Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

olivemosaic

I have heard this informal transaction described independently by more than one person, leading me to believe that it is not apocryphal:

Around late October/early November you are trying to progress some business with a government office – it could be a tax registration or a planning application, or something along these lines. You have the name of the official responsible for your application, but they are proving very hard to get hold of. Each time you call the office, you will get the same response: “Mr Táde (So-and-so) is not in the office today. He is at his village gathering the olives. I’m sorry but we don’t know when he will be back.”

To the uninitiated, this is an annoyance, but not a deterrent. They will keep trying, hitting their head against a brick wall, cursing all the way at the [expletive] civil service culture of absenteeism.

However, those in the know recognise this line as a coded invitation to tender, to which there is a proper response: “Oh, that is so nice. I hear Mr Táde’s trees produce very good oil. Would you be so kind as to ask him to reserve some for me?” And very soon they will find that Mr Táde has returned from leave, and can be found promptly behind his desk with a couple of five-litre tins of olive oil. They will pay Mr Táde a highly inflated price for the oil (which may be good, but not that good) submit their application, and find it dealt with with great efficiency – the efficiency of a well-oiled machine…

The transaction described above is an inventive riff on the twin themes of the family olive grove as hobby for city-dwellers, and olive oil as a buffer against hardship, which we alluded to in a previous post.

When the Greek government recently looked into the impact of withdrawing some of the generous tax breaks for farmers, one of the patterns that emerged was that, according to one newspaper report,

Only about 350,000 of the 850,000 Greeks involved in farming are full-time farmers, said an agriculture ministry official, adding that a third of agricultural output is sold or traded illegally without receipts.

Olive farming in Greece is largely a family business, with small units predominating. Greek agricultural units overall are roughly one fifth the size of the European average. What they do with their output often blurs the lines between different types of economic activity, several of which are not tracked by EUROSTAT or the OECD.

While the ‘grey’ market for olive oil may be thriving, Greece finds it harder to make a success of the ‘white’ market. In the case of olive oil, although the oil produced is very high quality (80% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, compared to 65% of that produced in Italy and 30% in Spain), those countries have a much more valuable export market because they tend to standardise and package their product themselves, rather than loading it into tankers and exporting it in bulk (Greece only standardises 27% of its oil, compared to 80% in Italy and 50% in Spain). 60% of Greek olive oil is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled as Italian, and the Italian middle-men pocket an extra 50% premium on the price.

The theme of this story is a familiar one – a true Greek paradox. We seem to be blessed with some enviable natural resources (there is no other elegant word for it without resorting to statistical jargon, since their presence is clearly down to luck, not skill or hard work). We are clearly not lacking in the ingenuity to make a market in them. And yet, it is not a market that connects well with the wider world, and it is questionable whether it benefits anyone beyond the atomistic units that practice it (the individual, the family). Trying to imagine what might happen if that ingenuity were channeled from the ‘grey’ or ‘black’ economy into the ‘white’ is a an exercise at once hopeful and depressing. Figuring out how to achieve it is surely the €100 billion challenge behind the resurrection of the Greek economy.

Advertisements
Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

Welcome to the entanglement show

kataramenosofis

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:

tsiprasfakeloi
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%.
nikos-pappas-650-1.jpg
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).
mitsotakiscartoon
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.
kammenosvouli
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.
papaxristopoulos-th-708
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.
priests_maximou-thumb-large
Policy in the making (1).
troika
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

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

With an eventful few weeks at the opposite corner of the continent (and now closer to home), there has been a certain comfort in returning to slow news days in Greece. So much so, that Aunt Cassandra thought for a moment that she had mistakenly picked up a newspaper from several years ago, before remembering that her magnificent Amazonian Parrot, Orfeas, unfailingly gets a fresh cage lining of yesterday’s news before it has time to linger. In fact, even Orfeas has noticed that over the years certain headlines in the paper reappear with unfailing regularity. Orfeas thinks his own species’ reputation for repetition is grossly overstated. His own nuanced rendition of the “Vissi d’arte” aria from Tosca has been deemed “better than Callas” by the most demanding members of AC’s opera circle, while his deft impression of an angry Rottweiler is the envy of AC’s security-obsessed friends. But, ever the good sport, he was able with a ruffle of his feathers and a few theatrical hops around his cage to help us compile a whole newspaper out of the repeat clippings. And here it is, yesterday’s news today, for tomorrow’s prescient reader.

