One of the ironies about the video showing ex-cabinet secretary Takis Baltakos in a furtive discussion with Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris is that this unholy alliance was being forged in a room that had at least nine religious icons on its walls. Another is that it showed Golden Dawn, the self-styled anti-systemic party, was completely at ease with the idea of cosying up to and horsetrading with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's right-hand man.
Those are the bits we can smile about. The rest is deadly serious.
Baltakos claims he told lies during the discussions with Kasidiaris, and other Golden Dawn MPs he met with. Some have accepted his argument that he operated as a type of double agent, giving Golden Dawn MPs harmless morsels in order to glean information from them. One has to wonder, though, what kind of political operative would allow himself to be filmed in his own office by a political rival suspected of having links to the police and intelligence service? A judicial probe into the video might establish whether Baltakos can back up this claim. Then again, maybe not.
Taking the footage at face value, though, means coming away with some deep concerns about Greece's political system and institutions.
Firstly, it raises serious questions about the way Samaras, the man charged with leading Greece out of the crisis, arrives at his policy decisions. He has surrounded himself with advisers with whom he has a longstanding relationship. There is nothing strange in this: Many leaders do it but it is the beliefs prevalent in his entourage that are a cause for alarm. Baltakos was a key figure in this tight-knit group, which emerged from the Diktyo 21 (Network 21) nationalist think-tank that Samaras was involved in from the 1990s onwards. These aides have played a key part in pushing a Samaras-led New Democracy further to the right of the political spectrum after previous party leader Kostas Karamanlis dabbled in a third way-ish strategy.
Baltakos's apparent comfort in Kasidiaris's company and expressions of regret about the judicial probe against the Neo-Nazi party demand an explanation about whether this group of advisors had the nation's interests at heart or whether their decisions were simply driven by a hardline ideology.
It also feeds into the criticism of Samaras himself. The prime minister claimed on Friday that he was the first to “fight” Golden Dawn but this is like priding yourself on being the first to rush to put out a fire at your house after leaving 1,000 candles burning inside. It could be argued that Samaras and his advisers were the ones who created the political space for Kasidiaris and his mates to storm into.
We cannot ignore that in Samaras’s ascent to power in 2012 and as part of his continued push towards the right, he welcomed to the New Democracy fold two MPs from the ultra-nationalist LAOS, a party that the US State Department described as supporting “virulent nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.” One of those lawmakers is now Greece’s health minister, the other is New Democracy’s parliamentary spokesman. Nor can we forget Samaras’s references in the 2012 election campaigns to migrants as “tyrants” and the need to “reclaim” city centres from them. Nor should we ignore the shrill populism emanating from New Democracy on the opposition benches in the first years of the crisis, when George Papandreou and his government were labelled as traitors who had sold out the country to the International Monetary Fund.
Concern has been frequently expressed about some of the people surrounding the prime minister. In November 2011, Samaras ousted former minister Sotiris Hatzigakis from the party because he complained that “far right elements” were changing the face of New Democracy. Baltakos is cited as the mastermind behind the contentious decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT overnight in June 2013, which triggered Democratic Left’s (DIMAR) departure from the three-party coalition. DIMAR claimed the PM's aide had even spoken of a possible coalition between New Democracy and Golden Dawn. PASOK, Samaras's enduring coalition partner, has been frustrated in its efforts to pass human rights legislation due to fierce resistance at the heart of government. A law granting citizenship to second generation immigrants was repealed in 2012 but has not been replaced. The anti-racism bill was blocked last year. On Friday, former Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis told Skai TV that Baltakos wanted to pass a law that would see courts hand migrants sentences that were 50 percent longer than those given to Greeks for the same crimes. Baltakos, who describes himself as an “anti-Communist,” insisted last month that a provision foreseeing the immediate deportation of migrants making false claims against police be included in a new immigration code.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that during a meeting in December 2012 with Kostis Papaioannou, the head of Greece’s Human Rights’ Committee, Baltakos claimed the government was “not interested in the rights of foreigners.” Immediately afterwards, Papaioannou sent a letter to Samaras and his coalition partners describing how Baltakos had told him that he was intentionally doing nothing to help the committee’s work, including its efforts to ensure Greece lived up to its international obligations. Papaioannou described Baltakos’s behaviour as “unbecoming of the position to which you have assigned him.”
We should also wonder why several dozen criminal cases, including murders, involving Golden Dawn had piled up in Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias’s drawer before they were sent to prosecutors and why this happened only after the extremist party caused trouble on Samaras’s home patch, at the Second World War memorial at Meligalas, and the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas.
The question now is whether these, and other policy decisions, were driven by a warped ideology that has no place in a European Union country. The importance of these matters leaves the prime minister with some very uncomfortable questions to answer about the company he keeps, even now that Baltakos has departed from the government. This is not a problem limited to one man but has to do with an overall perception of Greek democracy and society.
The other key issue in the Baltakos affair is the dismissive way in which he and Kasidiaris spoke about Greece's judicial system. Setting aside the laughable claim from Kasidiaris that his party is being persecuted for its politics and not prosecuted for its criminal actions, the two men referred to the judiciary as if it were just another rotten part of the public administration, where a phone call to the right person could get a probe started or a case dropped. This contempt for one of the pillars of the country’s democracy makes it easy to understand why the judiciary continues to be one of Greece's greatest weaknesses. The content of the edited conversation we have seen so far epitomises why Greek institutions lack fairness, transparency and efficiency.
This, in turn, raises doubts about the coalition's ability to truly see through structural reforms. Can this process, which requires the overhaul of the public administration and rebuilding of its institutions, be trusted to a government in which the prime minister's top aide sees judges as puppets? Is it any wonder that Amnesty International condemns Greece's police force as having a "culture of impunity, entrenched racism and endemic violence" or that the country treats migrants and refugees abysmally, as described by Medecins Sans Frontieres this week? Also, Baltakos's apparent eagerness to help out Golden Dawn can only make one wonder about whether the government is committed to performing such favours for others. Should we, for instance, be looking at the country’s privatisation process, the recapitalisation of banks and the failure to properly investigate high profile cases of tax evasion (the infamous Lagarde list included) in a different light?
Disquiet about all of these things has been bubbling under for some time. To a large extent, though, key players at home and abroad have willingly overlooked this uneasiness because Samaras and the coalition government were regarded as the best bet for seeing the adjustment program through. The local and international media, business, politicians, foreign leaders, technocrats and even voters have been willing to sacrifice any dignity and values that Greece had - its soul, if you like - on the altar of “stability.” Perhaps time will prove this was the right compromise to make. Perhaps, though, it will prove to be the moment that unleashed a cancer that is gradually claiming its victim. Either way, you can’t help but feel that over the last few years Greece has lost much, much more than a quarter of its GDP and a million jobs.