Big shout-out to everyone who has continued to visit this blog for insight, entertainment, or their own dark reasons. Your visits were all the more meaningful in a year when reality gave us some stiff competition in the sheer volume and magnitude of fake (and wish-it-were-fake) news disgorged on a daily basis.
History will record that the most-read posts on Dateline Atlantis in the year 2017 of the Gregorian calendar (1483228800 – 1514764799 Unix time) were as follows:
In March, a Calvinist apparatchik on the fast track to political oblivion tried to lecture the Greeks on profligacy, and got a very predictable comeuppance: “Drink and women: it’s a culture thang”
With the Greek wedding industry in the doldrums, some provincial caterers reinvented their business model – skimming from the aid budget for refugee meals. A sordid tale of opportunity in crisis, as reported by insidestory.gr: “Feeding the invisible refugees”
In February, we donned our green-tinted spectacles to travel back in time to the utopian heyday of the “Old PASOK”, the latest manifestation of our national nostalgia epidemic. Why is it so hard to say, “Good bye, Andrea?”
Another summer, another round of forest fires. Last year’s post about the politics of natural disasters found a new audience. We look forward to the year when this is no longertopical: “The best cure?”
IMAGE: The “controversial” Christmas tree of Ioannina, possibly an hommage to Meccano – via protothema.gr
Among the plethora of explanations put forward for the Greek crisis, one of the most prominent has been the cosy relationship between the country’s media ownership and the financial and political establishment. Some observers have gone so far as to claim that this so-called “triangle of corruption” is the chiefcause of Greece’s ills, while SYRIZA, currently the lead partner in the country’s governing coalition, named tackling the country’s “oligarchs” through their media interests as one of their first priorities on the eve of their coming to power in 2015.
Whether a weak and interest-led media can be made to shoulder such an overwhelming burden of blame for the country’s economic collapse is open to question (if only because this view, championed enthusiastically by the foreign media, seems itself suspiciously, ahem, media-centric). That said, there is no doubt that the fourth estate is a crucial part of the democratic anatomy, so when looking for signs of a turnaround it is one of the places to check for vital signs. It has to be said (SPOILER ALERT!) that things are not looking good for the patient.
Sure enough, SYRIZA made good on their promise to go after the “anarchic” broadcast licensing regime, and we gave our take on their efforts here and here. About a year ago, with a new – supposedly more transparent and incorruptible – legal framework in place, the government set out to allocate new broadcast licenses. What happened from that point on is instructive.
When it came to the allocation, the government devised a devilishly complex auction procedure, seemingly designed to humiliate the bidders by subjecting them to an extended sleepover in a heavily guarded office block, complete with camp beds and invigilated toiled breaks. Perversely, the private TV channels, whose proprietors were personally involved in most cases, lapped it up. The spectacle gifted them a reality TV format which they didn’t have to pay to license (as they do when they copy gameshows like “Survivor” or “X Factor”) – in essence hours of free entertainment, with plenty of occasion for anti-government invective. Indeed, the Greek Union of Journalists, faced with hundreds of job losses whatever the outcome, wrote the advertising copy, describing the contest as a “badly written reality show” (translation: ratings gold!).
The outcome of the auction was equally entertaining to observe (though no doubt very stressful for anyone with a personal stake in it). The lowest successful bidder was Skai TV, which had been singled out as the coalition’s bête noir for its hostile coverage. Another incumbent, Antenna TV, also won one of the new licenses, ensuring that at least 50% of the allocated spectrum remained firmly in the hands of the old “oligarchic” regime.
What of the new entrants? One license was awarded to Ioannis Kalogritsas, a government-friendly public works contractor, who supported his bid with a highly favourable loan from a government-friendly bank, guaranteed on a piece of vastly overvalued real estate – thus squaring the “triangle of corruption” that the governing coalition had vowed to shatter, and illustrating precisely how short the new licensing regime fell of the political hype that had surrounded it. Kalogritas was forced to pull out only when the borrowed money failed to materialise by the deadline, and his license passed to the next runner-up.
Born in Russia of Pontic Greek descent, Ivan Savvidis is a relatively recent transplant on the local political scene: a minor oligarch who made his fortune in the de-nationalised tobacco industry, erstwhile friend of Vladimir Putin and former MP with his United Russia party, he is best known in Greece as the owner of PAOK FC (a purchase sweetened by a not insignificant tax write-off passed by the current government). Savvidis is held dear by the Russophile wings on both sides of the political spectrum in Greece as a back-channel to Moscow. He has since made the connection more overt by comparing prime minister Tsipras favourably to Putin, while he is also behind one of the rag-tag consortium of bidders who recently won the tender for the de-nationalised Thessaloniki Port Authority, a key piece of national infrastructure.
