Harmonious living is the highest and most difficult of Arts
It is possible that we learn the Art of harmonious living
through our mistakes, if we are taught by them.
In this long, and often painful, learning process,
cultivating virtues in our character is a must.
Applying common sense in every situation always helps.
This ultimate ART is our mission in this life!
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The Wages of Greek "Democracy"
In the face of the unprecedented political and financial scandals, in which the Socialist government of PASOK (“Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement”) was mired, the word “Catharsis,” had become a slogan in the mouths of disappointed Greek people and, indeed, of the campaigners of every political party. Even Andreas Papandreou himself, famous for his charm and his populist sensibility, had to endorse...
the necessity of “Catharsis.” If re-elected, he promised to carry out a thorough investigation into the alleged scandals and punish those involved, no matter how high an office they had held in his government.
The whole atmosphere was full of a sense of anticipation for a cleansing of the political system of its scandals, corruption, and decay. Nearly all columnists in the daily newspapers wrote fiery articles about the need for the return of principles and values to Greece’s political and public life. In a way, most, if not all of them, had assumed the role of heralds of righteousness. One had the impression that Greece was about to turn over a new page, i.e. to turn her back on a rotten past, to swallow the bitterness caused by the promised “change” (allaghi) which never came, and make a new beginning under an honest leadership.
Personally, it didn’t take me long to enter the climate of “Catharsis” and be enthusiastic about it. What was going on around me, what I heard from radio programs, what I witnessed in the streets and watched on television was in tune with what I had in my heart ever since I had returned permanently to Greece in November 1984, i.e. the need for a national regeneration. Great hope arose in my heart that, perhaps, the time for this had arrived and that, surely, I myself had a role to play in my country’s moral revival.
Without wasting any time, I started collecting information on the alleged scandals in order to organize my archives for what I knew was going to be one of my next books. I also collected all the speeches of Andreas Papandreou and of his chief rival, Constantine Mitsotakis, the then leader of the conservative opposition party (New Democracy), as well as their interviews in the dailies. I nearly cracked up because for this work. I was reading almost all the daily newspapers, underlining the important parts, and forming separate files on each subject. Luckily, I didn’t have to buy all those newspapers.
For more than a year – nearly all the critical period I am talking about – someone else bought the papers for me. I only had to read them a day later. I had never met this man, but the kind lady, who was selling newspapers in her kiosk, took the initiative in asking her customer not to throw away the papers at the end of the day because someone else needed them! So, every day I collected the previous day’s papers from the kiosk. I did this faithfully for over a year, and I was so grateful to that lady and the unknown friend. You see, under my financial circumstances, I could not afford to pay daily for newspapers so much money. But as the saying goes, “Where there's a Will, there's a way”!
Little could I have suspected at that time that the “Catharsis” everyone promised, and for the sake of which the nation was almost driven to the verge of another civil war, would end up in a fiasco. I could have never imagined that the hypocrisy and ambiguousness of the politicians would prove stronger than the Greek majority’s demand for “Catharsis” of governmental corruption. Greece had arrived at a crossroads and was called by Fate to make a critical choice. What a pity, how tragic, she chose the wrong turn! She preferred compromise and covering up of corruption. This gave the green light to more corruption, more decay, more shoulder-shrugging cynicism, and more disillusionment. Now, what President Constantine Karamanlis had said several months earlier, that the state of the country was as that of “a vast madhouse”, was confirmed beyond any doubt.
In this short story I shall not refer in detail to that dark, in my opinion, period of Greece’s modern history, for which I have already written a book (in Greek). Rather, I shall only mention a few things, just to enable the reader to form his own opinion on those events. What cast the darkest cloud over the Papandreou government was the so-called “Koskotas Scandal.” According to Constantine Mitsotakis, that was the biggest financial and political scandal Greece had ever known. How tragic for my country that worse than these scandals would follow later…
The “Koskotas Scandal” had been gathering force since mid-October, 1988, when a special commissioner was appointed to conduct an audit at the Bank of Crete, a bank controlled by Koskotas. By the end of November, the commissioner had found that at least $209 million dollars was missing from the Bank of Crete! The matter had, literally, stirred up a storm around Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and his government. All over our country Greeks now wondered how this mysterious Koskotas, only thirty-four years old, had managed in six years to build an economic empire and a press conglomerate (Grammi) comprising three daily newspapers, five magazines, and a radio station. The indisputable fact that all Grammi’s magazines and newspapers served the interests of the Papandreou government raised suspicions among rival publishers who had been worrying about Koskotas’ aggressive penetration into the publishing industry.
