Letter from Thessaloniki

One week ago Der Spiegel – German for «The Mirror» – the notorious – for some Greek politicians – German weekly magazine which first exposed the bribery scandal involving the electronics company Siemens, published an article titled «Did Alstom bribe like Siemens?» Understandably, the question was not answered in the well-researched piece. The lengthy article contained only an allegation that France’s Alstom Group had also gained an unfair advantage by using a system of bribes to secure contracts worldwide. Could it have been a similar case to that of its German competitor Siemens, which has admitted a corruption scandal involving at least 1.3 billion euros in under-the-table payments? No clear answer. The magazine also pointed out a difference between the two central European countries. Unlike Germany, France’s politicians as well as the media have shielded the company. So it claimed, at any rate. Muddled and time-consuming, the Greek government’s policy is currently going through a much needed rethink phase with regard to the Siemens-Greece affair, ignoring other potential cases lurking here and there – cases that many fear might explode at any moment. Yet, in the Der Spiegel article one reads revelations that sound all too familiar to Greek ears. For example, it refers to files that some Swiss investigator seized from one of the director’s secretaries. They include such items of information as the memorandum dating from the fall of 1997, in which a company employee, without taking the usual precautions, writes that an electricity deal in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo had been worked out with a «former secretary of the governor» and covered the following: «party funding, the auditors and the energy office.»  Furthermore, the three journalists (Jurgen Dahlkamp, Jorg Schmitt and Stefan Simons), mention that the identity of the middleman was to remain secret. However, the name of Alstom’s chairman of many years, Pierre Bilger, appears in a document that came out recently. So what? Well, Alstom is very much involved in Greece’s businesses and if one gives credence to Der Spiegel’s insinuations – «…the French were apparently involved in deals very similar to activities at German competitor Siemens….. which is reported to have secured contracts with bogus agreements, letterbox companies and, especially, with large bribes.» Railway tender Now, before the 2004 Olympic Games and as a member of a consortium, Alstom won a tender to supply and construct the electrical and mechanical works of the new suburban railway linking Athens city center with the new airport at Spata. This was just one of the projects that the company performed in this country. The railway is still running more than satisfactorily. This landmark project represented one of the largest orders to date for an admirable next-generation technology, which has greatly improved rail network performance in Greece. If I am not terribly mistaken this took place under the ministerial guidance of Michalis Liapis, then minister of transport, now minister of culture. Sadly, he has become embroiled in the Siemens junket affair.  No wrongdoing has been alleged or uncovered and it is most improbable that Alstom, a global specialist in energy and transport infrastructure, with annual sales in excess of 23 billion euros and employing 118,000 people, will figure in Greece’s current affairs with tales of bribery and corruption. For as Der Spiegel reports: «Alstom’s stroke of luck (is): The company isn’t listed on the US stock exchange. Otherwise, like Siemens, it would be subject to intense scrutiny.» All of this makes it easy for the company to keep a low profile, Der Spiegel concludes. For with all the risks involved, politicians in Europe act in a different way to their American colleagues. Because there are hardly any ministers or members of parliament who would resign in this part of the world over «such trifling» matters. Cases like that of California Republican Randy «Duke» Cunningham who – saying he was «deeply sorry,» admitted a few years ago that he had been selling influence for some $2.4 million – was obliged to resign from Congress, are hardly common in this country either. Instead, what we mostly hear is that all scandals involving bribes are «old affairs» and most accusations are «hypotheses and speculation» aimed against certain opponents. Can bribery be stopped? Rhetorical questions never get answered, either in Golden Age tragedies or in modern-day United Europe. Reinhard Siekaczek, the former Siemens manager who built an elaborate system of slush funds and shell firms to help Europe’s biggest technology group win overseas contracts through bribes, said during his trial in Munich: «I have tried to reduce the size of bribes. Yet this was like trying to stop a high-speed train.»