The final license of the original four was awarded to Evangelos Marinakis, a shipowner, also well-known to Greek football fans as the owner of Piraeus team Olympiakos FC, and now to English footie fans as well through his recent purchase of a majority stake in Nottingham Forest. He has been tried and acquitted in one major match-fixing case, and remains accused in another case which is still ongoing, while his name has been linked to a major drug-smuggling case with potential political implications. All of which has not stopped him from leveraging his football-based popularity to gain election to the Piraeus city council, where his newly formed party including the new mayor opposed the privatisation of the port – unsuccessfully as it turned out.
Despite being on the same side of that particular battle, a senior SYRIZA candidate and opponent of privatisation (now a senior member of the cabinet closely connected to the privatisation agenda) commented at the time with a straight face that, “This is a new kind of fruit in our politics and it’s a very dangerous one.” The battle lines between Marinakis and SYRIZA remain drawn, as do the ones between Marinakis and Yiannis Alafouzos, owner of Skai TV and traditional football rival Panathinaikos FC (are we spotting a pattern here?), who at one time was his business partner – on any given day, Skai TV can be trusted to run a regular bulletin on Marinakis’s court room battles and alleged criminal entanglements.
All in all, the state stood to make €246 million from the licenses; but the euphoria in government circles was short-lived. After banking the first instalment, the Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, declared the auction unconstitutional. This prompted the then government spokesperson to accuse the court of depriving 15,000 children of primary school places and the health system of 4,000 sorely needed new staff. Neither claim stood up to serious scrutiny, but the message was crystal clear – the courts were taking public funds away from the young and the infirm and using them to pad the bank accounts of a bunch of rich guys.
The rhetorical kids and hospital patients were not the only casualties of the aborted auction. For snatching defeat out of the jaws of a much-vaunted PR victory, Minister of State Nikos Pappas who had fronted the whole initiative was demoted to the custom-made Ministry of Digital Policy, where he is subjected to jokes about “the Greek NASA” for celebrating the launch of a commercial satellite, while he plots his return to the frontline.
Government spokesperson Olga Gerovasili, to whom the previous statement belongs, was banished to the Ministry of Administrative Reconstruction where she is charged with the unenviable task of forcing unpopular reforms in the teeth of recalcitrant civil servants.
There were further attempts to shatter the “triangle.” A special parliamentary committee launched to investigate bad bank loans to media companies and political parties gave plenty of occasion for show-boating over its nine months of hearings. The outcome, however, was so equivocal as to allow both government and opposition to claim victory, yielding not a hint of impropriety on the part of politicians, and no incriminating evidence on bankers or media magnates. A small step towards transparency was taken when a SYRIZA lawmaker got a law passed requiring banks to file quarterly reports on their advertising and sponsorship budget.
So far, so disappointing on the TV front. At a recent meeting of the SYRIZA central committee, Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos is reported to have said that “given the outcome, it would have been better if the whole story hadn’t been started.”
Greek television remains as bad as ever, if not worse. The whole nation soon began to receive a nightly injection of opioids through the eyeballs in the form of a new series of “Survivor,” which buried most public discourse under a tidal wave of celebrity six-packs and self-absorbption.
Meanwhile, having acquired a taste for the media business, the also-rans of the license auction have been trying other routes. The dead tree press was an obvious play for anyone concerned with profile but unconcerned with financial viability – and the pickings here have been rich. So what if sales have halved since the start of the crisis and newspapers are trusted less than any news source, in a country already low in newspaper readership? Everyone scans the font pages as they are strung outside the kiosks like dirty laundry hung out to dry, even if they don’t fork out for a copy. For the proprietor, owning a masthead still confers a veneer of old-fashioned respectability. And, unlike TV stations which broadcast on a regulated public frequency, no government agency or regulator has a say (even theoretically) in who gets to print a paper.
Within months, Kalogritsas launched Documento, a new pro-government weekly, while continuing to bid successfully for government contracts – despite a terrible record of delivery and a long series of complaints from unpaid employees.
But there was bigger game to be had out there. Like exhausted wildebeest around a dry watering hole, two of the country’s biggest news organisations, the Lambrakis Group and Pegasus, owners of prestigious titles including Ta Nea, To Vima and Ethnos, have been slowly collapsing under the weight of bad loans, political pressure and inter-oligarchical strife. Within the last few weeks, the distressed carcass of the former has been acquired at auction by Marinakis, and the latter by Savvidis. Through those same routes, both have acquired stakes in Mega TV, and Savvidis has also bought Epsilon TV, giving prominent public platforms to two highly partisan interests.
On their relaunch Ta Nea and To Vima, historically venerable bastions of the centre-left, carried a message from the new proprietor, in which Marinakis pledged to uphold the values of “Democracy, Freedom and Social Justice” (sic) that made the Lambrakis titles great, and to meet the readers’ demand for “authoritative, independent information with historical weight, opinion and proposition.”