PERSONAL FINANCE

Minister warns: “Absolutely no extensions to tax filing deadline.” By now even the most isolated tribes in the depths of the Orfeas’s ancestral rainforest know that the Greek state faces enormous challenges collecting tax – though not quite as enormous as is sometimes portrayed. Filing deadline extensions are a regular summer sport, and hard pronouncements such as this are only made to be broken. With the cosmic cyclicality of druids gathering for the summer solstice, tardy taxpayers watch the news to see how far they can push it against the deadline (or indeed, whether they need to bother at all if it happens to be an election year). This year’s deadline has already been extended once. Last summer Orfeas counted three extensions without even trying, taking the original deadline of the end of June to the end of August. Because capital controls, you might protest? No. Because. Every. Year. And if it isn’t planned, it is virtually guaranteed that the state-of-the-art-circa-1995 electronic filing system Taxis will collapse under the weight of last-minute submissions, requiring (you guessed it) a filing extension.

CULTURE

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

“New initiative sparks hopes of return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece.” Ever since the Ambassador Lord Elgin returned to Blighty with a particularly ostentatious collection of souvenirs in his luggage, the campaign to repatriate “the marbles” has been ongoing, simultaneously delivering a steady supply of mental illness-related gags in the Anglophone media, even among those who should know better (Stephen Fry: “It’s time we lost our marbles”). This time, a group of backbench MPs in the British Parliament is supporting an initiative to return the sculptures on the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which granted them to the British Museum. Less than two years ago, it was the photogenic and recently wed Amal Clooney to the rescue, channeling Jackie O and figureheading a legal team invited by then PM Antonis Samaras to advise the Greek government on the matter. Every so often a new initiative arises, taking patriotic Greeks and philhellenes on an emotional rollercoaster, only to have their hopes dashed once again against the intransigence of the British government. In this case, one senses the initiative is particularly poorly timed. Unless, that is, the sculptures can be worked into some kind of Machiavellian EU hostage exchange deal.

JUSTICE

xeiropedes

“Corruption trial postponed indefinitely.” Oh, how we punch the air whenever an arrest is made in an anti-corruption investigation! Finally, someone will be brought to justice for the mess the country is in! We look forward with barely concealed schadenfreude to seeing the erstwhile politician/businessman/big lawyer lamogio do the “perp walk” to the police van with only a limp overcoat to cover their handcuffs. And if that counted as justice, we would be sitting pretty. However in Greece actual justice in the formal sense is closely synonymous with “the tall grass”, as we have had cause to relate previously. This week, two trials relating to the Siemens scandal have been (yes) postponed indefinitely: one, because foreign defendants were not provided with timely translations of the charges; the other, because the presiding judge passed away and there is no provision to replace him. High profile cases like the Golden Dawn trial are not immune to this affliction either. Another measure of the speed of Greek justice is provided by the recently reported final ruling by Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, ordering the Greek state to pay € 700,000 compensation for two city buses burned by rioters. The events in question took place in 1996-7.

SOCIETY

Muslims living in Greece perform Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Athens

“Greece one step closer to its first licensed mosque.” Take a classic NIMBY issue and add the involvement of the Orthodox Church, and you have a formula for legal appeals to infinity. The building of the first modern mosque was first planned in 1880. In more recent times it was approved by Parliament in 2000, and again in 2006 and 2011, and close to €1 million in funds have been earmarked for it for some time. A variant of this headline can be generated simply by replacing “mosque” with crematorium. We won’t hold our breath.

POLITICS

vote

“Governing party proposes change to electoral system.” Greece’s electoral system is not spelled out in the country’s Constitution. As a result, it is rare for two consecutive elections to be held under the exact same system, as governing parties with enough parliamentary support have the ability to bring legislation that tailors the system for the next round of elections in their favour. The current system awards the first party a generous 50-seat bonus in the 300-seat parliament. The new proposal put forward by Syriza aims to change this to proportional representation, which is presented as a long-standing commitment of the Left. Last time a similar system was proposed in 1989 it was rejected by, er, the parties of the Left. Passing it this time would depend on the support of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

ENTERTAINMENT

Scorpions

“Scorpions live in Athens!” The nation’s favourite superannuated German hair band, this time back as part of their 50th anniversary tour (has it really been ONLY 50 years?). Crisis or no crisis, and no matter how many Hitler moustaches are painted on Angela Merkel, or Nazi armbands photoshopped on Wolfgang Schäuble, there is a certain portion of the Greek public who will not fail to pack out a venue to hold a cigarette lighter aloft to “Wind of Change”. Rock on, ja!

