Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Judges decry manipulation by government, media

Greece's top court on administrative matters, the Council of State, says it is being manipulated as it considers the constitutionality of the Syriza-led government's laws licensing national broadcasters. 

Justice minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos said yesterday he will look into "possible illegal acts" by one of the judges considering the case, following media revelations that he was involved in a sex scandal. 

Media over the weekend claimed the judge had a "special relationship" with a woman who was applying to the National College of Judges, and was subsequently admitted to the Council of State. Sunday newspaper To Vima and news website Zougla on Friday leaked erotic emails and telephone conversations suggesting the two were having an affair. 

But it was the revelation of the name and face of the judge in question by Avgi, the official Syriza party newspaper, that especially irked the judiciary, given Greece's strict privacy laws in the absence of a conviction. 

"We are observing with horror and extreme concern the level to which public morals are sliding," said the Union of Judges and Prosecutors in a statement yesterday, implying that the government was behind the leak. "The private life of a man, a judge of recognised reputation, is intercepted, distorted, and fed to the lurking yellow press and that part of public opinion it moulds, a sick phenomenon connected to the methods of fascist regimes."

Avgi responded with a front page statement today: "Predators are feigning prey. Representatives of the bankrupt system of corruption attack the government and Avgi, but their ulterior motive is to manipulate the Council of State and the law licensing television networks." 

The ruling Syriza party caused enormous controversy in September when it auctioned just four national television licenses that will operate on the country's new, digital broadcast technology. It awarded two of the licenses to new entrants into the media landscape. Just two licenses went to existing analogue nationwide broadcasters (Skai, Antenna), while six (Mega, Alpha, Epsilon, Star, Makedonia, Art) were eliminated. 

The European Commission threatened to sue Greece in the European Court because the government did not conduct this auction through the Radio and Television Council, the competent oversight body. The RTC and some non-licensees challenged the auction but the Council of State initially upheld it. 

This week Syriza caused further controversy by presenting a bill that would have essentially eliminated the role of the Radio and Television Council in overseeing broadcasters, and obliged non-licensees to shut down. That bill was withdrawn after the parliament Speaker said the government failed to follow proper legislative procedure, by refusing to discuss the RTC's objections in committee, and by failing to post the bill online for public consultation first. 

The government's efforts to ram the bill through parliament, and its apparent indifference to the taunting of a senior judge, have backfired. 

"In their efforts to influence the outcome of the case, they are attacking judges and cheapening justice in general," said the opposition New Democracy party in a statement yesterday. 

The government points out that it is the first to charge broadcasters a fee for the public airwaves. It also claims to be cleaning up cozy relationships between the media and politicians. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Greece’s last dictator laid to rest

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

Stylianos Pattakos (L) stands next to Yiorgos Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos (R) 

ATHENS, Greece - The last of Greece’s former dictators was laid to rest on Tuesday on his native island of Crete. Brigadier-general Stylianos Pattakos, one of a group of military officers who overthrew Greek democracy in 1967, died on Saturday at the age of 104. He had served the regime as interior minister and first deputy prime minister.

“He was liked, especially in Crete, because he was a people’s man,” says Athens University history professor Thanos Veremis. “He would drink his wine and say his piece and people would say, ‘he’s one of us.’ He did the regime’s public relations. He was always cutting ribbons and inaugurating things.” 

“People would tell lots of jokes about him,” remembers dance critic Mirka Dimitriadis. “But people also said, ‘go tell your troubles to Pattakos. He’ll find a way to take care of the matter.’ He was the softest touch among the coup plotters.”

On April 21st 1967, Pattakos and a group of colonels ordered their armoured brigades out of barracks. They seized parliament and national television, and arrested the centre-left government of the day as well as leading opposition politicians. The reason for suspending democracy, they said, was to prevent Greece from sliding into communism.

Greece had only 18 years previously fought a civil war in which the communist party had tried to seize power. Even though it was still outlawed in 1967, communists and their sympathisers, it was feared, would infiltrate the state through the centre-left. This led to the darkest aspect of the dictatorship – the arrest and torture of communists, or their exile onto islands until they agreed to sign a renunciation of the communist party.

Pattakos’ efforts to put a human face on these practices often descended into farce. Film producer Petros Raptis, who served five years of exile on the island of Leros, remembers the day when Pattakos helicoptered in to address its communist inmates.