Where did Koskotas – only a junior officer at the Bank of Crete since 1979 – find the money to found “Grammi” back in 1982 and create one of the world’s most advanced printing plants? And where did he raise the money from to buy the Bank of Crete in 1984? Further, by whose order from autumn 1985 – only a few months after Papandreou’s re-election on the 2nd of June – did state-managed corporations start transferring large bank deposits from the big national banks into the Bank of Crete, then the smallest private bank in the country? Still, by whose urging did Koskotas buy the popular Greek football team Olympiakos, spending four billion drachmas, a sum far exceeding his bank’s legally available working capital? Last, but not least, by whose help did Koskotas manage to flee Greece in November 1988, despite the round-the-clock discreet surveillance by 40 secret service agents?
All the above questions, and many more, demanded clear and convincing answers. Publishing rivals called for a reckoning while all Greeks demanded a thorough investigation into “The Scandal of the Century.” In the meantime, George Koskotas was locked in an American prison in Salem, Massachusetts, and was fighting extradition to Greece on charges of forgery and embezzlement. From there he threatened that he held enough secrets “to fry” the entire Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou. Was Koskotas telling the truth?
This, briefly, was the notorious “Koskotas Scandal” which alarmed respected authors, academicians, and intellectuals in Greece. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only scandal that surfaced during that period. Charges of bribery and corruption against government officials were abounding. Succumbing to the pressure of the public demand for “Catharsis”, several parliamentary investigating committees were formed to check through testimonies regarding the alleged scandals.
Under the circumstances, and as I was longing for the spiritual renewal of my country, I probably overestimated the role which I, as a writer, could play in the Greek political scene. For the rest of the year I did nothing else apart from collecting and absorbing information on the vulgarization of Greek society. At times, I felt as if I had been stooping down over a huge, uncovered cesspool, stirring it up and inhaling its sickening odor. Yet, I was grimly determined to follow closely what Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou called “the nightmare”. I had decided to fully experience, along with all my fellow Greeks, the national drama awaiting “Catharsis” – “Catharsis” in which I also had a role to play through my books. I used to believe this at that time with all my heart.
In the June 18th, 1989, parliamentary election returns, Papandreou’s socialist PASOK party lost its majority in Parliament. However, in spite of all scandals and the alleged charges of embezzlement, kickbacks, and bribery against his government, Papandreou collected quite a high percentage of votes (39.1%) and secured 125 seats in the 300-member Greek Parliament. No one was more surprised by this outcome than Papandreou himself. It was surely more than he could have expected. To have 39% of the voters by your side, when nearly all the media are against you, is not a small thing. A well-known and respected columnist commented that the people who voted for the “PASOK of scandals” must be crazy... Crazy or not, it was apparent that at least 39% of the voters voted against “Catharsis.”
Thanks to the new electoral law that strengthened the potential showing of the second party in Parliament – a law passed in March 1989, and tailor-made to suit the needs and to boost Papandreou’s weakened PASOK – Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party, which collected 44.37% of the votes, secured only 145 seats, i.e. it fell six seats short of an absolute majority of 151 seats. Mitsotakis, then, although he was the winner, couldn’t form a pure New Democracy party government. Thus, intense negotiating started in order to form a ruling coalition with the “Alliance of the Left.” It was absolutely crucial that this Parliament would form a government, if there were to be any real political cleansing. Greek law placed a time limit of only one parliamentary term, no matter how short, as the span within which to prosecute cabinet ministers for crimes committed in the previous term.
In order for a ruling coalition to be formed, intensive bargaining started among the parties, while the role of “kingmaker” had now fallen to the “Alliance of the Left” for the first time in Greek history! The Alliance, dominated by Harilaos Florakis’ Communist Party, had won a total of 28 seats at the polls. First, C. Mitsotakis, the leader of the New Democracy party, was given the mandate by the then-President of Greek Democracy, Christos Sartzetakis, to form a coalition. According to Greek law, he had three days in which to try. Under the circumstances, his only option for collaboration was with the “Alliance of the Left.” But, Harilaos Florakis was reluctant to share power with Mitsotakis. Instead, the Alliance released a statement calling for an “ecumenical government,” formed by “commonly acceptable personalities” that would begin the process of “Catharsis” and lead the country to new elections. Mitsotakis did not accept that idea and, so, the mandate went to Andreas Papandreou. He, too, was unable to form a ruling coalition, as both parties, the right and the left, had made it clear that there would be “no collaboration with the leadership of PASOK.”
The Greek drama was dragging on too long. At least it seemed so to those, like myself, who longed for “Catharsis” and agonized over the future of their country. By now, all Greek affairs, domestic and foreign, were put on hold. To use a popular expression of that period, everything was “frozen.” The whole country was at a standstill, or, rather, brought into a muddled condition. Meanwhile, the Greek media continued bringing to light more scandals from the previous government, including some deceitful deeds against the European Community, kickbacks from arms purchases, and the planting of illegal wiretaps.
