Welcome to the entanglement show

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Hello Greece-watchers and welcome to another thrilling parliamentary debate on political entanglement (or diaploki to give it its proper Greek name)!

You join us as Greece endures its seventh year of austerity, with no end in sight. Long time spectators may have switched channels now that there are fewer telegenic riots in the streets and a dearth of “maverick” media-friendly politicians to grab the headlines, but that doesn’t mean the drama is over. There is still plenty of austerity in the pipeline, bargains to be driven and hard decisions to be made, but there is always time for some good old fashioned showmanship.

The country’s elected representatives across the political spectrum have kindly agreed to devote an afternoon of parliamentary debating time to the ever-popular subject of… (drum roll please)… “phenomena of entanglement and corruption and their influence on the institutional and political system of the country and ways to confront them”. There are those who might say that treating such a serious matter as show is frivolous – we would ask whether it is even good use of parliamentary time. After all, there is at least one parliamentary committee still taking evidence on precisely the topics we expect to hear discussed. But hey, why not book in another session of mid-afternoon mud-slinging to prospect even further down the depths of the political barrel that must at some point be revealed to have a false bottom?!

This debate offers a great opportunity to brush up on your Greek political vocabulary. So without further ado, here is a preview of what to expect:

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Alexis Tsipras (Syriza).
  • Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will give a whistle-stop tour of the “triangle of entanglement” (the Hellenised version of a Reuters coinage referring to the links between banks, media and political parties in Greece). Tsipras has promised to name “addresses and names” (διευθύνσεις και ονόματα) but don’t hold your breath for any revelations – last time he used this “teaser” for a debate on the judicial system we had to make do with a stack of document folders being brandished suggestively and standard allegations against “some” (κάποιοι), presumably shadowy forces, delivered in a theatrical whisper. If cornered (trigger word: elections) he will question the accuracy/integrity of the latest opinion polls that show Syriza trailing the opposition with disapproval ratings of 90%.
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Nikos Pappas (Syriza).
  • Minister of State Nikos Pappas “owns” the broadcast licensing agenda, the most visible plank of Syriza’s anti-corruption drive. He will elaborate on Tsipras’s speech, but in a more high-pitched voice. He will accuse private TV channels owners of conducting an αεροπειρατεία (aeropiratía, lit. air piracy, hijacking) – his latest slightly-off-the-mark bon mot to describe the (still) present anarchic broadcasting regime. He will brush off any of the numerous questions still hanging over the tender process. If cornered (trigger word: Kalogritsas, the name of a successful license bidder, who withdrew after he was revealed to virtually embody the aforesaid triangle) he will commit to using the €250 million raised in the auction to hire hospital staff/create nursery places/support young scientists/buy milky bars for everyone (clue: he has only promised three of these so far).
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Kyriakos Mitsotakis, ND.
  • Nea Dimokratia leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis will stand up looking like a smug prefect and give a slightly awkward, over-rehearsed speech with stage-managed hand-gestures and carefully focus-grouped jokes which will fail to amuse anyone but his most loyal groupies. If cornered (trigger word: Siemens), he will reminisce about his early life as a six-month old political prisoner during the junta, while his big sis casts back on changing his nappies and kicks herself for not trying harder for the party leadership. He will demand snap elections, but will fail to mention a single credible policy. He will accuse the government of setting up a “new left-wing diaploki”, hoping instead to catch disillusioned Syriza voters on the rebound (he will probably be disappointed). He will then post a mawkish photo op with his dad, Mitsotakis Sr., the 98-year-old honorary party chairman, looking like a confused and/or mummified Don Corleone.
  • One of ND’s right-wingers, perhaps Adonis Georgiadis or fellow ex-LAOS MP Makis Voridis, will then stand up to do the dirty work of ad hominem attacks and loose allegations, then tweet out the video of his performance with a comment like “I love the smell of burning lefties in the morning!”. He may let slip an admiring comment about a former dictator.
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Panos Kammenos (ANEL).