TRAVEL

nauagio

“Greek beach ranked among top 25 in the world.” Rankings on Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor are great for our national morale, because we can all take credit for a natural wonder that foreigners acknowledge as superior. Though I suppose some credit is due for not allowing an unlicensed construction of some description to be slapped on it.

BONUS GIFT

Amazon-Parrot

… and of course, just like the old days, the paper comes with a free CD courtesy of Orfeas himself: “Viiisiii d’ar-te, viiisiii d’amooo-re…”

 

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

20shair

One of Aunt Cassandra’s few remaining luxuries in life is getting her hair done twice a year in her favourite posh hair salon in the old money enclave of Kolonaki. Fortunately, Uncle Aristos’s prudent financial management left her with enough pocket money to allow her the occasional indulgence. So she nearly required a dose of the smelling salts this time, when she called up for an appointment to be told by an equally perplexed sounding receptionist that the business was closing down.

Gosh, she thought, things must be really bad if such an august institution is forced to close its doors, a real humanitarian crisis for the french polish and blowout set… But as is generally the case, there is more to this tale of financial woe than meets the impeccably kohled eye. After a bit of detective work among her more worldly friends, Aunt Cassandra was able to track down her favourite stylist to his new establishment just a few streets away from the old place (AC does not use mobile telephony, and so had not received the text alert that had informed her cronies on the duplicated client list of this new development).

Sitting in the gleaming white space of the brand new salon, AC was soothed by the parade of familiar faces that greeted her (stylists, colourists, manicurists, waxers, pluckers, threaders and juniors) as she dispensed with the preliminary chatter about how Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be, the list of empty addresses that used to house luxury brand stores, and how no-one who is anyone will be seen dead in Mykonos this summer, now everyone of taste and substance is Airbnb’ing on Patmos. Her stylist, the proud new proprietor with his own name now etched in calligraphy on the frosted glass doors, greeted her like an old friend and made sure she was well looked after (he even managed to get her name right, unprompted).

He didn’t need much prompting to spill the beans. The old salon, he said bluntly, had been sunk by greed and mismanagement. In the bubble years, the founder, by all accounts a charismatic rogue well-loved by the society pages, had plundered the business to fund his “hair-raising” (sic) lifestyle, then taken out bank loans to keep it solvent. At the same time he expanded the already over-leveraged business and spent millions on swanky new premises in premium locations.

The first time the salon went bust was in the credit crunch of 2009, when the banks reined in their lending and the boss couldn’t refinance his loans. The stylist described his predicament paraphrasing in a slightly more earthy way Warren Buffet’s observation that “when the tide goes out you can see who is swimming knickerless (ξεβράκωτος, xevrákotos)”. Undeterred, the boss declared the company bankrupt, moved premises, and reopened under a new company registered in his son’s name (a classic λαμογιά in the modern Greek style). The staff who were already owed several months’ wages were coaxed to stay by the promise that this would be a clean slate, and they would be paid what they were owed if they stayed on.

Things did not improve. It was common knowledge that the staff were owed months of back pay, and the owner was not paying their social security contributions. They still turned up for work, but it was clear to the observant eye that they were not engaged in their work. The business could still have succeeded, the stylist felt: it had a strong brand, a loyal and growing customer base, even in the crisis. But as the wear and tear became evident and customer service deteriorated they were deterred. He hoped that his boss would learn from his past failure, but he was disappointed to see the same mismanagement repeated. He had spent the last year in a state of constant anxiety, dreading the day when he would turn up for work to find the shop shuttered. When (not if) this happened, he would find himself at a mature age (how mature? a lady never asks for fear of impugning the quality of the dye job) having built a career from scratch, having to beg for work as a jobbing hairdresser, worrying whether he would ever accumulate enough pension credits to retire on (a far cry from the quasi-mythical Greek hairdresser of peak crisis reporting, qualifying for early retirement on a full pension).

One day he woke up with his mind made up (“as if I had seen a vision”), he moved heaven and earth and managed to find a way to start his own business. With impeccable (lucky) timing, he made his move as his old boss exited stage left pursued by creditors and tax collectors, more than likely planning his comeback. AC was too discreet to ask how he managed to scrape together the means for the gleaming new premises and equipment. She was nervous enough to notice out of the corner of her eye a nervous looking man in a black puffa jacket pacing the street outside with a mobile phone glued to his ear, and feared that her hard-working stylist had made a deal with the devil. It turned out that the man was waiting for one of the clients, whether as a friend or a security detail was not clear. Still…

Why are we even talking about Aunt Cassandra’s posh hairdresser? Surely there are more important things to worry about at the moment, as another round of austerity measures is about to take effect, and words like “Grexit” and “drachma” make a comeback in anticipation of another summer of discontent.