A couple of days later, Ta Nea went to press with an eye-catching front page, featuring the unmistakable silhouette of Uncle Joe with his trademark moustache under the headline “Stalinism in Power.” There is, of course, a back story, but in terms of nailing the new owner’s colours to the mast there couldn’t be a clearer signal of the editorial line.
No doubt Ethnos, when it returns to the kiosks, will respond in kind.
In the glare of the midday sun, a small disorderly chorus of human voices can be heard chanting a rhyming slogan. The video is shaky, the images blurred and distant. The audio is muffled, but one familiar sound cuts through the hubub and renders the chanting barely audible: the dry, rhythmical vibration of cicadas. The self-styled anarchist collective Rouvikonas (Rubicon) are staging a protest outside the Greek parliament, in their customary style, leafletting against the detention of prisoners who they consider political, the prison system, and society in general, which is (in their telling) one big prison. The video is repeated on a loop on every news bulletin, the timeless lullaby of the cicadas subtly undermining the revolutionary message and scuppering the carefully cultivated outrage of the presenters, reminding us that it is, after all, midsummer in Athens. Soon, even the anarchists will pack their bags and head to one of the lesser known islands, and the city will be deserted.
Already, people have started to drift away, if not physically then mentally. It is getting harder to get hold of friends and co-workers, longer to get anything accomplished. Social media timelines are filling up with photos of beaches, sunsets and meals in seaside tavernas. Ιn the absence of an unfolding political drama, banking crisis or cliffhanger negotiations, it feels like people are starting to let go.
In the last few weeks, a number of loose ends have been tied on the political scene. Greece finally concluded the dreaded second programme review – a mandatory progress assessment by the country’s creditors – which had been extended by about eighteen months of painful negotiations with the inevitable suspense, recriminations, and further austerity measures, banked (and almost immediately disbursed) the loan instalment that had been contingent on its completion, received a credit upgrade by Standard & Poors, and topped it all by issuing a new bond. Homework duly handed in and graded, school is most definitely out for the country’s leadership, even if most peoples’ reality is somewhat less celebratory.
It seemed a bit touch and go for a while, and the silly season appeared to kick of early, when the Greek press started publishing translated extracts from Adults in the Room, the tell-all memoir of Yanis Varoufakis’s turbulent love affair with Syriza which culminated in his traumatic six-month tenure as Finance Minister and chief bailout negotiator. Although the disclosures were not quite as risqué as the title might suggest, it soon became apparent that public discourse was about to turn into a very public karaoke face-off, Varoufakis kicking off with his favourite refrain, A Lover Spurned, Tsipras belting out a defiant My Way (“I have made mistakes… big mistakes”), Varoufakis retaliating with some vintage Gloria Gaynor. Musical accompaniment has been provided by the opposition, calling for a special investigation into the events of two summers ago when Greece came perilously close to exiting the Euro. The memoirs offer little new in terms of hard evidence, but the tune is catchy. After the 2015 debacle, Varoufakis no longer enjoys the kind of rock star reception in Greece that still greets him in other parts of Europe (one Greek recently wrote to entreat the Financial Times not to “promote” his views) but everyone snaps to attention at the slightest whiff of dirty laundry,
On a slightly more serious note, the government seems to have opened up another battle front, this time with the judiciary. Tsipras himself, and several of his ministers issuing Trumpian denunciations of any court decisions that run counter government policy or pet political causes (I use that epithet descriptively, even though the US president was rather late to the populist party compared to our guys or some of the less scrupulous European leaders). In his most recent TV interview, the prime minister rather pompously intoned that “separation of powers is one thing, and powers of separation is another” – demonstrating that he hasn’t outgrown the kind of nonsensical word game that scores top grades in the stilted style of essay-writing that is drilled into us in Greek high school. But that wasn’t as bad as his interviewer, who at one point, addressing the question Turkish violations of Greek airspace, tripped himself up on another Tsipras metaphor with surreal results: “So this dog comes into our garden and approaches our plants, to put this allegorically, this dog comes into the Aegean, flies over our islands, this dog overflies inhabited islands…” The threat of Turkish canine airborne divisions trained to micturate on our gardenias may not have occurred to anyone previously, but some will be sleeping more uneasily this summer.
Thankfully, everyone loves sporting success, and when the national junior basketball team won the European cup (or, “the who won the what?” as most people would have asked just a few days ago), politicians lined up hoping that some of that magical victory dust would rub off on them. But here’s a hint to politicians: standing next to a whole team of basketball players is virtually guaranteed to make you look like a midget with bad posture. Tsipras went all out by putting on a team jersey over his shirt, and then fumbling the autographed ball.
Somewhere, a little boy named after a mythical bard and an iconic Marxist guerrilla cringed as he anticipated the fresh bullying possibilities his dad had just exposed him to. Meanwhile, the man who would be PM, ND’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, managed an even more embarrassing attempt at sports banter (he is notorious for jinxing the teams he supports), despite bringing along the token retired basketball player in his shadow cabinet.
