Business as usual in Athens-on-the-Congo

mavrogialourosWatching the current Greek government approach one year in office, I am frequently reminded of a tale I once heard about the customs of a faraway land. This is the tale as it was recounted to our regular contributor Koutofrangos on his travels:

“A real central African country I have visited has in some ways a very efficient system of public administration, one often mistaken by rules-obsessed Westerners for rampant corruption. When you are appointed to a public sector position in the this country, you are not paid a salary because the state has no money to pay you. Your office, your uniform, or your badge, are licenses to extract money and to grant favours. You may expect to serve something like six months in post before you are booted out and replaced by the next incumbent. You are given an office that consists of nothing but bare walls – the equipment, fittings and furniture having been stripped by your predecessor.

Once in place, you have a brief window to make what you can of your position. A typical example is that the police will set up roadblocks with the sole purpose of collecting on the spot ‘fines’ for invented infractions that go directly into their pocket. Once word reaches your village of your new appointment, your kin, both immediate and distant, will expect you to quite literally ‘take care of them’, for nothing is more deeply engrained in the local culture than that of sharing whatever you have with those who are without. For the lowly policeman, your badge and uniform entitle you to require a small payment before wielding your baton against the street mugger; likewise, a ministerial appointee will require the payment of a ‘gratuity’ by wire transfer directly into a foreign numbered account before he is able to confirm a meeting with a senior minister to discuss a mining permit. And the same functionary will arrange for as many relatives as possible to receive civil service jobs back home, who will use their posts to extract whatever they can from those seeking their services.

This sharing of the wealth is an admirable instinct, one that has enabled entire communities to survive even the leanest of times in a world where access to resources is, at best, uncertain. The sense of obligation to family and village on the part of the benefactor is every bit as strong as the sense of entitlement to a share of the spoils by kith and kin; the ties of family and village loyalty are ironclad. When the time comes for you to leave your government post, you will – like all who had gone before you – strip the office clean of its equipment, fittings, and furniture, and leave it to your successor to commence the cycle all over again. As an economist acquaintance long familiar with our African country explained, this system of informal redistribution could be seen as an extremely efficient form of taxation. There were no administrative overheads as ‘tax’ was collected directly from those in need of services, as and when those services were required, effectively a system of ‘pay as you go’ government service delivery. Where it breaks down, of course, is in the arena of major public infrastructure, such as roads and water; it is difficult to demand a bribe from an entire community, or country, unless the demand is delivered from the business end of a gun. It is for this reason that towns some distance from the capital, with populations of a quarter million or more, often lack electricity and sewage disposal – true public services, not amenable to such a model of ‘direct finance’”.

By the way, I forgot to mention, if you hold Greek exceptionalism as an article of faith, or if you are fond of employing words like “neo-colonialist” as an insult, you probably won’t appreciate the analogy that has been creeping up on you. But I suggest you hold your nose and read on.

This is the kind of behaviour that economists call “rent seeking”, and what we have previously written about when documenting the inventive vocabulary of informal transactions in Greece. Since the Syriza/ANEL coalition came to power in January 2015, and then again in September, a typically Greek political ritual has been playing out that differs only in scale from the familial largesse of our African official.

Within the first six months we saw political tokenism in the wholesale rehiring of the ministry cleaners that had served as the red-cleaning-gloved mascots of the election campaign, the upgrading of some of their number to court clerks, and the re-advertising of the same positions on less favourable terms (all perfectly legal if not exactly equitable). We saw the triumphant re-opening of the state broadcaster ERT (including all 1,560 of its original employees), paying back the previous government for its heavy-handed plug-pulling, thereby winning the undying loyalty of a full battalion of media foot-soldiers. School janitors, university administrators, vocational educators and a whole raft of functionally random but symbolically charged public sector positions abolished by the previous government – in an admittedly feeble and itself politicised attempt to make even the most modest inroads on cutting government spending – were reinstated through fast-track procedures. This was given extra piquancy by the fact that the Employment Minister was an established lawyer specialising in representing public sector employees in unfair dismissal cases. The timing was also significant: this rush to deliver on pre-election promises took place as the new government’s risky but ultimately doomed negotiations with the creditors were reaching a crescendo, and on the eve of the referendum called by the government in July to break the deadlock that they had created.

The families have also been gathering round to get their feet under the table. In the literal sense, nieces and nephews, spouses, siblings, in-laws, and assorted relatives have been named almost daily in lists of ministerial appointments and prestigious secondments. In the realms of fictive kinship, party functionaries and failed candidates have also featured large. Back in May, an opposition politician was able to name over 100 appointments with a strong whiff of nepotism, and more have been made since.

Other controversial personnel changes have been effected under the guise of reforms and assessment exercises at senior levels of the civil service. A recent evaluation exercise of hospital directors found that 59 of the 71 assessed by interview were deemed unsuitable for the position (representing an astonishing 83% failure rate); in a number of instances, it was openly acknowledged that politically-sensitive criteria such as “crisis management skills” and “good workplace relations” (i.e. fealty to the all-powerful unions) were allowed to override formal qualifications and successful performance in the job. Sensitive positions at the head of supposedly independent agencies such as the Internal Affairs Unit of the Police and the Secretariat-General of Public Revenues have also been summarily cleared of their incumbents.

