Breaking point

Just when it appears that things cannot get worse they do. We were all so absorbed by witnessing the country’s quickening slide into the deep hole of debt, and the collapse of productivity, that we barely paid any attention to the long-simmering Siemens bribery scandal. Now it has come back to test the very limits of our political and judicial system.
Both the New Democracy government and the opposition PASOK party were content to let the judiciary drag its feet after German authorities discovered in late 2006 that industrial giant Siemens had operated a huge international network of slush funds and had paid bribes to officials in Greece in order to secure contracts. Amid interminable inquiries and sloppy correspondence with German officials, the Greek authorities marked time while Germany investigated, tried and sentenced the German protagonists of the scandal. The claims that officials of both major Greek parties (at least) had received bribes was the probable reason for this judicial inertia. But, to everyone’s consternation, Siemens HQ had hired an American legal firm to investigate all the parameters of the scandal. And so, the small group of people at the center – both among former Siemens Hellas officials and those on the side of the Greek state and political apparatus – ran a serious danger of being exposed.
And yet, everything appeared to be going according to the Greek way of handling scandals: first, saturation coverage – enough to sow confusion so that no one knows what the story is all about; second, the cultivation of a sense that “everyone does it,” meaning no one is accountable; the judiciary lets the issue drag on for so long that the public (aided by the very fickle news media) forgets what it is all about; time runs out, the case is filed away; everyone goes back to business as usual.
But then the protagonists did what a good Greek protagonist should never do: they blinked. Michalis Christoforakos, the former head of Siemens Hellas made a run for it, turning up in Germany instead of keeping the date he had with the prosecutor on Monday. Then, on Friday, it turned out that another former executive, Christos Karavelas, had also fled the country. It was immediately revealed that the Uruguayan authorities had tipped off the Greeks that Karavelas had transferred millions of dollars there for the purchase of a luxury home. Suddenly the drab routine of a cover-up had been broken.
That’s when things went haywire. The investigating judge suddenly ordered the arrest of two other defendants (one a former Siemens executive the other a former senior official of OTE telecom), just hours after both were given an extension of several days to prepare their testimony. The two claim that their arrest and the judge’s procedures are irregular and that they will refer the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, the investigating magistrate jailed the wife and eldest daughter of the fugitive Karavelas and ordered the two youngest to put up bail of one million euros each – which they are unlikely to do as their accounts have been frozen.
The issue has reached a point of hysteria in the political clash ahead of Sunday’s elections: PASOK blames ND for allegedly abetting the suspects, whereas the government accuses PASOK of involvement in the bribe-taking. This political ugliness is predictable. What is most frightening is that the judiciary, in its zeal to make up for its past lapses, is riding roughshod over the concept of due process, undermining the rights of every Greek.

Milestones&Footnotes, Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009

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Democracy at a crossroad

In the last few weeks in Britain, members of parliament have been subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse in public and in the press. Some have even been threatened. Many voters say that they will vote for small parties in this week’s Euro-election, so as to punish the larger ones.

All of this stems from revelations that some members of parliament had been overly-inventive or cavalier in the amounts they charged the taxpayer for second-home expenses, with items ranging from the ludicrous (a floating duck house) to the fraudulent (charging for the interest on a mortgage that had been paid off).

Such is the rage, that some are talking about a revolution. Michael Martin became the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced to resign – and at least another 10 MPs say they are abandoning politics. In a panic, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron are talking about making radical changes to the political system. The British politicians are indeed responsible for provoking the public, but it is obvious that such rage must have deeper roots.

As our societies (and the individuals within them) confront a mounting number of problems, citizens’ anger grows and their demands for solutions become increasingly pressing. Because these solutions cannot be painless, this creates further tension, with outbreaks of rage over political decisions or over the behavior of a certain segment of society – whether it be CEOs, as we saw a few months ago, or MPs now. This is probably what is fueling the mass hysteria in Britain today and perhaps also suggests that today’s democracies are at an impasse: When members of parliament and governments lose the people’s confidence, who will solve the problems?

In Greece it is clear that our politicians are at a loss about how to deal with the great problems that have accumulated over the past years.

