Friday, 29 December 2006

2006 In Review: Frustrated Reform

The story of 2006 is not an inspiring one for reform, which has been this government's main profession. 

In the public sphere, labour reform has proceeded mainly in the state-controlled telecom, OTE, which is widely seen as a laboratory for the rest of the public sector companies. It failed this year in the Peiraieus Port Authority and was not even attempted in the other network industries, the Public Power Corporation and Hellenic Railways, but Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis told fellow-ministers to keep pay rises to a three percent ceiling, a first step in curtailing generous pay and benefits. 

Labour-related reform also did not proceed in the area of pensions. The government decided merely to open discussion this year and leave reform for a new term.

The year's greatest Waterloo has been higher education reform. Reasonable proposals to keep parties out of rectors' elections, allow professors to assign reading from an unlimited bibliography in the humanities and trim the rolls of absentee students were scuppered by riots and protests, engineered largely by the parties of the left but supported by Pasok.

In the private sector some reform took place in banking and passenger shipping. Banks unilaterally departed from a sector-wide wage deal with the umbrella union OTOE for the first time since the 1950s. They later came to an arrangement with OTOE, but on their own terms. They granted a five percent pay rise (OTOE wanted ten percent) and won more flexible opening hours for a proportion of their branches.

Passenger shipping operators unilaterally departed from a price control agreement with the government, saying that liberalisation was overdue and passengers would benefit from competition.

Unfortunately, the stymieing of reform has partly taken place because of the government's own wrong footing. The big stories of the year were almost all scandals at the government's expense, two of them in the public order ministry. A public order minister had to move post and his deputy resigned over the abduction of Pakistanis and an eavesdropping plot engineered through Vodafone. Finally, in November, the government suffered a major political corruption scandal.

New Democracy managed to win enough prefectures and municipalities in October's local elections to demonstrate that it was largely unscathed and has maintained a lead over Pasok. But the reform process is so badly stalled that early elections are widely expected in 2007 to give the government new impetus 

January: A thick blue line

The year started with a bang. A Pakistani immigrant, Muhamma Munir, told a packed press conference on January 3 how he and several flatmates (photo) were abducted on 16 July 2005 by plainclothes police and interrogated for a week. British involvement was suspected, because the alleged abductions came after the July 7 London bombings. 

In testimony to parliament on January 11, Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis said 5,432 immigrants were indeed questioned in connection to the London bombings, of whom 2,172 were rounded up in a sweep, and 1,221 were arrested based on British intelligence information that a cell phone owned by a Pakistani immigrant had been used to call one of the July 7 bombers. But, he said, none of those arrested included the 28 Pakistanis (later reduced to a hard core of seven) claiming to have been abducted. The opposition began to call for Voulgarakis' resignation. 

Instead it was his number two, Christos Markoyannakis, who had been forced to resign just hours before, for calling prosecutor Dimitris Linos "foolish and illiterate" in a closed-door meeting with supporters in Hania.

The allegations were first published in the local newspaper Dimokratis. The inevitable denial was followed by a broadcast of Markoyannakis' taped remarks on national television. Some comedic mileage was gained from the fact that the journalist and confidant who had turned coat on him was surnamed Xekoukoulotakis, which roughly translates as 'he who uncovers'.
Markoyannakis was angry that Linos had ordered investigations of the Pakistani case, as well as into the killing of two police officers by a Russian prisoner they were transporting, even though the police was launching its own investigation. 

On January 20 the aggrieved Pakistanis told the Athens News they knew where they were held and threatened to divulge it if the government continued to deny their abduction. They said they could also identify their captors in a lineup. 

On January 17 Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced his intention to amend a slew of constitutional articles, most importantly 16 (education) 24 (designation of forestland) and 62 (to remove parliamentary immunity from prosecution in cases where the charges pertain to political activity). He also floated the idea of a constitutional court. Other proposals would aim to improve transparency in politics and institute stricter rules for the election of judges.

Pasok was divided over the proposal, because while George Papandreou called for a root-and-branch revision, Evangelos Venizelos, a constitutional lawyer who oversaw the last revision in 2001 when Pasok was in power, was against a revision at all.

