Friday, 24 February 2006

Forging a Socialist Capitalism

Anna Diamantopoulou, Pasok shadow development minister, speaks to theAthens News

ANNA Diamantopoulou is a politician with a rare opportunity to see the economy from both its cooperative and its competitive sides. As European commissioner for employment and social affairs she focused on gender equality in the workplace and the problems of unemployment. She quit that job to run in the March 2004 general election. Now, as socialist deputy and shadow development minister, she must look at the economy from a business perspective. 

We met over coffee and cakes to discuss the ponderous social and economic reforms the conservative government is undertaking - reforms many blame the socialists for leaving undone in their last term in office.
Discussing policy is difficult for the socialist party - not just with journalists, but within the party itself. Pasok is riven by a fierce internal debate between reformists and traditional tax-and-spend socialists, which stymied reform efforts of prime minister Costas Simitis in 2000-2004, but "the former group is now definitely in the majority," Diamantopoulou says. We should even start to see the party begin to roll out a policy platform as the year wears on, she adds.

Still, the way her gaze drops to the tablecloth and her lips purse at the mention of Pasok's lack of a united front makes one wonder how confident she is in this prediction.

In the eyes of some, Pasok has even been hurt by the opposition friendly press since losing the last election. Newspapers sympathetic to the party have often outdone its soft-spoken president, George Papandreou, in criticism of the government.

Diamantopoulou deftly dismisses this as "the concerns of a newspaper editor with tomorrow's headline, rather than the concerns of a partly leader with the long term."

Diamantopoulou is a good spokesperson for Pasok for reasons substantive and aesthetic. She won a reputation in Brussels as a hard worker who both drove and inspired her staff to work hard by her side. She looks good at 46, one of very few women in Greek politics to have attained such high office so young - in fact one of very few politicians of either sex to have retained their figure. As we speak, her jet-black hair flies in a perfect oval around her curiously straight temples, which drop sheer to her jaw giving her an austere look. But Diamantopoulou also knows how to charm. Her smile flashes from out of nowhere in our banter, and when the subject turns to policy again disappears as fast as it came.

In the world of her ideas, the defence of socialist ideals stands supreme in an age when socialism has become indistinguishable from capitalism. Her efforts to redefine ideology are sometimes visible.

I put it to her that we cannot really afford not to ask Europeans to work until 66 or even 67, if that would save the world's most generous social security system from collapse.

"The problems of social security cannot be solved simply by working longer," she says. "You need parallel reforms in other areas such as labour policy, education policy. I remind you that the people who face the biggest difficulty finding work are the over-fifties. Can a 62-year-old shop assistant find work? Can a 58-year-old builder find work? These people aren't troubled by when they will retire, but by how they will manage to work continuously up until retirement."

Diamantopoulou is a socialist in the reformist mould, so she does not reject the need for change; but again and again she calls attention to its detail.

'Threshold of rights'

Banking is a case in point. The conservative government recently gave three state-controlled banks tacit agreement to join Greece's three biggest private banks in rejecting sectoral wage agreements with the umbrella union, OTOE. Diamantopoulou accepts that certain bank employees are among Greece's most privileged in terms of pay and benefits, but splits the issue between rights and privileges. 

"In a wage agreement you can come across privileges, and we certainly cannot support the privileges of some workers over others, particularly in an age of inequality and high unemployment," she says. But she also puts her foot down on the need for "a threshold of rights". 

The danger is that "smaller companies with no unions can make individual agreements with workers, lowering the bar of minimum rights, thus developing a new form of competition among companies, even banks, on the basis of labour." 

Diamantopoulou seems armed with a sound-bite length answer to almost any question. But she betrayed signs of a struggle when it came to education. 

The government recently appointed the chairman of its new assessment committee, which is to oversee a new and more objective quality assessment of public universities by the end of 2008. It is also planning to abolish the state monopoly on higher education and allow charitable trusts to create recognised colleges. 

"Someone could get a very expensive degree that is beyond someone else's reach," says Diamantopoulou, who won both her degrees - in civil engineering and regional development - from Greek state universities. I pointed out how alien this view sounds in the United States, where public and private universities coexist. 

