23 July 2012

Greece, corruption and recovery

Greece has passed "successfully" the test of the elections, if you look at it from the point of view of European institutions and, more generally, of North-West European governments. A center right government has been elected, joining the fledgeling forces of Nea Democratia (winner because of the 50 MP's bonus) to the beaten down PASOK and the Democratiki Aristera alibi (DA, the untainted ones if you prefer). Although they all promised to renegotiate the Memorandum of Understanding with the European Troika, they all know that it is pointless, at best providing marginal relief in terms of growth stimulation. Nevertheless, the spectre of a takeover by demagogic groups like Syriza is out of the way and reforms, the most painful ones are being undertaken.

Unfortunately, the very fact that the test was successful will make the recovery even more difficult. It sounds contradictory, but it is quite logical. The parties in favor of maintaining this road to recovery are also the same corrupt phony elites that put the country there in the first place. To the exception of DA, the Ministers and more importantly the MP's in the majority are the incompetent people who have been feeding on the back of the Greek citizens since the Greek Civil War. And, very rightfully, many commentators (myself included) have pointed out the irony of letting the thieves policing and judging the robbery. Because let's be realistic here: it is grand theft we are talking about, and on a massive scale. In Greece, from the lowest level to the highest, everybody is on the take. There are very few exceptions, be it amongst higher civil servants or politicians. While generalizations are dangerous, you could be forgiven in assuming that any politician you name is probably doubling his/her already quite generous salary with bribes.

But the problem is way beyond this. Even if Greece, by some miracle, finds a sure way tomorrow towards growth and economic recovery, its budget and financial structure is mined by a major issue: there is no respect for the rule of law. In fact, when you look at it, even superficially, Greece has the means to balance its budget and recover enough taxes and State income to pay for decent government expenses. All it needs to do (easier said than done) is to enforce and apply its own laws. It needs everyone, from the simplest citizen to the bigger multinational business to pay taxes, it needs people to follow the rules and be fined or prosecuted if they don't and it needs everyone to stop stealing from the State. Because while stealing from the State, while it looks like a victimless crime, is in fact a crime against oneself and everyone else. Greeks simply don't understand this.

The illusion is that only fat cats and politicians steal, take bribes and tax evade. But the sad truth is that everyone does. Worse, even "honest people" simply have no respect for the rule of law. It begins with the simplest things: traffic rules, receipts in small transactions, and so on. No law is respected and no one enforces them. Cops rarely give tickets and never check traffic. As a result, not only they don't get money from fines, but they are not respected either. And of course, the Greek traffic is extremely deadly, with numerous accidents and severe consequences. So it is true that Greece needs to stop the tax evasion of its super-rich, the thieves living in their Filoteia and Kifissia villas, surrounded by barb wires and armed private guards. But it is also true that it is the entire mentality of a country which needs to change, from the taxi driver to the hair dresser to the cop to the city hall employee to the Prime Minister. Without this, Greece will remain the third world country it is, on par with Morocco for corruption and Yemen for ease of creating a business.

Greece can be a rich country, as it has the resources and the infrastructure to sustain itself easily. All it needs is to switch to modernity, not by creating more laws but by applying them and by switching on the very mind of the citizens. It is going to be a long process and a painful one. I wonder when it will start...

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