In sketching out the outlines of these shifts I do not mean to imply that individual cases cannot be justified. It would not be shocking to hear that a ministry cleaner had been overqualified for her job, in the same way that the waiter who served you your cappuccino may well have a law degree; or that a senior health service official turned out to be crooked, lazy or an incompetent political appointee; or that the head of Public Revenues had bowed to political pressure, as is alleged in the indictment filed against her, since she herself was appointed by the outgoing Samaras government following the unceremonious ouster of her predecessor. It is more that the aggregate pattern can only be interpreted as the result of an overarching plan so pre-rehearsed that it borders on ritual.

That this is the norm rather than the exception is illustrated by an unattributed (though highly plausible) account of a recent gathering of the clans of the Syriza parliamentary group. In it, a rank-and-file MP pleaded sincerely that his job is made harder by the party’s failure to capture the state apparatus to an adequate degree to allow him to grant his constituents’ rousfétia (favours). “The voters came back to me a few days later,” he recounts, “and told me they went to another party’s MP who was able to grant them their rousféti.” Another one of his colleagues reportedly complained that “we can’t even get an army conscript transferred that easily” (see vísma, meson etc.). The account does not disclose whether any of the complainers were “heroic” enough to take to their tent in the wrath of Achilles for not getting their share of the booty. But clearly the fear in the party is that someone will on the eve of the next big battle, and risk costing them the war that they have travelled so far to fight. The government now has a thin majority of three votes, and some challenging measures to pass.

These developments can only be seen as remarkable because they are being set in motion by a government whose supposed USP was a break from the “old” political tradition and a focus on rooting out diaplokí (entanglement) in public life. But in this sense also it is not new. There is a growing body of literature in political science documenting and analysing the politicisation of the civil service in Greece (you can read two slightly different perspectives here and here). In it, a picture emerges of a ritual of capture that takes place with every change of political administration. The ritual rotation was both accelerated and formalised with the coming to power of the Socialist PASOK in the 1980s, which for the first time gave the Left (yes, there was a Greek Left in power before Syriza) a bite of the apple (for most of the twentieth century, leftists were explicitly excluded from the civil service). It has been practiced equally adeptly by their Conservative counterparts Nea Demokratia (under Kostas Karamanlis they are estimated to have appointed over 300,000 civil servants between 2004 and 2009, equating to roughly 4% of the working population of the country at its peak, and 3% of registered voters!) all under the guise of “reforming” the public sector. What is truly shocking now is that the system survives despite the paucity of spoils to distribute.

The capture typically takes place both from the top, to control policy, and from the bottom, to reward loyalty or inflict a political obligation. The result is a state apparatus loyal to its political sponsors that then has to be dismantled by the next party in power. The offices are stripped, and the cycle continues. The prize of any anti-corruption campaign is to catch a frontline politician with his or her fingers in the till; when that happens we are all momentarily shocked, disgusted and chastened. But that is not “us”; at the same time we all tolerate and participate in an astounding volume of exchanges of banal favours because we see them as “business as usual”, the most efficient way to get things done, without acknowledging that we are subtracting from the whole.

This is an informal exchange system and a mode of governance, with its own operating logic, its own morality code and values system. To believe that it is simply parasitical to the democratic system and the “real” economy is to ignore the extent to which it drives things; recognising how rousféti fits in the picture is painful because it is a tacit acknowledgement that the official system is dysfunctional and deficient. Consequently, it is just as naïve to trust that it can be easily rooted out or “reformed” simply through cookie-cutter “good governance” initiatives, as it is to expect that someone by virtue of being young and “not from a political tzáki” (the political equivalent of virgin birth) will be your saviour from all the sins of the political system.

All this grubbiness is of course frowned upon by our partners to the north, just as some of us are tempted to frown upon our African temporary cop in his still-crisp uniform as he demands a bribe at the roadblock in our African capital’s suburbs. As overseers of our spasmodic “reform” efforts, our partner-creditors only rarely make public acknowledgement of what is going on before their very eyes. How can they miss it? Is it because corruption is a “southern” disease that is so alien to their Protestant value system that they fail to see the signs? This is hard to believe given their own achievements in the field. If in doubt, I suggest that you take a closer look at the overbearing embrace of our oleaginous Luxembourgeois MC on the fringes of a European summit. You might just catch a glimpse of the twinkle in the eye of a northern Don Corleone who has just persuaded his wayward nephew to take care of the smooth running of the waste disposal business.

Image: Still from the 1965 comedy “There is Also Conscience” (Υπάρχει και φιλότιμο) in which a naive minister visits his constituency and discovers that his administration is corrupt, he is reviled and the government is mistrusted. The protagonist’s name, Mavrogialouros, has become a byword in Greek for charlatan politicians.




Business as usual in Athens-on-the-Congo

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