Greece, where connections are everything

By Takis Kambylis - Kathimerini

Vassilis Gonopoulos is probably the first citizen of Greece to earn money by challenging corruption. He left home young to study in London. Eight years later, in 2006, he came back and started to look for work. He didn't find any, but his bitterness and frustration found a creative outlet in the writing of a «Dictionary of Special Favors and Graft» (Papazisis Publications) which has been selling well since being published a month ago. He began looking for a job in Athens the same way he would have in England. He sent out his CV by e-mail and waited. When he got sick of waiting he went to a building in Voulis Street where Parliament rents offices for deputies from the provinces. Vassilis could trace an ancestor to one of these provinces and went to see the local deputy. «I went through the three stages. The first was the degree of difficulty of satisfying my request. The second was a few weeks later, when I got the reply 'We're looking into it.' The third was 'A meeting with a person in authority is pending.' There was no fourth. I never went back,» he said. However he did go to see acquaintances who had other useful acquaintances or relations. At the same time he started looking out for job announcements, but found that they were identical and only appeared in small-circulation newspapers. Eventually an acquaintance got him an interview with a firm. However, even though all went well, the interviewer asked him, «What happens if PASOK returns to power in a couple of years and you get a better job?» «It took me a couple of minutes to catch on,» said Gonopoulos. «He thought that since I hadn't found a job in two years under the New Democracy administration, I must be a PASOK supporter.» In 1992 the West realized that corruption not only existed under tyrannical regimes, but in democracies too. According to Pierre Lascoume (head of research for France's National Center for Scientific Research [CNRS] - his book is published in Greek by Kastaniotis Publications), that year the Council of Europe set up a multidisciplinary group on corruption. In 1998, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank proclaimed that fighting corruption would be one of the new criteria for evaluating economic management. But that was not the kind of corruption found by Gonopoulos. In 1980, a young architecture graduate returned to Athens after completing his studies in Paris. He won his first battle with corruption in his first major project. «It was the restoration of a privately owned neoclassical building by Ernst Ziller. When my job was done, the owner told me I would either have to accept 10 percent of the agreed fee or else nothing at all. I was furious and went to the Technical Chamber, where the legal service advised me to go to court as I would most certainly win the case. I did so but as soon as my opponent was informed of the suit, his lawyer, an elderly man, called me and advised me to accept the 10 percent. I didn't listen, lost the case and the 10 percent.» Since then the architect has worked on many major projects and has seen other practices: «For example, a colleague of mine who has done work for the Culture Ministry bribes officials with works of art. Others even supply young women. Generally it involves finding out what sort of person the 'official' is and acting accordingly - what they want, how ambitious they are, how they live, and where and how they spend their money.» None of this is of any concern to Rania, an unemployed singer who decided to open a small organic food store somewhere in Patissia. All was fine until one day two «officials» turned up and started measuring everything very carefully. They then informed her that the height of the toilet was 2 centimeters shorter than the rules dictated. Rania broke down in tears. Fortunately they felt sorry for her and agreed to accept just 600 euros in order to give her the approval. Lascoume observes that because of the limited options open to the public to seek redress and the lenient penalties imposed, corruption is a crime that is acceptable to the elite and tolerated by the general population. However, Lascoume and others are talking mainly about tax evasion by major corporations. In Greece, the opposite occurs. «What happens in Greece does not happen in Paris,» said the architect. «I had experience of that when two years ago I bought an apartment there. I had to do some work to the interior. Three different crews took part at different stages. When the work was finished, they gave me a breakdown of the charges, totaling about 4,500 euros. I asked them how they wanted me to pay them and they said in unison: «With a crossed check.» I was astounded. I told them that in order to do that, I would need to make a tax declaration in France and suggested paying them without a receipt, with a bit extra as a bonus. They refused. They were a Moroccan, a Turk and an Albanian. Crossed checks, as in Britain and elsewhere, endow money with a specific identity. The bank always knows who issued it and who received it. The former Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis tried to do something similar here, but there was an uproar and he never went ahead. It would have brought down the system.»