Sunday 22 January 2017

Mother of the bribe

Thomas Molloy reports from Greece, a country so corrupt that you can even sleep your way to a university degree

Published 27/09/2011 | 10:38

Anna Manoledaki flashes a beautiful smile as she remembers her life in Dublin before she returned to Athens a few years ago. The hotel booking clerk, who still visits for St Patrick's Day, knows the country is very different to the boom-time Ireland she experienced -- but she says Greeks are suffering to a degree that just can't be imagined in Ireland.

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"Most of us are desperate," she says. "I'm angry, desperate, frustrated. You want to shout -- but it's like you have something stuck in your throat and nobody can hear you."

Anna knows that the country has brought much of its suffering on itself. It's down to one simple, withering word. . .

"Corruption; look it up in a dictionary. It is a Greek word."

It's a disease that has infected every aspect of Greek life.

People ask the question -- surely the country that brought philosophy and democracy to Europe has the brains to find a way out of the crisis?

They don't take into account the fact that many people got their degrees by sleeping with or paying the examiners. It's one of the reasons so many people, from the prime minister downwards, chose to study abroad.

"Ireland is much, much more honest," says Anna, who lived in Dublin's Temple Bar area for a year.

While agreeing that there is a lot of pain in Ireland these days, Anna believes we are largely free of the petty corruption which makes so many everyday tasks an ordeal in Greece.

Among the many examples, she singles out the bribes routinely paid during driving tests to ensure a pass. "It is crazy and it also leads to a lot of deaths among young people," she says.

While both Ireland and Greece can point to endless examples of corruption in high places, only Greece is suffused by the everyday variety which slowly saps self-belief and faith in any form of government or personal initiative.

Michael Massourakis, a middle-aged chief economist with a large bank, points to another field where corruption is rife in Greece: medicine.

"Doctors routinely ask whether you want a receipt or not. With a receipt, it might be €120; without, €100. You don't want to displease your doctor, he is giving you advice that maybe your life depends on," the economist shrugs.

He always insists on receipts, however. "People don't make the links between their own behaviour and what is happening to Greece right now," he says.

One of the main reasons Greece is not meeting the IMF-imposed targets and destabilising the world's financial markets is this everyday type of corruption, which prevents the government from collecting enough taxes to fund the state.

The wealthy middle class, who used Swiss bank accounts much the same way Irish people use prize bonds or post-office accounts, are the main culprits here. With few social welfare benefits and difficult-to-evade local authority taxes that depend on electricity consumption, it is more difficult for the poor to sidestep the taxman.

There are 300 centres for tax collection in this country of 11.2 million, and the head of every tax centre changes with a new government. The collectors routinely play favourites to help out their extended families, while officials take kickbacks from firms when doing audits, Massourakis says.

For all Ireland's failings, we don't have a system where the Revenue Commissioners are politically appointed and then exclude supporters of whoever happens to be in Government, along with friends and family.

Many young people in Greece earn between €500 and €700 a month and then pay taxes on this. Even these kinds of jobs are hard to find. Suicide is rising sharply. A 55-year-old man doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire in the city of Thessaloniki last week to highlight his debt problems.

With unemployment at 16.5pc and forecast to hit 18.5pc next year, both private and public sector jobs are scarce and tend to be awarded to friends and relations.

"In Ireland, if you have a degree, you have always had a realistic chance of getting a good job without an uncle or a brother," says Anna. "Here you need to know somebody. It doesn't matter if you have a higher degree."

Greece has no equivalent of the centralised system used in Ireland to recruit civil servants and prevent cronyism.

Instead, the system used to recruit the one million Greek public sector workers is deliberately obscure and opaque.

The struggle for those Greeks who do make it into the high-paying public sector is worth it: after lengthy probations, the constitution guarantees jobs for life and the working hours are 7am to 3pm.

Blanaid Zachariou, a Dubliner who has been living in Greece for more than three decades, is a member of the 100-strong Irish community in Athens. The former sports teacher clearly loves both countries, but is scathing about many aspects of Greek life.