“As soon as he landed everyone cleared out of the yard and went indoors,” says Raptis, who went unnoticed as he changed a light bulb. “He was left to lecture the police guard, who were on his side to begin with. The only communist left listening to him was an inmate half-crazed through torture, who stood in the yard looking daggers at him. His look was so murderous and intense that Pattakos was thrown off balance and stopped his speech. ‘You there! What are you looking at?’ he demanded. ‘Go to hell you masturbator!’ replied the inmate. Whereupon Pattakos gave up and left.”

The colonels “kept the economy in a relatively good shape until the oil crisis of 1973,” says Veremis. “After that inflation skyrocketed.” Another event that year was key to undermining their authority. Beginning in February, students at Athens University and the Athens Polytechnic had staged sit-ins to demand free elections of student representatives to university bodies. The Polytechnic built a radio transmitter and broadcast anti-regime messages, attracting thousands of people to the first anti-dictatorship rallies in central Athens. A navy mutiny was quashed in May, but not before the destroyer Velos defected to Italy during a NATO exercise. The colonels eventually panicked. On November 17, they sent tanks through the gates of the Polytechnic and raided the campus. The deaths of at least two-dozen students and sympathisers destroyed their credibility as benign dictators.

Prime Minister George Papadopoulos, in particular, was fatally weakened, because he had always promised that the dictatorship was temporary. As early as 1968, Papadopoulos had promised that, “Greece, the country in which democracy was born, will shortly acquire a regime of true working democracy through the review of basic articles of the constitution, to be ratified by popular referendum.”

A week after the repression of the student revolt a hardliner Brigadier-general, Dimitris Ioannidis, overthrew Papadopoulos and Pattakos in an internal coup. He would last less than a year, and his fall would be disastrous for Greece. In July 1974, Ioannidis attempted to replace Archbishop Makarios as leader of Cyprus by coup. Makarios escaped, but Greece’s intervention gave Turkey a legal pretext for invasion of the island, which remains divided to this day. Greece failed to mobilise a defence for Cyprus and Ioannidis resigned.

Pattakos and his fellow conspirators were sentenced to death, but were allowed to serve life terms instead. In an interview with the nationalist newspaper Stohos at the age of 95, Pattakos remained unrepentant. “Is there a dictator in the world who walks on the street or takes public transport without a security detail? This is what I do, and my only security is God. No one ever came up to me to tell me I brought him to harm and to knock me down.”

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Greece flags

This book review was published by the Times Literary Supplement

You cannot read Game Over without a sense of nostalgia for the relatively innocent European Union that was swept away by the Eurozone crisis. Assumptions of solidarity, unity and convergence between the member states have been abolished. The process of bailing out Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain may have built contingency mechanisms that have defended the Eurozone against market speculation; but it has been at least as noticeable for punishing weaker economies with austerity and recession, concentrating more power and wealth in the hands of one member, Germany, and shaking the political centre across the continent.

For Greece, six years of financial and fiscal oversight by the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund have brought a cumulative loss of 27 percent of its economy, an unemployment rate stuck at 24 percent, and political instability. Since 2009, governments have averaged 17 months between elections.

Perhaps no one emerged as traumatised from this train wreck as the author, former Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou, who was defenestrated from politics in 2012 after a meteoric rise. It was he who drafted Greece’s first bailout agreement with creditors in May 2010, and became its voice and face. Game Over is his apology, in the Socratic sense.

Although it spans the length of the Greek economic crisis, most of Game Over is devoted to his time in office, from October 2009, when the socialist Pasok party came to power, until June 2011, when he was forced to resign under popular discontent with austerity.

In it, Papaconstantinou flicks away the most touted arguments against his medicine: that Greece could have borrowed cheaply from Russia, China or the Arabs once it found itself priced out of markets; that he didn’t drive a tough enough bargain; and the conspiracy theory that his government artificially inflated Greece’s 2009 deficit of 15.4 percent as a pretext for inviting the IMF.

Papaconstantinou argues plausibly that any government would likely have suffered the fate of the socialists, who fell from 44 percent of the popular vote in October 2009 to 13 percent in May 2012.

They inherited a €36bn deficit and managed to cut it by a third in the first year. That wasn’t enough to convince markets, which felt that Greece had a long road of market and administrative reform ahead, not to mention further cost-cutting. Having spent his first six months in office convincing the Eurozone to put a “loaded gun” on the table in the form of Greece’s first, €110bn bridging loan, Papaconstantinou now set about trying to convince them to help Greece restructure its debt.

