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The dark house

By Alexis Papachelas

Many people wonder why it took so many years and why it was so hard to find tangible evidence against former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, currently in jail charged with money laundering.

Everybody knew it, after all, and Tsochatzopoulos himself did not attempt to hide that his lifestyle was not compatible with his professional life or his tax returns. He lived on one of the most expensive streets in Athens, he vacationed in luxury villas rented at exorbitant prices, and yet it proved impossible for journalists to expose him.

The reason is simple, but not obvious. Greece is a country of nontransparency, and this nontransparency is practiced at every institutional level: Take the example of ascertaining the owner of a piece of property. The land registry’s archives are inaccessible to journalists and civilians. The registry’s arcane filing system means you cannot look up a property by address -- you need the owner’s name. So if the owner happens to be an offshore company or an unknown associate, then it becomes impossible to make headway in an investigation.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that this web of nontransparency is not accidental or down to laziness and amateur organization. No, I believe the country has been held hostage by its nontransparency so that politicians, corrupt public servants, even journalists and various large or small-time crooks can hide under the cover of its opacity.

Another example: If a journalist believes that a property belonging to a company is actually owned by a “suspect” politician, it is practically impossible for them to confirm it since the municipality will not allow access to the file.

Slowly, all this will change. Already, the “cursed” memorandum is bringing changes such as mandatory bank accounts, the gradual dwindling of cash, cross checks, and high taxes for offshore companies that will make life difficult for crooks and illegal operators both in Greece and abroad. Even the law under which Tsochatzopoulos will be quickly tried -- within four months -- also comes from the memorandum.

We’ve written this before, but there is one point on which the left and the pro-European anti-bailout parties do agree with the troika, and that is the necessity for a few high-profile crooks to be tried and made an example of in order to bring back a sense of justice to the country, to extinguish certain pillars of corruption in Greek politics, the media and the private sector, and to stamp out tax evasion and outlaws. The establishment attempts to impress by showing how it combats corruption on occasion, such as when the list of declarations of assets (“pothen esches”) was published, but these are meaningless fireworks.

Former Prime Minister George Papandreou understood the problem, but failed miserably to address it. He was weak in commandeering his own party and cabinet members, who often ignored his wishes and even his orders. His accusations against various corrupt circles after his political downfall -- or to put it more precisely, his political suicide -- ring hollow in the ears of Greek voters who may well ask, “And what were you doing about it the whole time?”

After all, Papandreou wasn’t the first premier to discover, after being ensconced in the Maximos Mansion, how weak he really was when it came to fighting systemic corruptive circles, nor the first to find trusted aides turning into panicked cowards after being exposed to bribery or extortion.

The only solution is full transparency in the land registry and all its archives, high taxation for all offshore companies that are not true multinational businesses, and upholding the law even against the powerful.

The darkness that permeates this “house” that is collapsing, with hermetically sealed shutters and doors locked to all those who sought the truth, did not come by accident. People with secrets kept them safe in here until very recently, people who hope to keep them still, in a Greece with a drachma, run by oligarchs and a mafia.

ekathimerini.com , Sunday April 22, 2012 (22:27)  
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