Our small political scene and the citizens’ keen interest in politics result in a climate of familiarity between voters and their representatives. We know our MPs, we evaluate them instantly and we have expectations of them. But, as the English say, familiarity breeds contempt: While voters believe that their representatives can do anything (if they choose to), they just as easily believe that politicians are all crooked or incompetent. We have seen enough scandals and cover-ups to understand why there is a general feeling that they’re all “on the take.” This charge is obviously an exaggeration. But it is also extremely dangerous: On the one hand, it creates a climate in which anyone who is not corrupt feels isolated (and perhaps foolish) and may at some point give in to temptation, while on the other, a pervasive sense of rot keeps away from public service people who might have had something to offer. Politics are then left to the mediocrities or those with a certain “charisma” (with all the dangers that this entails).

Our societies are facing massive problems at every level – from climate change to the consequences of the global economic crisis. Tensions are rising within borders, but also in relations between countries as competition for resources intensifies and protectionism returns. The challenges demand steady hands. But, at the same time, our politicians – whether able or incompetent, selfless or selfish – are continually exposed to the judgment, the mockery and the rage of citizens. In the old days, before mass communications and the Internet, politicians were at a great distance from the electorate and did not have to justify their every act or omission. Today voters are part of the endless news cycle: They know everything about their representatives and demand everything of them. They do not accept decisions or behavior that they do not like. But because there is no other option for society than to have a government, the choices are limited: We can come to terms with the system that we have now, with politicians and voters working toward a new modus vivendi; our political scene may dissolve into a Babel of warring, incompatible groupuscules, making government impossible; we may return to more autocratic forms of government; or countries may relinquish part of their sovereignty to larger, regional organizations which will make decisions that local politicians dare not.

Faced with these options, it is clear that the best way forward is to fix the current system. But first our politicians will have to win the trust of their people – and the people, will have to cut them some slack. Democracy will either get better or we will all be worse off.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 1 June, 2009

Spies like us

There is something quaint in our passionate sensitivity to personal privacy, which comes across as a mixture of uncompromising democratic sensibilities and an inexplicable guilt complex. The queasiness over allowing Google’s Street View cameras to roam among us fits neatly into this paradigm: We don’t want strangers following us about in our daily lives, just as we don’t want any satellite images of our homes and property to be made available to government agencies and other prying eyes. In the first case, it is completely natural to want to keep our movements private, even though our culture prizes few things as highly as knowing someone else’s business and in bragging about what we do. So how many secrets can we have? In the second case, the only way that forestry and town-planning agencies can keep check on illegal building is through aerial or satellite photos. Making these available easily and at no cost will only cause trouble for the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who keep pushing back the boundaries of their property and the law. So the sooner these are brought into action the better.

It is easy to explain a sense of unease at prying eyes because, throughout their modern history, Greeks were under the thumb of an authoritarian right-wing establishment, with the police running networks of spies ranging from apartment block doormen to journalists to bureaucrats and politicians. The military dictatorship of 1967-74, with its jailings, torture and forced internal exile for thousands of left-wing activists and others was the apotheosis of this system and, with its collapse, its death rattle. Since 1974, Greeks have guarded their privacy with missionary zeal. Leftist, extreme left-wing parties and anarchist groups see themselves as sleepless guardians against the return of any semblance of authoritarianism. These groups are at the forefront of smashing surveillance cameras in public spaces, including those dedicated to traffic control.

The theory is fine: Cameras – and those behind them – have no business prying on our private lives. In practice, though, the blanket opposition to cameras in public places results in our throwing away one of the principal weapons available for the public’s safety. Closed-circuit television systems may not be able to prevent a suicide terrorist attack in a public place, but they are definitely a help in containing normal crime in places where it is impossible to have a permanent police presence, such as on every platform of every subway station and desolate parking lots. In every major city, including Athens, CCTV systems help to maintain security across a wide subway network.

