Extended Greek drama may yet end with a twist

Wed, Nov 7, 2012, 00:00

Greek Letter:An Irishman with business interests in Greece reminds me that when the Roman emperor visited his provinces, the local organisers crucified a few Christians so as to make him feel at home. And when German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens recently, the government decided to proceed with the trial of 36 former ministers and civil servants on bribery charges – one of whom has hanged himself.

Athens-based journalist Nick Malkoutzis reminded us in a blog that, almost two centuries ago another German, Bavarian King Otto, tried to subdue some unruly elements in the Peloponnese by military means. When that failed, he resorted to diplomacy, resulting in a win-win situation for all concerned.

What do these two history snippets tell us? First, that the Greek government is determined to expose at least the top of the bribery iceberg; and second, that ozed diplomacy, was a sucMerkel’s recent visit, which ocess story for her and, more importantly, for beleaguered Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras.

Apart from some objectors dressing in Nazi costumes during the visit, and the burning of a swastika flag, there was little of the violence anticipated by the thought police. The frustration felt by almost all Greeks at uncertainty caused by the delay in publishing the EU-IMF-ECB troika report on the state of the Greek economy is now so widespread that, in a sense, the outcome is meaningless.

Hardliners

Either the report will be negative (in which case the Athens coffers will be empty by the end of November) or it will be positive and Greece will receive the next tranche of the bailout. In either case, severe austerity will continue along with Greece’s massive international debts.

But two factors seem to have raised the stakes and point towards a possibly better outcome (in the long term) for Greece and the Greeks. One was Samaras’s statement, shortly before Merkel’s visit (and ironically in a German newspaper, Handelsblatt), that if the tranche was not paid, the till would be empty and Greece would effectively be bankrupt. It’s something we have heard several times before, but it was generally realised that this time he wasn’t crying wolf! The second factor was that, in scarcely coded messages, Merkel in Athens seemed to be telling the IMF to move from the expected negative report to a positive one.

Up to now, apart from comparatively minor hassles between the troika and Athens about the amount and duration of the latest austerity package (would it be €11.5 billionn or €13.5 billion) the main problem has arisen over Greece’s capacity to instigate the changes on which the troika insists: principally, slimming down the civil service, structural changes in administration, opening up self-regulating professions which range from hairdressers and truck drivers to pharmacists and lawyers and selling state assets such as small islands and the old Athens airport.

Up to now, the troika has insisted on concrete evidence of progress on all these fronts before the next tranche can be disbursed. One of the reasons for the delay in publishing the report, initially expected in early October, is thought to be to give Greece further time to produce that evidence. But there is every reason to suspect that hardliners in the IMF, led in Greece by the unfriendly Poul Thomsen, will not give way despite hints from Merkel and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.

Meanwhile, the accusing finger points at more than the 36 men going up for trial. An Athens joke is: why is Evangelos Venizelos (leader of the socialist party, Pasok) so fat? Because he was once minister of defence (2009-11).

The post is widely bruited to be the best cabinet position as far as opportunity for bribes is concerned. No one would of course suggest that Venizelos took bribes, but one of his predecessors, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, is in custody while his trial for money laundering proceeds.

No politician or senior civil servant is above suspicion. Nor are the very rich. A report leaked by Lagarde while she was French finance minister indicates that about 2,000 Greek citizens hold assets in HSBC’s Geneva branch of €1.5 billion and that, when he was finance minister himself, Venizelos suppressed the report.

Financial analysts, watching the withdrawal of €70 billion in cash from Greek banks since 2009, describe it as the tip of the iceberg.