NICHOLAS GAGE *

A visionary leader, appreciated too late

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Nicholas Gage (center) welcomes Constantinos Mitsotakis (front left) and his wife Marika (front, second right) to his village Lia, on the outskirts of the northwestern town of Filiata.

TAGS: Obituary

Constantinos Mitsotakis was one of the most effective prime ministers in the modern history of Greece, but unfortunately he was one of the least appreciated while in office.

Had he served 10 years as prime minister like his political adversary Andreas Papandreou, instead of three, Greece would be a vital, valued member of the European Union today, not the destitute pariah it has become.

As time passed after Mitsotakis left office and Greeks saw how his successors ripped open the Aeolian bag of ill winds that have been plaguing them for a decade now, they took a more sober measure of him. They began to see him as the astute, diligent, far-seeing political leader he was and to regret their hasty decision in 1993 to replace him with his profligate rival Papandreou.

A dramatic illustration of the different ways Papandreou and Mitsotakis governed is how they dealt with the country’s Social Insurance System (SIS) once they came to power. Papandreou nearly bankrupted it by showering benefits on his political supporters, including generous pensions to “resistance fighters,” many of whom proved to be 3 to 5 years old during the war years. No serious effort was made during the 1980s to safeguard the sustainability of the system.

When Mitsotakis came to power, he moved decisively to shore up the system despite the political risks to his party, which had only a one-vote majority in Parliament. Working closely with key ministers including Yiannis Paleokrassas and Giorgos Souflias, he passed three major laws during his first two years in office, that increased the minimum pension age to 65, merged hundreds of small pension funds into IKA, required civil servants for the first time to contribute toward their pensions, and eliminated tens of thousands of “baby resistance fighters.”

A different kind of politician

It was the state of the Greek economy that first brought Constantinos Mitsotakis and me together. I met him in 1969 in New York at the home of a mutual friend, Spiro Granitsas, who handed me a scathing article about the Greek economy under the junta that the towering Cretan in front of me had written. He wanted it published in the Wall Street Journal, where I was then working.

“Do you think you can get your editors to print it?” Mitsotakis asked after I read it.

“Not the way it’s written,” I snapped, hoping my bluntness would infuriate him and lead him to withdraw the request. It had worked with other Greek politicians.

Instead he asked, “Would you help me fix it?” His lack of false pride surprised and impressed me. I helped him rewrite the article and it was published in the paper a few days later.

When the junta fell and Mitsotakis returned to Greece, I would visit him whenever I went to Athens. On one such visit, in 1990, he asked for my help in the pending election after New Democracy had failed to win a majority in the last two votes. I spent every day of the next month with him and again he behaved differently from other Greek politicians I knew. Instead of calling his top people together every morning and issuing orders for them to carry out, he asked for their opinions and would invariably choose the suggestion that made the best sense, even if it contradicted his own view.

I wrote several of his speeches during the campaign – speeches that were not full of grandiose promises and exhortations like traditional Greek political orations, but were laced with historical allusions and literary quotations. The election would be the third in less than a year. New Democracy had come close in the first two but had not reached the 47 percent threshold needed to form a government. In the important speech he gave in Athens at the end of the campaign, I inserted some lines from the poem “Mythistorema” by George Seferis which I thought would be inspiring: “A little further / we will see the almond trees blossoming / the marble gleaming in the sun / the sea breaking into waves / a little further, / let us rise a little higher.”

All his closest aides told him such a speech would not work on a Greek audience and urged him to give a more traditional address, but he did not heed any of them and gave the speech exactly as written. Constantinos Mitsotakis judged people on merit and if he came to trust you, he backed you all the way.

He won the victory that had eluded him in the two previous elections and he attributed it to a stronger campaign. When it was over, he thanked me for my contributions to it and added, “What can I do for you to show my appreciation?”

“You can come to my village on my birthday,” I told him. I had made similar requests of other Greek politicians whom I had helped over the years but, when they learned that my village was way up in the Mourgana mountains, they usually found an excuse to avoid the journey. But Constantinos Mitsotakis was not that kind of politician. On July 23, 1990, he arrived in the village of Lia with his wife Marika and his son Kyriakos, eschewing a quick flight by helicopter in favor of a slow drive up the treacherous road so that he could admire the spectacular landscape and pause at all the villages along the way to greet the locals. When Constantinos Mitsotakis made a promise, he kept it.

‘The Greek Miracle’

Before I left for home that summer, he called me to his office and told me he was concerned about the negative impressions of Greece that the Papandreou scandals had created in the United States. “You know America,” he said. “What can we do to improve our image there?”

I told him our best weapon was our culture and that he should authorize some of the best artworks from Greece’s golden age, the fifth century BC, to be exhibited in the US to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of democracy in Greece.

