Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fiddling while Athens burns - Greek media's love affair with the political establishment shows no sign of ending

The best things in life are free

It's a measure of how far the Greek political system and its supporters in the local media are out of touch with the rest of the country that the recent uproar over the remarks by Jean Claude Juncker,  head of Euro Group that been the subject of some much air time and print columns during the last few days. According to an off the record remark made by Juncker in Washington a Greek prime minister told him that Greece was a country of corruption, a revelation on par with learning that the French eat rather a lot of cheese or that it can get awfully cold in Russia.

The fact that Greece has one of the highest corruption indices in the European Union or that the present PM, Giorgos Papandreou made much the same comment after taking power in 2009 seems to have been ignored by  the Greek political establishment and the country's media who went into a feeding frenzy in their attempts to identify which Greek PM had made such an outrageous statement. Kostas Simitis, head of the 2000-2004 PASOK run administration, Kostas Karamanlis, PM from 2004 till 2009 and finance minister Giorgos Papankonstantionou on behalf of current PM Giorgos Papandreou all rushed to say that they had said no such thing. (Juncker later made a statement saying that it was Giorgos Papandreou)

And so it has gone on, with endless speculation in the press as to exactly let the cat out of the bag. The fact that the Greek state is corrupt, of course comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone living in the country. Indeed Transparency International calculated that Greeks spent an average of 1355 euros in bribes in 2009.
Actually, the problem is not that the Greek political establishment turns a blind eye to corruption (see the Vatopedi land swap scandal) but rather everyone now knows. Worst of all, foreigners know just how venial Greek politicians are. How embarassing when one is putting one's best foot foward in Brussels, Strasburg or Washington that the rest of the world sees you as little more than a robber baron. For people as image conscience and ego driven as Greek politicans in power this comes as a terrible blow.

Perception, rather than reality is everything which is one of the reasons why the country is in such as mess. Why bother attempting to make difficult political decisions when all you need is a handful of IOUs and promises which you may or may not honour. Even now the opposition New Democract leader, Antonis Samaras is touring northern Greece in the run up to November's local elections giving his word to open factories, fund development and the like knowing full well that he would have no more financial freedom than the current PASOK administration to act. (The fact he was a cabinet minister in the previous government which ran up such huge debts seems to have slipped his mind at present).

Such a cavalier attitude to the truth also explains the chronic distrust of the average Greek concerning any promise politicians make. Indicative of this is the refusal of truck drivers to end recent industrial action despite promises by the government to discuss their demands. It wasn't until the proposals were put in writing that truckers agreed to stop strike action. Of course truck drivers know that even written reassurances mean little to politicians but it does give them a little less wiggle room.

But while the country's TV talking heads and their partners in crime and print have talked endlessly about what Juncker's statement means the country slides ever deeper into depression (both financial and psychological) with schools unable to pay fuel bills, hospitals running out of medical supplies and and an angry electorate bracing itself for a winter with 30% hikes in heating costs. For many patience is running out with the endless self - referential charade of the current political setup.

Just one more thing to consder, though when considering the role of corruption in the current financial debacle is that Iceland, whose per capita debt is even greater than Greece's, was ranked the world's 7th least corrupt government (Athens came in at 71) in 2008.

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