"We should look at, say, Harvard, and see how a poorer student can get a scholarship or a student loan. A university should allow a student who does not come from a privileged background to have access. We need equal opportunities in education and life," she says passionately. "Tell him that he can either study for free because his father does not declare high income, or that he can pay off his student loan at age 50. Then students can go into life on an equal footing." 

In defending access to university, Diamantopoulou is perhaps mindful of her son. After the coffees are drained and the tape recorder switched off, she sparkles as she relates how Haridimos, aged 12, reacted to his first reading of miracles in religious education class. They lack equanimity, he said, since some people are healed and others not, and being prestidigitations they run contrary to reason. The nature and nurture of Haridimos, perhaps, tells us more about the mind of Anna Diamantopoulou than anything she says on the record.

Friday, 17 February 2006

Dora's Hour

Bakoyannis has shown a shrewdness for moving into channels previous vessels have dredged and widened. The foreign portfolio has been shaped as a potential antechamber for party leadership

The most important thing about the reshuffled cabinet is that with Dora Bakoyannis the country now stands a chance of having a strategic foreign policy, as opposed to mere management of foreign affairs.

Greece sorely needs to define its goals in the Balkans, on Cyprus and in the Aegean, and to start constructing the policy that will move it towards those goals over the long term. It also needs to put in place a set of goals for two of the world's biggest and fastest-growing economies, India and China; it needs to aggressively pursue the new energy relationship with Russia; and it needs a foreign minister who will put in appearances in the wider region - North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Bakoyannis made encouraging sounds in her brief inaugural address. She said that Greece needed to become a regional power, and a force for deeper European integration.

The conservatives under Bakoyannis' father, Kostas Mitsotakis, did not always prove adept at policy in 1990-1993. Allowing the church to form policy towards the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was a mistake Greece is still paying for. The early days of a crisis are usually the most promising time for a solution, and instead of solving its largest chronic missed opportunity, Cyprus, Mitsotakis gave Greece a second.

Just weeks back in power in April 2004, the conservatives, this time under Costas Karamanlis, watched a European strategy for Cyprus that took four years to build blow up in their hands.

It is now up to Bakoyannis to prove herself better than her father, her predecessor and her boss in the field. Foreign policy strategy takes time to form and execute, and needs a degree of cross-party consensus, so there is little time to be lost if the government is to show some success before the next election. Doing so will allow Karamanlis to challenge George Papandreou on his strongest suit.

Bakoyannis has shown a shrewdness for moving into channels previous vessels have dredged and widened. Dimitris Avramopoulos is the mayor who showed that national political capital could be won in local government. Had it not been for him, Bakoyannis would have been unlikely to seek the post even with the Olympics at hand.

The foreign ministership has been shaped as a potential antechamber for party leadership, after the career path of George Papandreou. His father created the position of alternate foreign minister for him, and through the dismissal of Theodore Pangalos and the accidental death of Yannos Kranidiotis he ascended to the top seat. Unfortunately he moved to the party leadership by arrangement with Kostas Simitis two months before the 2004 election - too late to avert an electoral disaster in the making since 2000. Although it is early days yet, the thought is irresistible that Bakoyannis might end up striking a similar consensual arrangement to follow Karamanlis. It is irresistible because in a country where a small number of families rules the political scene, confrontation is rare and back room deals the norm.

Finally, Bakoyannis brings to the job an attribute all her own: she has the political standing at home to be a more credible diplomatic interlocutor abroad than Petros Molyviatis could ever be.

There are also dangers to the Dora-Costas cohabitation. Bakoyannis is not shy about disagreeing with the party line, and Karamanlis has shown that he does not brook disobedience (he excommunicated George Souflias while in opposition, for breaking party ranks over a socialist economy bill).

For this reason, bonding on an immediate trip to Berlin and Dublin was an intelligent move on Karamanlis' part. Dora's first foreign language is German, and introducing Greece's first female foreign minister to Germany's first female chancellor was clever PR. Bakoyannis added a flair infectious even on Karamanlis, who usually moves abroad in a cloud of sulky mirthlessness.