He hesitated at first because efforts to send out precious artworks abroad previously had produced huge protest demonstrations in Greece. Then I suggested that in exchange, Greece should demand some of the best paintings from the museums where the Greek works would be exhibited. He jumped at the idea and authorized me to begin negotiations with the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Those museums agreed to send from their collections three prized paintings selected by Greek art experts for each of the 22 sculptures their curators wanted from Greece.

The Greek exhibition that went to the US, “The Greek Miracle – Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy,” was among the most popular ever held in the two museums and it publicized the Greek contributions to Western civilization all across America. The show of the prized paintings from the two museums, “From El Greco to Cezanne,” that came to Greece in exchange, was the most popular art exhibition held in Athens in anyone’s memory. The success of the two shows, which would never have happened without the unstinting support of Mitsotakis, made it possible for subsequent governments to use the country’s extensive art treasures to promote its interests abroad without any adverse reaction at home.

Stopping the bleeding

What was exhilarating to watch during the three years Mitsotakis served as prime minister was the confidence with which he governed, the firm grasp he had on issues, and the boldness he showed in taking new initiatives. In quick succession, he moved to extend the subway throughout Athens, build new roads, expand ports, create a mobile phone network, authorize a new airport at Spata, increase productivity and create jobs through liberalization of the economy and privatization.

When Mitsotakis became prime minister in 1990, the Greek economy was in a shambles. In the previous eight years, public debt exploded from 38 percent of GDP to 108 percent and the deficit soared from 2.7 percent of GDP to 17.6 percent. In the same period, Papandreou appointed 300,000 new civil servants and established thousands of new government enterprises as entities, almost all of which ran escalating deficits.

Mitsotakis moved quickly to stop the financial hemorrhaging and restore economic stability. Within a short period, 66 state enterprises were sold or liquidated and 15 enterprises belonging to state banks were sold. The tax code was simplified and tax records were computerized for the first time. As revenues increased and wasteful spending declined, the economy began to stabilize. Within two years the deficit fell from 17.6 percent of GDP to 8.8 percent.

It was such bold actions that moved Henning Christophersen, the European Union’s economic affairs commissioner, to state in 2010, in the wake of Greece’s economic collapse, “If Constantine Mitsotakis and his government were allowed to complete their program of reforms, today Greece would be at the front range of successful economies of the eurozone.”

Opening new routes

If somebody brought him a good idea, Mitsotakis jumped at it, no matter how remote its chance of success. In 1991 I read in The Economist that the World Bank was considering rebuilding the historic Egnatia Highway that extended from the west coast of Albania, across what is now the southern parts of FYROM and Bulgaria, and down to Constantinople. I flew to Athens, went to see Mitsotakis and spread the article in front of him. “Costa, if this happens, all traffic from Europe to the East will bypass us and all of northern Greece will become a backwater,” I told him.

Within days Mitsotakis ordered the Ministry of Public Works to prepare a proposal for the European Union to build the Egnatia Highway along a new route. It would not follow its historic trajectory, having to cross four borders to reach Constantinople, but move south, to northern Greece, where it could extend the whole way to the Turkish border without interruptions.

The plan was approved by Brussels and now the longest highway ever financed by the European Union – 684 kilometers – lies within Greece. When the Ionian Highway is finished extending from the Peloponnesus northward over the Egnatia through the Balkans, Greece will become the crossroads of Europe to the East, not our northern neighbors. All that is happening for Greece, one of the few bright prospects we can look to these days, because of the foresight of Constantinos Mitsotakis.

What I most admired about him as prime minister was that he tried to do the best for the country no matter what the political cost and whom he offended. As prime minister, he took on the Greek oligarchs, the media barons, and the most powerful vested interests as few Greek leaders have ever done, no matter what the risks to his political future. They responded by doing everything in their power to bring him down and they succeeded in 1993. In doing so they returned Greece to the spendthrift Papandreou policies that sent the country spiraling downward to the sorry state it is in today.

Constantinos Mitsotakis saw the pending economic disaster earlier than anyone I know. “Our economy can’t survive the pace of our borrowing,” he told me in 1997. “Collapse is inevitable.” Yet he was deeply saddened when his prophecy was fulfilled. “Our worst tragedy since the civil war,” he said, the last time I saw him. But he was optimistic about the future, perhaps because his son was likely to play a role in shaping it. “Greeks are survivors,” he added. “We’ll come out of this.”

It is unfortunate that Constantinos Mitsotakis did not live long enough to see his son, Kyriakos, sit in the prime minister’s chair he once occupied, but I’m sure he embarked on his final journey with little doubt that it will happen.


* Nicholas Gage is an author and investigative journalist, and was a close friend of Constantinos Mitsotakis over the course of 48 years.

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