A country whose DNA is made up of evasion, secrecy and bribery


LETTER FROM GREECE:Current events in this troubled EU state reflect historic interference in its domestic affairs by foreign powers, writes RICHARD PINE

BRIAN FRIEL’S 1969 play The Mundy Scheme begins with a question to the audience: “What happens to an emerging country after it has emerged?” The crucial issue is how it copes with its new-found freedom. In many cases, as with both Ireland and Finland immediately after independence, and in so many African states in more recent times, there is civil war as rival factions express differing viewpoints on questions of national identity and self-determination.

In Greece it took much longer, but the divisiveness in civil society persists, especially as the country, which shook off Turkish rule in the 1820s and adopted a German as its king, seems today to be threatened again by German-led economic impositions and Turkish demands for a reduction in the Greek continental shelf. German demands threaten the Greek economy; Turkish demands threaten Greece’s (and Cyprus’s) potential exploitation of gas and oil deposits.

Due to its fears of Turkish militancy Greece has a massive army and air force, costing the country far more than it can possibly afford but which, it is argued, is essential for Greece’s security. According to one source, Greece is ranked ninth in the world in terms of militarisation, ahead of far richer countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has a similar problem with neighbouring Iran.

In a sense, Greece has always been ungovernable. As Irish readers will readily appreciate, when your country is occupied by a dominant neighbour, you resort to evasion, secrecy, bribery and clientelism – this way of life permeates the DNA. Under its own domestic regime, Greece, from the 1830s up to today, was able to live comfortably with this DNA, haphazardly, but according to its own rhythms.

Divisive issues such as whether the country should be a monarchy or a republic (only finally resolved by referendum in 1975) or irredentism over its lost territory in the Balkans (still a difficult issue in relation to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey) have always meant instability.

But Greece, being under external diktats which effectively control the economy, foreign relations and most of civil society, is a different country. It’s one thing to live with your defects at your own pace, and quite another to have those defects exposed by external auditors who demand their eradication. The divided society that has always been Greece is today divided by those external forces, and the age-old capacity in the DNA for resistance becomes resurgent and more explicit than ever before.

One example is the problem of tax evasion, which runs throughout Greek society, and has become a public debate with the resignation of Diomidis Spinellis, whose task as secretary general of a special task-force inside the Ministry of Finance was to identify tax evaders. Spinellis has asserted not only that “there is a deficit of management” in the identification of evasion, but also that tax collectors regularly pocket 40 per cent of the fines they collect, while the taxpayer receives a 40 per cent discount on the fine imposed. Very few of the prominent people who have been named as tax dodgers have been penalised.

Angela Gerekou, one of Corfu’s three MPs, was forced to resign as junior minister for tourism and culture when it was disclosed that her husband, singer Tolis Voskopoulos, owed over €500,000 in taxes. He received a three-year suspended sentence and was given the option of paying at the rate of €5 per day. At that rate, it will take him almost 300 years to pay what he owes. It helps to explain why so many protesters in Syntagma Square revile the kleptocracy which protects tax dodgers from paying their debt to society.

Meanwhile, the unexpected news that the Greek exchequer has achieved a primary surplus has led to international commentators renewing their opinion that a default and a return to the drachma are economically feasible: if citizens don’t pay their taxes, why should Greece pay its debts?

Another indicator of unease was the admission by Michalis Chrysochoidis, development minister in the interim government, and a candidate for the leadership of Pasok, that he had not read the memorandum of understanding that ushered in Greece’s bailout era. He said he was too busy with his then job as minister for citizens’ protection to study it.

Irish readers will recall that, in 2009, Charlie McCreevy, as Ireland’s EU commissioner, admitted he had not read the text of the Lisbon Treaty – in which he was joined by the UK’s Europe minister, Caroline Flint.

Many in Greece today ask why Chrysochoidis should be penalised for his admission: wasn’t the memorandum a done deal, the first tranche of Greece’s descent into insolvency and humiliation? So, why did he need to read it? No wonder that a graffito in Corfu town reads “Troika = Pasok”. It’s generally considered today that Pasok, which continues to dominate the interim coalition, has all along been complaisant and compliant towards EU impositions.

The troika is demanding perestroika (forgive the pun) – the Russian word for the complete restructuring of society introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, along with glasnost (transparency). George Papandreou, the former PM and leader of Pasok, promised perestroika in Greece, but opacity continues to bedevil any demonstrable advance.

In the eyes of many, especially following Angela Merkel’s statement that defaulting countries should be denied control over their own budgets, this puts Greece back where it was before 1821, when it began its fight for independence.