may be – and in Greece they are not at all, since they are carried out by sitting MPs – they exist because a prime minister or a parliament has decided that they should. Those who work with or within the political system have many faults but biting off the hand that feeds them is rarely one of them.

That’s why it was such a surprise last week that the parliamentary committee investigating the Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal should actually produce an admission of guilt from a politician. Former Transport Minister Tasos Mantelis’s admission that he accepted bribes from Siemens Hellas prompted calls for former PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who appointed and worked with Mantelis, to appear before the same parliamentary committee to answer questions about what he knew of the shady deals being done by members of his government.

This bandwagon is being driven by New Democracy, which under its new leader, Antonis Samaras, senses an opportunity to publicly haul Simitis over the coals and to establish in the public’s mind that PASOK is a deeply corrupt party. It’s a perception that could serve him well at the next general election, whenever that may be. But PASOK is not going to sit idly by and let its former leader be the one to carry the blame for years of corruption, so it has begun pushing for ex-conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to face the committee of MPs investigating the real-estate swap between the state and the Vatopedi Monastery after testimony suggested that some of his closest aides had helped set up the allegedly corrupt deal.

Simitis’s response has been a flat rejection, claiming that his appearance before the panel without evidence linking him to any wrongdoing would simply reward and fuel baseless speculation. From Karamanlis’s side there has simply been what we’ve come to expect from the former ND leader, given the pattern of his five years in office: no response at all. They both risk embarrassment if they do appear before the committees. Simitis’s premiership, perhaps the most productive of Greece’s recent history, could be reduced to nothing more than a tawdry tale of under-the-table deals and broken promises. Karamanlis, for whom the public indignation is still fresh, is in jeopardy of confirming the suspicion that he was dwarfed by the size of his task and let Greece’s hopes burn while he fiddled.

They are both aware that there is nothing more the political system could do with now than two high-profile sacrificial lambs. It would give the public an opportunity to channel their anger and the current breed of politicians of all hues to claim they are the new broom sweeping away the dirt of the past. As British historian Tristram Hunt – who himself has gone into politics as a Labour MP – put it: “Ever since the scribes of the Renaissance branded the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages,’ propagandists have deployed history to codify the future. You rubbish the past as a lost opportunity of waste, indecision and stupidity. And you celebrate the present as a blessed release from such hopelessness.”

As two of the many architects of Greece’s divisive and shambolic political system, Simitis and Karamanlis know full well what awaits them. Like the builders of a rickety summer house who have been invited for a weekend stay – they know that the knob will come off in their hand as soon as they open the door and that the whole structure will collapse on them within hours.

They clearly have a strong argument for not wanting to put themselves through this ordeal but the reasons for coming forward are even more powerful. Their refusal to attend the committee hearings would mean that Greece’s institutions are a sham and the political system is at a dead-end with little hope of finding a way out. The momentum for change has to come from somewhere and with the current government struggling to cope, it seems incapable of providing this forward movement. It’s an ideal opportunity for these two men – who led Greece for 13 years in total – to be in the vanguard of those dragging the country to more fertile pastures, rather than skulking at the back. It’s a chance for them to admit the mistakes of the past so they should not repeated in the future. It’s even a moment for them to stand up and defend themselves if necessary but it’s certainly not the time to dismiss Greece’s democracy and its institutions as tired and toothless.

Rawnsley wrote of Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry: “This was certainly not Judgment Day. Tony Blair once said that he expected to have to answer to his Maker. Assuming they ever meet, perhaps he is right.” Simitis and Karamanlis are not likely to meet their Maker soon but they will encounter a lot of people who voted for them, which may prove a much scarier prospect, given the anger that’s fermenting among disillusioned Greeks. If they ever expect to be able to look these people in the eye rather than have to turn their backs to hails of abuse, then they must appear at the committee hearings. Unlike Blair, they do not have to protect powerful international allies or colleagues still serving in government. Simitis and Karamanlis are not bound by the constraints of a system that has now catapulted them to its fringes. They should, therefore, speak up and let the people judge.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 5.