If we can accept security cameras in our metro system, why can’t we accept them in our streets? Is it because until now we have not been plagued by the kind of violent crime that other cities have had to deal with? If we were to try out electronic surveillance systems in the depressed parts of the city center that have now been abandoned to street criminals, and the measure helped increase safety, would people change their minds? Would putting such a lid on crime be worse than allowing neo-fascist groups to exploit public fears at the presence of illegal immigrants?

These questions need to be answered. Greece spent 250 million euros on electronic surveillance equipment in preparation for the 2004 Olympics, which the state privacy watchdog then pulled the plug on. It is incomprehensible that the government, state agencies and political and civic organizations cannot come to a modus vivendi regarding the best possible compromise between privacy and security. Citizens, too, must be consulted in the debate between the need to safeguard privacy and the need to maintain security on our streets and stop the tradition of land-grabbing in the countryside. Cameras are valuable weapons, as long as they are used correctly.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009

Loopholes and nooses

In a little-noticed drama, played out in the wings of our political soap opera, publishers are struggling to renew a decades-old amendment that allows them to spend two percent of their turnover in whichever way they see fit. This means that they can pocket the money or use it to pay for expenses that do not have receipts (as when a correspondent is on assignment) or to make payments that they want no one to know about. Seeing as publishing is a legitimate business that has been around for a very long time it would seem rather unnecessary to open a black hole in a company’s books for “unorthodox” payments. Anyhow, the issue of how publishing works in this country needs much greater scrutiny than this short comment.
What is striking about the “two percent” issue, though, is the passion with which its supporters (namely those very few who benefit from it) are fighting to keep it. One would argue that two percent of turnover is not such a big deal, seeing as the other 98 percent is on the books with no great disturbance to operations. But that’s the point: the two percent works as a loophole, allowing all kinds of behavior that would not be tolerated if all dealings had to be above board. This is an instance in which one and one do not make two, but instead make anything that we want it to. For example, if you have a black bag in a bank, into which no one but its owner is allowed to peek, how do you know that what is in that bag is what he says it is? The two-percent loophole is, very simply, a trapdoor into a forbidden world.
And these loopholes are part of one of the greatest problems in Greece’s economy, politics and society. The so-called “parathyrakia” – “little windows” in laws and regulations – permit all kinds of favoritism and exploitation of the situation. Laws are passed or amended to favor specific groups or even individuals – laws are bent to give specific groups or individuals a free pass when they are caught breaking them. This is almost always done for the political expedience of the “lawmakers” who want to pander to their supporters or to buy the support of others. This is always done at the expense of society as a whole.
A prime example of this can be seen in our everyday travails on the roads. In an unashamed effort to curry favor with taxi drivers, the Transport Minister allowed them to raise their fares while also permitting them to use bus lanes outside Athens’s restricted center. In no time, all bus lanes, including those in the center, were choked with taxis. And, very soon after, with private cars. You see, once the bus lanes had been eviscerated, what was the point of anyone staying out of them?
These little loopholes accumulate to form the noose that strangles our society.

Milestones&Footnotes column in AthensPlus, 15 May 2009

School for scandal

The past week has been something of a fire sale in terms of getting long-simmering scandals out of the way as the country heads for European Parliament elections in a month’s time. There was the vote early Tuesday on whether to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the allegation that former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis extorted money from a shipowner; on Thursday, Parliament debated the Siemens bribery scandal; in the early hours of Friday morning, Parliament was to vote on whether to hold an inquiry into how Pavlidis awarded lucrative subsidized contracts for ferries serving remote islands.

Three debates and three after-midnight votes in five days had MPs feeling something like priests during Holy Week: exhausted by an excess of what they usually do in carefully measured doses. Holy Week, however, culminates in the annual, symbolic resurrection of Christ, with its message of hope for humankind. The Passions of our Parliament offer no such hope of redemption, culminating as they do in nothing more than confirmation that our political system is an empty ritual devoid of any meaning or any hope that our politicians will be held accountable for failure or mendacity. It’s a refresher course in cynicism.