A reminder that to win, it is not enough for the other guys to fail in defence, you also need to be able to score. If you don’t have a shot at winning and are not averse to looking like a cougar, perhaps it’s best to emulate PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata and strike a poolside pose with the water polo team.
Meanwhile, several major news outlets reported that the government was rushing through legislation to introduce a rubber stamp bonus for civil servants. One editor apologised for reproducing the hoax, which originated in a publication which advertises its own content as “quality political disinformation since 1867”, blaming the heat.
Any archaeologist will tell you that rubbish is a great source of information. The more of it, the better. How else would we have a hope of understanding what makes societies tick if they didn’t leave the detritus of their daily lives lying about the place? We know from digging through our own landfills and battling the paparazzi and the identity thieves to go through household rubbish bins that we humans are unreliable witnesses of what we consume, and how much of it. Nothing speaks more directly than actual rubbish.
Unfortunately, what it is telling us at this precise time stinks.
As the result of a nationwide strike by municipal sanitation workers, the rubbish is piling up on the street corners across Greece.
As one newspaper report pointed out this is hardly the first time the bin men have summoned up their command of the smelly stuff to protest over their working conditions. Over the last forty years, they have taken this particularly potent form of industrial action over a dozen times (and this is not counting more frequent local protests and work stoppages which can last for months), the result of successive governments’ reluctance to address the chronic misallocation of resources in local government. Over the years, it had been common practice to keep the number of permanent local authority employees low and supplement them with seasonal contractors. The fixed-term contracts were then routinely converted to permanent positions as a way of bestowing political patronage. This latest strike was sparked by a ruling by Greece’s Court of Audit, which declared such contract conversions unconstitutional, contradicting ministerial assurances to the workers, who number 6,000 in total, that a healthy portion of them would be hired through the “traditional” channels.
The archaeologist of the future might conclude that there is something ritualistic about this periodic build-up of domestic waste within the urban space, this cyclical departure from the routine purification of the demos of its rubbish and its deposition outside the city walls. There is certainly some form of non-verbal communication evident in the accumulation of putrid piles of the stuff, a material call and response that never seems to reach resolution.
Given the time of year, it is not just the bad odour and the potential health hazards that are creating distress. As news crews station themselves by the most spectacular accumulations, we are also starting to hear the seasonal cry of “What will the tourists think?”
Well, the foreign media are always quick to seize on an exotic photo opportunity, especially when it can used to enliven a boilerplate “anti-austerity protest” story. But we now know that even celebrity visitors cruising by our remote beauty spots in their superyachts can’t get away from the rubbish. Unrelated to the strikes, Willow (alliterative offspring of Hollywood actor Will) Smith sent this holiday snap from the Ionian islands to the world on her Instagram.
Fortunately, other foreign visitors were less perturbed. The EU’s Environment Commissioner showed a gift for timing, paying a scheduled visit to the Athens just as the strike was coming to a head, with rubbish high on the agenda. Hosting him, the head of the regional authority of Attica dutifully recited the latest European statistics which show that Greece sends a disappointing 81% of its waste to landfill, compared to a European average of 31%. She could easily have added that Greece has racked up tens of millions of Euros in fines for breaking EU regulations on waste management over the years by allowing dozens of illegal landfills to continue operating, while only the financial crisis has had a serious impact on reducing the amount of waste sent to them – a reduction of up to a third according to one recent estimate.
According to the Greek state news agency, the Commissioner praised the the new waste management strategy designed to encourage recycling, leaving us to ponder whether to admire his steadfast focus on the big picture – or to question whether he ever left the airport.
EXARCHIA, 6 June 2017. Reports from Athens suggest that a new “brain drain” is threatening wide-ranging and unanticipated consequences across the fabric of Greek society. While the first groups to emigrate from the crisis-stricken country were highly educated young professionals such as doctors and engineers in search of jobs overseas, the latest sector to be struck by a “brain drain” is the “anarchist” movement. Familiar to followers of the Greek crisis from iconic news footage of riots and urban graffiti, the self-organised anti-authoritarian sector has been a fixture of Greek society for decades. But the indications are that its presence can no longer be taken for granted, thanks to the increasing draw of foreign causes.
One recent report profiled a Greek leftist volunteer working in support of the Russian-sponsored “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in eastern Ukraine out of a representative office in the downtown Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia, an area known as the “avaton” or “ghetto” of “Exarchistan” in typically understated Greek media parlance. Describing the Ukraine government as a “puppet for some parts of the U.S. regime” installed by a NATO-organised coup, he is quoted as saying, “It’s like the Spanish civil war” […]. “We see this struggle as similar to the fight against Franco. Donbass is the Spain of our lifetime.” Another story centred on a series of photos, claiming to feature an armed “Greek contingent” of anarchists fighting alongside the Kurdish militias against ISIS in a location identified from artlessly spray-painted graffiti as Rojava, near the Syrian-Turkish border. Such tales of Greek “anarchists” leaving the country to fight for foreign causes are beginning to stir fears of an “anarchist brain drain” among experts in Athens and beyond.
