Come back Cleisthenes, all is forgiven

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

Cleisthenes has a lot to answer for. Yes, he laid the groundwork for Athenian democracy in 507 BC but he also did it after being recalled from exile. As much as he helped transform ancient Greece, he a left dangerous legacy for its modern version. Since Cleisthenes, too many Greek politicians believe that some time away from the limelight can absolve them of any sins and, like the man from classical Athens, make a heroic return.

Over the last few weeks, several members of Greece’s 2004-2009 government have basked in the same Attica sunlight as the ancients, while displaying the carefree abandon of people who don’t feel responsible for the country’s dire financial state or its shattered reputation.

Had public officials done the same in other European countries, their careers would have been destroyed. They would have been shamed out of public life and authorities would have conducted an investigation aimed at ensuring their mistakes or offenses were not repeated. In Greece, these men claim their absolution and rehabilitation almost unchallenged.

A prime example of this is the recent appointment of ex-Finance Minister Yiannis Papathanasiou as the president of state-controlled and soon-to-be-privatised Hellenic Petroleum (ELPE). Papathanasiou was finance minister in 2009, when the New Democracy government lost control of Greece’s public finances.

Here's a reminder of what happened during his watch. In November 2008, just two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the USA and as the financial crisis was unfolding around the globe, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis ensured the Greek people that their economy was “fortified” and his government drew up a 2009 budget that estimated growth of 5.9 percent of GDP and a state deficit of 8.8 billion euros or 3.4 percent of GDP.

Two months later, the finance minister revised the prospects of the Greek economy for 2009, lowering the growth rate to 3.8 percent of GDP and raising the state deficit to 12.7 billion euros. By May, the state budget deficit was already at 14.4 billion euros, with 43 percent of the budgeted expenses already used up while revenues stood at just 31 percent of the annual target. In September 2009, before the elections that brought George Papandreou’s PASOK to power, the state deficit was at 23 billion euros, almost twice the projected amount for the entire year.

At some point during this fiscal collapse (either in May 2009 or September 2009 – the date, but not the incident, are disputed) Papathanasiou attempted to reassure French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde that the Greek government was capable of getting public finances back on track. He did so by grabbing a piece of paper (possibly a napkin) and scribbling the measures the New Democracy administration was preparing to take. What were Lagarde’s thoughts? “C'est pas sérieux!”

Unfortunately, things were gravely serious. Papathanasiou was also at the forefront of an effort by the Karamanlis government to disguise the seriousness of Greece's fiscal slippage. First he forecast a deficit of 3.7 percent, later increasing this to 6 percent, which was not even halfway to the actual shortfall for 2009. Greece's European partners had caught on to this obfuscation. However, rather than one man or a group of decision makers taking the fall for this dereliction of duty, Greeks as a whole were tarred as cheats and liars – tags that they are still finding hard to shake almost five years later. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance that these actions had in writing the first lines of the Greek crisis narrative and condemning Greece's relationship with its European partners.

So how does someone with this track record get handed the keys to Greece’s largest oil refining company and a potentially attractive public asset for private investors? Well, clearly the government’s claim to be banishing practices of the past and creating a new ethos in public service is a joke. The “jobs for the boys” practice seems to be alive and well. Apart from some complaints from PASOK, which is part of the coalition that sent Papathanasiou to ELPE, the appointment passed relatively unnoticed.

Apart from being a case of the political system preserving itself, it is also a failure of Greek society to demand higher standards of its politicians, both of when they are in power but also when they step away from office.

A case in point is former Athens mayor and health minister Nikitas Kaklamanis, who is in the running again to gain control of the Greek capital. He will doubtlessly defend his record in both posts but the facts are that he left behind considerable debts at the Health Ministry and the City of Athens. At the end of 2009, state hospital’s arrears alone stood at 1.5 billion euros. The municipality owed some 230 million euros when Kaklamanis left, according to his successor Giorgos Kaminis. The former mayor denies this is the case.

Even if we do not assess Kaklamanis by the debts he left behind (to be fair to him, a number of factors that could have contributed to them) then we can certainly judge him on his comments since he announced that he would be challenging Kaminis and others for the mayorship in May’s elections. Kaklamanis has dismissed Kaminis achieving a balanced budget despite seeing the municipality’s central government funding halved as the work of a mere “accountant of the memorandum.”

Apart from the ex-minister’s gall, we should also be worried that – according to opinion polls – around 10 percent of Athenians are considering voting for him.

The 2004-2009 period of governance in Greece remains woefully underscrutinised. The political system is protecting its own but the absence of grassroots pressure for a thorough investigation also highlights Greek society’s weakness. The first step needed is for it to be made clear to those who carry responsibility for Greece’s burden today that their part in contributing to it can not be magically expunged. Cleisthenes’s landmark reforms created “isonomia”. It is the principle that all citizens have the same rights (and responsibilities) – nobody is above anyone else. Some 2,500 years later, it looks like we could use a reminder of what this means.

4 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Anonymous

    To start with most Greeks missed this appointment since it a) it was of course NOT widely advertised lol and b) too many other attention grabbing events were happening at the same time, especially Ukraine. Therefore please refrain from blaming it on our failure as a society - especially since so many greeks are immersed in simply surviving from day to day and a significant proportion don't have electricity (thus, radio & tv).

    As to his appointment, this is no surprise since ND is the par excellence party of cronyism and backhanding. As to the quality of ND appointments we need only consider telemarketer Antonis Georgiadis at Health (!), of whom ND is so proud they feature him publically at every opportunity.

  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis

    George, thanks for your comment. I think you miss my point, which is that they would like to be like Cleisthenes, making a heroic and positive return, not that they are like him.

  • Posted by: George Gilson, Reporter

    You got everything pretty much right, but the title is way off base. Cleisthenes was unjustly exiled, the Athenians paid dearly for it,and he returned to effect the greatest reforms ever, which earned him a top spot in the Pantheon of democracy. How could you possibly compare him to the dregs of the Karamanlis government?

  • Posted by: Socrates

    Papathanassiou did a great job. He took over without complain the balloon his predecessor (Alogoskoufis) inflated.
    He deserves the new job - lol.

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