Tuesday 24 October 2017

Syriza declares war at home on Greece's 'oligarchs'

Greece's new anti-corruption minister Panagiotis Nikoloudis
Greece's new anti-corruption minister Panagiotis Nikoloudis

Greece's new anti-corruption minister is spearheading a campaign against the handful of wealthy families who dominate Greek political and economic life.

International attention on Greece since the Syriza party took over has focused on the leftist government's fight against austerity.

But Panagiotis Nikoloudis (65), a supreme court prosecutor and specialist on economic crime, is leading another battle declared by Syriza: one on the home front, against some of the wealthy businessmen who dominate Greek political and economic life.

Speaking to parliament last week, Nikoloudis denounced an elite that included a "handful of families who think that the state and public service exists to service their own interests."

"Such businessmen influence politicians and state officials abuse their control of the media to unfairly win state contracts, change regulations to their advantage or escape prosecution for illegal conduct," he said.

As a non-political outsider with a clean record, Nikoloudis is a popular appointment among Greeks who believe corruption is deeply embedded in society.

He has a reputation for action, and says the financial intelligence unit, which he led until now, developed a system of audits that identified over 20,000 people whose assets do not match their tax declarations.

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George Sourlas, a senior official at the justice ministry and a former conservative MP, said he "had to admit" the anti-corruption measures put forward by Nikoloudis were "very impressive so far."

Sourlas praised Syriza's promise to curb oil smuggling, a racket in which un-taxed fuel for export or commercial shipping is diverted and sold instead for domestic consumption, evading sales tax due.

"The smugglers have the support of political power and a relationship with all political parties," he said.

Prime Minister Alex Tsipras has announced radical measures aimed at what he calls the "oligarchs", including re-licensing private TV channels, ending "crony" bank loans for the well-connected, exercising the state's voting rights in the case of majority shareholdings of private banks, unwinding some key privatisations and aggressive tax audits of those with offshore bank accounts.

"We have made the decision to clash with a regime of political and economic power that plunged our country into the crisis and is responsible of Greece's depreciation on an international level," Tsipras told parliament.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has been equally blunt, declaring that his government will "destroy the oligarchy" in order to increase tax revenues, open markets and spur economic growth.

So far, no-one has been named in the crackdown, and few of Greece's top entrepreneurs have commented publicly.

But deals under scrutiny include the privatisation of the national lottery and planned sell-off of state shares in major ports.

Energy Minister and Syriza party member Panagiotis Lafazanis told parliament last week the government would seek the cancellation of the "scandalous purchase" of the old Athens airport, Hellenikon, by Lamda Development, a company controlled by the family of Greece's richest businessman, Spiros Latsis.

Lamda responded with a statement lamenting "the discouraging message to the long-term private international investors that our country desperately needs."

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