The separation of powers (legislative, executive, judiciary) is, like democracy, an invention attributed to the ancient Greeks. As such, the descendants of Aristotle reserve the right, by virtue of their inherited intellectual ownership, to interpret it as they please. Inspired by the Novartis affair, some of the giants of contemporary Greek politics have been competing to deliver a masterclass in this cornerstone concept of just government. Students of law and political science would do well to watch and learn.
It all started when, at the height of the carnival season, the Greek parliament was handed a file on the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, implicating ten former Ministers and Prime Ministers in corruption and money laundering. The allegations contained in the case are that the company’s Greek subsidiary paid senior officials up to €50 million in bribes to favour their products, a practice which cost the Greek state an estimated €3 billion between 2010 and 2015. This is just the latest in a string of corruption charges which the company has faced around the world (including China, South Korea, and most recently Turkey). The Greek investigation was initiated when the U.S. authorities passed information resulting from their own case to the Greek prosecutors.
Somewhere along the way, things took a distinctly Greek turn.
The government adopted a characteristically low-key approach to the affair, with the Deputy Justice Minister soon hailing it as “the biggest scandal since the establishment of the Greek state”. One of the more enduring refrains of the governing SYRIZA-ANEL coalition has been its pledge to expose the corruption of their predecessors at every turn, and they have been hinting at revelations in the Novartis case for at least a year. The government spokesman made sure he was seen leaving the prosecutors’ office on the day the file was handed to parliament, and studiously avoided giving a consistent explanation for his visit.
The opposition quickly took the bait, accusing the government of a political smear campaign.
First out of the gate was Evaggelos Venizelos, former leader of PASOK, Deputy Prime Minister in the Nea Demokratia-PASOK government of 2012-2014, and professor of constitutinal law, no less. “We will deal with the Prime Minister and the members of his government after the elections,” he thundered on the evening news. “But right now we will deal with the false witnesses. I am not threatening anyone, suing someone for perjury is not a threat, but how must political assassination or character assassination be dealth with?”
The target of his ire was the testimony of three witnesses which implicated him and the nine other opposition politicians in bribe-taking.
“I’m not saying something bad might happen to you and your dearest ones, but please take extra good care of the little ones on their way to school, knowwhaddimean?”
OK, he didn’t say that last bit, but you get the picture.
But it’s not just the accused that seem intent on exposing the protected witnesses.
Deputy Health Minister, walking Cretan hard-man stereotype and full-time professional smoker Pavlos Polakis went on morning TV the next day to tease viewers with a blind item worthy of the trashiest gossip rag: the protected witnesses, he said, are Novartis executives who were caught with the proceeds of illegal enrichment and have been “singing like canaries” (sic). They are not “innocent children” in this, he added for good measure. Perhaps from the vertiginous elevation of the moral high ground it was hard for the Minister to discern the damage he might be inflicting on the people involved or on any court case arising from their testimony – or maybe these are just the sort of legal niceties that get in the way of dispensing his particular brand of rough justice.
This cheery morning TV show has a history of pandering to the toxic macho side of our political culture – the “money shot” in one memorable June 2012 edition was a Golden Dawn MP repeatedly punching a female colleague from the Communist Party. His party went on to win 18 seats in parliament in the elections a few days later. “Good morning Greece,” indeed!
But I digress.
Heavy-handed hints were not enough for Andreas Loverdos, Health Minister under the Nea Demokratia-PASOK coaltion, who went one step further, threatening that “I will be the one to rip their hoods off.”
At this point, many were reminded of another of Loverdos’s radical transparency initiatives. During his tenure at the Ministry of Health in 2012, eleven HIV-positive women were publicly named and shamed, their mugshots splashed across the evening news, accused of intentionally infecting people with the disease while allegedly working as prostitutes. With their customary delay, the courts eventually found no evidence that the women were prostitutes, or that they had had unprotected sex (with one exception). Only eight women survived to hear the verdict in December 2016.
Next to this, the deperate 24-hour rolling protestations of New Demokratia deputy leader Adonis Georgiadis seemed merely quaint. Answering to witness allegations that he used kickbacks from pharmaceutical contracts to refubish his house, he invited the media to visit him and document the damp patches in his sitting room.
Already, though, the trial-by-media was well and truly on for the less publicity-hungry witnesses in the case. One notorious tabloid hack bragged of knowing the identity of one of the protected witnesses, and went on to publish her name and professional history, along with several photos of the blonde “deep throat” (sic) dreged from social media.
It appears that the prosecutors had neglected to fully redact her name from the documents passed on to parliament, several pages of which were also leaked to the media.
Then came the parade of almost comically pointless lawsuits.