The potential impact of an anarchist brain drain could be far-reaching. As recently as last month, the New York Timesreported that such was the failure of the Greek welfare state, that citizens had become reliant on dreadlocked and tattooed anarchist volunteers to plug the gaps in healthcare, education and migration policy. Many now fear that the latest wave of emigration will cripple this nascent social care system.
Among those concerned are, somewhat surprisingly, the drivers of Athens’s ageing bus fleet, who are becoming increasingly worried about the potential health effects of radiation from new “telematics” systems installed to track bus movements in real time. The bus drivers are alarmed at the potential effects of new technologies being deployed on buses, also including contact-free ticketing systems, with a number are already complaining of headaches and dizziness. “These machines are dangerous, they give off invisible radiation, I heard that they can give you cancer and impotence,” said Mr Makis, a veteran of twenty years driving the streets of downtown Athens, as he drew deeply on a filterless Camel and jammed his mobile phone against his ear to take an urgent call from a colleague regarding a hot betting tip. “Plus, my priest says they all have a 666 in their serial number, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.”
Until now, drivers could rely on the self-appointed guardians of the public interest in the loosely-termed anarchist community to dismantle or deactivate the offending equipment – but with their numbers dwindling, bus drivers fear for their health and their future. “Yes, they burn the occasional bus as well, but they’re good kids, they’re on our side,” nods Mr Makis.
However, as is often the case in Greece, necessity has given birth to invention, and new initiatives are springing up which promise to counteract this latest blow to the crisis-hit population. One of the more ambitious schemes involves the establishment of an Alternative Science Research Centre. Professor Charalambos Psekasmenos, the centre’s founder, says that the threat posed by radioactive tracking devices will be one of their first research priorities. “We already have a prototype shielding device for the cranial area involving ultra-thin sheets of aluminium, but the details are too top secret to disclose.”
Also on the cards is a climate research centre aimed at rebutting the “fake news” that is being disseminated by “mainstream science” relating to the myth of anthropogenic climate change. “We hope to get a grant from the corporate social responsibility budget of the power unions, who take a very enlightened view on this subject, and then apply for matching funding from the centre of Climate Excellence at Trump University,” reveals Psekasmenos. A recent press release by Greece’s public sector power workers’ union pondered whether “Perhaps the US’s recent departure from the Paris Accord lifts the lid on the ‘fabrication’ known as ‘climate change’?” The research centre will definitely not be concerning itself with any shade of gender studies, as it is well known among “experts” that this is just a means of “experimentating on children’s souls” as a means of “enslavement to foreign interests” and “illuminati bankers,” that must be resisted at all costs.
“In every crisis there is opportunity,” comments Professor Psekasmenos. “We Greeks are an ingenious race.”
THE USUAL DISCLAIMER: All links are 100% genuine Greek news stories from the last two weeks, strung together with an only slightly exaggerated tissue of fabrication.
“A little tiny cockroach, little Tereza / stepped on the Teza / and… teza! (dead) / Out came her family to get Tereza / they stepped on the Teza / and… teza!”
So went the jingle from a 1980s Greek TV ad for Teza brand cockroach spray. It was so catchy that it runs through my head regularly, over 30 years later, particularly since Theresa May became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It’s not Mrs May’s fault. I don’t wish an untimely death on her, least of all death by chemical weapons. All the same, I can’t help reflecting that she came to power much like the proverbial cockroach in the nuclear holocaust, after all her rivals had dropped, er, out. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her hoist by her own opportunistic petard – though sadly I doubt that any electoral upset will be big enough to prove even figuratively terminal.
Bravo, then, to the makers of the Teza ad, for creating a message that truly resonates across the decades. I don’t know how long the ad ran for, for all I know it might still be running (Teza is still available in exciting new formulations for all your roach extermination needs, a great success of Greek chemical manufacturing). Its longevity is clearly down to its high irritant factor (the ad, one hopes, not the spray). Children quickly picked up the jingle and repeated it at every occasion. New words were adapted to the tune, often riffing on the twin themes of prostitution and cockroaches (sex and death). Boys and girls impersonated the handbag-twiddling streetwalking cockroach Tereza. Miming the twiddling of the handbag and the swinging from the lamp post while whistling the jingle became a playground shorthand for prostitution. No parent had a hope in hell of undoing it.
