The plush crimson seating, subdued lighting and formal monochrome attire frame a pregnant moment, reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola epic, in which dynastic ties, political power, money and religious authority weave a rich tapestry of intrigue. Among Greeks and Greece-watchers who have seen it, this photo seems to have provoked an instant gut reaction. As we have warned before, a picture, however eloquent, rarely tells “the whole story”. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is going on here and why the reaction?
The setting is the main auditorium of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens, a Renzo Piano-designed state-of-the-art cultural venue built to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In 2007, the Greek state and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation signed an agreement which was voted into Greek law: the state provided the land – the disused site of the old horse-racing track near the seafront in Faliro – and the charitable foundation managed by the family of the legendary shipping magnate funded and managed the construction of the building and the landscaped park around it. On the 23rd February, a ceremony marked the delivery of the venue to its new owners, the Greek people – at which the photo in question was taken (the webcast of the ceremony can be watched here).
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (standing) shakes the hand of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the last pre-crisis Greek PM (2004-2009). Karamanlis’s Nea Demokratia government was succeeded by PASOK in autumn 2009, followed within weeks by the discovery of a black hole in Greek government finances which marked the beginning of the financial crisis, now well into its seventh year. Since losing power, Karamanlis has kept a low profile; while still holding a seat in Parliament, he is understood to spend most of his time at his family home in the seaside town of Rafina, which reclusive arrangement, combined with his placidity and rotund physique, has earned him the nickname “the Buddha of Rafina”. In this rare public appearance, he is attending in his capacity as the signatory of the original agreement with the Niarchos Foundation. Within his own party, which was founded by his uncle and namesake, Karamanlis retains a near-inexplicable (but for blood-loyalty) hold on a distinct faction, which is rumoured to be more active behind the scenes than his own disengaged exterior suggests. In particular, some political observers suggest an underground, borderline-treasonous, rapprochement is taking place, between the Karamanlis wing of the Nea Demokratia and the current government, with the ultimate aim of providing a back-stop to the Syriza-ANEL coalition’s flimsy three-seat majority. An unlikely pairing, one might think, between the embodiment of the nepotistic political establishment and young firebrand who promised to wipe the slate clean of all that. Proponents of the rapprochement theory note the PM’s reluctance to attack the Karamanlis government’s notable contribution to ballooning government debt, Tsipras’s proposal of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former Interior Minister in the Karamanlis government, for his current post as the country’s president, and (more controversially) the government’s alleged support for the criminal prosecution of the former head of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) who restated the state finances to reveal the black hole. Viewed against this backdrop, this handshake is loaded with symbolism.
In the second row, a full two seats away from Karamanlis, current leader of Nea Demokratia and scion of the Karamanlises’ rival bloodline in the party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sits with Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Ostensibly a reformist, Mitsotakis has come to resemble a groom courting the daughter of a particularly god-fearing family in his eagerness to kiss icons and cozy up to senior clergy – a reflection of the continuing hold of the Church and traditional right-wingers on the levers of party power and its voting base’s values (Mitsotakis’s actual wife is seen sitting one row behind him, entertaining another church official). Ordinarily, an opening ceremony would be accompanied by a religious blessing complete with incense, basil and holy water (as is the opening of Parliament), however this was not part of the public ceremony in this case, possibly in deference to the non-smoking rules and brand new upholstery. However, the heavy clerical presence in the front row of a shipowner-funded asset is a potentially awkward reminder that both the Orthodox Church and the shipping industry have come under intensified fire for their preferential tax arrangements, which have shielded them considerably from the austerity policies that afflict the new “owners” of the Cultural Centre.
Out of frame
The aforementioned President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, aka. the missing link in the putative rapprochement, who was seen later seated next to Tsipras, and delivering an uncharacteristically brief address; former PM Antonis Samaras, and an assortment of the Great and the Good of Athenian society, seldom seen out together on social occasions these days. Of course, the handshake captured in this photo was one of a series of unstaged greetings (more photos and observations here), a sign of courteous and civil relations among the Greek political class, even those studiously presenting themselves as untainted outsiders. Even Mitsotakis, looking excluded in our frame, is captured in other photos having an extended cordial exchange with Tsipras. Thus, the picture is potentially less sinister and simultaneously more depressing as a reflection of the political realities of Greece in 2017. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, but none of the associations are positive.
The shipping money. In his address, the Director of the Niarchos Foundation and great-nephew of Stavros Niarchos, after delivering a hopeful message about the power of cultural renewal and reinvigorated national confidence, engaged in some barely concealed live trolling. Reading aloud from what he claimed were electronic messages he had received from nameless members of the public, he voiced (in third person) an alarming level of concern for the fate of the Cultural Centre in the hands of the Greek government (examples included: “The beginning of the end,” and “Why, my good people? Is this your first time in Greece?”), before returning graciously to his own stated message of hope and confidence. Embarrassingly for the representatives of the Greek governments past and present in the auditorium, there was as much applause for the anonymised messages as for the official one – a deafening vote of no-confidence in their ability to manage for the public good. Despite the remarkable success of the building’s completion on time and on budget (all the more notable when compared to similar cultural mega-projects the world over) the moment reflects pervasive public unease around the future running of the SNFCC and the institutions housed in it by a Greek government, and a cash-strapped one at that.
The Greek people. Aside from the seating gaps in the dignitaries’ section, the auditorium was liberally dotted with pockets of empty seats, despite this being a free public event. In typical Greek fashion, the day of the ceremony coincided with a strike on all public transport, leaving only the SNFCC’s limited shuttle bus service and private transport as a means of access to the Centre. “Soft-opening” events held at the Centre have, by contrast, been extremely well attended and the park has been well-used on a daily basis. But alongside the mistrust of political authority, there is a more quiet acknowledgement of mutual mistrust among the public. Will people pick up their own rubbish? How long will it take for the first piece of playground equipment to break? Will the Greek people embrace the opera and the library? What will happen when the inevitable graffiti tags start to appear? Will people rally, volunteer and protect the place or will they rail at the authorities?
Beyond the political handshakes, it will be instructive to see how it evolves, a high-tech laboratory for a political (with a small p) experiment of sorts.