Crisis reveals Greek society's corrupt underbelly


With 60% having paid a bribe in 2011, reform advocate Costas Bakouris faces a Herculean task, writes PETER MURTAGH

IN A country where so many people have difficult tasks to perform right now, the job Costas Bakouris has set himself is perhaps harder than most. He wants to convince the main political parties – and indeed a probable majority of the Greek people – that they must change their habits in fundamental ways.

“We are in the midst of a transformational period in Greece but we are also in the midst of a general election in which we want the parties to commit to a change that will destroy them,” he says.

Or at least end for all time the way they behave.

Over the past several decades, clientelism in Greek politics has transmuted into a widespread and deep culture of bribery that infects the delivery of almost all state services, and many private ones as well.

It began, many assert, during the 1980s when the late Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister and leader of Pasok, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party, brought in from the margins people who had been excluded from public life since the Greek civil war which followed the second World War, and during the years of the colonels’ dictatorship of 1967 to 1974.

In doing so, Papandreou saw the levers of power as a tool for implementing party policy. Getting things done meant having “his people” in place. Combined with a culture of clientelism, it was a short step in implementing such a policy for the state to be turned into an employment agency.

Use of power in such an absolute way inevitably bred corruption and the other main political party, New Democracy, was little better.

Sitting in his office in an apartment block in a fashionable part of central Athens, Bakouris, a former leading figure in Greek business, surveys the wreckage of his country and offers an explanation.

“As a country, we lost our values; as individuals, we are pretty good, us Greeks, pretty good at enterprise and making money, but as a people we are a disaster!” But like so many here who are involved in non-governmental organisations, think tanks or policy institutes, he is not wholly pessimistic.

“The crisis has done one good thing: it has made people think. There are a lot of people who now understand we have got to change. The citizens have matured, you know, much more than our politicians.”

Bakouris heads Transparency International Greece, an NGO that campaigns to remove corruption from public life and raise standards of accountability. There’s an active branch in Ireland, but the task facing the organisation in Greece is vastly more challenging that anything presenting itself in tribunal-land.

Last month, the organisation published what might be described as its latest household survey – a sampling of some 12,000 individuals as to how corruption had affected on their daily lives. With comparative studies going back to 2007 against which to benchmark the 2011 results, the survey makes for depressing reading.

Just over 60 per cent of people said that in the previous 12 months they had paid a bribe to a public official.

Twenty five per cent said they refused and 14 per cent claimed to be “unclear” – whatever that means in the circumstances. In dealing with the private sector, almost 55 per cent said they had paid a bribe, 21 per cent said they refused and 24 per cent were “unclear”.

The outstanding area of life in which such corruption appears to be rampant is the medical profession – ordinary family doctors, consultants, hospital staff at almost every level and pharmacists. To obtain speedy treatment, 42 per cent of respondents say they were asked for a bribe in a public hospital (17 per cent in private hospitals). Some 13 per cent of people who went to doctors in the private sector say they too were asked for a bribe.

Other professions – lawyers, tax officials, vehicle inspectors, town planners, tradespeople, plumbers and engineers – also fared poorly.

The amounts sought varied, but have been fairly consistent since the survey began in 2007. In the public sector, the average bribe sought in 2011 was €1,399 (up from €1,313 in 2007). In the private sector, the figure for 2011 was €1,406 (down from €1,554 in 2007 – the private sector, even the corrupt private sector, is always more adept, it seems, at responding to market forces).

The organisation estimates that the cost of all this to the Greek economy is some €554 million a year. But the cost otherwise is much more serious – you end up with a deeply dysfunctional society.

“When you go to the doctor,” says Bakouris, “you start by having to give him a ‘present’, anything from €200 to €3,000. If you don’t have a driving licence, you just pay [the issuing official] €300 for one.”

The results of another recent survey, carried out at the prompting of the EU/ECB/IMF troika currently financing the Greek economy and overseeing implementation of reforms, found 250,000 people in receipt of a pension were in fact dead. But their families simply carried on drawing the money.

The sort of casual, endemic corruption that infects politics was on show recently when, in order to finance their election campaigns, the political parties voted through parliament levels of state funding for themselves.

The money was for the next four years but the amounts were based on the parties standings after the last election and not their current, eve-of-poll standing.

With this vote as collateral, they then borrowed the money from the banks.

“The money paid to politicians in Greece is seven times more per voter than is paid to German politicians,” notes Bakouris.

Asked if he is optimistic for the future, he says that a year ago he was a little, but now “I’m scared because the parties are behaving the way they are”.

TGI has asked all politicians running in the May 6th general election to agree to eight practical steps to tackling corruption.

They include banning parties using promised state funding as collateral for loans beyond the current fiscal year, greater disclosure of politicians’ assets and the exclusion of politicians from disclosure monitoring mechanisms, and an independent body for judicial appointments.

“If people have no social conscience and don’t have the right values, you cannot change where we are,” says Bakouris.

“To do that, you must have visionary leaders, not get-rich-quick people, but people who are honest and who value hard work.

“And people must understand there are consequences if you break the law.”

Tomorrow in Weekend Review, Peter Murtagh reports from Athens on the victims of the crisis in Greece – the homeless and the destitute