"The hospitals and schools are very bad," Blanaid says. "There's an abuse of funds. Everybody is abusing funds. They don't follow rules, don't follow guidelines. It's on a grand scale here. There are no police on the streets, no speed cameras."

While Greece and Ireland have both enjoyed an economic boom followed by a rapid and gut-wrenching bust, Ireland has much more to show than Greece.

"There are brilliant roads in Ireland. You can see the Celtic Tiger everywhere. It's very sad what has happened since, but you are on the mend," she says.

"I don't see any mend in Greece. It's not good at all. It's not fair on the youth. There is dreadful unemployment," adds the mother of two student daughters, both studying overseas. "In Athens, a lot of young people can't make ends meet."

Despite these problems, Blanaid has no intention of leaving her adopted homeland. "When you've been here a long time, you know how to get things done, what to do," she says. And then there is the weather; the glorious warmth of the south, which means that you can sit out in the evening in a T-shirt almost every day for nine months of the year.

Elias Mitropoulos, a 19-year-old dental technician, is leaving despite the weather. He has had enough. The burly amateur boxer who owns two pitbull terriers has seen the Athenian suburb he grew up in buckle under the weight of crime, prostitution and drugs, which he blames on the financial crisis. "My home is in the middle of a ghetto now," he says.

As the recession bites, this only child must accompany his mother to work every evening to protect her from thieves. He says many of his friends have lost hope of finding work and several have died in drunken motorcycle accidents.

Unlike most Greeks, he does not blame the government for the situation.

"It is a country where no government ever works. Not now and not a hundred years ago," he says.

"Nobody wants to do what they are told. There is no order, no rules. I've been buying cigarettes since I was 10 or 11. That's not right."

This Christmas he plans to leave Greece forever to finish his studies in Stockholm, bring over his mother and then settle down. "I just want a normal life with normal things," he says. "You can't have that here any more."

Not everybody is leaving, of course. Anna Manoledaki does not plan on moving, despite speaking five languages and having lived in several other countries as well as Ireland and Greece.

"Hope dies last," she says with a shrug. "As long as I am breathing and have my health, I'm staying."



Keeping spirits up with games of backgammon and glasses of ouzo

In Athens this week, many Greeks spoke to the Irish Independent about their lives since the financial crisis washed over the country. Here are three of their stories.

ELSIE Makkas has just finished lighting a candle in a gloomy Greek Orthodox church festooned with frescoes. "I said a little prayer for Greece today," she says in heavily accented English. "It sometimes feels like our country has been forgotten by God."

The well-dressed, middle-aged woman has an unusual problem -- she can't wear her fur coat in public anymore. "Everybody assumes the rich are thieves these days. They attack us. They blame us for all the problems.

"It is not true -- the real source of our problems is the immigrants. The Africans. The Russians. Everybody is coming to Greece and using our health services."

DIMITRI Lefakis and Yannis Papagegeorgiou are playing backgammon on a table in a quiet square. Military veterans, they get by on around €800 a month each.

"Thank goodness I own my house otherwise I simply could not live. All my children and grandchildren are talking about leaving Athens. Some to go back to the land and some to go abroad," says Yannis.

Despite their low pensions, the two widowers eat a small restaurant lunch of olives, fish, a glass of ouzo and a coffee for about €5 each day. "It is our one pleasure, along with talvi (the Greek version of backgammon)."

YIORGOS doesn't want his surname used. The impossibly good-looking policeman is getting ready for Thursday's day of action, where he expects to be fighting with rioters.

"It is an insult," he says. "I am making about €850 a month and I have to stand there as the students and civil servants throw stones. Many of them earn far more than me.

"It is the overpaid government officials who are protesting; they don't want to lose their big comfortable jobs. As for the students, after destroying the walls and buildings, they will go home to their families to sleep. This is a crazy country."

Sometimes, it is hard to disagree.

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