Tag Archives: Greece corruption

For whom the drum rolls

Children around Greece are pacing up and down their schoolyards banging drums in preparation for the March 25 Independence Day parades. What could be more dramatic ahead of a day likely to be marked by vehement protest against the political system and the austerity measures it’s applying than a loud drumroll?

For some Greeks, March 25 is building up to be a moment to express disapproval of everything their politicians have come to represent. For others, it will be an opportunity to release their anger by hurling yogurt and abuse at their political representatives. Some will just be gripped by the fear that it could all get out of hand and rip the fragile fabric of Greek society.

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Mak, the knife that cuts deep

Ilustration by Manos Symeonakis

The Greek justice system has succeeded where terrorists, human rights groups, thousands of campaigners and dozens of former heads of state have failed: in securing the release of a political prisoner. That’s how businessman, soccer club owner and judicial enigma Makis Psomiadis referred to himself when he was arrested earlier this month after spending almost three months on the run from authorities who accused him of being a key player in a widespread match-fixing ring.

Psomiadis, who has over the last four decades been accused — and in many cases found guilty — of offenses as diverse as gold smuggling, embezzlement, blackmail and tax evasion, uttered the phrase “I am a political prisoner,” with no sense of shame or irony. The justice system responded in kind by deciding to release Psomiadis on bail after spending just a few days in custody. This, despite the fact that he is alleged to be one of the central players in an illegal gambling network that generated millions in profits from fixing the outcome of Greek soccer games at all levels.

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Memorandum II: The sequel – Dude, where’s my state?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

As Greece draws breath after voting for a new package of austerity measures likely to pave the way for another loan agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, this might be an opportune moment to identify one of the key faults with the first memorandum signed last year. Because, like a Hollywood sequel which follows a dire original, Memorandum II is likely to make us want to look away in horror.

There is plenty in the medium-term fiscal plan, or MTFP as it’s known in sequel speak, about reducing public spending. Greece plans to save more than 14 billion euros by 2015. This means, among other things, that the public sector wage bill will be cut by 770 million euros this year, 600 millon in 2012, 448 million in 2013, 300 million in 2014 and 71 million in 2015.

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A marriage of convenience

For some reason, weddings seemed to be on people’s minds over the past few weeks. Along with tying the knot, anniversaries were also a popular subject. While Britain revelled in Will and Kate’s moment in the sun, Greeks had a less pleasant moment of their own to share: a few days before the royal wedding, Greece marked a year since it made an official appeal to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan package.

Understandably, there was no flag waving or street parties to accompany the one-year anniversary of Greece admitting its political and economic failure. There was no puffing out of chests or swelling of pride to mark the 12 months since Prime Minister George Papandreou accepted that the party was over for Greece and it needed help to pay a bill that would have made even the Windsor’s wince.

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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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My good man

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

During my childhood in England, Christmas was never complete without watching a James Bond movie. Despite having the misfortune of growing up during the Roger Moore years, I was never put off by his acting, which was more wooden than the Trojan Horse: once the first bars of Monty Norman’s theme tune rang out, the holidays really got under way.

The rights to the Bond films were far too expensive for Greek state TV in the 1980s, so rather than watching 007 in action during Christmas in Athens, I spent my time acquainting myself with the wonders of Agent 000, as played by the exceptional Greek actor Thanasis Veggos. While Moore provided the thrills and spills, Veggos supplied the mirth and laughter in his surreal send-up of spy movies.

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Veggos and his films, of which there have been more than 100. So it seemed symbolic that just a few days before this Christmas, Veggos, now aged 83, should enter the hospital for brain surgery for the second time in a year. It wasn’t just poignant on a personal level; Veggos’s frailty was a reminder of how Greek society’s health has deteriorated since the 1950s, when he made his acting debut, and how the country now also finds itself in intensive care.

