OPINION

Walking free or striding to prison?

They called him the “flying doctor” due to his sprinting exploits in the 1970s and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras referred to him in the past as an “honest man,” but on Wednesday the only place ex-Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was striding towards was Diavata Prison, where he is reportedly sharing a cell with nine rather dishonest men.

Papageorgopoulos and two ex-municipal employees were given life sentences for embezzling some 18 million euros from City Hall between 1999 and 2010, when the New Democracy politician served two terms as Thessaloniki mayor. Papageorgopoulos draped an overcoat over his arms as he left for prison to hide his handcuffs from photographers but it’s difficult to imagine what part of his reputation the 65-year-old thought he was protecting after being convicted of systematically plundering taxpayers’ money for over a decade. Nevertheless, Papageorgopoulos denies any wrongdoing and says he will appeal the decision.

While there is undoubtedly a personal story in all this (the tale of how a man who once competed for medals on the track ended up competing for space in a prison exercise yard), Papageorgopoulos’s spectacular fall carries two significant and wider implications for Greece.

The first is that the humiliation of the former conservative mayor is symptomatic of New Democracy’s waning power in Thessaloniki. Traditionally, the more conservative and nationalist-minded north of Greece has strongly supported New Democracy. During the last decade, Thessaloniki was something of a fortress for the center-right party with Papageorgopoulos as mayor and Panayiotis Psomiadis as the city’s prefect and then governor of Central Macedonia in 2010. It is where ex-Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis had his electoral constituency.

The colorful but highly controversial Psomiadis suffered his comeuppance last year when he was removed from office and given a suspended 12-month jail sentence after being found guilty of reducing a fine issued to a Thessaloniki gas station owner. Papageorgopoulos’s conviction brings to a dramatic and resounding end the era when New Democracy was represented by two high-profile populist politicians and enjoyed guaranteed widespread support in this part of Greece.

Already from the local elections of 2010, New Democracy had lost a grip on Thessaloniki City Hall, when independent winemaker Yiannis Boutaris, who enjoyed the backing of PASOK, scored a notable victory by beating conservative candidate Costas Gioulekas. But ND’s declining popularity in Thessaloniki became much clearer in the national elections last year. In June’s poll, the conservatives garnered 27.75 percent of the vote in the northern port city’s “A” constituency. In 2004, when the party had swept to power under Karamanlis, it gained 49.77 percent: Support for ND almost halved in eight years. In Thessaloniki’s less populous “B” district, ND grabbed 31.9 percent of the vote last June, against 44.82 percent in the 2007 elections.

Beyond the pondering that the latest developments in Thessaloniki will prompt at New Democracy headquarters in Athens, there is also much for Greeks to think about as a result of Papageorgopoulos’s imprisonment. One of the persistent complaints from citizens since the start of the crisis has been that those in power and those who held office have not been held accountable for offenses they may have committed. The sense that a force field of impunity has protected decision makers and their powerful friends as Greeks made tremendous sacrifices as part of the fiscal consolidation process has been one of the key elements in undermining the legitimacy of the adjustment program.

Papageorgopoulos is by far the highest-profile figure to go to jail recently over a politicoeconomic scandal but there have been signs over the last few months that the wheels of Greece’s dilapidated justice system are creaking into action. Ex-Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos is in custody awaiting trial for embezzlement. Two other ex-ministers, Yiannos Papantoniou and Petros Doukas, are set to appear in court over allegations they did not declare all their assets on their origin of wealth forms (“pothen esches”). Former Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou faces possible prosecution over his handling of the Lagarde list of Greeks with deposits in a Swiss branch of HSBC. Between January and September last year, 686 people, including some high-profile names from the media and business worlds, were arrested for owing a combined total of 1.3 billion euros in taxes. These arrests have continued.

This is by no means a catharsis but compared to the lack of action over the last couple of decades – certainly since ex-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou was among the suspects tried as part of the scandal involving banker George Koskotas in 1991 – this is the closest Greece has come to attempting to ensure that some members of its society are not exempt from the law. And this is where the essence of the matter lies for Greek society: For all the protesting, arguing, name calling and blaming, one of the keys to changing the country’s fortune lies in ensuring that its institutions are effective and transparent.

In this respect, citizens must also take their share of the responsibility for Greece ending up with such ramshackle institutions. After all, how many have taken to the streets to protest in favor of a more efficient public administration, or voted for a candidate with ideas about how to improve the judicial system, or campaigned for more tax inspectors to be hired? But that’s the past, the question is how to ensure that justice is done and institutions are strengthened to such an extent that the culture of impunity is banished for good.

The European Union Task Force for Greece has provided extensive advice to the Greek government on this issue and the two sides have agreed on a set of proposals to improve the efficiency of the justice system and to strengthen anti-corruption measures. These include the development of a national anti-corruption strategy to be overseen by a central coordination and can be seen in the Task Force’s most recent quarterly report (http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/president/pdf/qr3_en.pdf), published in December.

While this is for the political class to digest and act upon, there is an important role for citizens to play. They need to create a climate in which corruption cannot be tolerated. Achieving this comes first through rejecting the substitution of fact with innuendo and conviction with allegation. It has been too easy in the past for genuine cases of graft to be swept under the carpet after a period of claim and counterclaim in Parliament or via the media. Trial by public opinion is no replacement for proper justice. Equally, Greeks cannot display continued tolerance for the tendency of some politicians and journalists to obfuscate by sowing aspersions with alacrity.

As long as voters tolerate their politicians accusing each other of crookedness, as the party leaders did in Parliament this week, without producing evidence, and follow media outlets that habitually blacken people’s names with no proof, this only weakens our institutions further and creates the necessary confusion in which those who are really guilty can, unlike Papageorgopoulos, walk free.

[Kathimerini English Edition]