After years of practice, every wing in the Parliament played its role in the ritual to perfection. The government – whichever of the two main parties is in power – professes to pursue truth but has to allow some higher principle to get in the way of the parliamentary process. New Democracy had two arguments this time: that Pavlidis had been cleared by an earlier inquiry (by a committee on which ND was in the majority) and, with regard to the Siemens scandal, that the issue was still being investigated by the judiciary and so should not have been sent to Parliament at this stage. The opposition parties, in self-righteous frenzy as always, portrayed themselves as paragons of virtue who need only be voted into office to clean up politics once and for all. The smaller the party and the less chance it has of ever being in power, the more unequivocal it is in its demand to “hang the bastards.”

This time, though, the stakes were higher than usual. The government, with 151 members in the 300-seat Parliament, is hostage to every single one of its MPs. Pavlidis had every reason to bring down the government if he appeared in danger of being abandoned by his party. Under the grotesque law on government ministers’ accountability, if this Parliament were dissolved without Pavlidis being indicted, then he would be free of all charges. So the government was obliged to give him a free ticket, whether it suspected him of wrongdoing or not and despite angry demands by some ND members that Pavlidis simply “do the right thing” and resign. Pavlidis, an old hand in politics, did nothing of the sort, knowing very well that the only way he could be lead to the gallows would be if he himself made things easy for the government.

Fearing that enough ND MPs would vote for an inquiry into Pavlidis, thereby giving the opposition motion a majority, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, was preparing himself for early national elections to coincide with the European Parliament poll. In the end, the motion did not get the necessary 151 votes, so the government will keep on its day-to-day struggle, not daring to tackle any of the very serious problems that the country faces in case it loses its one-seat majority.

The worst legacy of scandals that lead to loads of bluster but nothing else, though, is that the charade instills a sense of futility, anger and cynicism in citizens who see politicians making a mockery of justice. When their representatives are so shameless, how can we expect citizens to adopt a higher moral code? Any delay in subjecting politicians to the same justice as the rest of us is, very simply, an incitement to crime – in places high and low.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 8 May, 2009

Chickens and eggs

There is sorry irony in the fact that Amnesty International accuses the Greek police of human rights violations and the use of excessive force against demonstrators and detainees, at a time when the state appears incapable of enforcing law and order anywhere. The sad thing is that Amnesty International is not exaggerating: Police and coast guard officers are often brutal when dealing with people who have fallen into their hands, whether they be violent demonstrators, crime suspects, passers-by or terrified illegal immigrants. The irony is that these strong-arm tactics do nothing to frighten the hooded youths who occupy university premises with impunity and rampage through Athens and Thessaloniki’s shopping districts at will; they do nothing to stop the rise in robberies and other forms of organized crime, which keep boring deeper into our daily lives and deepest fears.
Perhaps it is only to be expected that when officers are incapable of performing the task for which they were ostensibly hired and trained, they will take out their frustration on whoever falls into their clutches. Or is perhaps that the lack of discipline that makes officers brutal is also the reason for their incompetence? What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
But why should we be so hard on our police when all they do is reflect a much broader problem in society. Whether they be politicians, judges, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists, policemen, waiters or plumbers, too many of us do not do the jobs that we have undertaken – always expecting someone else to do better than us to set things right. We are experiencing system failure, where confusion of laws and responsibilities, incompetence at the personal and institutional level, a lack of accountability and the total absence of a vision for the future conspire to break the nation down into warring tribes with no purpose but to impose their will on everyone else.
We can see the steps that brought us to the slippery slope. But, gliding effortlessly in our decline, we can only guess where all this will stop. Which individuals, armed only with personal integrity and moral duty to society, will take it upon themselves to stand against the willful destruction, to try create a beachhead of civility on what has become an enemy shore?
Last weekend, the rector and other academic leaders of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University declared that the youths (including “hooded ones”) occupying university premises had a deadline of “Monday or Tuesday” to leave. On Saturday, in broad daylight, the youths rampaged through the city’s heart before returning unimpeded to their “asylum.” On Tuesday, at a much-anticipated debate that was expected to end the sit-in or lead to police being summoned to the campus, jeering protesters threw an egg at the rector. The meeting ended with university authorities pathetically promising to consider the protesters’ demands. The egg flew, the rector ran. But would the egg have flown if the hoodlums were not already sure that the chicken would fly?