The government seemed to have won its bet to deflect attention from its public order blues, however. A GPO poll published a week after the announcement showed 50% approval for the revision and overwhelming support for the transparency-related proposals. Even the liberalisation of higher education claimed 59% support ­ a proportion that would fall through the year as the Left opposed revision of article 16.

On the night of January 23 heavy snowfall lasting two days covered all of Greece, straining local authorities' ability to keep roads open. More than 300 towns and villages are cut off for a period. The collapse of pylons cut power to all of Kefalonia and Ithaki, raising the ire of local residents. A road accident on the night of the 23rd closed the Tempi passage connecting northern and southern Greece for 18 hours.

It was not the only natural disaster of the month. On January 8, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale had been felt from Italy to Jordan, but caused only structural damage to some houses and a church in the village of Mitata on Kythera, claiming no victims. Seismologists said that was thanks to the fact that its epicentre was 70km under the sea bed off the island's coast.

Jack Straw displeased the Greek-Cypriots in one of his last acts as Foreign Secretary, when he toured Athens, Nicosia and Ankara. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos refused to meet Straw after the Foreign Secretary met Turkish-Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat.

February: ­ A line to the government

The year's second scandal ­ and the biggest ­ started on February 1 when prosecutor Ioannis Diotis launched a full criminal investigation into allegations of widespread phone tapping. After a number of Vodafone clients complained that they were not receiving telephone calls and messages, Vodafone asked Ericsson, the designer of its software and hardware, to investigate. Ericsson found foreign software embedded in its own, which activated legal interception software without Vodafone knowing about it. 

The following day Voulgarakis, Government Spokesman Thodoris Roussopoulos and Justice Minister Anastasios Papaligouras told a press conference that 46 people, including most of the government, were spied upon from June 2004 to March 2005 ­ a period that included the 2004 Olympics. They explained that the legal interception software diverted telephone calls to 14 mobile phones used in connection with recording devices.

Voulgarakis said Vodafone came to the government with the news of the eavesdropping after 8 March 2005, when they disconnected it. The opposition criticised New Democracy for not involving the Agency for Telecommunications Security.

A week later Vodafone's CEO in Greece, George Koronias, testified in parliament that he learned of the illegal software on 4 March 2005, had it disabled on the 8th and went to the prime minister with the news on 10th.

Meanwhile the family of Costas Tsalikidis, Vodafone's technical supervisor who was found hanged in his apartment on 9 March 2005, stepped up its efforts to prove that Tsalikidis was murdered for discovering the eavesdropping software.

Karamanlis announced a reshuffle on Valentine's Day, in which Dora Bakoyannis took over the foreign ministry from Petros Molyviatis and Evangelos Meimarakis the defence portfolio. Under the weight of the Pakistani abductions and the Vodafone scandal, George Voulgarakis was removed from the public order ministry and somewhat awkwardly placed in charge of culture.

If the move aimed to control damage from the scandal, it did not immediately succeed. An ALCO poll published in Sunday Ethnos on February 26 showed Pasok ahead of New Democracy for the first time since the 2004 election, albeit by a mere 0.4 percent. The ruling party's unpopularity was put down to its handling of the eavesdropping scandal. However, Pasok's lead would prove only a flash in the pan.

January and February held only a hint of the labour-related reforms that would infiltrate the year. On January 31 the country's six biggest banks said they would not negotiate sectoral wage deal with OTOE, the bank employees' umbrella union, and would instead negotiate directly with their own employees' unions.
Then on February 22 striking workers in the passenger shipping sector decided to call off their weeklong strike over pay, after truckloads of perishables to and from the islands had begun to rot.

Two days later, an exclusive Athens News interview with OTE, the state-controlled telecom, revealed that the company was revamping itself for a large German, French or Spanish strategic partner. CEO Panagis Vourloumis (photo) said the labour agreement with the company's workforce was "not based on meritocracy" and needed to be revamped. That goal would ultimately lead to the largest labour reform of the year. 

Perhaps Greece's labour woes were best summarised in the beating by unknown assailants of Christos Polyzogopoulos on February 2. The head of the General Confederation of Workers in Greece (GSEE) was released in good health after a hospitalisation lasting a few days. 