 

  • Junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos (ANEL) will give us a live reading from his private correspondence with an oligarch, which may or may not be a hoax, so as to present himself as an incorruptible free agent. As his senior partners in the coalition are tarnishing rapidly, he sees the ghosts of junior coalition partners past beckoning from the dustbin of history and paddles furiously to disassociate himself where he can. Kammenos rarely misses a debate which affords a cost-free opportunity to bloviate, but invariably votes “yes” in absentia on crucial austerity bills, to avoid heckling chants of “sta tessera” from the opposition benches.
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Thanassis Papachristopoulos (ANEL).
  • In the event that Kammenos decides to give it a miss, his ANEL understudy will show up promptly, pompadour quiff askew and shirt unbuttoned like a taxi driver who has slept off his shift in the cab because the wife has thrown him out. He will work himself into a lather and choke on his outrage. Over whatever.
  • Fofi’n’Stavros (PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata and Potami leader Stavros Theodorakis), presiding over what remains of Greece’s decimated centre-left, will avoid eye contact. That one night stand they had over the summer holidays failed to blossom into a party merger and is now a source of embarrassment to them both.
  • Someone with a shaved head and/or elaborate facial hair from Golden Dawn will use the word βοθροκάναλα (vothrokanala, sewage channels) to refer to private TV channels – but most other MPs will be taking a tactical coffee/cigarette break at the time.
  • Centrists Union leader Vassilis Leventis will once again express his revulsion for the corrupt political system he has finally succeeded in joining after decades of trying. He probably won’t reiterate the curses against the establishment political families that older viewers may remember, as he bides his time to become the next kingmaker.
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Policy in the making (1).
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Policy in the making (2).
  • There will be no South-Korean/Ukrainian-style punch-up, because the Greek parliament is still (still!) too cosy for that.

BONUS FEATURE: Why not boost your live viewing experience by playing a drinking game? Down a shot each time you hear any of the words in italics. Or any entries from our Glossary of Parliamentary Language, or our Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems. [WARNING: Consume responsibly. Dateline: Atlantis accepts no liability for damage caused through excessive consumption.]

IMAGE: “Alexander the Great slaying the snake”, from the traditional Greek shadow puppet theatre. In the play, the wily Greek anti-hero Karagiozis tries to claim the reward for killing a man-eating snake, but is unmasked by the actual slayer, Alexander the Great. Via theatroskion.wordpress.com.

Welcome to the entanglement show

“I want my MTV” – the sequel

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Once more, it is time to step into the hazmat suit and wade into the morass of media regulation, Greek-style. Late last year the Syriza/ANEL government fulfilled one of its manifesto commitments to rewrite the regulatory regime for broadcast licenses in order to tackle vested interests in the media. At the time, we argued in some detail that the new media bill was too narrow in scope and the economics of the sector too stifling to allow for a better deal for viewers, and indeed citizens, and therefore it is primarily interesting as a piece of political theatre. This week the government announced that it will press ahead with fast-track legislation defining the number of TV broadcast licenses and the conditions under which they will be put out to tender. Based on precedent, the political debate promises to be highly charged, and focused largely on other issues. Below is a galloping guide on how that’s likely to play out, and a glossary if you are interested in following the debate.

What’s Belarus got to do with it?

The amendment being debated delights in the heading Amendment to the Bill entitled “Ratification of the Agreement between the Greek Government and the Government of the Republic of Belarus regarding international passenger and commercial transport”… Inserting an amendment to legislation already in the pipeline (whether relevant or not) is the standard operating procedure for fast-tracking bills that would otherwise require weeks of more extensive scrutiny and consultation. I have heard that something like a quarter of legislation in the Greek statute books takes this form, but I have not found a published study to back this claim up (do let me know if you have). Trade relations with Belarus (2015 Press Freedom Score =93, where 0=best, 100=worst) the lucky ones this time.

What’s “the Turk” got to do with it?

Much of the press spent last week speculating on the identity and the motives of a Turkish media mogul (ο Τούρκος καναλάρχης as he was immediately dubbed with customary overfamiliarity by the gossip sites) who expressed an interest in bidding for one of the licenses – presumably because he wants to make a small fortune in the Greek media market having started with a large one. This no doubt provoked a collective sigh of relief by the Greek housewife viewing segment at the prospect of the return of Turkish daytime soaps to Greek screens, while some reassurance was offered to concerned nationalists by his stated intent not to broadcast news programmes.

What will the debate be about?

Process – According to the law voted in last October, the responsibility for licensing broadcasters is shared between the Minister of State and the independent media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV). A fractious committee debate last week failed to appoint new members to the Council, and as a result the Minister has assumed full responsibility for the process. Several opposition parties have accused the government of acting unconstitutionally by bypassing the regulator; the government deflects the accusation back at them, accusing them of derailing the process on a technicality in order to protect the vested interests in the media. There may be a valid argument here, but by the time it plays out the amendment will have passed.

Context and timing – Critics are accusing the government of fast-tracking this bill as a distraction from the pressure that it faces over passing the latest bailout review and its handling of the refugee crisis. It is true that compared to the looming vote on pension reform this issue is more likely to unite the government coalition than divide it. Accordingly, PM Alexis Tsipras yesterday, freshly returned from his state visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an open address to his cabinet used this otherwise obscure amendment as his rallying cry and called on them to unite against common enemies. Broadly speaking, though, the sale of broadcast licenses is also a requirement of the latest memorandum/bailout agreement, and putting the licenses out to tender is expected to raise public revenues to help Greece meet its fiscal targets.