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009

Waiting for a solution

The global financial crisis is like a giant flash that tore through the grey and lit up unseen details of our world – from dysfunctional international systems to secretive pyramid scams. The longer we examine the photograph, the more things we discover in the hidden corners of our everyday world, helping us understand what went wrong and allowing us to plan how we will deal with the new situation. Whatever the photo shows, however, it remains a snapshot of a particular moment, one that is already passing: The longer we delay to act, the greater becomes the danger of our missing the opportunity to bring our society in step with the challenges of the time

The crisis has shown how vulnerable the global credit system was and how irresponsible those who served it (or who – ostensibly – were burdened with regulating it) were. It has also shown how our perceptions depend on the psychological state of all involved in the economy, from governments to consumers. It is now obvious that the worm of destruction was slithering its way through the economy’s guts for many years, but, in the general euphoria, no one noticed – or if they did, they chose not to speak lest they spoil the party. Now the United States, the EU countries and other economies are looking for a way out. Now we all understand that no one knows the way. The reactions to news, to proposals and so on, depend on the psychological state of people at that moment. One day US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is the subject of angry ridicule because he did not cancel the bonuses of executives of AIG, the tottering insurance giant (a minor but meaningful detail in the deluge of our days), the next he is instantly beatified for the trillion-dollar stimulus package – the same package that the inimitable Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek described as “the road to hell.” The Americans and the British are printing money to deal with the crisis – and analysts who should be worried about the possible consequences hardly mention the dangers involved.

The Americans accuse Europeans of not allocating enough money to support their economies and boost demand, after decades of ridiculing the “inflexible” economies of the Old Continent with their extensive social security network for citizens – the same networks which need much less money to keep the unemployed and the underemployed in the economy, allowing them to keep consuming and thereby supporting demand. Traditionally, in Europe – with the exception of Britain – more money goes to citizens and less to banks – whereas in the United States the opposite is taking place. Time will tell who is right. Theories and dogmas are of no use – and at least we are no longer under the illusion that they are. In this atmosphere of confusion and subjectivity, the leaders of the 20 most developed economies will meet in London this week to try and chart the global economy’s future.

For Greece, the flash shows what we already knew: Our economy is unproductive because we waste our people’s energy, just as we waste our natural and cultural wealth. The situation will not improve as long as our politicians do not feel the need to cooperate in order to set the foundations for change in the economy, education, public administration, social security and for an all-out war on corruption. Such cooperation, if sincere, would be an earth-shattering event, a revolution that would set our country on course for the future. But as long as “progressives” care only about maintaining the status quo and conservatives worry only about remaining in power, at a time when the only urgent calls for change come from abroad and sound like commands, then it’s clear that we have decided that the revolution must start without us. We will observe the G20 conference in London in the same way a beached ship observes the rising tide, waiting to see if it will lift it or sink it.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 30 March 2009

