Tag Archives: Costas Karamanlis

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, land of pain and joy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are rare moments when a thread of togetherness winds its way through a country to lift its everyday burdens. Sometimes, these moments are born from political, sporting or other types of victories. But victories tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in people. It’s usually moments of grief or sadness that stoke the purest of emotions, creating a fleeting sense of community before it’s sucked into the morass of daily stresses and strains.

Greece experienced such a moment last Sunday when the death of singer-songwriter and musician Nikos Papazoglou was announced. He was an unassuming man who made rare public appearances and dodged the media spotlight. The reaction to his death was a reflection of people’s love for his pure and passionate music, but it was also a sign of respect for Papazoglou the human being: as an artist he shunned commercialism and stayed true to his values and as a man he remained humble and generous despite his fame.

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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.

No time for heroes

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren’t always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom,” says one of the characters in German writer Bertolt Brecht’s landmark anti-war play “Mother Courage and her Children.” How fitting that comment seemed this week: As Greece battled to keep the dogs of default at bay and Greeks tried to come to terms with a new economic reality, New Democracy’s hierarchs sought to bicker and settle old scores, prompting the united response of “Who cares?” from the watching public.

At the end of last week, ex-Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said she would not be attending New Democracy’s central committee meeting on the weekend, as she believed it inappropriate for the party to be debating internal issues when the country is hobbling through its worst post-war economic crisis. In other words, she was trying to put country before party. Her boycott, however, gave the impression of exactly the opposite. It suggested Bakoyannis was a sore loser still seeking the limelight that eluded her when she was defeated in last November’s leadership election and painted ND as a party that cares about little else than itself.

Bakoyannis’s argument that discussing policies or debating current issues with other party members would not be fitting because of the crisis is blatantly absurd. It’s not like Greece is about to be struck by a meteorite and the whole population has to be rooted to the spot, staring up at the sky for the signs of imminent catastrophe. Employees are not calling work saying they’re not coming in because the bond spread has passed 400 percentage points. So, why should politicians stop going about their normal business?

It appears that Bakoyannis’s decision was designed to make waves, to see how the Samaras leadership vessel, barely out of port, weathers the storm. There was no love lost between Samaras and Bakoyannis before their fractious leadership race but the former foreign minister clearly still feels aggrieved at her defeat by the ex-culture minister. There is even talk of Bakoyannis quitting the party and forming her own. Seasoned commentators feel that if she did walk out of the door, only a handful of conservative deputies would follow her. It’s unlikely to be the dramatic mass exodus she may dream or scheme of.

It’s virtually a golden rule of politics that defeat has a dizzying, disorientating effect on the parties that suffer it. So, consider the damaging impact that being kicked out with the rest of Costas Karamanlis’s government and then losing the party leadership from her grip had on Bakoyannis. Allegiance, tradition, obsequiousness – these all tend to evaporate when a party or a politician have been dumped on their backsides, as ND and Bakoyannis – both defeated by a 10-percent margin last year – were.

Even in Japan, where loyalty is pervasive, a small group of conservative rebels led by former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano have just broken away from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP was ousted from power last year after enjoying 54 years of almost uninterrupted rule. If New Democracy is plagued by self-doubt and loathing after just five years in power, imagine what sort of navel-gazing is going on at the LDP headquarters. In fact, some analysts think that after such a long time in power, the LDP does not know how to be an opposition party. On Saturday, five of its MPs announced the formation of Tachiagare Nippon (The Sunrise Party of Japan) with little hope of making an immediate impact on the political scene. It’s not just the party’s small size that will limit its impact; there are several other vital ingredients missing, as Bakoyannis and Samaras should note. “The party lacks the three most important aspects needed to become a genuine force, which are political vision, specific policy and a fresh face,” political analyst Minoru Morita told the Japan Times.

Neither New Democracy, nor Bakoyannis, posses these qualities. If the ex-foreign minister, who showed ability as a diplomat, is considering forming her own party, then at some point she will surely take time to think about the slew of failed go-it-alone projects, launched by Greek politicians with much less talent than her, that litter the political path to oblivion.

This is why it’s quite likely that Bakoyannis’s boycott, for which Samaras threatened to expel her, will end up being little more than a tiff. However, the damage to ND, which has yet to find its feet under new leadership, has already been done. Over the last few months, all the conservatives have offered is a mixture of stunned silence and shallow attacks on the government, which expose them as having no better ideas about how to tackle the crisis. One minute, ND is blaming PASOK for being too slow in taking action – this, coming from a party that spent five years doing little to build on the legacy of entry into the euro and the successful hosting of the Olympics and even less on tackling chronic structural problems. The next minute, ND is raging against the ills of the International Monetary Fund when it knows the only reason the government is considering accepting assistance from the IMF is that the towering deficit it inherited from the conservatives makes it impossible to borrow at reasonable rates on international markets.

Now, Samaras has begun calling on PASOK – which is still struggling to ensure Greece can pay its bills next month – to start stimulating growth in the economy. It’s like asking someone to run fast when you’ve put treacle in their shoes and chained their legs to a tree. It does little to help the ND leader gain credibility with voters, most of whom are highly skeptical about any theoretical pronouncements politicians have to make at the moment, since they know that only practical solutions to very real problems are going to be of any use.

This need for pragmatism seems to have eluded New Democracy. The Bakoyannis episode was typical of a party that, just as it was in government, is full of big — although not necessarily good — ideas but struggles to make an actual impact. If Samaras is going to change this –- with or without Bakoyannis on board -– he’s going have to accept that pompousness is no substitute for productivity. In Brecht’s play, Mother Courage explains that if a commander needs heroic soldiers, it’s proof he’s not doing his job properly: “Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.” Greece doesn’t want heroes now, it just needs people that do their job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 16.