IMG_20151104_135646667
“Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be”, November 2015.

It struck me while listening to the story that it was a variation on a theme that one encounters repeatedly while going about one’s daily business in Greece. It is perhaps no exaggeration to think of it as one of the dominant narratives of the ongoing boom and bust cycle; but it is one that is consistently ignored in the reporting, perhaps because it lacks the spurious moral clarity of Greek victim vs. predatory lender, or lazy Greek vs. principled creditor.

Beauty salons, in common with most small businesses in the service sector, have always lent themselves to what are euphemistically termed “informal” employment practices, or the “grey economy” – casual employment, cash-in-hand payment and the associated tax evasion, non-provision of health insurance, pension contributions and other legally mandated employment benefits – as well as being ideal conduits for outright money-laundering. Both before and during the present crisis, Greece has ranked well above the European average in terms of the size of its shadow economy relative to its GDP and the size of its undeclared labour market (although by their nature, quantifying both of these is very problematic). Recent workplace inspections and surveys suggest that the shadow economy is expanding its reach, as employers find themselves squeezed by lower margins and higher contributions (or claim to), but are also able to demand their own terms from increasingly desperate prospective employees. With the highest unemployment rates in Europe at 24.4% (and youth unemployment over twice that at 52.4%), many are searching for a job, but even those that hold one are not much better off in practice. It was recently reported that two out of three private sector employees are owed between two and fifteen months’ back pay.

While AC was being pampered in the comfort of the salon, trade unions marched through central Athens only a block away as part of five days of organised strike action against a pension and tax reform bill. The juniors sweeping up the hair and making coffees were regaling one another with their adventures trying to get to work by taxi from more affordable parts of town (paid for out of their own pockets, natch) because of the public transport strikes. Young, predominantly female, employed by small businesses, they are not represented by any of the strong interest groups in the labour movement and have been some of the earliest and biggest losers of the crisis.

Since 2008, Greece has lost almost one third of its businesses under a variety of circumstances (see reports in Greek and English). These headline statistics likely mask the number that followed the model of the salon’s founder, wiping clean the slate of an indebted business only to re-emerge in another guise. Some are even less subtle about it: a souvlaki shop in our ordinary residential neighbourhood shuttered overnight leaving cutlery on the tables and a delivery van falling apart in the street, and reappeared a few months later under the exact same name and branding only a few bus stops down the road. Further up the food chain, entire media conglomerates have been doing the same. A good portion of these may not have shuttered their businesses out of genuine desperation. Recent figures show that while more than half of outstanding bank loans to businesses or individuals in Greece are in arrears, the Bank of Greece estimates that about 20% of the money in these “red” loans is owed by “strategic defaulters”, i.e. borrowers who have the assets to pay, but choose not to.

Parables are found in the most unexpected places. The posh hairdresser’s tale puts a less stereotypical face on the dry macroeconomic statistics of Greece’s boom and bust years. We don’t yet know how the story will play out: it offers a hint of redemption and new beginnings for those who jump off the merry-go-round, but also a strong indication that some obvious lessons are being systematically ignored in favour of deceptively simpler narratives of villains and victims.

“Are you saying we are a nation of hairdressers?” asks Aunt Cassandra dubiously, her agile mind ready to pounce on a logical flaw with the alacrity of a thrifty widow spying an underpriced designer handbag at a liquidation sale. Not quite. But perhaps we have something to learn from their stories.

This story is mostly true. Names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the innocent and self-indulgent alike.

For more Aunt Cassandra, click here.

Images: pinterest, Atlantis Host.

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

Talk of the kafeneio

1wf79du

This week the kafeneio was abuzz with lively debate on the national legacy of one Chrysostomos (Makis) Psomiadis (aka. “Makaros”, aka. “Big Mac”, aka. “Agapoulas”), who died last week of natural causes shortly after being released from prison.

