As it heads toward the end of the eight-year bailout era, Greece again finds itself at risk of political instability. It is not just reactions to the name talks with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which the government is right to want settled as soon as possible (if this is indeed its intention), or escalating tension with an increasingly unpredictable Turkey (a real, not imagined threat) that has been incited further by the Greek defense minister’s machismo; we now also have the political maelstrom of the Novartis affair – when in top form, political cynicism likes to pose as political catharsis.
Leftist SYRIZA is not some pure political body that can claim the role of ethical prosecutor. It has a record of interventions in the justice system, media manipulation and, of course, the blatant deception of 2015 (which cost the country some 85 to 100 billion euros, if not more).
The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks anti-memorandum partnership divided public opinion when the two parties were in the opposition, and, more recently, from the position of government, tried to divide the opposition over the name issue. Now it is using the Novartis affair to cleave division between “us, the unsullied” and “them, the corrupt old establishment.” Friends and allies that once belonged to the latter and are now part of the governing coalition have, naturally, gone to great pains to surgically remove themselves from that group.
However, the task of clearing up one of the biggest scandals that contributed to Greece’s financial meltdown is being put at risk by the government’s bungling effort to use it as a weapon against its political opponents. The way the entire issue is being handled and the choice of targets (and the notable absence of others) offer no guarantees of impartiality. Myriad technical legal irregularities, serious suspicions that witnesses have been prompted, leaks of a coming storm from pro-government media, and the artful way that the affair has been leveraged all serve as evidence of manipulation and a campaign of political persecution.
With its gauche political games, the government runs the risk of allowing a true scandal of mismanagement and corruption to go unsolved. The political crime that resulted in the country’s bankruptcy will not be settled by judicial means, particularly since a law protecting politicians from prosecution ensures that the more serious violations are subject to a statute of limitations.
The first step in dealing with this scandal is collective self-awareness and assigning political responsibility. But here we have a government that supports the belief that eight years of austerity is not because of the monstrous deficits prior to 2009, but rather the fault of the governments that signed up to the bailouts (with the exception of the third deal) and the former head of the Hellenic Statistical Authority, Andreas Georgiou, who allegedly inflated the deficit. The irony, of course, is that the third memorandum is the only one that could have been avoided and the persecuted statistician was the first person to reveal the real numbers without serving some political agenda.
How interested is this government in exposing the issue of health spending? Spending on medicines was high at the start of the millennium and jumped from 3.1 billion euros in 2004 (1.6 percent of GDP) to 5.2 billion in 2009 (2.2 percent against an EU average of 1.2 percent), to drop in 2014 to 2.2 billion euros (1.3 percent of GDP) – and we have the memorandums to thank for that.
And what will be even more interesting to future historians is that when it was in the opposition, SYRIZA opposed every reform aimed at reducing state spending on medicines.
George Pagoulatos is professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business and a visiting professor at the College of Europe.