Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems

visma

The new Greek government’s promise to combat corruption in a “clean hands” campaign has renewed concern that many distinctly Greek forms of social interaction could be brought to the brink of extinction. In the interest of documenting and preserving our rich national heritage for future generations we document here some of these practices with their traditional names:

Φακελάκι (fakeláki, lit. little envelope: small bribe). This is probably the most internationally renowned form of informal transaction in Greece. In the past few years, when it became part of the lore of reporting on the financial crisis, friends from far-flung places would routinely ask me, “is it true that you can’t get hospital treatment in Greece without giving the doctor an envelope?” The practice of extracting “something extra” from the patient is sadly prevalent, though not universal in the Greek healthcare system, as it is in other public services, including planning, driver licensing, and the tax authority. The sums in question are hard to quantify, but some data is beginning to be gathered. In two years of operation, the not-for-profit website edosafakelaki.org which crowd-sources citizen’s stories of corruption documented over 1,800 cases of bribes totalling over €5.3 million (as of 29 September 2015). We have to assume this is an underestimate of the total. The average for a medical procedure works out at just over €1,850, while €230 will buy you a driving license. Citizens are in recent years encouraged to register their complaints, either anonymously in forums such as edosafakelaki.org, or through official routes such as the relatively new institutions of the Ombudsman (Synígoros tou Politi) and the Inspector General of Public Administration. Both the Synígoros and the Inspector General have been able to intervene in an independent capacity, document and publish cases of corruption. Their investigations have highlighted that one of the problems with investigating and prosecuting corruption by public officials is the complexity of the rules and the lumbering pace of the disciplinary system, which often allows the officials implicated to continue to draw a salary and even return to their posts. Recently the press reported on the case of a doctor whose insistence on a fakeláki allegedly resulted in the death of the patient, but was allowed to return to his post because the disciplinary committee failed to convene in the allotted time. Small-scale campaigns such as the hospital which recently posted “no fakeláki” signs on the wards may suggest that public attitudes are gradually shifting towards more transparency, but it is clear that the practice persists and by some accounts has worsened during the crisis.

Λάδωμα (ládoma, lit. greasing, oiling the wheels: bribe). Generic term for bribery, regardless of scale.

Μίζα (míza, lit. ignition: large bribe; euphemistically, προμήθεια – promíthia, meaning commission). If you play in the big leagues of the kleptocracy (another Greek word, meaning rule by thievery), an envelope is not enough, you need at least one suitcase, and a bag man to transport it. The biggest areas for these types of bribes, usually (but not exclusively) between multinationals and high-ranking officials, are defence and healthcare procurement. We should note that bribes for state contracts are not a peculiarly Greek disease but have traditionally counted as part of the “cost of doing business” in the industries concerned, and the US authorities have been most assiduous in prosecuting them globally. The best known example in Greece is the Siemens scandal, which resulted in the jailing of one (only one?!) former Defence minister, but there are more. Exposing cases on this scale has been rare because the most successful ones taint successive governments irrespective of political orientation, and prosecuting them is often complicated by their international nature. However, they offer the biggest “bang for buck” politically, so we can expect them to be a priority in the latest government campaign. Hence, this week a businessman accused of acting as an intermediary in a corrupt arms deal was arrested and charged in Athens.j

The practices listed above can be categorised as cash or monetary transactions. There is a separate category of informal transactions that are not monetary in nature but can best be described as a barter in favours. While fakeláki and míza are purely commercial exchanges, vísma, méson and rousféti (below) represent exchanges in favours, often open ended, unquantifiable and unenforceable in the strictest sense other than through social norms. Each of these categories has its place, and knowing when to deploy which is in itself a measure of one’s socialisation into the Greek way of doing things. Even cash bribes are generally not solicited outright, but one has to watch for cues: when a routine application stalls inexplicably, when the official tells you “we can proceed now” but does the opposite, when you are invited into the office for a “private” conversation. As a rule of thumb, though, you use money with strangers. Offering money to someone who you already have a social relationship with is taboo and can cause great offence, even though you may consider the value of the transaction to be objectively equal. This whole domain of overlapping spheres of exchange is an economic anthropologist’s wet dream, and we hope that one day it will get the attention it deserves.

Βύσμα (vísma, literally plug, connection). A contact that plugs you into the system, someone who can get you preferential treatment. This term is most commonly applied with respect to compulsory military service, where a good connection can secure a cushy transfer, either to a posting close to home, or to less onerous or dangerous duties, or in the best case to a discharge on health grounds. Greek males over the age of 18 are required to serve between 6 and 24 months in a branch of the armed services. There is, however, a hierarchy. Serving close to the Turkish border at Evros, on one of the smaller islands in the east Aegean, or in the land army anywhere but on the outskirts of Athens is for rubes and suckers. If you are forced to waste a large chunk of your young life learning pointless skills, the logic goes, you might as well minimise the discomfort and maximise the enjoyment potential. The savvy conscript will research the cushiest postings in advance (there are online forums for this) and request a transfer at the first opportunity via their relative/family friend/neighbour in the Ministry of Defence. Hence a recent ad for directory enquiries which showed a soldier being drilled, suggesting he search under “electrician”, “electrical supplies” etc. The national service vísma is considered such a special case that a new law designed specifically tο close loopholes that allow these practices went into consultation earlier this year.

