The trade name Novartis has featured in Greek newspaper headlines for over a year now, almost as often as the controversial term “Macedonia.”
The story of the alleged scandal involving ten former prime ministers and ministers from the New Democracy and PASOK parties taking bribes from the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant first appeared on February 5, 2018.
News of the supposed scandal broke exactly one day after hundreds of thousands of Greeks had protested against the use of the name “Macedonia” by FYROM in front of the Greek Parliament building.
Negotiations between the foreign ministers of Greece and FYROM had already begun, with Maximos Mansion showing its intention of accepting “Macedonia” as part of the Balkan country’s new name.
The Greek government has presented the Novartis case as “the biggest scandal” in modern Greek history. But some of those standing accused of taking bribes from the pharmaceuticals giant have called it “the biggest conspiracy against political opponents ever.”
Three former Novartis employees had testified at the corruption prosecutor’s office that they believe the ten politicians named received bribes from the Swiss company. The three witnesses have remained anonymous as “protected witnesses for the public interest.”
The politicians who were allegedly bribed by Novartis include two former prime ministers, Antonis Samaras and Panagiotis Pikrammenos. Ministers Dimitrios Avramopoulos, Adonis Georgiadis, Evangelos Venizelos, Andreas Lykouretzos, Georgios Koutroumanis, Andreas Loverdos, Marios Salmas and Ioannis Stournaras were also originally implicated in the supposed scheme.
The parties New Democracy and Movement for Change (the former PASOK) called the bribe allegations nothing more than a smokescreen to divert public attention away from the Macedonian issue.
Is there any evidence that the accused politicians took bribes from Novartis?
The first stage of the investigation is now completed, and prosecutors sent the case file to the Greek Parliament on Monday. The prosecution declined to charge Venizelos, Lykouretzos, Koutroumanis and Pikrammenos, and simply sent their files to the archives.
However, the case remains open for further investigation on Samaras, Avramopoulos, Georgiadis, Salmas and Stournaras. In the case of Loverdos, the prosecution has tabled a request for a waiver of immunity. Currently a “Movement for Change” MP, Loverdos said he will file a defamation suit against the government.
No evidence whatsoever has been found so far to suggest that the persons involved took bribes. No undeclared money has been found in the accounts of the accused, nor even in the bank accounts of their family members.
Nevertheless, the two sides continue to squabble in parliament and on television channels, constantly lobbing accusations at each other.
From day one when the “scandal” broke, the ten politicians doubted the testimonies of the three protected witnesses and challenged their honesty — and even doubted if they were really Novartis employees.
In their testimonies, the Novartis witnesses used phrases such as “I presume,” “I believe,” “I think,” and not concrete phrases such as “I saw this document,” or “I saw the politician taking an envelope” and so on.
All the testimony until now has been vague, with no specific dates mentioned. There was even a statement by a witness allegedly saying that a politician left the Novartis offices carrying a suitcase that they “believe(d) was full of money.”
The ND and former PASOK politicians argued that the “Novartis scandal” was used as a smokescreen to divert attention from the serious national issue of the FYROM name. They also argued that the case was fabricated by SYRIZA to hurt their political opponents, as opinion polls showed the leftist party losing its appeal and the main opposition leading in polls by two-digit figures.
In fact, Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis complained that the prosecution is taking too long to decide on the Novartis case, hinting that the judges are corrupt. He has also said publicly that “If we want to be in government again, some people need to go to jail.”
The words of the outspoken deputy were used by the opposition as proof that the bribe allegations were indeed just part of political machinations to defame the New Democracy and Movement for Change parties.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and members of his cabinet have often referred to the accused politicians as “corrupt” and “embezzlers” although the investigation is not yet completed, and no evidence has been found.
In fact, one of the three protected witnesses lost his anonymous status in January, as the prosecution found evidence that he himself is suspected of being involved in bribery. From a position of being considered a protected witness, professor Nikos Maniadakis suddenly found himself on the other side of the mirror, charged with the very crime of which he had charged others.
In fact, when authorities raided his home, they found it empty, as he was readying to move out of the country. The corruption prosecutor then legally enjoined Maniadakis from leaving the country.
The politicians who stand accused used the Maniadakis case in their favor, claiming that the so-called “witnesses of public interest” are actually players in the government’s conspiracy.
On Monday, after the file containing the first four names went to the archives, New Democracy MP Adonis Georgiadis – who is still under investigation – spoke on Skai radio about the case.
He asked if the prosecution found nothing incriminating about four of the accused for the same offense using the same testimonies, why are there still suspicions over the remaining six politicians?
Georgiadis’ question mark is likely to remain up in the air until the European Parliament and local governmental elections take place on May 26.