What leaving gift do you give the man who has everything? Outgoing Defence Minister Panos Kammenos is a man of expensive tastes, as his bills from the Knightsbridge Mandarin Oriental can attest.. One can well imagine him having a Geneva shop front’s worth of gold watches in the closet behind his collection of plus-size military uniforms accumulated during his four years in the post – none of them earned in military service. This morning, Kammenos got the chicken-hawk’s wet dream of a send-off: a parade attended by top military brass, complete with a fighter jet fly-past. In order to allow him his pomp and ceremony, parliament delayed by two hours the debate on a vote of confidence in the government, triggered by Kammenos’s well-signposted but still rather inconvenient departure.
The ceremony was ostensibly staged in honour of his successor, but then Kammenos is not known for his aversion to military spectacle, having laid wreaths for every military event since the Battle of Salamis (480 BC) and never passed up on an opportunity to don camouflage or a Top Gun-style flying jacket. He spent the 48 hours since resigning from the government flaunting the trappings of his office in a valedictory tour: first taking a military helicopter to drop a wreath over the site of the 1996 dispute with Turkey at the islet of Imia, then using his office in the ministry as the setting for a TV interview in which he accused proponents of the Prespes deal of being in the pay of George Soros. Prior to that he posted a video of the raising of the flat on the Albanian border, and made sure the cameras captured him taking Sunday communion.
Kammenos’s successor in the post is the now former head of the Greek armed forces, Admiral Apostolakis – a man unknown to the general pubic until a couple of weeks ago, when he threatened Turkey that if they dared send forces to any disputed islet he would raze it. While a (figurative) army of talking heads struggled to rationalise his bellicose eruption in geostrategic terms, it now seems that this was merely his debut into political society. Like any traditional pantomime worth its salt, the handover featured a cross-dressing act: the admiral donned a suit, a nod to the rule that a serving army officer is not allowed to take political office. It is not known whether the outgoing minister gets to keep his G.I.-Joe wardrobe as a souvenir of his time in office. It is more than likely, given how many rules have been bent to keep the junior coalition partner’s toys in his pram.
And what a time it has been. Aside from getting to play with some pretty powerful toys and make friends with the boys who wield them, Kammenos has enjoyed what has traditionally been one of the most lucrative public offices in the country. Without a hint of irony as the jet fuel burned overhead, he praised his successor for his stewardship of a much-reduced armed forces budget “paid for by the Greek people out of their sacrifices”. It is true that under the current belt-tightening Defence offers fewer opportunities for enrichment that it once did – one former holder of the post has only just been released from prison on compassionate grounds after funding a lavish lifestyle on kickbacks linked to procurement contracts, while another recently did the perp walk on similar charges. To give him is due, Kammenos has made the best of the poor hand he was dealt. His ministry is implicated in skimming from the EU refugee aid funds managed by the army, while he also tried to flog surplus missiles to Saudi Arabia, of the type that regularly rain down on Yemen, in a morally and legally dubious deal involving a shady middleman. One would like to think that someone is presently conducting an inventory of all the doorknobs in the Ministry, along the lines of a popular Greek saying, but it is unlikely that anyone in the government is minded to spoil his leaving do.
And so, the somewhat unconventional marriage of convenience between left- and right-wing populism (or the progressive forces and the traditional centre-right as they prefer to style themselves respectively) has come to an end, at least for now. But Kammenos has made it clear that he intends to stay in politics. Backed up against his last remaining “red line”, the refusal to let our northern neighbours call themselves “Macedonians”, he finds himself once again on the side of popular outrage. He will now ensure that opposition New Democracy aren’t tempted to waver from the “patriotic” line they have taken, albeit with a large dose of opportunism, on the subject. This is a worrying development. Having demonstrated that he is content to be the tail wagging a much bigger dog, this Tinpot Trump (or Puny Putin – he is a great admirer of both men) appeared doomed to the political oblivion that is the fate of junior coalition partners until this gift of a cause landed in his lap and gave him a new lease on life.
It has become commonplace in Greece in the years of a crisis for people to throw around words like “junta” and “coup” to casually describe governments or policies they disagree with. It is still a shock to wake up to such a spectacular deployment of the trappings of totalitarianism in plain view, using public funds, with consent at the highest level. Kammenos now returns to the political fray weakened but unfettered in the pursuit of his less progressive beliefs (he has abstained from every significant vote on social issues including citizenship and civil partnerships), leaving in his chair a man who – as he was ominously reminded at the handover ceremony – may owe his health to a religious dedication made by his trophy fishing buddy, the outgoing minister himself.