Μέσον (méson: means, as in “means to an end”). As above, but with more general application. The quid pro quo may be votes (if one of the parties is a politician) or favours in another area of activity. For example, I may get your son or daughter through the door for a job, knowing that you work in the planning department and may be able to rubber-stamp my illegal garage extension. The transaction is hardly ever explicitly acknowledged and may even be passed down a generation before it is reciprocated. A single favour could be merely the start of a multi-generational patronage relationship. Sometimes the barter in favours will start with a request, but other times with an unsolicited gift (for which one can refer to Mauss’s concept of “the gift” as infliction of obligation). Greek people can be very generous, and often it is hard for the newcomer to distinguish genuine generosity from the initiation of a favour chain.

Ρουσφέτι (rousféti, from the Turkish word for bribe). In the modem Greek sense, the meaning is closer to “favour”. It is usually applied to the practice of political mass patronage or clientelism. For example, it is traditional for each new government to initiate a cycle of irregular hires or secondments within the civil service by ministerial decree, bypassing the usual routes and creating “party armies”, essentially purchasing votes for the next round of elections. The most egregious example of this is the government of Kostas Karamanlis which is said to have swelled the ranks of the civil service by up to 150,000 employees between 2004 and 2005.

Κουμπαριά (koubariá: godparent-hood, or best-man-hood). As fans of Game of Thrones and students of feudal societies will recognise, the most binding form of favour exchange is cemented by real or fictive kinship. Asking someone to be best man at your wedding or godparent to your child is less about acknowledging an existing tie and more about creating a favour chain. In the political sphere, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the honorary president of Nea Demokratia, is said to have christened scores of political offspring, while famously Kostas Karamanlis while Greek PM celebrated happier times in Greek-Turkish relations by acting as chief witness at then Turkish PM Erdogan’s daughter’s wedding.

Of course, while we can enjoy the quaint anecdotes and marvel at the ingenuity of the Greek people, these practices do real damage. In economic terms, back in 2010 the Brookings Institution estimated that the total cost of all corruption in Greece was around 8% of GDP, or €20 billion annually (it is hard to assess the reliability of these figures as the report is not readily available)*. Presumably in addition to lost tax revenues, there are less readily quantifiable costs, such as accidents caused by drivers who should have failed their driving tests, deaths due to medical malpractice, environmental impact of illegal construction and unchecked pollution that someone has turned a blind eye to, and of course long-term loss of legitimacy of public institutions which further feeds the vicious cycle of corruption. Greece recently ranked in last place among EU countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (granted, on a par with Italy, Romania and Bulgaria, but below Rwanda and South Africa in the global rankings). Corruption also contributes to its consistently low scores in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report, where Greece currently ranks last in the group of “advanced economies”.

Then there is what this says about Greek society and governance. Informal practices and unwritten rules generally flourish in environments were the official systems and norms are either weak, inequitably enforced, overcomplicated or downright corrupt themselves, making it hard for society to function predictably, let alone fairly. I thoroughly recommend Alena Ledeneva’s book How Russia Really Works for an in-depth exploration of the post-Soviet informal economy, where Greek readers will find many parallels to their everyday experiences. Ledeneva argues that in order to combat the negative effects of these informal practices it is necessary to understand their logic and the function which they serve. In most instances, simple prohibition will not work because it may in fact increase the scope for illegality. Indeed, one of the findings of the Synígoros in their latest annual report is that the ad hoc reforms that have commonly been applied have frequently created greater scope for corruption and complicated oversight and enforcement. Not only political will, but also creative thinking and strategic commitment are required for reform to be effective.

This suggests that, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust, these terms and the practices they describe are likely to remain current for some time. In a recent open letter, the Greek chapter of Transparency International called on the new government to act on its promises. In the letter it listed its negative accomplishments in cronyism in its previous eight month term:

“It gave incentives to those who have sent their money abroad and re-employed public servants who have been indicted. It did not confront the conflict of interest issues of ministers and it allowed draft dodgers to keep responsible positions. It also hired friends of friends and relatives for government posts with no respect to meritocracy and justice to all citizens.”

Clearly graft is not just a problem of the “old” establishment. Let’s hope they really mean it this time.

*Since this was written the Inspector General of Public Administration put the cost of corruption and petty bureaucracy at €33 billion per annum.

Image from http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/vilkus/

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Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems

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