If you read the press or watched the news (examples here and here), you would see that pride of place was given to the deceased’s prominent role in organised sport since the late 1908s (as chairman of AEK Athens basketball and football teams, Ethnikos, Atromitos and Kavala football teams), followed by brief references to his recent convictions for match-fixing and embezzling €21.7 million from AEK Athens, and only discreet allusions to involvement in “business”, “society” and “behind-the-scenes”. The language was respectful, even fond and reverential (his death was “tragic”, “his heart betrayed him”, his passing “mourned” by the sports community).

In the kafeneio, the sentiment was altogether more divided. For some, the deceased should be left to rest in peace. God should be his judge, as he was the son of a priest, and known to be religious. He may have broken the law, but he lived by his own code and only harmed those who crossed him. God bless him, he cared about his teams, taking one of them up two divisions in three years, even if he plundered some and sunk others in the leagues. Whatever you think of him, he was a colourful larger-than-life character, his self-consciously argot-laden and often profane one-liners repeated with fondness (some semi-respectable media outlets even anthologised them for easy reference). Many of his former players, along with A-list performers from his nightclub days and high-profile criminal lawyers who attended his funeral presumably felt the same. The swindled AEK Athens sent a wreath and a lengthy defence of their rationale (presumably some form of corporate Stockholm syndrome?).

Others recalled that he had supported the junta regime torturers at their trials and is accused of enthusiastically joining in the torture himself in a borrowed cassock. That he made his fortune running a protection racket. That in addition to his recent convictions he had been accused of and tried for numerous other crimes (fraud, counterfeiting, kidnapping) in each case being acquitted or released on technicalities (most of these allegations were presented in an ERT documentary broadcast while he was on the run in 2011). That his love of his teams extended to personally threatening and blackmailing his players (a rare account in the English language press comes courtesy of a former NBA transfer to AEK). That his financial affairs (no known assets, cash payments only, black bin liners full of notes in the changing rooms) would make him too obvious a case study for even a beginner’s guide to money laundering. Many recalled listening to a graphic audio recording purporting to be of the deceased torturing a former associate.

And of course there is the political dimension, the kafeneio regulars never missing an opportunity to revive the left-right rifts of the dictatorship era and the civil war. His supporters inevitably accuse his detractors of politically-motivated character assassination (in the words of one shock-jock tabloid site, “Stalinist scum who were too afraid to write these things while he was alive”). The latter then accuse the former of lionising a fascist and a psychopath emblematic of the criminality and corruption that has brought the country to its knees, when they should be lining up the next lamógio for prison instead. There is only one mode of conflict avoidance: the obligatory onslaught of queasy jokes about the new boy on the Devil’s turf, bribes in St Peter’s pocket, the commemorative fixed match. For a moment there is a moratorium on the usual (and more than ever topical) actuarial dissection of pensions. But then they do say that psychological distance has something to do with why everybody loves a mobster.

This is all hearsay of course; I take after Aunt Cassandra who would never venture into the den which she blames for Uncle Aristo’s moral decline, but instead divides her time between the crochet circle and the literary salon. Anyone who wishes to delve into the moral maze of the internet kafeneio is welcome to Google “#RIP_Makaros”, stand back and marvel at the fine discourse.

I was going to write something classy and ever-so-slightly ponderous like “the nation held a mirror up to itself,” but upon reflection I think “barium enema” would be more appropriate to describe the process one uses to look for abnormalities in the nether regions.

Easily confused with:

“Agapoulas”, The central character in a series of humorous mobile phone ads at the height of the deceased’s notoriety, partly responsible for promoting his personal mythology: the similarity of the fictional president of the football team with his use of the trademark phrase “agapoula” (“sweetheart”) and the allusions to legal entanglements and mafia tactics is so close that it’s amazing the deceased did not claim royalties (or maybe he did?).

Not to be confused with: 

Vangelas “Meymar” Meimarakis: despite the superficial resemblance in facial furniture and the similarity in personal style and vocabulary, the frontrunner in Sunday’s leadership elections in opposition party Nea Demokratia is no relation to the deceased.

Panagiotis “Panikos” Psomiadis: despite sharing a surname and a disregard for financial probity, the convicted serial fraudster, Nea Demokratia hanger-on and latterly infomercial shoe salesman, is no relation to the deceased.

