Living with bribery and tax evasion as normal as the azure sky
LETTER FROM GREECE:The feeling is growing that the social norm of refusal could be used to positive political effect
I PLEAD guilty. Last month I colluded in tax evasion and paid a bribe. I was buying stationery costing €105. The shopkeeper asked if I wanted a receipt. No thanks. “Then that will be €90 – cash, of course.” Of course. I saved €15 and he avoided paying VAT.
Collusion. Everyone does it.
The bribery is rather more serious. When my Greek cash card was rejected by an ATM, I was directed towards the manager.
“Why was my cash card rejected?”
“Because your account has been frozen.”
“Because every five years you must resubmit your documentation.”
“It’s an EU rule.”
“I have had an account with NatWest since 1967 and with AIB since 1970 and not once have I been asked to resubmit. It is not an EU rule.”
A shrug of the shoulders. “All right, it isn’t an EU rule, but it’s a rule around here.”
I slid a €50 note across his desk; it disappeared under his blotter.
“Does that change the rules?”
An amicable smile.
“Your account is now unfrozen – for two years.”
I reckoned that an average of €25 a year in bank charges was acceptable, even though they were being levied in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Bribery.
The question for me is: did I do right or wrong? And what about my bank manager? Here’s a man who has taken a 20 per cent cut in salary, who is confronted by the rising cost of living and who is struggling to put two teenagers through the frontistirio (crammer) to enhance their chances of getting into university (after which they will surely take their qualifications to a country where they can find employment).
Can one blame him for taking every possible step to increase his take-home pay? If there is sickness in the family, it can cost him up to €20,000 in bribes to ensure his loved ones get adequate hospital treatment, as it is unlikely he can afford the very high cost of medical insurance. (My own medical insurance has gone from €1,450 to €1,750 a year since 2009 – twice what I had been paying to the VHI.)
The richest man in the village where I live, somewhat predictably, collects rent in cash on the properties he owns. I ask him whether he pays the new property tax and get a wintry smile worthy of de Valera, moonlight on a tombstone.
I point out that if the tax is levied together with the electricity bill, the power supply might be cut off if the tax is unpaid. Another, slightly less wintry smile: “I’m buying a generator – a big one.”