Greece’s Rotten Oligarchy
New York Times
By KOSTAS VAXEVANIS
For Op-Ed, DEMOCRACY is like a bicycle: if you don’t keep pedaling, you fall. Unfortunately, the bicycle of Greek democracy has long been broken. After the military junta collapsed in 1974, Greece created only a hybrid, diluted form of democracy. You can vote, belong to a party and protest. In essence, however, a small clique exercises all meaningful political power.
For all that has been said about the Greek crisis, much has been left unsaid. The crisis has become a battleground of interests and ideologies. At stake is the role of the public sector and the welfare state. Yes, in Greece we have a dysfunctional public sector; for the past 40 years the ruling parties handed out government jobs to their supporters, regardless of their qualifications.
But the real problem with the public sector is the tiny elite of business people who live off the Greek state while passing themselves off as “entrepreneurs.” They bribe politicians to get fat government contracts, usually at inflated prices. They also own many of the country’s media outlets, and thus manage to ensure that their actions are clothed in silence. Sometimes they’ll even buy a soccer team in order to drum up popular support and shield their crimes behind popular protection, as the drug lord Pablo Escobar did in Colombia, and as the paramilitary leader Arkan did in Serbia.
In 2011, Evangelos Venizelos, who was then the finance minister and is now the leader of the socialist party, Pasok, instituted a new property-tax law. But for properties larger than 2,000 square meters — about 21,000 square feet — the tax was reduced by 60 percent. Mr. Venizelos thus carved out a big exemption for the only people who could afford to pay the tax: the rich. (Mr. Venizelos is also the man responsible for a law granting broad immunity to government ministers.)
Such shenanigans have gone on for decades. The public is deprived of real information, as television stations, newspapers and online news sites are controlled by the economic and political elite.
Another scandal involves the so-called Lagarde List. In 2010, Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister (and now the head of the International Monetary Fund), gave the Greek government a list of roughly 2,000 Greek citizens with Swiss bank accounts, to help uncover tax fraud. Greek officials did virtually nothing with the list; two former finance ministers, George Papaconstantinou and his successor, Mr. Venizelos, reportedly even told Parliament they did not know where it was. Meanwhile, several media outlets falsely accused some politicians and business figures of being on the list in order to conceal the ugly reality: rich people were evading taxes while their desperate fellow citizens were searching the trash for food.
When Hot Doc, the monthly magazine I edit and publish, made the list public in October, I was arrested and charged with violating personal privacy, but was acquitted. The result didn’t please those in power. So I am being brought back for a second trial (a date has yet to be set) on similarly vague allegations. Throughout the entire process — the publication of the list, my arrest, my acquittal — the Greek media were absent. The case was a top story in the international press, but not in the country where it took place.
The reason is simple. The Lagarde list implicates a corrupt group that answers to the name of democracy even as it casually nullifies it: officials with offshore companies, friends and relatives of government ministers, bankers, publishers and those involved in the black market.
After my magazine released the list, the Greek government made not a single statement about the case.
When Mr. Venizelos left the Finance Ministry last March, he failed to turn the CD with the list over to his successor. He took it with him. Only when his successor, Yannis Stournaras, told The Financial Times in October that he had never received the list did Mr. Venizelos turn it over to the prime minister’s office. He was never asked about the delay, and leaders of the three parties in the coalition government have not referred his conduct to Parliament’s investigatory committee.
Meanwhile, a newly released version of the list made clear that someone had removed the names of three relatives of Mr. Papaconstantinou, who was the finance minister from 2009 to 2011, before Mr. Venizelos. Last month, Mr. Papaconstantinou was expelled from Pasok. He now faces a Parliamentary investigation, the potential lifting of his immunity from prosecution as a former minister, and charges of tampering with the data. It appears that he may become a new Iphigenia, a scapegoat sacrificed so that the corrupt political system can survive.
This is all unfolding at a time when Greece is walking a tightrope above the abyss of bankruptcy, while the coalition government is instituting new taxes on the lower classes. Half of young Greeks are unemployed. The economy is shrinking at an annual rate of 6.9 percent. People are scrounging for food. And a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, is on the rise, exploiting the resentment and rage toward the ruling class.
The Greek people must remount their bicycle of democracy by demanding an end to deception and corruption. Journalists need to resist manipulation and rediscover their journalistic duties. And the government should revive Greece’s ancient democratic heritage — instead of killing the messenger.
Kostas Vaxevanis is a magazine publisher and television journalist. This essay was translated by Karen Emmerich from the Greek.