Tigers and whipping boys

It gets a bit tedious, this continual carping in the European media about Greece’s problematic economy. Not a week goes by without some smart Alec somewhere giving vent to his rancor in an analysis regarding Greek profligacy. We keep getting lumped together with Ireland because of our deficits and the expensive money that we have to keep borrowing because international lenders are leaning on us as if we were the last suckers in a world that has suddenly gone cynical. Guys, we didn’t steal, we just borrowed. Expensively.
It’s grossly unfair to keep being lumped with the Euroskeptical Irish because – regardless of our personal admiration for them as a nation and as talented, artistic individuals – we are not in the same league: they are facing a hangover after having enjoyed a boom. From the bottom of the heap, Ireland jumped to the top through such daring innovations in their economy that they became the envy of the world. So much so that in more optimistic times we in Greece would hold conferences at which our prime minister and top aides would hold forth about how they would perform a miracle and turn our country into the Balkan equivalent of the Celtic tiger. Perhaps in their minds the Balkan equivalent meant going directly bust without wasting time on the boom part, without undercutting our competitors by abolishing corporate taxes and by creating an efficient economy with a trouble-free labor climate. Now the Irish are paying the price for old-fashioned, ancient Greek hubris: they thought that they were too good to fail, that their property prices would just keep rising. The tiger’s stripes now look like cuts and scratches.
No, we in Greece cannot be blamed for having taken anyone else’s business – we simply borrowed money in order to hide our weaknesses. But how weak are we? We have assimilated the lessons of boom and bust, knowing that history moves in cycles, great and small, important and trivial. Our history features leaders ranging from Leonidas, Pericles and Alexander the Great to the dismal constellation around the rusting hulks of today’s political dynasties. We know, through a great collective unconscious, that it’s not the boom nor the bust that matters, but the “getting by” on a daily basis – the cutting of corners, the hiding of taxes, the borrowing as if there is no tomorrow, the “let sleeping dogs lie, don’t rock the boat, this is how things have always been” approach. The country’s problems are too big and deep-rooted, our lives too short, Fortune too capricious for anyone to presume to try and sort out the mess. So let’s muddle on, with each forming his own sphere of influence at the others’ expense. At least we know that if salvation is to come from anywhere, it will be from workers in the private sector. They earn less than their counterparts in other parts of Europe, pay higher consumer prices, have worse health, education and welfare benefits, and yet they keep the country on its feet.
Being among those who have seen the country’s future mortgaged by crooks and useless politicians, our shouts drowned by the silence of futility, we can only wonder what it takes for a victim to rise up in anger – like a tiger.

Milestones & Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009

Power to the people

The issue of renewable energy in Greece has run into the same set of obstacles that prevent the country from solving old problems and from preparing for the challenges of the future: intractable bureaucracy, government indifference and public suspicion. Greece, with its abundant sun, wind and water power, could be a leader in the use of clean, renewable energy. Instead, it is the most heavily dependant on oil and gas imports of all EU member states. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most decisive one is that people at the grassroots level have not understood the benefits of harnessing their country’s innate energy-producing capabilities for their personal gain.

This indifference does not come cheap. Last Tuesday, the Public Power Corporation announced that despite two tariff hikes and a 13.2 percent increase in sales to 5.82 billion euros in 2008, the company showed a loss of 305.9 million euros last year. This is the result of 53 percent of revenues going toward paying for fuel imports, for energy purchases and for CO2 emissions trading. The country’s biggest company is dependant on oil and gas imports – with their great price fluctuations – or on locally mined lignite, whose use forces PPC to make hugely expensive payments. As PPC President and Managing Director Takis Athanassopoulos noted, if it weren’t for the fuel and energy import prices and the CO2 emissions, the company would have shown a 400-million-euro profit. In addition, PPC shares dropped 7 percent over the past six months and has seen its long-term credit rating drop. None of this is good for taxpayers, who will be called on to foot the bill sooner or later.

And if consumers are unable to see the benefits of the country’s freeing itself from the grip of imported and domestic “fossil fuels,” one would expect government – at the national but also at the local level – to be making every effort to promote the use of renewable energy sources. So far, however, Greece is a long way off from its target of meeting 18 percent of its total energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. The target figure implies that 35 percent of electricity production will come from renewable sources. This figure now stands at 10 percent, most of which is from hydroelectric projects and not from new sources.

A major reason for the slow adoption of renewable sources is the paper chase that investors must embark on to get permits from state departments which are either ignorant or at odds with each other. Then there is the corruption that slips in whenever such confusion of laws and responsibilities stands in the way of investments. Billions of euros in investments planned by local and foreign investors remain untapped, thanks to bureaucracy, lack of interest and corruption.

The government must simplify procedures for investments and educate a public that likes to profess its environmental sensitivities but would rather live with current problems than commit itself to solutions. The production of energy through renewable sources will pick up only when municipal and provincial authorities realize that they can improve their finances and provide for their citizens by taking an active interest in producing energy at the local level. This will lead to wiser waste management (through the use of biomass as fuel, for example), an increase in local government revenues through the production of energy that will go into the national grid, and citizens’ understanding that they have a direct, personal stake in energy production through renewable sources. Only if people understand the direct benefits to their pockets and their quality of life, will they force the change that too few people seem interested in seeing.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009