Sowing the seeds of anomie in Greece

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Harry van Versendaal
Photo by Harry van Versendaal

In his opening speech to Labour MPs after the party’s historic election win in May 1997, Tony Blair implored the party’s lawmakers to be “whiter than white, purer than pure”. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Within a few months of coming to power, Labour abandoned its plans to ban tobacco advertising in sport and journalists discovered that Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was a major donor to the party. It was the first of several scandals that plagued Blair’s time in office.

It is the fate of newly elected parties that they disappoint voters who have high ambitions for a change not so much in policy but in the way politics is conducted. The SYRIZA–Independent Greeks coalition has portrayed itself as a new broom but its efforts so far have been somewhat of a damp squib. For instance, an attempt to remove taxpayer-funded cars from MPs met with objections and in the end only 67 lawmakers opted not to tap into the 3.2 million euros set aside for this purpose.

However, hopes that the coalition would introduce a new standard of ethics to Greek politics suffered a much bigger blow from the allegations concerning Alternate Minister for Administrative Reform Giorgos Katrougalos. To Vima newspaper reported last weekend that he had signed agreements in his capacity as a lawyer with sacked civil servants to help them regain their jobs. According to the allegations, Katrougalos’s legal practice was contracted to win back the civil servants’ jobs in return for 12 percent of their wages. The report claims Katrougalos was signing such deals right up to the day he was appointed to his post at the ministry, where he is in charge of public sector reform, and that some of the contracts were submitted to the Athens Bar Association even after he joined the cabinet at the end of January.

Katrougalos denies any wrongdoing and insists he stopped taking on clients who had been sacked from the civil service or placed in a labour reserve since being elected as an MEP in May. He is also launching a law suit against To Vima, claiming 500,000 euro in damages.

As ever in Greece, the legal vagaries involved make it difficult for observers to make a clear judgement about which side is giving an accurate picture of events. It appears, though, that even in the best case scenario there is a question of conflict of interest. Even if Katrougalos was no longer representing his clients, he was in a position to directly affect the outcome of their appeals from his new cabinet position. While no laws may have been broken, questions abound regarding whether the government is determined to improve the standard of ethics in Greek politics.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, perhaps fearing showing signs of weakness at this early stage in his premiership, has backed Katrougalos to the hilt. It appears to be a case of wanting to avoid short-term political pain rather than laying the ground for long-term political gain. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the government’s response has been that some members have argued that ministers in previous administrations were responsible for even more blatant conflicts of interest. “The previous guys were worse,” is a really thin argument for a government that claims one its biggest strengths is that it is not compromised in the same way as the old guard.

While the political elite’s tendency to become embroiled in questionable, or downright criminal, activity has been damaging for Greece, its ability to get away with it has been ever more destructive. The failure to hold politicians accountable for ethical transgressions, bar some isolated cases such as ex-Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos and former Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, has created a pervasive and corrosive sense of impunity.

The feeling that decision makers are not facing the consequences of their actions creates the condition of anomie, within which citizens feel they have nothing to gain from abiding by rules. For example, a special court’s decision to find former Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou guilty of doctoring the so-called Lagarde list of Greeks with deposits at the Geneva branch of HSCB but innocent of breach of faith is likely to have been seen as an affront by most Greeks. It has to be said that during the trial no conclusive evidence was produced to prove Papakonstantinou’s guilt and the minister was adamant he had been set-up by unspecified enemies. However, given that the majority of judges found him guilty of removing the names of three relatives from the list, it is difficult for voters to understand why he did not receive more severe punishment than a one-year suspended sentence.

An average citizen looks at this case and sees that Greek authorities have had a list of more than 2,000 people with deposits in Switzerland for more than four years and have failed to conclusively investigate it for potential tax evasion. On top of that, he or she sees that the officials who had access to this list copied it, passed it around, failed to officially register it anywhere and – according to this week’s court decision – even tampered with it.

Against this backdrop, it is very difficult to see how those in power can create the sense of common purpose needed to overcome damaging practices such as tax evasion or snubbing of laws. The sense of anomie flows from the top and until Greece’s decision makers and its institutions are willing to take responsibility for this, creating a shared set of standards and ideals seems impossible. It is foolish to believe that those in power can suddenly be “purer than pure”, but even if they just become purer it would be a good starting point.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

This article was published in last week's electronic newsletter, which subscribers can receive via e-mail or mobile app. The apps can be downloaded for free at the App Store and Google Play.

1 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    So it is - and even a little worse:

    To reestablish confidence in the public justice system, the journalist who made that mess publicly known, had to undergo some scrutinizing legal accusations.

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