I read a Reuters article by Gareth Jones about the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index released this week by Transparency International, a non-partisan global coalition against corruption founded in 1993. What first caught my attention was the headline, “Greece ranks worst in EU in global corruption index.” My first reaction was the traditional Greek expression: Oy vey. More bad news for the old country.
I decided not to write about it. Why pile on when the place is already reeling from all the body blows to its economy? There’s real suffering going on over there. Besides, the report was based on year-old data and is not measuring actual established levels of graft (though, how could it since those transaction are done in secret) but rather perceptions of graft. So, I decided to shut my eyes and write something about the ancient Greek gods.
But the fates weren’t up for that idea. Yesterday, I received an email from my friend, George Anthou, a delightful Greek-American living in the wilds of southwestern Pennsylvania close by our shared alma mater of Washington & Jefferson College. George is a few years older than I (hard as it may be to believe there are any out there), a lawyer, and proud to the core of his Hellenic heritage. Attached to his email was a different newspaper article on the same subject, this one headlined “Greece slips to 94th in corruption index as austerity makes it EU’s weakest link.” I’m sure it pained him to read that article, because it sure as hell(enic) pained me with how distinctly non-complimentary it was to a country we both love.
That’s when I knew I had to write this. You can’t run from a story making headlines around the world that ranks your country on a par for corruption with Benin, Columbia, Djibouti, India, Moldova, Mongolia and Senegal, and puts you twenty to thirty places behind Romania and Bulgaria, respectively, two countries the EU forbids from passport-free travel to other member states due to concerns over their corruption.
The “traditional” Greek way for dealing with such a story would be to attack the source (and/or the messenger), deny the facts, find someone else to blame, or dismiss it as part of some international conspiracy. But this time newspapers aren’t reporting that as the “Greek” reaction.
A Greek political commentator is reported as saying, “To survive in such a hostile situation, you have to bend the rules. There is no other way when things are so hard—you are forced to resort to corruption to deal with the state mechanism.” And a Greek economics professor said, “People have been pushed to their limits [by wage cuts and unexpected taxes]. We should not be at all surprised by the report’s findings.”
And the story goes downhill from there, fueling those who would like to say (as the article reports) that “Greece is not just an economic basket case that is only barely keeping bankruptcy at bay but entrenched in a crisis of values that, like its debt drama, refused to go away.”
So, what’s the root problem? And how does one begin to deal with it? If you ask me the cause isn’t the financial crisis. Corruption has been entrenched in Greece for decades. For most it’s the only way they’ve known to get things done. In fact, if you find a Greek still willing to show a sense of humor on the subject, you’re likely to hear him complain that his politicians deserve to have the country ranked right down there at the bottom with North Korea, Afghanistan and Somalia (#174).
And don’t get them started on “perception.” To Greeks all of their politicians and most of the public servants they deal with are corrupt. The recent highly publicized arrest of a former Defense Minister is dismissed with a wave of the hand as window dressing to let the rest of the crooks—some still in Parliament they’ll quickly say—get away.
The Greek perception is “nothing will ever change.”
But wait. Is it possible the times are in fact a changin’ there?
This week another story broke in the Greek newspapers. The current and former mayors of Mykonos, two deputy mayors, and six employees of the municipality’s financial department are facing criminal charges in connection with a major fraud probe and tax evasion scheme. Allegedly, between 2002 and 2009 six million euros of occupancy taxes were diverted from municipal coffers into the accused’s pockets—and that’s thought to be just a fraction of what was actually embezzled. Eleven hotel owners are facing misdemeanor charges in the same case.
Mykonians are not surprised by the allegations, but I’m certain most are at the prosecutions. Although guilt and innocence have yet to be determined, many who never before thought it possible that a politician would be called to account, are now openly wondering who might be next. Could the unexpected ever happen and the “really big ones”—i.e., those tied to Parliament—be the next to fall?
Bringing the corrupt to task is the surest way of improving Greece’s image in the eyes of the world, but more important is the effect it would have on the Greek people. Greece’s only way of regaining financial stability without suffering irreparable harm along the way is by the government regaining the confidence of its people.
But as long as “nothing will ever change” remains the national mantra, how can Greeks be expected to behave any differently than the “crooks” they perceive in power? The public’s trust must be earned by the government, and to my way of thinking the best place to start doing that is by putting those who’ve betrayed that trust in jail.
‘Nuf said. For now.
And for the curious among you, the least corrupt places on the index were Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, and among my MIE compatriots, here’s how their countries ranked:
Iceland 11, United Kingdom 17, United States 19, France 22, Brazil 69, South Africa 69, and Thailand 88.