Jobs – Journalists are the “human shields” in this conflict. On its own, this topic would be of marginal interest to the mass of society, but poking the hornet’s nest of the media guarantees a lot of coverage by, er, the media themselves, and the emotional involvement of those charged with reporting it, whose jobs also happen to be on the line. As a reminder, minimum employment numbers (400 per licensee) are legislated in the latest media bill, and the preservation of jobs was a key element in the re-opening of the public broadcaster ERT in June 2015. It is hard to simultaneously condemn the corrupt regime that allowed a proliferation of media outlets and argue to preserve jobs in the media sector, but journalists and politicians make valiant efforts to square that circle. However, broadcast journalists have announced their intention to “down tools” during the debate.

Freedom of the press and pluralism – The government has in fact openly antagonised TV channels pursuing a critical line, so it will be surprising to see any of them licensed under the new framework. In the most recent incident, a video montage shown at the recent celebration of Syriza’s one year in government provoked outrage in the opposition and journalists’ unions for including clips of media which the voiceover accused of being part of a hostile coalition against the Greek people. Given the level of (well-founded if sometimes misdirected) cynicism surrounding the media in Greece this argument is unlikely to gain much traction domestically, however it is a debate that needs to be had at some point.

Netflix – The US streaming video service that recently announced it would enter the Greek market is not likely to come up – nor are any other internet-based channels, both global and domestic, that are currently outside the scope of the legislation. If this debate were really about regulation of the media it would have to acknowledge that broadcast TV is losing its grip both on news and entertainment, and the time and attention devoted to it is largely of symbolic and political importance.

Corruptionsee below.

Technicalities – see below.

Supporting Glossary:

Diaplokí, davatzídes, the systemic media, the “triangle of power”: see our previous glossary entries on this subject.

Θαλασσοδάνεια (thalassodánia):, lit. “sea loans”.The word derives from shipping, and refers literally to loans taken out by shipowners to buy ships that uncannily sink before the loan can be repaid, therefore loans that will never be repaid. Here, loans issued by banks via the so-called “triangle of power” to troubled media groups and political parties.

Γραμμάτια (grammátia): Promissory notes, or IOUs, meaning in this context a political debt. the government accuses the opposition, and particularly the newly elected leader of Nea Demokratia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of opposing the bill to repay obligations to unnamed backers. For similar concepts, see our Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems.

multiplexes, HD (High Definition), bundles, frequencies, spectrum and other technical jargon. As there is no regulator to assess the technical reasoning behind the proposed licensing regime, these matters will be debated by “lay” MPs. I am not an electrical engineer, but I hear that a memo has gone out to anyone with any knowledge in this area to tune out at this point so as to preserve the integrity of their coiffe.

At stake here is the government’s proposal to issue four national broadcasting licenses to private operators as opposed to the de facto eight. The supporting technical study referred to in shorthand as the “Florence Study” (ironically referenced in the section of the Minister’s note entitled “Transparency – Social participation”) was released to MPs but is not publicly available. An extract missing several key pages found its way onto the internet. In its truncated state it does not provide much scope for preparation for geeks wishing to follow the debate, but it has already provided fodder for incomprehensible statements and counter-statements by politicians. Interestingly though, in one passage that is preserved the report states that “as the financial data available for the period 2013-2015 are incomplete and present inconsistencies, we are unable to apply any of the standard benchmarking scenarios to define the number of licenses to be granted on financial viability grounds”, thus undermining one of the key government arguments for defining the number of licenses.

That’s it from me, I’m off to watch some cute kitten videos on Youtube.

POSTSCRIPT: The authors of the “Florence Study”, the Florence School of Regulation, made the full paper available on their website the day after the legislation was passed.

 

 

“I want my MTV” – the sequel

Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems

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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/

Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems

CORRECTION to the Glossary of Greek electoral debate, Sep. 2015 edition

It has come to our attention that our previous feature on “debate” may have employed a misleading definition of a key word in the title. Below, we compare the two definitions, with the critical terms italicised for emphasis. We apologise for any confusion caused.

debate (n.), OED definition

1 A formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.

1.1 An argument about a particular subject, especially one in which many people are involved.

ντιμπέι(τ) (n.)