The semiotics of the ad are puzzling, too, but whichever way you look at it there is no politically correct interpretation. Is the ad saying that streetwalkers are like cockroaches? Or does the cockroach deserve to be zapped because she is a streetwalker? Is she even a streetwalker? When she is zapped, her anthropomorphic cockroach family come out after her and get zapped too – so maybe she is just a good girl-cockroach, maybe a touch over/underdressed, on her way to a girls’ night out. Or maybe the whole family was relying on her for income? Will we ever know?
Whatever is going on here, the warning is from 1980s Greek adland clear: Mind your step, Theresa!
Over a million refugees and migrants passed through Greece since 2015 using the sea route from western Turkey; around 62,000 remain stranded in the country at the time of writing. We are all familiar with the portrayal of the humanitarian crisis in the international media, but certain aspects of the story have been overshadowed by the deluge of arresting images.
Now that the dust is settling, some high-quality investigative reporting is beginning shine a light on some of the grubbier corners of the refugee crisis in Greece. A picture is gradually emerging of how institutional inadequacy and lack of accountability combined with a toxic mix of political opportunism and petty corruption to exacerbate the suffering of the refugees, while allowing those responsible (international agencies and NGOs, Greek politicians and government agencies, private contractors and the worst elements in the European and global leadership) to shun their responsibilities and in some cases even benefit from the situation. Clues to this story have been reported as they emerge – mainly by small, independent media sources, freelancers and bloggers on the ground in Greece, primarily in Greek, but occasionally also in English or German (in this respect I would single out the blogs of Apostolis Fotiadis and Fotini Rantsiou for providing well-informed and even-handed coverage). In the first major departure from the human interest-focussed reporting, a meticulously researched long read, The Refugee Archipelago, was recently published by News Deeply – a relatively young, independent media organisation. The article presented a long catalogue of well-substantiated failings underlying what the authors called “the most expensive humanitarian response in history”. It is well worth reading in full.
But the devil is often in the detail. More recently, an investigative report was published by the Greek online magazine insidestory.gr, focussing in forensic detail on just one of the areas plagued by mismanagement: the procurement of catering services for government-run refugee camps. Hidden in plain sight, in the virtual forest of public service contracts and ministry statistics, they uncover some suspicious discrepancies. I have translated the article here in full, with the permission of the publishers (the original is in Greek and requires a subscription).
“I thank the Greeks, because every day the bring us something to eat. We eat from them, not from the company.”
Farez is a refugee from Syria. In the hosting facility of LM Village in Myrsini in the district of Ilia in the Peloponnese, where was when staying he said these words, he was known as “the Wise Man.” Food for the camp was provided, as it still is, by a company called Korinthian Palace. According to Farez, his large family cost the Greek state over €60 a day. “When we get the food, I am sure that it is not worth more than €15. They cook once a week for the whole week, it is unacceptable. The first four months they never gave us vegetables once. I imagine that Greek families do eat vegetables, as they are cheap,” he said, adding that the food ended up in the rubbish.
Many like Farez have complained periodically to the local authority, to volunteers and to NGOs about the quality of the food. Direct responsibility for catering lies with the Greek Armed Forces. This is where the problems begin, and they are not limited to the flavour of the food. Let’s take things from the beginning.
Prices and conditions
With refugee camps across the country under the responsibility of the Greek authorities, the responsibility for procuring catering services has been assigned to the Armed Forces, as set out in laws 4368/2016 and 4412/2016. The budget for daily catering per head comes to €4.78, which translates to €5.78 after the addition of 24% VAT. 19% of the budget is allocated to breakfast, 39% to lunch and dinner, and 3% to water. The criterion by with the contracts are awarded, after meeting the specified conditions, is the percentage discount on the budgeted price.
Following the outcry which broke out when the specifications were seen to favour large catering companies, the minimum turnover threshold for bidding companies has been reduced, and only the following conditions apply: “The winning bidder can cater to up to 4 camps, totalling 4,300 people in total,” and “interested parties must provide certain quality certificates (ISO, HACCP) with their bid, which are assumed to fulfil the criteria of the tender.”
The case Myrsini camp
“All of Greek society is watching the humanitarian tragedy with the tens of thousands of refugees…,” begins the official document titled “Information dissemination – decision relating to LM Myrsini” issued by the Minicpality of Andravida-Kyllini on the 28th March 2016, which records the decision of the Council of the Municipality of Andravida-Kyllini to support the effort to manage the refugee crisis. As 99% owners with 50% rights of usage of the resort of Myrsini LM Village, the Municipality decided to make available 19 houses for hosting families from Syria. The resort, which is shared with the Municipality of Fyli, is located in a picturesque seafront spot, but had fallen into disuse in recent years and had been subjected to extensive looting. Very soon, the remaining 14 bungalows were also secured, and by the time the refugees arrived by bus a few days later the necessary repairs were already underway.
