OPINION

A house in the middle of the street

It must have been almost a year ago when Dionysiou Areopagitou Street was teeming with Athenians and visitors as spring escaped from the clutches of a drab and depressing winter to spray paint the capital’s most attractive walkway with color. Reveling in the sunshine and the essence of hope, smiles re-emerged on people’s faces, eyes twinkled and hearts beat in rhythm.

The sun’s appearance seemed to banish the doubts that had been pummeled into Greeks’ minds as a result of the collapse of George Papandreou’s government a few months earlier, the worsening economic situation and the fears about the country’s future in the euro.

It proved to be a false dawn, but on that sun-kissed March day in Athens, there was a hint that normality might return, that a stroll in the shadow of the Parthenon could be carefree. The Attic light streamed into each corner and pore as hundreds of people sauntered around the Acropolis and along a road named after an Athenian judge, Dionysius the Areopagite.

Dionysius, the city’s first bishop, is said to have been deeply affected by witnessing the sun being blackened while on a trip to Egypt at around the time of Christ’s crucifixion. It was fitting, therefore, that on the boulevard bearing his name, there should be a dark spot that even the joy of spring could not brighten.

At number 33, passers-by stood for a moment or cast furtive glances as they strode on. For this was the 200-square meter neoclassical home of former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos and his wife Viki Stamati. It attracted such attention because it was one of the most expensive properties in Athens and there was intense speculation about how “Akis,” as he was known to most Greeks – the civil engineer who had met future Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou in 1968 as an exiled student in Germany – had managed to acquire such wealth to purchase this property. In February 2011, more than 1,000 protesters had gathered in the rain outside the luxury apartment. “Bring back our money,” they chanted.

Since Tsochatzopoulos left active politics and married his second wife, Stamati, in a no-expenses-spared ceremony in Paris in 2004, rumors and reports about the former interior, defense, transport, public order, development, labor and public works minister’s practices have abounded. His alleged exploits became part of folklore and there was a resignation among voters that Tsochatzopoulos was one of the untouchables that would get away with abusing their power for personal profit. His elegant property became an unintended monument to an era of post-dictatorship Greek politics when theft, be it by taxpayers or politicians, became an acceptable by-product of social peace and prosperity.

This illness went right to the top. It is worth remembering that Tsochatzopoulos served as caretaker prime minister in 1995 when Papandreou fell ill and agreed on Greece’s behalf at the Madrid European Council that year to the decisions to include Eastern and Central European countries in the EU and to name the single currency the euro. A year later, he came within six votes of becoming the new Greek prime minister instead of Costas Simitis.

On Monday, though, Tsochatzopoulos was found guilty of failing to declare his assets over the last few years. Among them was the central Athens property. A judge handed the ex-minister an eight-year jail sentence and ordered that the home be seized. The ruling carried considerable symbolic, as well as practical, weight. It was the first indication that the state is prepared to wrestle back ownership of what has been taken from it illegally. If the Supreme Court rubber-stamps the judge’s verdict, the ex-minister’s home will become taxpayers’ property.

One siezure does not make a spring but a taboo has been broken. Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris also said that the municipality would seek to recover damages from his predecessor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos after he was found guilty last week of embezzling funds. Tsochatzopoulos is yet to stand trial for the alleged embezzlement of taxpayers’ money when agreeing defense procurements in the late 1990s and early part of the last decade. Meanwhile, three other former ministers – Yiannos Papantoniou, Petros Doukas and Giorgos Voulgarakis – were charged on Wednesday with failing to correctly fill in their derivation of wealth (pothen esches) forms.

Only a few years ago, Tsochatzopoulos’s sentencing and authorities’ pursuit of other political figures would have been momentous news in Greece, but amid the pain of recession and controversy of austerity, reaction has been relatively muted. Perhaps after years of inaction, some Greeks have become immune, unable to believe that the once-mighty are getting their deserved comeuppance. One of the recurring comments from beleaguered citizens since the start of the crisis has been that nobody has been held responsible for Greece’s plight. “Nobody has gone to jail,” you would hear again and again over the past three years. Well, now someone has gone to jail and there can be hope that accountability will be restored.

There is still much work for Greece’s investigative authorities and its judicial system to do. Perhaps, though, for the first time there is genuine momentum for Greece’s public life to be cleaned up. Where there was once a climate of tolerance, there is now a desire for justice. For there to be tangible redress, judicial officials will need support, guidance and protection. They might have to call upon all the powers of their patron saint: Dionysius the Areopagite.

[Kathimerini English Edition]