Friday 17 December 2010

The Parody of Political Protest in Greece

The elusive logic of the political situation in Greece is perhaps best illustrated by a single event: Every November 17th, a march occurs on the US Embassy in Athens to protest the US support for the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967-1974. The march is held on the anniversary in which the dictatorship’s military forces entered the Polytechnic University and killed 24 civilians in the process. It is usually attended by at least 10,000 participants, and inevitably degenerates into violence, with masked youths trying to break a police cordon and stone or burn the Embassy.

The fact that this march continues every year illustrates that while Greek protesters have been remarkably effective at channeling their anger against foreign enemies or conspiracies, they seem much less ready to take on the vested political interests that have brought the country to what is widely and euphemistically referred to as a dictatorship of the troika, or a loss of sovereignty.

Today, Greece is confronted by at least EUR 340 billion in debt, which is rising at a rate of at least EUR 15 billion in interest costs alone each year, and will increase in 2011 as higher bond spreads take effect. Unemployment has reached 12.4%, a historic high. Pensions and wages have been cut, and the vast state apparatus is slowly being reformed, with tremendous human costs.

At the same time, we are broadly aware that a small minority of political families and companies have been responsible for the vast corruption in public contracts and wider public spending in this country. Their names are fairly well-known, and if specific evidence is needed, an objective investigation into cases such as Siemens, Vatopedi, Skaramanga, OTE procurement, military procurement, pharmaceutical procurement and hundreds of others would quickly reveal them.

For instance, we know that a former Minister of Defence has been implicated in purchasing a luxury house in central Athens from a Cypriot offshore company. This property was valued at a fraction of its market price. This individual goes unpunished. The case is even more remarkable since by most estimates this person’s fortune gained while in office is likely to be two orders of magnitude higher than that published sales price.

Today, we also know that according to Eurostat, Greece has actively falsified or mismanaged its economic statistics and engaged in various financial transactions which proved detrimental to the Greek economy for at least three administrations. None of the high-ranking officials have faced criminal or civil charges, Parliamentary censure, loss of privilege or any other measure.

Today, we know from Germany investigations in that bribes paid to Greek political parties in the Siemens and Skaramanga cases amounted to hundreds of millions of Euros, and we can assume that the conduits for this bribery—the Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation and the armed forces—should rapidly implement a forensic audit of prior contracts to determine additional sources of corruption. This is not being done.

There are hundreds if not thousands of cases like this. So my question is simple. If every year we can march on the US Embassy, why don’t we march every week or every day on a different politician’s house and protest outside it? After all, we know where most of them live. You can see them drinking coffee in Kolonaki or Politeia quite regularly. If the justice system will not work, and if the political parties themselves do not act, then clearly, the citizens must.

Yes, I am sure this will open me to charges of naivety, historical ignorance, inciting vigilantism or worse. But I look at this another way. Certain political elites have managed to brainwash entire generations of Greeks that the Americans are the Great Satan (among myriad other conspiracies) while conveniently distracting attention from their own misdeeds.

Today, we are falling over each other to condemn the violence that occurred on Wednesday. Fair enough. Yet I have to ask: Which politician has every had their accounts audited properly–including their Swiss or Cypriot accounts, or those of their family members or the contractors commissioned during their tenure? Which politician has ever been fined for misuse of funds? Which politician of the generations of incompetents which rule this country has ever faced jail time or property seizure?

In Austria, the former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader of Croatia is in jail awaiting extradition due to an unexplained EUR 1.2 million in secret bank accounts. In Germany, the political giant Helmut Kohl resigned in 2000 due to suspicious party contributions of DM 2 million. Our politicians are far more venal, and have far fewer achievements to their name, yet so far none have resigned or faced prosecution, apart from Tasos Mandelis.

In ancient Athens, public figures could be fined as well as ostracised, or expelled from the city. We have no such system today. Shouldn’t the politicians that have ruined the country at least be deprived of their pensions, or face censure or civil charges?  

Prime Minister Papandreou has repeatedly promised to crack down on corruption regardless of the political cost. So far, nothing substantial has been achieved.