The unit given the responsibility for managing the facility was 117 Combat Wing of the Greek Air Force, which in turn assigned the catering to a company named Korinthian Palace. This is a particularly active company, not only in Corinth, but across the whole of Greece. Its services include catering for the police force, schools and universities, as well as organising events, receptions and carnival concerts featuring popular artists.
Towards the end of August 2016, a scandal broke out in Serres in the north of Greece, when a Syriza MP revealed that the catering for the local camp had been awarded to a local Syriza party official. Korinthian stepped in to manage the Serres camp on a temporary basis. At the time of writing, it has also been active in two more camps in Attica, to which we will return below.
When the numbers don’t add up
Reading through the catering contracts for LM Village over its one year of operation, one feature stands out: the contracts almost always appear to cover the provision of food for roughly 60 people more than are actually housed in the facility.
Giorgos Angelopoulos, a volunteer coordinator at the Myrsini centre over a period of 12 months, told inside story that the maximum number of individuals hosted in the facility at any one time was 338 people. However, the contact for April 2016 is for 400 people. Even if we were to exclude April from our calculations on the basis that relates to initial period of the camp’s establishment, we should note that the award of the contract published on the 5th July 2016 also relates to 400 people. The price per head, €4.72 before VAT, and €5.85 with VAT, is only a few cents less than the maximum allowance, a fact that can be readily explained, in light of the fact that Korinthian Palace was the sole bidder in this particular tender. Even if we accept that on the 5th July the headcount was 338, the maximum number of people ever hosted at the camp, we have to conclude that the catering company received €292.64 more per day than was necessary, with the Greek armed forces paying €362.70 more a day once VAT is included.
According to our calculations for the month of July, the additional expense for the Greek armed forces runs to €10,881, while the catering company made an additional profit of €8,779. The same number of recipients (400) and the same price (€4.72, or €5.85 including VAT) appear again in the award of the contract on the 31st October 2016.
However, it is the most recent contract which is of special interest to this discussion.
The contract dated 24th February 2017
This time, there were two more bidders in the tender, and Korinthian Palace offers a discount of 28.27%, compared to the 17% discount offered by the runner-up. Korinthian was awarded the contract again, this time for 220 people. On the same day, however, in the press release issued by the National Defence General Staff, only 164 food recipients were recorded (these had been down to 154, and at the time of writing reached 161). In response to our question about how many portions the company must deliver on a daily basis, Korinthian Palace claimed that any information pertaining to their cooperation with the Ministry of Defence was classified, and referred us to the Ministry. However, Giorgos Angelopoulos told us that the number of portions delivered matched the actual number of camp residents, something that is confirmed by the Ministry’s figures.
One could speculate that the additional food portions are provided as a buffer, in case more refugees arrive at the camp. However, those responsible for the camp have assured us that coordination is pretty much seamless, and that although it is possible for more refugees to arrive, this will have been preceded by an equal number of departures. The very small fluctuations in the number of food recipients reported by the National Defence General Staff appear to confirm this.
Another interpretation we might consider is that the number of food portions in the contract is indicative, and that the actual number on any given day is smaller. Again, though, there is no clause in the contract, as there is in other instances (for example the catering contract for the Philippiada camp), to the effect that portions may fluctuate daily at the discretion of the contracting party.
In any event, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry about the discrepancy between the number of actual refugees and the number of food portions paid for was that “we are obliged to follow the terms of each contract to the letter,” while stressing that they were not responsible for the issue raised.
The two camps in Attica
Here, we will limit ourselves to the most recent contracts. On 7 March 2017, a contract was awarded to Korinthian Palace to provide “catering for 150 asylum seekers and vulnerable third country nationals” at the camp in Rafina. The National Defence General Staff press releases for the 3rd March and the 10th March respectively count 120 people. No big deal, someone might say; counting 30 people extra, at €4.80 each per day, represents a loss of only €144 a day.
However, in an official Air Force document dated the 3rd March 2017, we find the award of a catering contract for the camp of Aghios Andreas in Nea Makri. This contract is for feeding 200 refugees, and it was won by Korinthian Palace, who offered the greatest discount. On the same day, the National Defence General Staff press release records 109 food recipients, as it does again the following week on the 10th March.
We would be concerned with the loss of public funds from feeding 100-odd «invisible» people at a cost of €3.73 per head daily. However, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry is even more intriguing. It states that “for some months now, our company is not responsible for the catering at the Aghios Andreas camp in Nea Makri, Attica.” As a reminder, the last contract was awarded on 3 March, just a few days earlier.
So now that we have “warmed up”, let us consider a case where the sums are much larger.
A(nother) Corinthian catering firm goes north
The situation with refugee catering in Ioannina has several parallels with the examples we have already covered, not least because the refugees there have complained vocally about (among other things) the quality of the catering.