This was because austerity was shrinking the economy twice as fast as predicted. Debt was rising unsustainably as a proportion of GDP, and markets were afraid they’d never recoup their money.

Debt restructuring was a much more difficult task, because the European Central Bank, a key creditor, was against asking financial institutions to accept losses on sovereign bonds so soon after they had been bailed out of losses to American banks. Germany was also against restructuring because it feared that once Greece had abrogated its sovereign signature, markets would bet on other weak Eurozone economies doing the same. Soon, the entire Eurozone would be under attack.

That attack came anyway. From the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2011, as Papaconstantinou and his Eurozone colleagues fruitlessly tossed responsibility for the Eurozone’s falling credibility across the table, first Ireland, then Portugal had to be bailed out. The Eurozone had to act as one, Papaconstantinou argued, with wealthier members effectively underwriting poorer ones. Time and again he was sent away with instructions to slash expenditures further and find new sources of revenue. In the absence of a fiscal union that would enable wealth transfers from stronger members, it was Greece that would have had to convince markets that its word was its bond.

Yet Greece was not in a position to convince anyone that its heart was either in reform or fiscal frugality, because a powerful conservative opposition pledged to overturn austerity policies as soon as it came to power. Trapped between this and a Eurozone that could offer markets no further reassurance, the socialists were doomed. Prime Minister George Papandreou abdicated in favour of a former central banker whom the conservatives would also back. An ensuing conservative administration would succumb after 30 months of austerity. The ruling leftwing Syriza party, which rose on a platform as unrealistic or insincere as Samaras’ to rid Greece of austerity, is also floundering. Anyone might think that Greek politicians would eventually learn that unilateralism didn’t work, but they never did.

Papaconstantinou apportions blame to himself for not doing more sooner to cut the extraordinary waste of the Greek state; to the Greek political system for its opportunism and complete lack of responsibility; and to his own government for allowing him to shoulder the political cost almost alone.

Greece’s psychoses have undeniably played the biggest part in keeping the country a briar patch for investors. But Greece’s “reluctant rescuers”, as Papaconstantinou calls the Eurozone’s leaders, played their part, too. France’s president, Nicholas Sarkozy, set a positive initial tone in March 2010, saying, “If Greece needs our help, we will be there.” But Germany wasn’t going to allow France to run the Eurozone.

“The lesson we learned to our cost,” says Papaconstantinou, “was that nothing mattered much until Berlin made up its mind; and until it convinced everyone else to follow suit – on its terms.” German hegemony meant that the silver bullet of federal bonds was off the table. Greece’s first bailout was conceived as a series of bilateral loans with other Eurozone members. It meant that when a permanent rescue fund for distressed Eurozone governments was finally agreed to in late 2010, it drew the line at protecting private bondholders. This re-triggered market runs on not only Greek but also Irish and Portuguese bonds, eventually forcing those countries off the market and into bailout loans. 

The folly of this policy was demonstrated in 2012, when private holders of Greek debt were forced to accept losses of more than 50 percent on €100bn in bonds. Unfortunately, most of that debt was owned by Greek banks, Greek pension funds and Greek universities – not the rash hedge fund speculators and investment bankers Merkel was trying to hold accountable. The write-down crippled them, forcing the Greek government to borrow more to bail them out and adding to an already unsustainable debt. Finally, Germany’s power of veto on the rest of the Eurozone has meant that debt rescheduling for Greece remains off the table even now, despite repeated promises to the contrary.

Game Over exposes Greek politicians’ hubris in believing they could use a national crisis for political gain; but it also lays bare a Eurozone driven by markets and a northern bloc of competitive economies making sure they lost none of their advantage to the south.

Alpha TV boss says Syriza tried to buy him out

Dimitris Kontominas, owner of Alpha TV station, appeared on his network's flagship morning show to reveal that Syriza offered to buy him out through a middleman. "Their man," he says, suggesting the disgraced TV license bidder Yiannis Kalogritsas, apparently told him, "you'll give me 51 percent" of the network. Kontominas continues: "I said, 'what else do you want?' He says, "'I want four political shows a week.' And I said, 'do you want anything else?' He said, 'I also want to control the political part of the news bulletin.'" Kontominas says he dismissed the middleman with the words, "The network's not for sale to third parties." Kontominas was not successful in his bid for one of four national television licenses, despite the fact that he bid 61mn euros, more than Skai television, which secured a license for 43mn euros. The spilling of this little exchange is further evidence that Syriza's policy of changing the television licensing regime is backfiring badly. Recent polls have suggested that few Greeks believe the new licensing law was aimed at instilling ethical principle or bringing network-owning oligarchs to heel.