On February 27, five and a half years after the sinking of the Express Samina, its captain and first mate were sentenced to periods of up to 19 years in jail for the drowning at least 80 people.

March: ­ Labour reforms run into resistance

Banking and telecom labour reforms came closer to the fore in March as annual talks for a general wage agreement between GSEE and the Association of Greek Industrialists (SEV) started with confrontation.

SEV's Odyseeas Kyriakopoulos brushed off a 24-hour strike and said a 2.8 percent pay rise offer for the year was final. GSEE demanded 4 percent for the first half of the year and 3.5 percent for the second half. Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said that if talks between the two dragged on, the government might have to postpone labour reforms in state companies. Those reforms included a 3 percent pay rise ceiling and cuts to bonuses, overtime pay and severance. A leading trade unionist said the GSEE-SEV talks were headed for impasse, for the first time in history. 

The month ended with tens of thousands of bank employees striking for a day to protest against reforms lowering benefits from their pension schemes (photo), and OTE's CEO, Panagis Vourloumis, telling an OTE Academy event that tough management was needed to fix the company. He said three decades of political meddling had disfigured it, and management needed to wrest back control from political parties, unions and unscrupulous employees who are on double payrolls and undermine the company from within.

The Vodafone scandal dragged on after opposition socialists succeeded in launching an investigation through parliament's transparency committee. The hearings damaged the government but also Vodafone and Ericsson, which engaged in mutual recriminations.
On March 9 Vodafone CEO George Koronias told the committee that Vodafone could not have activated spy software because it does not have access codes to the Ericsson software that runs its networks. 

He implied that someone within Ericsson could have activated such software. A week later Ericsson's CEO in Greece, Bill Zikou (photo), told the committee that Vodafone knew about the legal interception software embedded in its systems, because documents accompanying the software when it was installed in 2003 told Vodafone it was there. He said Ericsson bore no legal responsibility for the security breaches suffered by Vodafone. Later the two would say that their differences boil down to matters of timing and expression.

The Athens News relays an article by its columnist John Brady Kiesling published in The Nation, saying that the likely perpetrator of the eavesdropping on the government from June 2004 to March 2005 was the CIA. "Anyone might eavesdrop on a defence minister, " the article said, "but only one organisation still cares about the electrician whose brother-in-law was implicated in the 1975 murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch by the terrorist group November 17."
In Cyprus, relatives of some 121 people killed on Helios flight 522 in August 2005 filed lawsuits against Boeing based on a design flaw cited by the Greek air accident investigator. An alarm warning of cabin decompression ­ which ultimately caused the crash - was identical with an alarm for equipment misconfiguration, and they might have been confused. 

The government said that immigrants will be subject to compulsory Greek fluency tests as part of their European long-term residence application.

On March 23 Bakoyannis met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her maiden trip to the US as foreign minister. 

April: ­ Education on the horizon

GSEE and SEV reached a deal on April 3 to raise wages by 11 percent over two years. That cleared the way for labour reforms, and two days later Alogoskoufis told the ministers of labour, defence, development and transport to cap salary raises at the state companies they oversee at three percent in 2006 and four percent in 2007. That would keep them in line with civil servants' pay rises. 

OTE took two steps towards privatisation; it upped its stake in Cosmote to two thirds in order to boost value, and laboured to renegotiate work rules with its union. 

As the labour debate heated up in the media, opposition leader George Papandreou on April 6 sacked his spokesman for economic affairs, George Floridis (photo - Papandreou in foreground), after Floridis praised the Swedish model of labour relations in which employers can easily sack employees. 

On April 7 the Athens News reported on recommendations from the National Council for Education (ESYP) ­ the government-appointed think tank ­ for secondary schools. The included greater autonomy, better teacher training, modern teaching methods and evaluation. 

Ten days later, ESYP made preliminary recommendations for higher education, including that perpetual students, nearly half the student body, be struck off the student rolls. Perpetual students are those who fail to graduate in a reasonable time, or ask for deferments. 

