Living with bribery and tax evasion as normal as the azure sky

Fri, Aug 3, 2012, 01:00

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.”

“Why?”

“Because every five years you must resubmit your documentation.”

“Why?”

“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.”

These kinds of defiance have been for decades a social norm.

Meanwhile, the coalition government in place since late June appears to be doing nothing except mouthing empty rhetoric about the need for reform and renegotiation of the bailout.

There are reportedly 110 bailout conditions on which no progress has been made, thus imperilling payment of the next tranche of the loan. Government prevarication has registered with the voters: a recent opinion poll indicated that 50 per cent of voters are dissatisfied with the inaction of people who have the power – but not the motivation – to effect change.

This is the same percentage that voted for the anti-austerity, anti-bailout parties on June 17th. A house divided, indeed.

A visitor, looking at an aquamarine sky, asked: “Where else would you see a sky like that?” To which the answer is: Portugal, Spain, Italy – all the “bad boys” of southern Europe.

It isn’t simply a matter of doing business in these countries in a quite different way to those of the north, but a cultural difference.

A country in which clingfilm is called “diaphanous membrane”, and where boys are still named Aristotle, Hercules and Perikles, and girls Aphrodite, Urania (sky) and Agape (love), isn’t quite the same as one in which children are called Nigel and Ingrid, and where clingfilm is, well, clingfilm.

If, as seems likely, Democratic Left quits the coalition, in protest at the delay in renegotiating the bailout – or, as some see it, the refusal of New Democracy to do so – the ND-Pasok coalition would still command an 11-seat majority.

However defections, expulsions and resignations are a common feature of Greek parliamentary life, and we have seen three junior ministers resign in recent weeks, also as a protest against failure to implement reforms and talk turkey with the IMF. That majority could easily be whittled down until the coalition faced a vote of no confidence, after which we would be thrust for the third time this year into a general election.

In that case, would voters reject more of the same (and prior to the last election fewer than 20 per cent of them said they wanted another ND-Pasok coalition) and instead give Radical Left (Syriza) another chance to form a government on an anti-austerity, anti-bailout ticket? There’s a growing feeling that since the common plight cannot get any worse, Syriza might be able to harness that social norm of refusal and turn it into a more positive force.

Prime minister Antonis Samaras has been suffering from a detached retina, due, allegedly, to stress. If the current level of stress continues, he’ll find himself with something much more serious – a detached retinue.