In a separate development today, defence minister Panos Kammenos attempted to deny that Kalogritsas was the government's man. In an interview with the state news agency ANA, Kammenos, who is also the leader of Independent Greeks party, said Kalogritsas attempted to broker a broader coalition between his party, ANEL, and the alliance of conservative New Democracy and socialist Pasok, before Syriza came to power in January 2015.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Syriza teargasses pensioners

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

ATHENS, Greece – Riot police teargassed a pensioners’ protest march on Monday, causing widespread outrage and embarrassing the government into banning the tactic in future.

“The Prime Minister called [Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos] Toskas and said he wants to solve this; he doesn’t want teargas used again,” spokesman Angelos Tsekeris told Al Jazeera. The ministry confirmed in a statement that, “the order has been given for any use of teargas to be forbidden in protests by workers and pensioners.” If adhered to, this would mark a reversal in police tactics not seen since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2010.

The pensioners were trying to gain access to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ office, known as Maximos House. The Pensioners’ Federation, which organised the march, says tempers frayed when the police blockaded the street on which Maximos House is located with buses and riot police. Television footage shows them rocking a police bus back and forth in an apparent effort to tip it over.

“We don’t like to have our road blocked. We like our marches to reach the place where we wish to protest,” the Federation’s president, Dimos Koumbouris, told Al Jazeera. “Why are they afraid of protesting pensioners? We weren’t going to storm into Maximos House. We had no such intention.  And why do they use those repressive techniques against workers and pensioners?

Increasing disillusionment on the street has stung the ruling leftwing Syriza party ever since it capitulated from its anti-austerity position in July last year, accepting a third, €86bn bailout loan under harsher terms than its predecessors. It was forced to axe €1.8bn in spending on pensions, and cut hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth more in a pension law passed last spring.

“The cuts that have happened over the years including by this government have broken us,” says Koumbouris, “cuts to primary pensions and supplementary pensions, cuts to covered medicines and healthcare costs, things we’ve been paying for all our lives.”

A recent survey by the United Pensioners’ Network, a social security watchdog, found that 45 percent of pensioners earn less than the €665 a month the National Statistical Service deems necessary to not be classified as “poor”. It also found that with unemployment above 23 percent, more than half of Greek households are now dependent in whole or in part on income from a pension. The Network estimates that pensions have fallen by between 20 and 50 percent during the crisis.

Pensioners were a key Syriza constituency when it first came to power in January 2015. The communist party, which was key to organising Monday’s protest as well as four public sector strikes in the past year, now revels in showing Syriza up as a pseudo-left party.

The political injury to Syriza seems to be enduring. An opinion poll published on Monday in Syriza’s mouthpiece, Avgi, said 90 percent of respondents were unhappy with the government’s performance, and 51 percent support an election just a year since the last one. 

On putting refugees on uninhabited Greek islands

Czech President Milos Zeman has suggested to the Financial Times that Greece absorb many of Europe's unwanted migrants by establishing colonies on uninhabited islands. (He said this while standing on the Greek island of Rhodes, in fact). He suggested that the Greeks might offset some of their debt against such services rendered to the EU. This is a bit rich coming from a country which a) contributed economic migrants to the EU when communism fell in 1990, b) supported the second Gulf War against the EU consensus in 2003, thus helping to destabilise the Middle East, creating the present refugee crisis, and c) revoked its relocation quota a month after being pitchforked into it, because of the Paris terrorist attacks in November last year. This is a triplicate of hypocrisy Poland and Hungary also subscribe to. Populists conveniently forget that Greece and Italy already rendered such services to Europe for years but were ignored when they raised the issue and told to process asylum applications under the Dublin II rules, which force the first EU country in which a refugee alights to assume responsibility. Only the refugee explosion of 2015 forced them to admit that the problem is larger than Greece and Italy, and that asylum applications had to be shared out. That, of course, is where the EU consensus was pushed too far and fell apart around the objections of Eastern Europe. Attempts to forge an EU immigration policy have never recovered from that. Now it appears that populists would be happy to turn southern EU into a buffer zone. So I suppose the idea of a two-speed Europe already has broad acceptance.