A leader ahead of his time

A leader ahead of his time

Constantinos Mitsotakis, prime minister of Greece from April 1990 to October 1993, tied Greece to Europe by accepting the Maastricht Treaty in its entirety. It was he who took the decision to attach Greece to the common European currency (and abandon the drachma). That signaled the start of efforts to modernize and reform the sclerotic Greek establishment, a process that was violently cut short by snap elections. The process sputtered back to life a few years later with the Costas Simitis government. More than a decade after that, the reforms the Mitsotakis government was trying to introduce became part of the conditions attached to the bailout deals with foreign creditors.

Twenty precious years were allowed to go to waste. Not one, not two – but 20! Instead of making the adjustment in time so that we could enjoy all that united Europe had to offer, we let ourselves be led astray by irresponsible power-hungry demagogues and we reduced Greece to a beggar nation.

In September 1993, I was minister of economy and finance in the Mitsotakis government. We were to sign the agreement between the Greek state and the German contractors for the new Athens airport on September 9. The prime minister warned me on the telephone not to sign because the government had lost the support of the parliamentary majority (after Giorgos Simbilidis broke ranks). The airport was eventually built, with a three-year delay and with changes in the agreement which satisfied the next government’s vanity but harmed Greek interests.

The airport was collateral damage. In his resignation letter, Simbilidis cited OTE, the state-owned telecoms monopoly. The case of OTE and its sky-high procurement costs (from a handful of suppliers) had stirred excitement among many journalists and analysts who made up all sorts of stories. On September 9, a search was under way for a buyer for a 35 percent stake in OTE. The government’s aim was to complete the tender within 1993 so that the strategic investor with the 35 percent stake would take over the management, a 10 percent stake would be available to the general public and 4 percent would go to OTE’s employees.

The government’s resignation pulled the plug on the tender process. Later, the Simitis government issued 10 percent of OTE shares to the public. OTE today is fully controlled by Deutsche Telekom. The 1990s were the golden age of telephony, but for OTE, this decade was unfortunately lost. Lost, too, were the profits the Greek state could have reaped. Thankfully, OTE was later able to stand on its feet due to the efforts of Panagis Vourloumis. The international tender for a private unit of electricity generation producing 600 MW of electricity in Viotia that was under way in 1993 was also put on ice, victim to the Public Power Corporation’s GENOP workers’ union and PASOK.

Thankfully, the Mitsotakis government was able to authorize the awarding of two mobile telephony licenses, that have literally changed our lives. These two businesses showed what the private sector can do when it is properly structured and operating in conditions of free competition.

The Mitsotakis government relied on a slim majority of 151 MPs. The team included a few lawmakers who would gladly have toppled Mitsotakis because (I assume) they believed they could do better than him. It was with such shaky support that Mitsotakis managed to govern and push through some extremely difficult bills. Compared to the present, the pace was grueling, yet Mitsotakis always kept his cool, no matter what (excessively so according to some). He governed by abiding by all the rules of democracy, but also the traditional rules of clientelist relationships.

I first met Mitsotakis in 1978, when he had joined New Democracy and taken over as coordination minister. I was a young lawmaker and deputy minister of public works. I was testing my limits. This was a period during which the first major interventions were being made in the urban landscape of Athens. A series of legislative initiatives followed in 1979, such as Law 947 for residential areas, 960 for parking garages, 880 (related to the preservation of historic buildings), and so on. The laws were signed by the deputy minister for public works (myself), the coordination minister and the finance minister (Athanasios Kanellopoulos). For Law 947 in particular, there were more signatories.

Mitsotakis was always quick to grasp what was going on and to make it his own. In early 1980 I recommended the creation of a separate ministry for the environment and city planning. Zoning issues were then under the purview of the coordination minister. I wanted the the new ministry to take over zoning but Mitsotakis did not want to relinquish control of zoning and, indirectly, of the new ministry. We had a major row and the prime minister, Constantine Karamanlis, had to step in to resolve it, siding at the margins with Mitsotakis. When that meeting came to an end, Karamanlis took me aside and told me not to be upset by the decision because I had achieved the key objective: the creation of a new Environment Ministry.

There are so many Mitsotakis stories, there simply isn’t enough space. It was an honor that he chose me as his associate, despite our differences on issues of tactics.

I would like to leave you with a thought that saddens me. For many years after 1993, Mitsotakis was still fighting fit. He was an important political asset. Yet Greece did not appear able to make use of him. He could have offered so much. No one dared to ask. Insecure politicians are terrified of comparisons. You may argue that he wasn’t the only asset we have allowed to go unused. What about the Elliniko site? The former Olympic facilities? That’s how we ended up becoming beggars.

* Stefanos Manos served as minister of economy and finance in the Mitsotakis government.

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