COMMENT

Turning the page of corruption

A growing body of evidence underscores the pervasiveness of graft and corruption in Greece?s state apparatus. Corruption became a habit and, particularly after the 1980s, it spread across the country like a virus. In fact, corruption was widely justified as a legitimate means of redistributing wealth.

As long as Greece was able to borrow, corruption was often seen as an ally rather than as an obstacle. Most of us became accustomed to this ailing state of affairs -- like a person who has lived in a wet and filthy environment for too long and who is no longer bothered by the smell.

It?s not just a case of big kickbacks, as many of us like to believe in a bid to duck the hard truths. Fraud in subsidies, in welfare benefits, at the tax office, at the town planning office, was in fact as damaging as the kickbacks in ammunition programs, in medical procurements and public works.

Many went as far as to justify ?small corruption? in the name of ?big corruption.? ?Come on, everybody benefits, why shouldn?t we?? became the pseudo-socialistic way of whitewashing our own wrongdoing. I often hear people complaining about those money-squandering politicians. But we have to think of our own misdeeds: the employees at the IKA social security fund in Kallithea, taking sick leave for no real reason, and so on. These people were our next-door neighbors and relatives, not the members of some exotic caste that can serve as our scapegoats.

How can you change all that? It certainly won?t be easy. Because it?s a question of leadership, a question of institutions and a question of privilege.

It?s a question of leadership because the quality of officials at the top echelons of power leaves a lot to be desired. It?s a question of institutions because graft and corruption can only be fought using detached mechanisms, the kind that are facing fierce resistance from within. And, finally, it is a question of privilege because it?s extremely hard to change the mentality and the manner in which the system has operated for the past two generations.

How can you stop an employee from receiving a bribe to speed up a case, after he has seen his salary decline? How can you inspire a new generation of employees to change their attitude when unionists and veterans of the system oppose transparency in the name of a supposedly patriotic, anti-bailout campaign?

It will take a big struggle to turn the page. The political system must rebuild the state and crack down on corruption. The parties could, for example, agree to appoint an experienced and unbiased ?tzar? to overhaul key state mechanisms. Our European partners are willing to offer the know-how but the task, no doubt, requires a leading figure who can see it through. There are solutions, but we must make sure they are not sabotaged by party activists and misguided skeptics who see conspiracy theories behind everything.

Still, some steps are being made. One striking change, for instance, is that employees are no longer willing to tolerate pressure from political superiors who wish to advance their own interests. This is one of the positive effects of this crisis. We are not here talking about that special class of protected oligarchs who continue to behave as if nothing has changed and with the certainty that regardless of what happens, they will continue to operate with immunity from the law. It?s the same people who are pushing the country out of the eurozone and back to the drachma -- in a world where they can behave as the real bosses. And it?s the same people who are resisting pressure to reform and calls for EU supervision because they know that this will make them irrelevant.

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