 

Image: via makeleio.gr

Talk of the kafeneio

Business as usual in Athens-on-the-Congo

mavrogialourosWatching the current Greek government approach one year in office, I am frequently reminded of a tale I once heard about the customs of a faraway land. This is the tale as it was recounted to our regular contributor Koutofrangos on his travels:

“A real central African country I have visited has in some ways a very efficient system of public administration, one often mistaken by rules-obsessed Westerners for rampant corruption. When you are appointed to a public sector position in the this country, you are not paid a salary because the state has no money to pay you. Your office, your uniform, or your badge, are licenses to extract money and to grant favours. You may expect to serve something like six months in post before you are booted out and replaced by the next incumbent. You are given an office that consists of nothing but bare walls – the equipment, fittings and furniture having been stripped by your predecessor.

Once in place, you have a brief window to make what you can of your position. A typical example is that the police will set up roadblocks with the sole purpose of collecting on the spot ‘fines’ for invented infractions that go directly into their pocket. Once word reaches your village of your new appointment, your kin, both immediate and distant, will expect you to quite literally ‘take care of them’, for nothing is more deeply engrained in the local culture than that of sharing whatever you have with those who are without. For the lowly policeman, your badge and uniform entitle you to require a small payment before wielding your baton against the street mugger; likewise, a ministerial appointee will require the payment of a ‘gratuity’ by wire transfer directly into a foreign numbered account before he is able to confirm a meeting with a senior minister to discuss a mining permit. And the same functionary will arrange for as many relatives as possible to receive civil service jobs back home, who will use their posts to extract whatever they can from those seeking their services.

This sharing of the wealth is an admirable instinct, one that has enabled entire communities to survive even the leanest of times in a world where access to resources is, at best, uncertain. The sense of obligation to family and village on the part of the benefactor is every bit as strong as the sense of entitlement to a share of the spoils by kith and kin; the ties of family and village loyalty are ironclad. When the time comes for you to leave your government post, you will – like all who had gone before you – strip the office clean of its equipment, fittings, and furniture, and leave it to your successor to commence the cycle all over again. As an economist acquaintance long familiar with our African country explained, this system of informal redistribution could be seen as an extremely efficient form of taxation. There were no administrative overheads as ‘tax’ was collected directly from those in need of services, as and when those services were required, effectively a system of ‘pay as you go’ government service delivery. Where it breaks down, of course, is in the arena of major public infrastructure, such as roads and water; it is difficult to demand a bribe from an entire community, or country, unless the demand is delivered from the business end of a gun. It is for this reason that towns some distance from the capital, with populations of a quarter million or more, often lack electricity and sewage disposal – true public services, not amenable to such a model of ‘direct finance’”.

By the way, I forgot to mention, if you hold Greek exceptionalism as an article of faith, or if you are fond of employing words like “neo-colonialist” as an insult, you probably won’t appreciate the analogy that has been creeping up on you. But I suggest you hold your nose and read on.

This is the kind of behaviour that economists call “rent seeking”, and what we have previously written about when documenting the inventive vocabulary of informal transactions in Greece. Since the Syriza/ANEL coalition came to power in January 2015, and then again in September, a typically Greek political ritual has been playing out that differs only in scale from the familial largesse of our African official.

Within the first six months we saw political tokenism in the wholesale rehiring of the ministry cleaners that had served as the red-cleaning-gloved mascots of the election campaign, the upgrading of some of their number to court clerks, and the re-advertising of the same positions on less favourable terms (all perfectly legal if not exactly equitable). We saw the triumphant re-opening of the state broadcaster ERT (including all 1,560 of its original employees), paying back the previous government for its heavy-handed plug-pulling, thereby winning the undying loyalty of a full battalion of media foot-soldiers. School janitors, university administrators, vocational educators and a whole raft of functionally random but symbolically charged public sector positions abolished by the previous government – in an admittedly feeble and itself politicised attempt to make even the most modest inroads on cutting government spending – were reinstated through fast-track procedures. This was given extra piquancy by the fact that the Employment Minister was an established lawyer specialising in representing public sector employees in unfair dismissal cases. The timing was also significant: this rush to deliver on pre-election promises took place as the new government’s risky but ultimately doomed negotiations with the creditors were reaching a crescendo, and on the eve of the referendum called by the government in July to break the deadlock that they had created.

The families have also been gathering round to get their feet under the table. In the literal sense, nieces and nephews, spouses, siblings, in-laws, and assorted relatives have been named almost daily in lists of ministerial appointments and prestigious secondments. In the realms of fictive kinship, party functionaries and failed candidates have also featured large. Back in May, an opposition politician was able to name over 100 appointments with a strong whiff of nepotism, and more have been made since.