1 A multi-player game consisting of a series of monologues to camera defined by a complex set of pre-agreed rules. In order to complete the challenge, speakers must avoid the following: interaction with fellow players or interviewers, including eye contact; argument about a particular subject; challenge to other players on points of fact, interpretation or performance; juxtaposition of opposing arguments; deviation from previously stated positions; spontaneity; engagement; candour; humour.

2  Inexplicable three-hour void in the collective memory of Greek TV viewers on the evening of the 9th September 2015, thought to have been the result of a PSYOPs experiment conducted via the frequency of national broadcaster ERT. It is widely suspected that the goal of the experiment was to suppress voter turnout in the parliamentary elections of the 20th September 2015.

CORRECTION to the Glossary of Greek electoral debate, Sep. 2015 edition

Glossary of Greek electoral debate, Sep. 2015 edition

As politcal campaigning ratchets up in Greece, the language gets more interesting. In anticipation of the forthcoming TV debates, here is a guide to some of this season’s more popular terms:

Νταβατζήδες (davatzídes): (lit.) pimps. An apocryphal statement attribued to to former Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis in a moment of cholesterol-induced candor is that “five pimps run this country.” Himself not exactly a political “clean skin”, Karamanlis is believed to have been referring to the large family-owned business conglomerates that monopolise state contracts and own large sections of the private media (the three corners of the so-called “triangle of power“). Also known as βαρόνοι (barons, on the model of the “robber barons” of the American industrial age), or ολιγάρχες (oligarchs: originally a Greek word meaning government by the few, but reappropriated recently via analogy with the Russian shadow elite). Many miss the subtlety of the pimp analogy, which is that a pimp has no loyalties (let alone ideological commitments) – his favourte girl is always the one who will bring him the most money, which in political terms would be the incumbent.

Λαμόγιο (lamógio) : (lit.) the lookout guy in a three card monty game. Now commonly used to describe a serial crook who gets away with it. Lamógia are generally lower in the food chain than the above. Examples may include: the minister who takes bribes for contracts; the mayor who embezzles public funds; the banker who gives loans on preferential terms to his cronies; the bankrupt who absconds to start a new business leaving a trail of unpaid bills/loans/wages/social security bills; even the likeable local rogue who squats the public seafront with an illegal beach bar.

Διαπλοκή (diaplokí): (lit.) entanglement, implying corruption. A more politically correct version of the pimp reference, deployed by those across the political spectrum wishing to distinguish themselves from the old political establishment. Heavy users include: leftists Syriza (voted into government in January on an anti-diaploki platform, but ineffectual or selective in implementing it in their admittedly brief term in goverment, their leader Alexis Tsipras recently presented their manifesto in an exclusive interview on a private TV channel, owned by one of the most notorious alleged instances of the above); centre-left Potami (whose campaign platform appears to be heavily based on their stated disinterest in governing, and by extension ever putting themselves in a position to confront corruption); Golden Dawn (themselves on trial for organised crime); and Centrists Union (cranks). In the heat of electioneering, the charge of diaplokí seems to enjoy almost hex-like powers to silence one’s political opponents. But like a game of “it” (or μουτζούρης in Greek), play the diaplokí card long enough without follow-through and everyone ends up smeared. The one thing we can predict with near certainty is that once the elections are over the political currency of the “diaplokí” charge will devalue quicker than a new drachma – unless one of the “girls” decides to give up the game and testify against her pimp, which as we all know from gritty cop dramas takes a brave girl (particularly if there is a bent policeman or compromised judge in the cast of characters).

Αυτοφωράκιας (aftoforákias): (lit.) the “front”; the person employed to act as nightclub manager whose main duty is to spend a night in the cells and attend court when the establishment fails a tax inspection or police raid.  Most Greeks needed help with this one too. It was recently used by ND leader Vangelis Meimarakis, who actively enjoys lowering the tone, to accuse ex-PM Tsipras of looking for a political fall guy for the unpopular measures about to be introduced.

It is no doubt interesting from an anthropological perspective that the dominant organising metaphor for Greek political life is the sex trade and its associated businesses, and that even those who claim to battle it end up perpetuating it. A world view framed in these terms is profoundly disempowering and anti-democratic. The notion that shadowy forces pull the strings that determine our fate mentally absolves the public (the voters) from assuming individual and collective responsibility and breeds an eminently exploitable, fatalistic victim mentality.

If all bad outcomes can be ascribed to a ξένος δάχτυλος (lit. foreign finger, outside intervention) why take responsibility for your own poor choices? If the pimps and their fall guys run the country, why bother to vote? If we’re being sprayed with mind-altering substances (μας ψεκάζουν), which one third of Greeks apparently believe, why bother to think?

