Greece Steps Up Corruption Fight



Former Greek defense minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos
Former Greek defense minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos

After securing 52.5 billion euros ($69 billion) in new loans from international lenders in a fight to keep the economy afloat, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras now faces a foe on another front – the country’s reputation for runaway corruption.  After generations of impunity, Greece has begun what seems to be a crackdown, although skeptics note that it could take years to prosecute major cases.

On the heels of a tax evasion scandal that led to an investigation into a former finance minister’s handling of a list of Greeks with secret Swiss bank accounts, the former mayor of Thessaloniki has been arrested for allegedly overseeing a scheme to steal more than 50 million euros from the city’s coffers.

Prosecutor Vassilis Haldoupis also filed charges against former Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos and Michalis Lemousias, former general secretary. Panayiotis Saxonis, former municipal treasurer, was also charged and another 15 suspects are being investigated.

The justice ministry has proposed legislation aimed at tax cheats who owe the country more than 52 billion euros ($69 billion) as well as public officials found to have unlawfully enriched themselves. Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras is proposing mandatory jail time for major tax cheats in a special prison for financial crimes.

Costas Bakouris, who heads the Athens office of Transparency International, said the arrest of municipal officials in Thessaloniki may be a watershed for Greece.  “What has changed is the commitment of the government to chase these kind of practices … the problem is how quickly they can do it because of the work overload in court and someone goes to jail,” he told Southeast European Times.

But, according to Aristides Hatzis, associate professor of law and economics at the University of Athens, it is difficult to change an ingrained culture where bribes are expected and prosecutions are rare.

“The probability to be punished for corruption is minimal … social tolerance to corruption is still very high,” he told SETimes. “Many acts that are considered unethical in most institutionally mature societies are treated as business as usual in Greece.”

Akis Tsochatzopoulos, a former defense minister, has been detained for almost 10 months awaiting trial on masterminding a scheme to steal and launder as much as 1 billion euros ($1.32 billion) from defense contracts. The government has jailed the former head of a bank that failed because of bad loans on charges of overseeing a scheme to steal from the institution.

But the country’s track record is still shaky, and many citizens remain unconvinced. A poll in January for Alpha TV found 52.7 percent of those surveyed said the government had failed to deal with graft. “I hope something is changing, but this has been going on for years and nobody said anything because they thought a politician could give them a job. Now there aren’t any,” Costas Gitras, 39, a liquor store owner, told SETimes.

Effi Lambropoulou, professor of criminology at Panteion University in Athens, told SETimes that while corruption is common, it can be curtailed. “It is very encouraging that such cases are going to be punished,” Lambropoulou said, noting the Thessaloniki case. “Party politics is a significant factor producing corruption, as well as overregulation, complex legislation, and ambiguities offering high discretionary power to local administrations.”

(Reprinted by permission of Southeast European Times, www.setimes.com)