NEWS

Conspiracy: The plan, people and interests

It all began after the 2000 general election. Having put all their energies into the election campaign period, a select group of people connected with major business interests celebrated on Myconos at Easter, then demanded their reward. Immediately after the elections, they brought pressure to bear on the government in connection with horse racing and an overall betting system that would include everything from lotteries to dog races. Then, they expressed interest in the Hellenic Vehicle Industry and Hellenic Aerospace, where there were prospects of increased activity for major suppliers in the heavy equipment market. Due partly to chance and partly to the reaction of the press, the plans of the dinner partners on Myconos did not have the wished for results. One by one their plans were rejected as unfeasible. That summer, Prime Minister Costas Simitis interrupted his island holidays to return to Athens. Following a meeting with Yiannos Papantoniou, then national economy minister, Simitis raised the question of control over business groups, and there was talk of institutional reforms and controls of corruption, which at that time sounded rather odd. Time passed, certain entrepreneurs weren’t doing as well as they had expected, the stock exchange showed no signs of rallying, profits were not flowing in and politicians were not prepared to respond to the demands of certain friends and supporters. Pressure grew; the New Democracy party – in particular its leader Costas Karamanlis – never missed an opportunity to lash out at entangled interests. When constitutional reform came up for discussion, matters only got worse, as the connections some individuals had with the State could not be ignored. The government found it had to grapple with the question of the extent to which certain businesses could be legally involved in government contracts. Meanwhile, political pressure continued to mount. The dispute over social security furnished an opportunity for the debate and criticism to become more general. Simitis had almost reached his limit. Then, the governing PASOK party seemed to decide to overcome the crisis by putting up a united front at its party congress. The congress was held, and the premier realized his aim of defusing the crisis. He reshuffled the Cabinet and was able to breathe easy once again. But the vested interests saw things differently and they exerted pressure once again for support. The premier realized, however, that the new circumstances would not permit a return to the practices of the past, and he sent out the message that he had new priorities. Being in charge of running the country, he obviously could not adapt the policy of the new competitive era to the demands of a group of special interests which still adhered to the old ways of handouts and subsidies. The commissions Instead of solving the financial problems of others, Simitis began to operate in new spheres. He spoke of productivity, enraging those who expected commissions and subsidies because the stock market had not recovered. The announcement of a projected merger by the National Bank and Alpha Bank raised hopes in some quarters that the State would come to everyone’s rescue. On November 30, 2001, a month after the announcement, Socrates Kokkalis suggested that his company Intracom be absorbed by OTE, the state telecom company. The prime minister refused outright just a few days later. By coincidence, the bank merger failed, giving rise to a growing feeling of disappointment in political and economic circles. Complaints were rife in the government camp, and the first signs of dissension since the congress became apparent. Within days, journalists began receiving information that the premier’s former close colleague, Theodoros Tsoukatos was planing to take a political initiative. These stories were known to Maximos Mansion which, however, did not react or try to pre-empt the move. Less than two weeks later, Tsoukatos appeared at the head of a wide-ranging group of 45 PASOK deputies who requested a solution to the social insurance issue by June at the latest. Their solution asked for even more than the General Confederation of Greek Workers had demanded. The premier reacted vehemently, saying people were trying to undermine him. Several days later, a senior judge went to Maximos Mansion to inform the premier’s colleagues of serious instances of outstanding judicial business. A number of cases are to be reopened on the basis of evidence from the archives of the Stazi, the former East German secret police, concerning connections that the terrorist Carlos the Jackal may have had with terrorists in Greece, as well as other matters that are potentially dangerous for entangled interests at a time when the police seem prepared to take action on a matter that has plagued Greece for 27 years. This was just the moment when the story about the slot machines emerged. At first it looked like a funny little story of no importance about a deputy ruled by a gambling addiction. Then some people started spreading rumors about who was to be the next prime minister. At a recent dinner, a large group of PASOK deputies drank toasts to Foreign Minister George Papandreou and sang songs for deliverance as if they were back in the days of the junta. But when the slot machine story started to spread the day after, and there were attempts to tarnish the name of Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos, the joke had gone too far. It was apparent that something serious was going on, beyond the usual populist nonsense shown on television. Even highly cautious observers who reject conspiracy theories, acknowledged that the matter had gone beyond the limits of day-to-day disputes. Commitments Insulated in their own microcosm, the instigators of this story were unable to understand that despite their many responsibilities, politicians retain an instinct for self-preservation. Nor could they understand that the Greeks, despite the distorting lens of television, do take umbrage and have experience and reliable instincts. The reaction was instantaneous, and condemnation universal. This will be the response to any further attempts at such vileness. It is clear that whoever was behind this entire business made a fatal mistake. Perhaps it will give the political system a chance to absolve itself of decades of sins. This is a unique chance for the political system to overcome its crisis, act decisively against corruption, set rules, enforce the law, and – at last – implement the rules of a free, competitive economy and create an environment of equal opportunity for all.