The Authority for Privacy in Telecommunications issued a report on April 10 saying that the eavesdropping at Vodafone could only have been done by people with intimate knowledge of the company's systems. That embarrassed Vodafone, which had portrayed itself as a victim, but also former public order minister George Voulgarakis, who had praised the company for its handling of the matter.
About thirty thousand tonnes of household waste piled up on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki on April 5-9 as municipal waste workers shut down landfills to press their case for better pay and earlier retirement.
Public order ministry data suggested that Asylum applications are rejected as a matter of course (almost none have been approved since 2002), sparking criticism from human rights groups. 

May: ­ Between Iran and a hard place

On April 25 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started a five-day tour of Europe with a visit to Athens. Her aim was to trump up support for a UN Security Council resolution of sanctions and possible military action against Iran. Greece was serving as a non-permanent member of the Security Council and would chair it in August.

As the US propagated Iranophobia, Defence Minister Vangelis Meimarakis said that in case of military action against Iran, Greece would "honour its contractual obligations" and allow the use of Souda Bay military base in Crete for US naval and air operations. Under Andreas Papandreou and Costas Simitis socialist governments had made a practice of allowing the Americans to do exactly what they wanted with their bases, while sounding unhappy about it or keeping it quiet. New Democracy struck a new kind of discord with popular feeling by being honest about Greek policy. A poll showed 93 percent of Greeks opposing military action against Iran.

On May 9 Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, stopped in Athens as the UN considered sanctions. He said Iran was "considering" a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Tehran.

There was closure of sorts on the two big scandals of the start of the year. The former and current Greek Intelligence (EYP) chiefs, Pavlos Apostolidis and Yannis Korantis respectively (photo - Apostolidis in foreground), told parliament's transparency committee on May 10 that the CIA spied on Greek telecommunications with the government's blessing during the Olympics. The implication was that a little extra spying through Vodafone was besides the point. 

A container full of surveillance equipment was placed outside the public order ministry from June to late September 2004, Apostolidis said. He also said that the list of those spied upon as terrorism suspects was much longer than the 110 people tapped through the Vodafone legal interception software.

On May 16 prosecutor Ioannis Diotis published a report, four months in the making, pointing to EYP as the likely perpetrator of Pakistani abductions in July 2005. Two EYP agents could not provide alibis, the report said. Korantis said his agency did not have the facilities for the interrogation of 28 people. He suggested the abductions were an intra-communal affair, a scenario further propagated by the new public order minister, Vyron Polydoras, in parliament three days later. The report produced renewed calls for the resignation of George Voulgarakis, by this time serving as culture minister, who had insisted that the abductions "never happened".

On May 30, a 1.5kg bomb exploded outside the Voulgarakis home on Lykabettos. No-one was injured. Revolutionary Struggle later claimed responsibility, citing the Vodafone scandal and Pakistani abductions.

Another embarrassment came to the government through Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyannis. Accompanying Papoulias in Manama, Bahrain on May 1, he entertained journalists with a tangent about how reform had not proceeded apace because of corruption from the top of the private sector. Media conglomerates tower over politicians, he said, using the phrase, "We are all clowns".

Two days later, no doubt sensing the minister's wounded authority, passenger ferry operators decided to depart unilaterally from ticket prices normally agreed with the government. They blamed the government for the slow pace of reform, and demanded a liberalised market as mandated by the European Union.

The European Commission on May 8 approved Greece's two-year plan to lower the budget deficit to 2.6 percent of GDP in 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2007, but warned that Greece was, in fact, on target for a 3.6 percent deficit in 2006.

GSEE and the civil servants' union, ADEDY, held a 24-hour strike to protest against pension reform, being discussed in parliament on May 10. Public transport, banks, tax offices, schools and other state services closed.

On May 23 a Greek F16 crashed after colliding with a Turkish fighter plane, killing the pilot. The Greek plane had flown to reconnoitre a Turkish formation conducting spy photography over Crete. Quick diplomatic action by Athens defused a potential row.

June: ­ Education reform gets the finger

Students began sit-ins on June 3 at 182 university departments and 60 technical colleges across the country, to protest against reforms the government think tank, the National Council for Education (ESYP), had unveiled.

Education Minister Marietta Yannakou said after a cabinet meeting on June 13 that she would delay the tabling of her reform proposals, originally scheduled to be discussed in parliament in June. Instead, she said, they would be tabled in September. The delay came as students escalated their protests on the streets of the capital.

