The Lagarde list crystal ball

By Nikos Konstandaras

The publication of findings of the judicial probe into the so-called Lagarde list of people and firms with accounts at an HSBC branch in Switzerland, which is expected on Friday, could have consequences far more serious than those feared by the officials who first handled the issue two years ago. With PASOK in the eye of the storm, at a time when it is a crucial member of the governing coalition, any revelations that will burden the once mighty party may threaten the government’s cohesion. At such a dangerous moment, then, it is inconceivable that the present handling of the issue should leave room for further suspicion.

How can citizens believe that what they hear regarding the list will be the truth? First, the list (which was given to Greece by Christine Lagarde when she was France’s finance minister) was lost; then, for two years, it drifted about, aimlessly and perhaps abridged; while Parliament debated noisily, it was published to great fanfare in a magazine, without anyone knowing whether it was the “real” list or not. Later we learned that the French would be sending us another “authentic” copy; a few weeks later, three state officials went to Paris to fetch it and prosecutors set about comparing the new list with the old one’s 2,000-or-so names. Meanwhile, rumors spread about hundreds (or perhaps just a handful) of names having been omitted from the first list; accusations of adulteration followed, as did calls for the political system to be demolished if the claims were true. By late last night, there was no official announcement that would, at last, show that the issue was being treated seriously.

Perhaps we will never be able to evaluate the Lagarde list for what it is: a catalog of names of people and companies who have – or had – an account at HSBC in Switzerland. These are not all the accounts held abroad by Greeks nor, of course, are they all illegal. Maybe some people will be called on to pay taxes for amounts that they cannot justify, while others will be left in peace at last.

From the start, the issue fueled citizens’ cynicism, from the way PASOK’s finance ministers and financial crimes squad leaders handled it to today’s officials – whose extreme caution, on the one hand, and delays, on the other, have allowed the spread of rumors, new leaks and the further undermining of confidence in the political system.

Whatever the list has been hiding, its contents would not have been so dangerous as the handling of the issue has proved. But people’s suspicions are based on a deep-rooted lack of trust. When everyone knows the level of tax evasion, while at the same time being called on to pay higher and higher taxes, no one believes waht they are told is true. And so the Lagarde list becomes another crystal ball, in which we look to see not what is there but what we expect to see.