There are three anecdotes on my mind that illustrate in the clearest way how dangerous it is to toy with institutions in order to secure a position for yourself or a crony.
1. I once wrote a commentary protesting the fact that nothing was being done to remove illegally parked cars from a certain central Athenian thoroughfare. The next day I got a call from the then traffic police chief, who said that if my problem was that my license plates had been removed because I had parked illegally then he would be happy to return them, just as he did for other well-known individuals. Sure, he could have made things easy for me but his call showed just how neglected the city is when such a high-ranking official thinks this way.
2. Again a few years ago, I received a visit from a high-ranking employee at the Finance Ministry. He confided that he regularly received memos from the office of the minister ordering him to take a name off some list or to re-examine a case that had already been investigated. He admitted that if this practice continued, revenues would suffer, but added that he was not adverse to “tidying up” a case here or there, just not on such a scale. I tried to look into what he had told me further, but met with a wall of silence. When I eventually turned to a higher authority for some answers, he brushed it off as hyperbole and ill-meant rumors.
3. While investigating the Imia crisis in 1996, I came across a high-ranking officer who made me feel something between pity and rage for how clearly ignorant he was about the issue (don’t get me wrong, I also met a lot of excellent officers who were doing their job professionally and without thought for their own well-being). I pushed him hard and then he broke down crying and admitted that he was not cut out for the job but had got in thanks to his political connections. It was one of those moments when I was thankful that things did not turn out as badly as they could have given the circumstances.
These three incidents came to mind because I have reached the conclusion that the reason we are where we are today is that we toyed with the country’s institutions and completely debased their roles. There are, unfortunately, some officials who continue to do this, as though institutions are there to serve their personal interests – just like the minister who wrote off tax fines in order to advance his career, contributing to the collapse of the system, or the police officer who saw his job as serving his bosses’ clientelist system even at the expense of the city and its residents, and the incapable, cowardly military officer who found himself in a crucial position on the night of the Imia crisis and was frightened by the mere idea of having to make an important decision.
These games do not come cheap and in many ways are self-perpetuating as successors usually follow the lead of their predecessors.