On June 21 Yannakou wrested some of the initiative away from students when she unveiled 30 pages of detailed reform proposals for discussion. The most important were term limits on perpetual students who fail to graduate, softening the asylum of campuses from police, introducing greater pluralism into course textbooks and reducing party influence in the election of rectors.

But barely a week later as many as 10,000 people protested against the proposals in rallies outside the education ministry in downtown Athens and at Lagonissi in southern Attica, where Yannakou was addressing education ministers from the OECD countries (photo). Pasok joined the anti-reform movement, but added little substance to the dialogue it called for.

The Vodafone scandal went out with a whimper, not a culprit. Prosecutor Ioannis Diotis ruled on June 21 that the death by hanging of Vodafone employee Costas Tsalikidis was a suicide, not a murder. And the final report from the Authority for Privacy in Telecommunications a week later said merely that the Authority possessed evidence to contribute towards the revelation of the perpetrators, but named no-one. The Authority would impose a 76 million euro fine on Vodafone in December.

Dora Bakoyannis got off to an unpromising start with Turkey. She and her Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul (photo) signed confidence-building measures in Istanbul on June 10 designed to stop incidents like the collision of military aircraft in reconnaissance missions. They extended a summer moratorium on military exercises. Four days later, the Turkish foreign ministry declared the agreement unenforceable. 

The governor of Korydallos prison, Greece's largest, along with two officers and three guards were suspended after a helicopter was allowed to make off with two high-security inmates on June 4. Nikos Palaiokostas and Alket Rizai were serving sentences for kidnapping and manslaughter, respectively. 

The nation was shocked to hear that five primary school students in Veroia confessed to killing 11-year-old, Georgian-born Alex Meshiesvili. The bullying incident gone awry had taken place on February 3.

July: ­ Education reform on hold

Athens University rector George Babiniotis published a three-page letter on July 4, calling for dialogue from scratch on education reform. Two days later a meeting of the rectors' council seemed to waver on their support for reforms, which they had originally backed in May. 

In an interview with the Athens News on July 14, Thanos Veremis, head of the National Council for Education (ESYP), said Babiniotis may be undermining Yannakou because he wants her job. He squarely accused the Left Coalition and the communist party of fomenting resistance to reform among students. Babiniotis told this newspaper that dialogue from scratch would broaden the debate to include administrative and academic autonomy for universities. 

Public Works Minister George Souflias smuggled the Acheloos river diversion scheme into the land registry bill. Environmental groups vowed to challenge the scheme in court.

Greece organised some of the first evacuations from Lebanon in the face of an Israeli military onslaught. Fifty-three people were driven by coach to Damascus and flown out on Olympic Airlines on July 15. Eighty people followed the same route the following day. But as Israel bombed the overland route to Syria, Greece turned to the sea. The frigate Psara, landing ship Ikaria and ferry Kriti II made the first naval evacuations to Cyprus. 

After spending the first half of July telling the EU that Greece needs help policing the Aegean against illegal immigrants, Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras told parliament that Greece was full and had no room for more immigrants. "I believe we are at the end of our tether, " he said. He released figures showing that Greece has issued almost 600,000 residence permits to non-EU nationals, with a further 150,000 in the works. 

The head of the armed forces, Panagiotis Hinofotis, visited Turkey on July 26 - the first such visit since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. He and his Turkish counterpart, Hilmi Ozkok, apparently discussed confidence-building measures, perhaps trying to salvage what Bakoyannis and Gul could not. The previous day Greece announced that it will spend a staggering 26.7 billion euros on arms over the next decade. 

August: ­ Fire!

During the evening of August 21 several fires broke out simultaneously in the Halkidiki peninsula (photo), leading many to suspect arson. The likely culprit, however, was a lightning storm, as the fires started in places inaccessible to vehicles and probably not ripe for development ­ the usual motive for arson. 

That remoteness also meant that fire engines could not prevent winds from whipping up the flames into a wildfire. Thousands of tourists were evacuated, while several firefighting planes struggled in vain to keep the fire in check. The fires destroyed 4,000 hectares of pine forest, and about 3,000 hectares of shrubland. An estimated 6,000 beehives and 35,000 olive and other fruit-bearing trees were destroyed. 

