OPINION

‘Greece is corrupt’

«Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, wrote a new page in the inglorious history of his nation’s public finances this week by acknowledging to his European Union peers that the Greek public sector was riddled with corruption,» The Financial Times wrote last Saturday. Under the headline «Papandreou says Greece is corrupt,» the paper described the EU summit the previous week in which «the bloc’s 26 other national leaders sat in silence as Mr Papandreou delivered a short, blunt speech that said everything the rest of Europe had long known, or suspected, about Greek bureaucracy.» The prime minister is trying to persuade his counterparts to give Greece some time to get its public finances in order, without adopting the austerity measures that the European Commission and international markets are expecting. He is right to believe that corruption plays a leading role in the waste of public money and this is the reason that he summoned a meeting of all political party leaders last week, inaugurating a national discussion on the issue. But as a person who has lived a large part of his life abroad and as a career politician with long years of service in Parliament and government, Papandreou ought to avoid the amateurish behavior described by The Financial Times. He ought to know that Greece’s partners and the markets want to see specific actions on the economy and not hear more good intentions, and that when a prime minister describes his country’s public administration as totally corrupt, he justifies the use of that image by others. Now the world knows not only that the Greeks are wastrels but they are thieves on top of it. Their prime minister said as much. After successive governments allowed the economy to sink into debt and inefficiency, it fell upon George Papandreou’s government to try to save the situation. The problem is that its members appear to be seriously divided on the issue, while the prime minister tries to reassure his followers that they will lose no benefits at the same time that he is trying to tell the international community that he will curb spending and increase revenues. How does he hope to please everyone? With the time-tested promise that he will stamp out tax evasion and corruption while providing incentives for growth. The same promises are made by every government that is too scared to deal with the economy’s serious problems – such as low productivity, the need for social security reform, the opening up of closed professions, dealing with mismanagement in the public sector etc. So, to appear more convincing, this government has announced a crusade on corruption. The aim is praiseworthy but we should not forget how this corruption came about – who has tolerated it, who has nurtured it and who has exploited it. The political elite functions on the traditional client-patron system, in which all kinds of political favors (in hiring, paying and never holding employees accountable) undermine efforts to instill meritocracy, get the public sector working and introduce a just salary system. This creates a vicious circle in which those who want to do their jobs well (and they are many) run up against those who will do only what suits them. In the end, even the capable workers give up, having no incentive to do better. That is why our taxes and social security contributions are wasted. It is this widespread mismanagement of human and financial resources, as well as the inconceivable mess of conflicting laws and responsibilities, which constitute Greece’s greatest problem. Instead of solving it, each government buys itself some peace of mind by hiring more people in the public sector and raising their wages, with the result that between 2000 and 2010 public sector wages doubled (and are estimated at 14 billion euros next year). Let’s not even mention the clear-cut scandals of influence peddling, such as the neighborhood civil servant who takes money to speed things up, all the way to the major parties taking money from Siemens. No government has dared wake the sleeping dogs, and no political party is blameless. Instead of doing whatever is necessary to resurrect the economy, the prime minister has chosen to cast the blame on the workers in the public sector – the greatest section of working Greeks. And by extension he has tarred the rest of us.