Piety gone sour

Greece is the home of great political theater. From the invention of democracy 2,500 years ago to the ritual protest marches to the US Embassy that have marked the years since democracy’s most recent incarnation in 1974, the people and their leaders have been players in the long epic through history. But even by those historical standards, the current performance in Athens has to rank among the most bizarre. The allegations of politicians colluding with monks to defraud the state of some 100 million euros in property and taxes brings together two of the estates that have governed Greece through the ages. If we add to this judiciary, which in the past two weeks has appeared to be seriously compromised by its close relationship with the other two, we see that the Vatopedi scandal, as it has become known, strikes right at the heart of Greece’s power structure. And yet, the story is still nebulous – more the product of suggestion and insinuation than hard facts. On Friday, Parliament is to vote on a proposal made by PASOK for a preliminary judicial inquiry into three government ministers who allegedly expedited the Vatopedi Monastery’s exchange of relatively worthless lagoonside property for choice real estate that the monks sold for a huge profit. Two days earlier, Parliament voted unanimously to hold a judicial inquiry into whether any government officials are culpable in the affair. The government had backed that proposal. The difference with Friday’s vote is that here three ministers are named as being under suspicion. Seeing as State Minister Theodoros Roussopoulos, who was also the government spokesman and who resigned on Thursday, is the principal target, the vote is loaded in symbolism – and danger for the government. Roussopoulos had been Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s right hand since he was hired as New Democracy’s spokes-man in 2000, four years before the party returned to power. He has been seen as the eminence grise of government policy, exerting undue influence way beyond his brief. True or not, the claims come with the position. So Roussopoulos is the target of opposition parties, but also of many disgruntled ND deputies who feel sidelined. The former minister, however, is tied to the scandal chiefly because of his close relationship with the head monk of Vatopedi, Ephraim. Whether this helped the monks multiply the assets of the splendid Mount Athos monastery is not clear. But it was enough to place Roussopoulos at the center of the crisis. If he is found to be involved in the Vatopedi shenanigans, the chief interest will concern whether Roussopoulos got anything in return or if he was just another politician doing his bit to help a monastery. Such pious officials are a dime a dozen in Greece, where the Church and state and parts of the judiciary are still tangled in an unholy alliance. Karamanlis fears that enmity for Roussopoulos may lead some ND MPs to break ranks on Friday and vote for the PASOK proposal. As ND has 152 seats in the 300-seat House, losing this vote would have forced the premier to call snap elections. Roussopoulos’s resignation and ND’s abstention from the vote averted this. And so, as the rest of the world tries to find ways to deal with the huge confidence crisis rocking its markets and the coming recession, in Greece we may have a political crisis because of the sorry outcome of the dangerous liaisons between Church, state and judiciary. The performance is gripping, but it is a dangerous diversion.