Other controversial personnel changes have been effected under the guise of reforms and assessment exercises at senior levels of the civil service. A recent evaluation exercise of hospital directors found that 59 of the 71 assessed by interview were deemed unsuitable for the position (representing an astonishing 83% failure rate); in a number of instances, it was openly acknowledged that politically-sensitive criteria such as “crisis management skills” and “good workplace relations” (i.e. fealty to the all-powerful unions) were allowed to override formal qualifications and successful performance in the job. Sensitive positions at the head of supposedly independent agencies such as the Internal Affairs Unit of the Police and the Secretariat-General of Public Revenues have also been summarily cleared of their incumbents.

In sketching out the outlines of these shifts I do not mean to imply that individual cases cannot be justified. It would not be shocking to hear that a ministry cleaner had been overqualified for her job, in the same way that the waiter who served you your cappuccino may well have a law degree; or that a senior health service official turned out to be crooked, lazy or an incompetent political appointee; or that the head of Public Revenues had bowed to political pressure, as is alleged in the indictment filed against her, since she herself was appointed by the outgoing Samaras government following the unceremonious ouster of her predecessor. It is more that the aggregate pattern can only be interpreted as the result of an overarching plan so pre-rehearsed that it borders on ritual.

That this is the norm rather than the exception is illustrated by an unattributed (though highly plausible) account of a recent gathering of the clans of the Syriza parliamentary group. In it, a rank-and-file MP pleaded sincerely that his job is made harder by the party’s failure to capture the state apparatus to an adequate degree to allow him to grant his constituents’ rousfétia (favours). “The voters came back to me a few days later,” he recounts, “and told me they went to another party’s MP who was able to grant them their rousféti.” Another one of his colleagues reportedly complained that “we can’t even get an army conscript transferred that easily” (see vísma, meson etc.). The account does not disclose whether any of the complainers were “heroic” enough to take to their tent in the wrath of Achilles for not getting their share of the booty. But clearly the fear in the party is that someone will on the eve of the next big battle, and risk costing them the war that they have travelled so far to fight. The government now has a thin majority of three votes, and some challenging measures to pass.

These developments can only be seen as remarkable because they are being set in motion by a government whose supposed USP was a break from the “old” political tradition and a focus on rooting out diaplokí (entanglement) in public life. But in this sense also it is not new. There is a growing body of literature in political science documenting and analysing the politicisation of the civil service in Greece (you can read two slightly different perspectives here and here). In it, a picture emerges of a ritual of capture that takes place with every change of political administration. The ritual rotation was both accelerated and formalised with the coming to power of the Socialist PASOK in the 1980s, which for the first time gave the Left (yes, there was a Greek Left in power before Syriza) a bite of the apple (for most of the twentieth century, leftists were explicitly excluded from the civil service). It has been practiced equally adeptly by their Conservative counterparts Nea Demokratia (under Kostas Karamanlis they are estimated to have appointed over 300,000 civil servants between 2004 and 2009, equating to roughly 4% of the working population of the country at its peak, and 3% of registered voters!) all under the guise of “reforming” the public sector. What is truly shocking now is that the system survives despite the paucity of spoils to distribute.

The capture typically takes place both from the top, to control policy, and from the bottom, to reward loyalty or inflict a political obligation. The result is a state apparatus loyal to its political sponsors that then has to be dismantled by the next party in power. The offices are stripped, and the cycle continues. The prize of any anti-corruption campaign is to catch a frontline politician with his or her fingers in the till; when that happens we are all momentarily shocked, disgusted and chastened. But that is not “us”; at the same time we all tolerate and participate in an astounding volume of exchanges of banal favours because we see them as “business as usual”, the most efficient way to get things done, without acknowledging that we are subtracting from the whole.

This is an informal exchange system and a mode of governance, with its own operating logic, its own morality code and values system. To believe that it is simply parasitical to the democratic system and the “real” economy is to ignore the extent to which it drives things; recognising how rousféti fits in the picture is painful because it is a tacit acknowledgement that the official system is dysfunctional and deficient. Consequently, it is just as naïve to trust that it can be easily rooted out or “reformed” simply through cookie-cutter “good governance” initiatives, as it is to expect that someone by virtue of being young and “not from a political tzáki” (the political equivalent of virgin birth) will be your saviour from all the sins of the political system.

