The Guest Blog

By Ilektra Tsakalidou

“When the wind blows, the leaves whisper”, Jonathan Shapiro, Deputy Operations Manager and Senior Institutional Integrity Officer at World Bank Group reminded students of the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs (SAIS) during a simulation on identification of corrupt practices. When thinking of high officials’ corruption in Greece, the conclusion is that the “leaves have started to whisper” in Athens.

Following the suicides of Leonidas Tzanis, a former deputy-Minister of Internal Affairs of the Simitis administration and Vlassis Kabouroglou, a businessman in the arms trade industry, recently implicated in a case of money laundering alongside the former Greek Defense Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos; all investigations lead to the mysterious “Laguarde list”.

The CD containing a list of 24.000 bank accounts was transmitted from the Swiss HSBC branch to the French government. Hence, it got named after Christine Laguarde, Finance Minister at the time. Among others, the database included the names of approximately 2000 Greek citizens, therefore it was given to the Greek authorities. That day was the starting point of a game of “hide and seek”.

George Papaconstantinou, Minister of Finance at the time, has revealed that he received the “list” in 2010 and gave it to the financial control authority, the SDOE. Later, he transmitted it to Evangelos Venizelos, when he became took over the Ministry. At that point, Papaconstantinou claims that data had been either altered or erased. Elections followed, and current Minister of Finance Yannis Stournaras claims that the list was never sent to him. According to interviews he gave to Greek newspapers, he only found out its existence via the Press. The media hype and speculations surrounding the notorious “list” reached such proportions that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras demanded that it was handed it to him. Unfortunately, the CD had gotten stolen a few days before from the headquarters of SDOE.

The Ethics and Transparency Committee of the Greek Parliament immediately took over the case and hearings of Mr. Venizelos –leader of PASOK, member of tripartite government- , Papaconstantinou and Stournaras will take place in the following weeks. Nevertheless, what remains to be seen is not whether the “list” will be recovered but if a system of efficient checks and balances will arise from the case.

Corruption is a phenomenon that affects the Greek society in all aspects. It causes the investment climate is negative for start-ups and dis-incentivises citizens from paying taxes. However, corruption is not a top-to-bottom phenomenon; a more accurate comparison would be the one of communicating vessels. There have been allegations of corrupt practices in the bidding for construction sites contracts and on military service postings; in the conscience of Greek citizens such behaviour is normalised. It is based on the mentality of the “short cut” where thing are moving faster with the use of a bribe; if someone chooses to go the official way he or she even tends to be laughed at. Hence, people in positions of power “enjoy” the benefits of living and working in a society that fosters and even encourages corruption.

The existence of an efficient legal system and increased operational capacity for tax officials is not the only solution to combating corruption. The approach ought to be holistic. Lower taxes and better enforcement, for example, would increase revenues. A system for addressing complaints is also a necessary step to be made. Lastly, educating Greeks that the shortest way is not always the best would contribute in changing mentalities.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. Initiatives by citizens, like the website “EDOSA FAKELAKI” (I gave a bribe) which records complaints from citizens and posts stories were citizens demanded a bribe to facilitate a procedure, are positive developments in the long fight against corruption. They are the first step and the wake up call. As a participant of the corruption simulation at SAIS, I was very disappointed that no Greek projects have received World Bank funding in order to be subject to investigation from people like Mr. Shapiro and his team of experts. Nonetheless, I am positive that since the “leaves have started to whisper” the call for accountability will shake the foundations of the Greek corrupt system and will alter views of governance. To think that it all started from a CD…

Ilektra Tsakalidou is a 2nd year MA Candidate in International Relations and International Economics at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in the United States. She has also worked for the Permanent Mission of Greece to the European Union in Brussels and served as a diplomatic advisor for the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations in New York City.

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