The other portfolio that gains most from this reshuffle is the economy. Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis and Development Minister George Souflias both made bold statements on the government's reform programme shortly after their swearing-in.
But while economic reforms are well underway, Bakoyannis has much to do from scratch: Build strong ties with European Union partners, negotiate the briar-patch that is Balkan politics, especially with Kosovo talks in process and a name settlement with Former Yugoslav Macedonia around the corner, rekindle relations with Turkey left fallow for two years and above all re-start the political process for a Cyprus settlement. Whatever the ailments of her job, ennui is not among them.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Who Is Audacious Wins

Never before has a government been revealed to have been spied upon as comprehensively as the Greek government was in the nine months from June 2004 to 8 March 2005. The earlier date is when the first of more than a dozen mobile telephones used to listen in on Greek officials' conversations were activated. The second date is when Vodafone says it removed software from its mainframe computers that diverted the conversations to the spy phones. 

The activation, coming just before the Olympics, and the targets of the surveillance, senior people in the defence, public order and foreign ministries as well as the entire committee overseeing security for the Olympics, strongly suggest that the surveillance stemmed from either an industrial or a governmental concern with Olympic security.

The surveillance story appeared in Athens daily Ta Nea on February 2, and on the same day the government held a well-organised press conference to explain what happened.

The orchestration of the tri-ministerial press event was in sharp contrast to the government's reaction to its last public order scandal in December and January.

Following allegations from Pakistani immigrants last year that they had been abducted and violently interrogated, Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis started with a flat denial, only to end up telling a parliamentary committee on January 11 that the government swept 5,432 immigrants off the streets and questioned them. The government, he said, had acted on a long list of names suspected of involvement in the July 7 bombings in London, provided by British intelligence.

MI6 also provided a series of Greek mobile phone numbers, Voulgarakis revealed, which had been in contact with one of the July 7 bombers. The numbers could not be traced to individuals because they were cardphones.

These are connections that, contrary to monthly subscriptions, can be purchased without formality at a kiosk, their units pre-paid, obviating the need for a name, address and credit card.

Ironically, the 14 or so mobile telephones used to eavesdrop on Greek officials in 2004-5 were also card-phones, and could similarly not be traced despite a ten-month preliminary investigation. The anonymous card-phone emerges as the tool of choice for eavesdroppers, whether they are acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation (July 7) or a government or other legal entity (a possibility that cannot be ruled out in the Greek scandal).

This raises serious issues with the freedom the marketplace offers in the form of subscription-free connections. The ability to own a telephone connection without a name and address, made possible only in recent years by mobile telephony, should be re-examined. The fact that mobile phones act as tracking devices as they emit a constant pulse to their nearest network antenna when they are on may not be enough to render them traceable to their owners, the Greek experience has shown.

The second issue that needs to be examined is mobile companies' legal obligations to security, procedure and confidentiality in an age when politicians, diplomats, military officers and business people worldwide discuss matters of great moment, or even national security, on commercial networks. If their conversations can be tapped by hackers or corrupt engineers, then stronger safeguards need to be adopted.

For instance, procedures could be developed in dealing with breaches of security. We may never learn why Vodafone's CEO in Greece, George Koronias, de-activated the offending spy software more than 48 hours before informing the government. The fact that he did so deprived authorities of a possible lead. Koronias could have made a simple telephone call to the public order minister's office as early as Monday 7 March, when he had confirmation of the breach, instead of informing the minister on Friday. With hindsight, such breaches of company security should not be treated as purely corporate issues, but public order ones as well.

Meanwhile, the key questions surrounding the Greek scandal remain unanswered: Who placed the software on Ericsson's mainframe, and how did they come by such expert knowledge of Ericsson's software? Was the software hacked onto the mainframe from the outside, or installed from the inside? And why was the software shut down so long before the government was informed about it? Koronias' assertion that the security of Vodafone's four million clients was supreme simply does not make sense. Only 100 people were being spied upon, not four million, and Koronias knew this.
The prosecutorial investigation underway may never reveal the ultimate question of who placed the spy software inside Vodafone, but it can lead to legal reforms that will make it difficult to repeat the mistakes of this case.