Former PM Antonis Samaras was obviously put out by the accusations. Having just emerged from his crypt once again to flog the rotting carcass of Bucephalus to victory over the usurpers of Alexander the Great, he was enjoying an unexpected moment of relevance. He promptly sued the current PM Alexis Tsipras, his Justice Minister, the prosecutors in the case, and the witnesses who had named him.
Former New Democracy Health Minister and current EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos was next. In his customary modest, self-effacing style, he not held a verbose press conferend to announce his own lawsuit against the witnesses, but took the opportunity to throw some serious shade on the elected representatives of the people to whom it falls to determine the course of the investigation. His letter to to the Speaker of the Vouli states – and I paraphrase only very slightly – “I would simply love to attend your little hearing, but my long-standing commitments with the College of Commissioners in Brussels and the Secretary General of the United Nations in New York sadly prevent me from doing so. Kindly convey my message to the plenary, there’s a good chap!”
Others named in the case have also threatened to sue but have not yet followed through.
Many wondered what Avramopoulos’s former boss, Kostas Karamanlis, had to say about the case, which stated that as PM he had been “led astray” by his Health Minister into approving lavish healthcare budgets. Extracting a statement from Karamanlis these days seems to involve getting a circle of his close associates to chew on mytle leaves while inhaling the smoke of his favourite souvlaki joint at his holiday retreat in Rafina. But it appears that through them he backed up parts of Avramopoulos’s account.
What of the current leadership of the party? As surely as Achilles is “fleet of foot” in Homer’s epics, Nea Demokratia leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is invariably “reformist, Harvard-educated” in the adoring foreign press. These seemingly impeccable credentials did not prevent him from pondering aloud, in the manner of the honest family businessman in a Mario Puzo novel, “What exactly are these three hooded ones afraid of? That they will be murdered by [former caretaker PM] Mr Pikrammenos or Mr Samaras, or that they will be beaten by Mr Georgiadis or [Governor of the Bank of Greece and former Finance Minister] Mr Stournaras?”
What are they afraid of, ideed? Perhaps they have the same liking for extreme sports as one former Novartis brand manager, who was so elated at the prospect of an internal investigation that he had to be talked down from the parapet of the Athens Hilton on New Year’s eve last year.
The incident was described in loving detail in the article above, published in Kathimerini newspaper, which surely contravenes every single guideline on the reporting of such desperate incidents.
But that is nitpicking compared to the accusations levelled at the media covering the Novartis affair. Here is Polakis again, berating the host of a talk show on state broadcaster ERT for not being robust enough in prosecuting the case against his opponents: “Is it perhaps to do with the fact that in 2014 YOU also took a cool fifty-five thousand euros in advertising from KEELPNO [the Greek authority for disease control]?????? (it may have been more but I can’t quite recall at the moment).”
Of course, everyone has their own style of communicating and we can perhaps allow for a bit of political bluster, but surely we can rely on the presumption of innocence to ensure that justice is served? Not according to Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. A consummate multi-tasker who has spent the last few weeks fending off a compromise assault from our former Yugoslav neighbours to the north, while viciously nipping at Turkey’s ankes in the Aegean to the east, he still found time to opine on this issue: “There certainly is a scandal,” he said, “let them prove that they are innocent.”
The grotesquery of carnival is now behind us and we have entered Lent. It can only be hoped that when parliament reconvenes to vote on the course of the investigation, the proceedings will be characterised by the restraint and solemnity that the season, and the case, demand.
This, however, is unlikely. The histrionics and flagrant disregard for due process on both sides suggest that the last thing on their mind is seeing through a thorough investigation. For the opposition, it is almost certain to dredge up some embarrassing facts about their past management of the healthcare sector, even if they fall short of the sensational accusations of wheelie bags of cash ushered through the back door of the prime ministerial mansion – the best they can do is obstruct and sabotage. For the government, which has already shown a much greater love of tactics than the nitty gritty of implementation, this is the golden moment of chaos in the opposition that they hope the electorate will savour – the moment before the tabloid sensation fizzles into a dull procedural.
There will amost certainly be collateral damage. There will be a direct human cost for those ill-advised enough to volunteer information in such a politically charged case, however tainted or unsympathetic their characters may turn out to be. The pressure to deliver big name political scalps is also likely to deflect from an investigation into the very real questions surrounding the explosion in healthcare spending, which extends well outside the historical time frame of the investigation. Finally, the casual disregard shown towards the justice system by people in the highest political offices has already inflicted a damaging blow to any remaining public trust in the institution.
MAIN IMAGE: Novartis-themed float at the Rethymno carnival, featuring drugs named after the politicians in the Novartis affair (Source: @spasmenoPar).