Letter from Thessaloniki

Freezing temperatures are being recorded all over northern Greece. It is a gray and cold day, and I am sitting inside a waterfront cafe in downtown Thessaloniki – or rather a neighborhood bar favored by ink-stained students, wretches learning to become lawyers and quite a few artsy types. I watch the world go by. I don’t yet know it, but my world is about to change. I am leaving my city of birth. The boundaries of possibility are about to be redrawn. The apartment I have been living in for more than two decades has been sold by a close relative. But, like Aristotle says, it’s impossible to be angry when you’re terrified. And that is what I am at the moment. I have also contracted a virus and feel miserable. Flu aside, this goes to show that you don’t know your kin as well as you thought. I’m packing in order to move to Athens. It’s a clearance sale. A random shower of quips, quotes, photographs and anecdotes rains on me. There are old clippings, including one that reads: «The man was corrupt. He probably took bribes in the White House. And he even sought a tax break for the bribes he took.» The story sounds familiar, the tale of yet another corrupt politician. This one is about Spiro Agnew, the son of a Greek immigrant vegetable peddler, who, in 1973, became the second vice president in US history to resign. Agnew preceded his president, Richard Nixon, in resignation by a year. If the bribery imbroglios had not engulfed him he would have succeeded a flailing Nixon after Watergate forced him out in 1974. We could then boast of a Greek-descended US president, since Agnew’s father, Dimitrios Anagnostopoulos, had emigrated to Baltimore in the early 1900s. But things don’t always turn out in rosy ways. In January 2006 the trial of priest Iakovos Yiossakis is unfolding. Archimandrite Yiossakis has been accused of being a middleman between lawyers and judges in an alleged trial-fixing ring. There are some politicians who may be involved in this affair, as well as the lawyer wife of the Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Valinakis. Furthermore, drug dealers are said to have secured early release from prison and middlemen are suspected of receiving millions of euros in kickbacks. Currently, more than 20 senior judges are under investigation. The ongoing investigation into corruption within the judiciary has only skimmed the surface, according to the head of the Athens Bar Association (ABA), Dimitris Paxinos. Since last January, 11 judges have been fired by the Supreme Court for a range of offenses. «Colleagues of mine did not want to complain about unjust rulings for fear of being targeted by these [corrupt] judges,» Paxinos said. «Maybe the lawyers felt that they might also be treated favorably [by the judges] in other cases because they had shown good behavior.» So is corruption a typical Greek phenomenon? Of course not. As conservatives are today heading to victory in Canadian elections, a grave corruption scandal – involving the embezzlement of public funds intended for promoting national unity and countering separatism in Quebec – might cost the current prime minister and Liberal leader, Paul Martin, his power. As Canada looks poised to take – after 12 years of Liberal government – a politically conservative turn in its government, there will be several Greek-Canadian politicians elected. They will hopefully turn out better than the late Spiro T. Agnew, who as a candidate became famous for his racists rants that included such low-brow vocabulary as «polacks» and «fat japs.» Names such as former Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos, former Conservative Senator Staff Barootes, Liberal Philippe Gigantes and Canadian Democrat Maurine Karagianni have made us Greeks at home proud of our migrant kin. Therefore, we would hate to see them go bad, just like Agnew, who never met a single state contract for a bridge, rod or building that he did not find a way to milk for money. But this should hold true for our native politicians as well. «Greece must finally become a country where the law is observed at every level of society,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared on the first anniversary of his New Democracy party’s election win. That was a year ago. However, it remains an open question whether deeply entrenched corruption can be so easily rooted out of the soil.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.