Five refugee hosting facilities have functioned up to the present time in the Ioannina district, located at Doliana, Katsika, Filippiada, Tsepelovo and Konitsa. One of the companies that has been active in this area is Pietris Estiasi AE. Like Korinthian Palace, this company is also based in Corinth and, like its neighbour, it boasts an impressive client list including public institutions and large corporations. There is also a local catering company covering the Ioannina region, called Anostro.
In June 2016, Pietris lodged an appeal against the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which is handling the procurement of catering services for a total of 1,700 at Doliana, Katsika and Tsepelovo camps. It succeeded in extending the bidding deadline by two days, allowing the company to participate in the tender. Petris eventually secured the contract for feeding the refugees at a price of €4.68 per person, including VAT.
Exactly one month later, on the 6th July, another appeal by Pietris was rejected as lacking merit. The catering for the refugees at Doliana and Katsikas, now counting 1,450, was awarded to Anostro. Their price per head is €4.51. At the beginning of September, Pietris was again awarded a contract for feeding 1,700 refugees for 30 days at a price of €4.86 including VAT.
However, when the weather turned cold, the two companies came closer.
When competitors collude
In the contract award dated 4th November 2016, Pietris and Anostro appear to have submitted a joint bid as a consortium. They were awarded a contract to cater for 1,300 people in Doliana, Katsikas and Tsepelovo at €4.72 before VAT (i.e. just 6 cents below the maximum).
On the 9th December, and again on the 28th December, the same consortium was once again awarded the contract to feed 600 refugees at Doliana and Katsikas for €4.73 per head before VAT – a discount of 5 cents.
The most interesting aspect of the December contracts is that during this time, one of the two camps, the one at Katsikas, had been closed. As confirmed to inside story by Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, the last 166 refugees left Katsikas at the end of December. Ms Nanou added that the refugees had been relocated to hotels in Konitsa, Patra and Grevena, and, as is common practice in such instances, the responsibility for catering was assigned to the hotels. The hotels have the option of providing their own catering, where the facilities exist, or sub-contracting it.
From the 5th January until the time of writing, according to the press releases from the National Defence General Staff, the number of food recipients at Katsikas was zero, while the portions at Doliana numbered 138 at the start of the period and 118 today. However, catering contracts continued to be awarded for 600 or 550 portions, as we shall see below.
The refugees move on, the contracts continue
Specifically, on the 27th January, a contract was awarded for feeding 600 refugees at the camps of Doliana and Katsika to the Pietris-Anostro consortium at a minimal discount (€4.73 before VAT, compared to €4.78) for 29 days. The same day, the press release from the National Defence General Staff reported 138 food recipients at Doliana and none at Katsikas.
On the 24th February, with Katsikas remaining closed, and Doliana feeding just 118 refugees according to the National Defence General Staff, the two companies were awarded a contract to cater for 550 refugees at the same price and for 30 days in March. We contacted the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade officer responsible for catering at the two camps for comment, but were no further explanation, other than a statement that “there may be more arrivals.” The number of portions in the last few weeks has remained steadily at 118. We contacted several departments National Defence General Staff for comment, each of which referred us to another department.
If 432 “invisible” refugees were fed daily, then the additional revenue for the Pietris-Anostro consortium would amount to €2,043 on a daily basis, which translates into €61,201 for March alone, for which the army paid €76,013 extra in total, including VAT. We did not receive a response to our enquiries regarding the number of food portions from Anostro. On re-contacting the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, we were informed that our questions had been referred to Pietris, however we never received a response from the company.
Meanwhile, back in Myrsini…
A senior aid official recently stated in an interview that “$70 out of every $100 that have been spent [on the humanitarian effort in Greece] have been wasted.” LM Village, which has been described as an exemplar of hospitality, operates without any financial assistance to the local authority and without the benefit of any of the thousands hired through the civil service.
It is able to function thanks to “filotimo”: the human decency of the unpaid coordinator, Giorgos Angelopoulos, the mayor and his wife who assist as doctors, the local Medical Association, the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, the local community, local and foreign volunteers, grass roots organisations such as Pyrna, who donated equipment so that Farez and his fellow refugees can cook their own food.
At the end of October, an 18-month-old toddler lost its life in the village, having escaped war only to drown in a swimming pool full of rainwater. Then, as now, there is no security, which may have been able to prevent this, as there is no interpreter or permanent medical unit.
We can only draw one conclusion: when it comes to the invisible refugees, the money exists; but there is none to cover the real and persistent needs of the rest. It goes without saying that the camps which we focused on are not the only ones where money is wasted with nothing to show for it in return. It also goes without saying that it would not exactly require a Sisyphean effort to improve the management of funds, so many months down the line. Sometimes, administrative “errors” have a cost, which can even be measured in human lives.
MAIN IMAGE: A volunteer prepares food for 157 refugees in April 2016 [Louise Gouliamaki/AFP].
At the time of writing, this blog has no connection to inside story other than a friendly rapport.