All this grubbiness is of course frowned upon by our partners to the north, just as some of us are tempted to frown upon our African temporary cop in his still-crisp uniform as he demands a bribe at the roadblock in our African capital’s suburbs. As overseers of our spasmodic “reform” efforts, our partner-creditors only rarely make public acknowledgement of what is going on before their very eyes. How can they miss it? Is it because corruption is a “southern” disease that is so alien to their Protestant value system that they fail to see the signs? This is hard to believe given their own achievements in the field. If in doubt, I suggest that you take a closer look at the overbearing embrace of our oleaginous Luxembourgeois MC on the fringes of a European summit. You might just catch a glimpse of the twinkle in the eye of a northern Don Corleone who has just persuaded his wayward nephew to take care of the smooth running of the waste disposal business.

Image: Still from the 1965 comedy “There is Also Conscience” (Υπάρχει και φιλότιμο) in which a naive minister visits his constituency and discovers that his administration is corrupt, he is reviled and the government is mistrusted. The protagonist’s name, Mavrogialouros, has become a byword in Greek for charlatan politicians.

 

 

 

Business as usual in Athens-on-the-Congo

Punk’d again!

kinito

We reveal the truth behind those oligarch texts.

During yesterday’s debate on the new media bill in the Greek Parliament, Defence Minister, leader of junior government coalition party ANEL (Independent Greeks) and weekend warrior Panos Kammenos read out the text messages presented in translation below, purporting to be from Dimitrios Giannakopoulos, scion of the family behind Greek pharmaceuticals company Vianex, and proprietor of Panathinaikos basketball team and internet “news” site newsbomb.gr. The texts were intended to demonstrate the political pressure the government was receiving from “wannabe oligarchs” in the media.

“Good morning. Will our man George get into Health as an extra-parliamentary appointment? Please make sure they don’t reappoint [Deputy Minister for Sport] Kontonis anywhere.”

“Congratulations. I hope this time you make it a full four years without any obstacles and can fix all the atrocities of the last forty years. Good strength. Newsbomb elects a government”

“Good morning. George should be appointed as an extra-parliamentary. Do not let Kontonis be appointed.”

“Kontonis not only did nothing, he won’t even give us an appointment.”

“If I don’t topple you by Christmas, my name isn’t Giannakopoulos.”


We are now able to bring you the background to this exchange. Exclusive to Dateline: Atlantis.

Monday 21st September, 6:30 am, the morning after the Syriza/ANEL re-election:

Alexis Tsipras, PM (AT): Malaka, malaka*, check this out!

Nikos Pappas, Minister of State (NP): What’s up man, I’m hungover…

AT: I know, you were out with fatty, right?

NP: Malaka, it was unreal. He insisted on opening the place up and doing the whole thing with the flowers and the plates and sh*t. You know I hate that stupid skyladiko stuff but I couldn’t say no. I took one for the team, malaka, remember that.

AT: I know, malaka, I appreciate it… You know how Betty is about me staying out late.

NP: You are so pussy-whipped, man… Anyway, wazzup?

AT: Listen, malaka, you’re gonna love this. We’re gonna get back at fatty. Remember when we sent him that spoof with the kids’ essays on politics?

NP: Yeah… The idiot only went and read it out on live TV, like it was for real…

AT: I know, right?! I only sent it as a joke, as in, “check this joke out, from a clearly satirical site, isn’t it funny?” Who would have thought he’d take it seriously. And he was getting all wound up reading it out as well. It was unreal. Anyway, that gave me an idea.

NP: Go on…

AT: You know how he loves to puff out his chest and feel important right? And you know how he likes to hang out with all the oligarch douchebag kids, right? [snigger] No offence, mate, right? So, here’s what I’m going to text him…

[beep]

NP: Very funny. Hey, his wife gave my missus her number earlier. How about texting her too? That’ll really mess with him!

AT: I knew you’d love it! Keep it in the family. Just like the old days. Hook, line and sinker! Boom! Hey, malaka, double dare! If he mentions it, we have to get him to read it out in parliament. You know when, when you do the media bill!

NP: No fair, malaka. I won’t be able to keep a straight face!

AT: That’s ma boy. You know that’s going to be a slog, why not have some fun?! Malaka, take a couple of painkillers and see you at the office in a couple of hours! We got a country to run!

*For those unfamiliar with the Greek vernacular, lit., masturbator, but used habitually among friends as an affectionate interjection along the lines of “dude”, “man” or “mate”.

Stories, tweets and Facebook posts linked to or reproduced are genuine. Everything in between is a fabrication.

Image from spirospero.gr

Punk’d again!