The agricultural damage was much worse in Mani, where multiple fires started up on the same day near Gytheio. The area's prefect estimated the burned land at 10,000 hectares, including 215,000 olive trees.
Greece said it had evacuated over 2,000 people from Lebanon, including 400 Greeks. The foreign ministry said on August 16 that it was considering contributing to the new UN-led peace force in Lebanon of 15,000, even though the rules of engagement were unclear. 

September: ­ A bribery plot curdles

A poll showed the government ahead of the opposition by about three points as the prime minister extolled his financial achievements at the Thessaloniki International Fair on September 9. Karamanlis said he would follow a zero tolerance policy on corruption, but just two days later he faced his biggest corruption scandal.
The head of the development ministry's competitiveness committee, Panayotis Adamopoulos, who is supposed to monitor open competition in the marketplace, was arrested on charges of soliciting a bribe. Adamopoulos was accused of offering dairy giant Mevgal relief from a 24.48 million euro fine for forming a cartel with other dairy companies to beat down the price at which they bought milk from farmers. In return, Adamopoulos and middlemen would allegedly have received a tenth of the amount in kickbacks. 

The scandal was blown open when police arrested a grain merchant, Constantine Konstantinidis, on September 11. He was receiving a payment of 200,000 euros, apparently on behalf of Adamopoulos, from Mevgal officials in a staged sting operation. Mevgal says it blew the whistle on the racket by going to the development ministry after Konstantinidis solicited the bribe. But Adamopoulos and Konstantinidis later said it was Mevgal that made the offer first. 

Secondary school teachers protested in sympathy with university students against tertiary education reform, kicking off the autumn protest season on September 20. They later went on strike for a 50 percent pay rise. That, and November sit-ins by students, shut down schools for six weeks at the beginning of the year.
The newly elected rectors of Greece's top universities told the Athens News Paideia supplement that they agree with some proposed government reforms ­ such as removing party influence from the election of rectors ­ but also want greater academic and administrative autonomy, and more money. 

A Kappa Research poll found 55 percent of Greeks saying that Yannakou's reforms were in the wrong direction, whereas 59 percent had agreed with them in January. Yannakou postponed tabling the reforms until after the local elections in October.

Dora Bakoyannis used her moment on the world stage to push for Turkish recognition of Cyprus ­ a point which the European Union had increasingly been rallying around for most of 2006. Bakoyannis was in New York for a UN Security Council vote on whether to apply sanctions against Iran for missing an August 31 deadline to stop enriching uranium. Greece was chairing the meeting during a rare stint as Council member. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Karamanlis gave what was hoped to be final impetus to the Bourgas-Alexandroupoli oil pipeline project on September 4. The scheme would generate some tens of millions of euros a year for Greece. Putin was accompanied by a deputy defence minister and the head of Russia's arms exports clearing house. They began a sales pitch for Russian hardware including fighter planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. 

October: ­ Local elections

New Democracy comfortably held on to the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki in the first round of local elections on October 15, but the Piraeus seat went to the popular former basketball player and Pasok candidate Panayotis Fassoulas. By the end of the second round of voting on October 22, blue prefectures outnumbered green by 30 to 24, meaning that New Democracy defended its 2002 ranking. 

Socialist leader George Papandreou put his foot in it when he prematurely interpreted the results as a "political upset" for New Democracy. His main rival for party leadership accused him in an October 23 political council meeting of mishandling things. Papandreou accused Venizelos of "hypocrisy", which brought the backlash "don't address me in an insolent manner". 

October ended in tragedy for a British family. Neil Shepherd and his partner Ruth Beatson (photo, R) were found sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning in a bungalow of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel on the morning of the 26th. Shepherd's children, seven-year-old Christianne and six year-old Robert, were found dead. The Corfu prosecutor charged the hotel manager and five others with manslaughter through negligence. 

The Greek air accident investigator, Akrivos Tsolakis, delivered his final report on the Helios crash. Flight 522 fell killing all 121 people on board in August 2005 because the cabin pressure mechanism had been switched to manual rather than auto, he told journalists. That led to a gradual depressurisation and unconsciousness among passengers and crew. The full extent of the findings was not made public, so it was not known who left the switch in the wrong position. Certainly, the pilots failed to notice it before takeoff. 