Something to ponder as you hear the debaters flatter the voting public by extolling the power of the people and the virtues of democratic choice while calling one another names…

CORRECTION: We have been asked to issue the following correction to this post.

Image: larissanet.gr

Glossary of Greek electoral debate, Sep. 2015 edition

τα μπανια του λαου: Who is and isn’t going to the beach this summer?

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τα μπάνια του λαού (ta bánia tou laoú): translates into English inelegantly as “the people’s swims.” The traditionally sacrosanct August holiday season; part of the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses.”

The phrase made a comeback in a recent tweet by a Syriza MEP in which he, somewhat sardonically, outlined this summer’s unofficial political schedule:

“first agreement (with Greece’s creditors) and the “μπάνια του λαού,” then beginning of implementation, debt relief, conference of the “social” (faction of) Syriza, and, if needed, elections.”

Most Greeks associate the expression τα μπάνια του λαού with Socialist former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who famously used it as a pretext to avoid calling snap elections in the summer of 1987 – as in, “we won’t ruin the people’s holidays.” In fact the concern with working peoples’ right to refresh themselves on the beach first became a strong feature of populist politics in the interwar period. In Italy, Mussolini’s championing of “i bagni del popolo” was aided by his much-lauded ability to make the public transport run promptly.

Who isn’t going to the beach this summer:

  • the technocrats and select Greek ministers involved in ongoing bailout negotiations aiming to conclude by the 20th August;
  • anyone eyeing elections in the autumn;
  • former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis caused outrage when he absented himself from a crucial parliamentary vote last month to take a break at his holiday home on the island of Aegina; however, he is known to prefer his private swimming pool to the public beach;
  • 7 out of 10 small business owners in Greece, according to a recent survey.

Who is going to the beach this summer:

  • several frontline government ministers and opposition shadow ministers, including (briefly) PM Alexis Tsipras;
  • the “A-team” of every Greek news gathering organisation – you know everything’s OK when a good portion of the news bulletin on any channel is using the thinnest of pretexts (weather? lifeguard skills? tourism flourishing or failing?) to show ladies in Brazilian thongs frolicking on the beach;
  • over 1,000 refugees and migrants per day, totalling over 124,000 since the beginning of the year, the vast majority war refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa, who made Greece their top European destination over Italy this summer. They are greeted by a national and European policy vacuum.

Image: Screen grab of the results of a Google image search for “μπάνια του λαού” on Thursday 6th July 2015.

τα μπανια του λαου: Who is and isn’t going to the beach this summer?

The semiology of the cucumber in the discourse of the Greek crisis

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A propos of nothing, given that yesterday was a quiet news day*, I recall a little vignette of post-referendum Athens.

Waiting to cross at the traffic lights in my Athens neighbourhood in the midday heat, a gentleman waiting next to me, in is late middle age, slightly dishevelled but respectable, observes the queue of pensioners outside the bank waiting to collect their €120 weekly stipend. He tuts. “This is disgraceful, this is what we’ve come to.” Then he pauses as he observes a little boy with an ice cream cone accompanying his grandmother. “That looks nice and cool,” he muses. Pause. “Of course the cucumber that Alexis (Tsipras) will bring back from Brussels will also be cool. And we’ll all get to share it. Not just the 60%,” (referring to the bailout negotiations that were due to follow the 60% “no” vote in the “bailout referendum”). He caught himself saying this, and suddenly embarrassed he apologised, adding “but you know what I mean.”

Of course I did. And for those of you who don’t…

… I recently discovered that this topic is covered exhaustively by Daniel M. Knight of the University of Durham in his paper entitled “Wit and Greece’s economic crisis: Ironic slogans, food, and antiausterity sentiments,” in a recent issue of American Ethnologist (The Journal of the American Ethnological Society).

Scroll to page 236 of this scholarly work for the definitive (and very clinical) analysis of the meaning of αγγούρι (aggoúri, cucumber) in the Greek vernacular. I will give you a hint: it has very little to do with Greek salad.

* In case you haven’t followed the links, or read the news, pretty much every economic indicator for Greece is pointing due south. The Athens Stock Market plunged almost 23%  intraday on its first day of trading since the easing of capital controls (before recovering to “only” -16.23% at close), the PMI manufacturing index was in free-fall through July, factory employment at a 16-year low, SME activity sharply reduced in the course of July for 9 in 10 businesses, and turnover down over 70% for 1 in 3 businesses. All directly attributable to the bank closures, capital controls and the climate of uncertainty created by the 5th July referendum, none reversible in the near term.

** This is where I realise that I have missed my true calling as a cultural analyst…

The semiology of the cucumber in the discourse of the Greek crisis