My feeling is this: unless a serious, concerted effort is made, and fast, the events of Wednesday will seem like child’s play compared to what may actually happen. A “Bastille Day” scenario, where a mob storms the Parliament and takes justice into its own hands is no longer an unrealistic scenario, no matter how outlandish this may sound. In the final analysis, it may be no more than what is actually deserved. 


  1. Good analysis. Once correction the Colonels came on April 21, 1967.

  2. I'd even come up to Athens to take part in one of these!

  3. Thanks for the correction Vassili. Of course it was 1967 - I think I was writing the post far too late at night :-)

  4. You are definitely right, excellent & fair analysis,since nobody has been punished what are we expecting?"IL N'Y A RIEN QU'ENHARDIT LE PECHE QUE LA GRACE" Justice has to apply and correction to follow.........

  5. Living as far away as Sweden, and following Greek national affairs from a distance you have put words to what has been my gut feeling about Greek politics and ruling elite for a long time. Just so sad that the Greek people have let themselves be misled for so many years.
    But as the saying goes. You can fool most people for a while, many for quite some time. but you can not fool all the people all the time.

  6. Thank you for these comments. The big question I am trying to understand is -- how to change things? Is the society actually ready for change, and for the difficult decisions needed? And the political corruption which is pervasive in this country: Is it a product of the society, or does it operate independently of the society? Because only if we answer this question can we understand how to gain the political means needed to implement hard decisions. Unfortunately, I do not know the answer. You would think that these things should be self-evident, but somehow in Greece they are not.

  7. Philip,i too wonder why those politicians with accounts in Zurich and St.Kitts and the companies' CEO's - attaches involved in the contracts are not doing time and stripped off their assets....

    but really... let's be a little more grown-up , shall we?

    Do you really want a forensic audit of all public contracts and bond issuances?
    Let's say we hired Kroll or some other 'reliable' detective co...the money-trail would start from greek politicians' accounts in Swiss-land and crawl right up to EU and US embassies to say the least...defense attaches all over the place...where to start...Erdogan was reprimanded (read in Wikileaks) for not taking the swine flu bogus those Americans will kill you to make the please spare us the 'why people hate the elites'...

    so, back to the agrument... what are the chances that the ruling elite-ia stabs itself in the back by permitting a deep forensic audit to happen ? you guessed right . z e r o .We're heading for insurrection.

    But honestly ,you should not seems you've been reading a strange history book..not the reality-based.

    what happens now,is business as usual...Greece has been a protectorate for 180 years and why this should change now is not obvious to anyone sane.The big money was always foreign , and by that i also mean the greek shippers, merchants and bankers...

    For your reading pleasure (if you're not already in the know) and also an elegant and righteous way of meaningfully reducing Greek debt -courtesy of Ecuador's president R.Correa:

    how about doing the same-although we signed the UK law based IMF contract?? what's your take on that?

    a keen reader of yours, from Greece

  8. Keen reader, I'm afraid your comment, while welcome, is full of contradictions, perhaps too many to reconcile.

    An Ecuadorean solution will not work in Greece's case because of reasons I've already stated in numerous posts, not least of which are:

    - We can't default on EUR 110 bln in sovereign debt guarantees from the Eurozone partners. It's one thing to default on private sector debt, another on sovereign, bilateral debt.

    - Even discounting Greek bonds by 70% and paying 30%, or 30 cents on the Euro, would leave Greece with a payback of about EUR 102 bln. Greece does not have the credit capacity to borrow another EUR 102 bln, and in any case does not have the domestic resources to pay this. So this solution would not work either. It's one thing to buy back $ 3.2 bln as Ecuador did; it's another to restructure the EUR 340 bln Greece owes.

    As for your question on the forensic audit: obviously, no political party would consent to this. That's exactly my point. That's why (as I have also stated in other posts), we have Parliamentary inquiries instead of substantive investigations. That's exactly the point of my post.

    You also seem to have misunderstood the point of my post, if you believe that on the one hand we are heading towards insurrection, but on the other hand write "please spare us the 'why people hate the elites'" An insurrection in Greece would be against the elites, which is exactly what I'm pointing out in this post.

  9. Civil charges can be filed on the politician's misconduct.