November: ­ Local adjustments

About 900 of the country's 3,000-odd secondary schools voted not to start the school year and instead sit in on their schools in sympathy with their teachers who were striking for a pay rise. One of those sit-ins, which were unsupervised by any authority and were not forcibly ended by the government, led to the alleged rape of a Bulgarian girl by schoolmates in Aliveri, on the island of Evia. Four Greek boys were charged. Andreas Karamanos, the general secretary of the education ministry, said the decision not to intervene on the sit ins was political. 

The Athens Classic Marathon took place on November 5, with a motorcyclist leading the front-runners down a wrong path shortly after the start of the race, and then rejoining them with the main body of runners. If that wasn't enough to annul the race, officials later discovered that the starting and finishing clocks were out of synch by 38 seconds. Better luck next year, perhaps. 

New parking rules were enforced in Athens in a somewhat haphazard manner. Five and a half thousand parking bays were created for residents and visitors, with the second group having to pay. It was unclear, at first, how residents were to identify themselves, because enforcement began before applications were processed. In addition, the city did not assign enough spaces to residents, and reserved too many spots for politicians, VIPs and the handicapped. Despite the problems, though, the scheme seemed to have had a good net effect, and was to be extended. 

A Proastiakos train came decoupled on the night of November 14, leaving 50 passengers in its rear car stationary on the track for 40 minutes before the driver realised the problem and came back for them. The incident on Greece's newest piece of track and rolling stock (both dating to 2004) raised serious concerns about the safety consciousness of Hellenic Railways. More accidents in December, and data showing Hellenic Railways to be a top offender in the European Union, cast further doubt on the company, which creates the state's biggest company deficits. 

An Agrinio-area sheep farmer confessed to killing five hunters, aged 17-33, for using his land on November 25. Dionysis Foukas and the hunters had had a long-standing dispute.

Pope Benedict XVI met with Patriarch Vartholomeos I in Istanbul on November 30, in a boost to the beleaguered Orthodox leader. Benedict called for greater religious freedom in a country where minorities are not well regarded and their assets are seized by the state. 

Greece refused to take possession of a German-made submarine because it listed by up to 45 degrees in high seas. The Papanikolis controversy never made it to arbitration, a gruelling process for both sides. Manufacturer ThyssenKrupp allegedly agreed to fix the problem. 

December: ­ Labour woes return

A simmering labour dispute at the nation's ports became increasingly noticeable, as thousands of containers piled up at terminals in Athens and Thessaloniki. A few hundred workers slowed down their efforts to come just short of a strike, when the government said it would re-examine hard-won benefits and bonuses. The dock workers, who earn average salaries after benefits of 96,000 euros a year, are in ongoing talks with the merchant marine ministry and their employer, the Piraeus Port Authority, which the ministry wants to privatise. The slowdown cost the PPA about six million euros in lost business. 

Another chronic labour front was won by the government when it passed legal amendments through parliament to the work rules enjoyed at OTE. The changes will theoretically make it easier for management to promote on merit rather than seniority, hire outside management talent and provide raises at its own discretion. 

Figures released at the end of the year suggested that New Democracy had succeeded in reducing unemployment to 8.3 percent in the third quarter, from 9.2 percent for the whole of 2004. GSEE analysis was that 70 percent of the new jobs were part time or temporary. Eurostat figures showed that unemployment was highest in northern Greece and among the young. In the cross section, nearly one in two people aged 15-24 in western Macedonia are unemployed.

Public Works Minister George Souflias, who earlier in the year pushed through legal amendments to finish the Acheloos river diversion, threw environmentalists for a loop on December 6 when he said he was increasing the number of environmental inspectors and slapping fines on two notoriously illegal quarries in Markopoulo, in eastern Attica. There was no official explanation for Souflias' sudden concern with the environment. 

In a followup to the pope's meeting with the patriarch, Archbishop Christodoulos travelled to the Vatican for his own meeting on December 14. The visit reciprocated that of the late John Paul II to Athens in 2001, accelerating the rapprochement of the eastern and western churches.

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