What attracted me to Veggos as a child was his humor. At first it was the slapstick, farcical element to his acting, but gradually I began to appreciate the ability of his downtrodden and hard-on-their-luck characters to laugh at their predicament and at the absurdity of others who were more fortunate. I know quite a few people who have never taken to Veggos and his films, dismissing him as the Keystone Kop of Greek cinema, but this does him a great disservice. It fails to take into account the pathos of his performances, his ability to balance humor with sadness and even combine the two in moments of cinematic genius. In this respect, he was more Charlie Chaplin than Keystone Kop.

His adeptness at both comedy and drama gave Veggos unique respect among both his peers and audiences. His ability to embody the joys and fears of working-class Greeks, who in the 50s, 60s and 70s were the bulk of the population, made him a real everyman, a face and voice that everyone could identify and sympathize with. In his films, he represented a generation that didn’t have much but didn’t need much either. Contentment came from being respected by the people around you and being able to earn an honest living. His life reflected those of people who survived the hardship of war, the poverty of economic collapse and the brutishness of political intolerance. Veggos experienced all of these, as his father, a war hero, lost his job in the public sector because of his political beliefs. Veggos spent two years exiled on Makronissos for his own leftist political leanings. There, he met director Nikos Koundouros, who cast him in his 1954 film “The Magic City” (Magiki polis), launching the actor’s on-screen career.

Both on and off set, Veggos embodied the values of a people that knew what hardship meant. A couple of years ago, when picking up an award, he tearfully remembered how hard he had worked to survive (saying literally in Greek, “I had to row furiously”). It seems fitting that now he no longer has the strength to pull those oars, the society around him has also become weak, sapped of its energy and the moral underpinnings that were its life force. The weather-beaten faces and calloused hands of those challenging times have been replaced by the moisturized skin and expanding waistlines that came with economic prosperity and political stability.

In many of his films, Veggos rode around on Vespa scooters, addressing strangers as “My good man” (Kale mou anthrope), but by the 90s, when he was limited to cameos, Greeks had begun driving SUVs and blanking even their neighbors. Whereas decency and togetherness were once the pillars supporting each community, avarice and individuality became the buzzwords of the last couple of decades. Whereas humor was once derived from laughing at one’s own misfortune, more recently laughter was generated by the weakness of others – until the Greeks and their crisis became the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Then, the realization set in that over the years the country had lost much more than the billions needed to cover its deficit.

The transformation of Greek society from one driven by a working class that knew how to live within its means to one driven by a middle class for whom the ends justified the means is where the causes of many of today’s problems lie. It’s during this time that aspiration became linked to material possessions rather than personal fulfillment, it’s when owning a home became more important than making one and when Greeks learned to live off credit rather than earn it. This change in mind-set is one of the main reasons that all kinds of shady political and business practices became not only legitimized but encouraged. This gave to the neo-Greek who obliterated everything of value from his previous life his pursuit of what he thought would be a more precious one.

Businessmen who believed they would be safe in palaces built by easy money realize now that they were living in castles made of sand. Unionists who took it upon themselves to safeguard the benefits of the few now face the reality that they did a disservice to the many. Civil servants who ensconsed themselves in the public sector now discover that it’s not such a comfortable place to be. Self-employed professionals who refused to issue receipts or dodged their taxes are confronted with the cost of their actions. Politicians who gave the people what they wanted rather than what the country needed now find themselves exposed to the wrath of those whose interests they betrayed. As Veggos fights to recover after intensive care, these are just some of the Greeks picking up the pieces of their shattered illusions. The one thing that remains constant, however, is that those who worked hard and honestly continue to carry the country’s burden.

In one of his best-known movies, “The Man Who Ran a Lot,” Veggos approaches a man who has been stood up by his lover for more than an hour in the hope of selling him a watch. “It’s perfect for troubled lovers,” he says. “It’s always half an hour slow just to console you.” For Greece, looking back can bring only scant consolation: The values that Veggos and his like stood for have long disappeared. The country’s only hope is that time will also overtake those that replaced them.

Nick Malkoutzis

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.