When the mandate was given to Harilaos Florakis, the eyes of all Greeks turned to him. Was he serious about “Catharsis?” Could he find a solution to deliver Greece from this drama? Whatever decision he would make, it would be historical in any case. Of course, it wouldn’t be a personal decision, but the Alliance’s. It was now up to the “Alliance of the Left” to put together a coalition to end the stalemate that followed the June 18th elections. Thanks to Mitsotakis’ brave decision to drop his insistence on being appointed Prime Minister in a new government, the way towards the solution of this Greek drama opened, literally, at the last minute. At that, Harilaos Florakis, the leader of the Communist Party, then seventy-five years old, announced that his Alliance would support a three-month interim government under conservative leadership, but with the widest possible participation. Prime Minister of this transitional government would be Tzannis Tzannetakis, a retired naval officer and long-time Member of Parliament.
What a relief! As I heard this news I cried for joy. I was so happy that when I met a communist, an old man in our building, I spontaneously embraced him. I was surprised to realize that he was just as enthusiastic about this solution as I was. He, too, had a burden for “Catharsis” and although he hated conservatives – he had been in exile for several years because of them – he didn’t mind communists collaborating temporarily with the Right for he knew there was no other way to lead the country into political cleansing.
The new coalition government was called “monster-bred” (“teratogenesis”) and “government of non-governing” (“kyvernisi akyvernisias”) by Andreas Papandreou. On the other hand, C. Mitsotakis called the Communists’ decision to support the conservatives a “historic compromise.” However, H. Florakis never stopped publicly expressing his demurral over this, repeating that it was “only a temporary solution with very specific goals.” Indeed, the main aim of this transitional government was to carry out national “Catharsis”, specifically the investigation and punishment of senior officials in the previous Papandreou government, who allegedly were involved in financial scandals. Now, Tzannis Tzannetakis, Greece’s new Prime Minister whom Andreas Papandreou called “straw man” (“ahyranthropos”), promised that he would proceed swiftly to the already planned investigations into fraud and corruption under the preceding administration of Andreas Papandreou, but without vengefulness.
During that period, Papandreou’s PASOK didn’t remain idle. It launched a nasty war of obstruction against the new government. Most outgoing ministers refused to brief their successors, while it was reported that their offices had been stripped of important files and documents. Worse still, the pro-PASOK daily “Avriani” along with its “Radio Athens 99.2” were undermining our very national unity. Avriani’s radio station had launched a systematic, malicious propaganda campaign against the conservatives, scratching old wounds, and stirring up passions of hatred, which had been buried in the nation’s collective subconscious since the end of the bloody civil war, some fifty years before. Songs of warfare talking about bloodshed, knives and swords, were pulled out of the “ossuary” of the darkest period of Greek history by Avriani’s radio station. These songs were played over and over again, always followed by Papandreou’s most popular slogan: “The people don’t forget what the Right means.” “The Right” in the Papandreou era, by the way, was, more or less, a synonym for fascism.
It was as if some secret dark agents were fomenting national chaos. I was terrified. I often feared the worst. I resorted to praying earnestly for peace in our country, but not at the cost of “Catharsis.” For me, “Catharsis” was important for the very survival of our nation. I don’t know how many of my fellow Greeks felt the same way, or how many feared another civil war over “Catharsis,” but I honestly did. Was I oversensitive, perhaps even naive? Or, did I have some inner information so that I could intercede in prayer for my country more effectively? Only God knows...
While the “Catharsis”-seeking lawmakers were preparing to establish parliamentary committees – one for each scandalous affair – for examining the alleged involvement of Papandreou and members of his cabinet in scandals, Papandreou, himself, newly-released from a hospital where he had been treated for pneumonia, was getting ready to marry the princess of his heart, former air hostess, Dimitra Liani. The couple was married on the 13th of July 1989, and for Greece, this was “the marriage of the century.”
I was only now beginning to marvel at the determination and tremendous inner strength of Andreas Papandreou. This was the man who, less than a year before (September 30, 1988) and at the age of 69, had undergone triple bypass cardiac surgery and who, for a short while, seemed to have lost nearly everything: his health, his family’s and countrymen’s respect, and his government’s credibility. Now, though, with Dimitra always by his side, he appeared to be flexing his political muscles again, dynamically confronting the fiercest accusations from the media and political opponents any Greek politician had ever faced. And, thanks to his gift of spellbinding oratory, he managed to keep his party together throughout the most critical for PASOK period.
Because of the long, heated parliamentary debates on the alleged scandals of Papandreou’s previous administration, the gulf between socialists and conservatives widened. Suddenly, though, as the Greek people were watching the live acrimonious debate through the state-managed television channels, there was a gesture of national reconciliation that surprised most Greeks. The coalition government of Tzannis Tzannetakis, in an attempt to wipe out the long-standing sense of division and mistrust between the left and the right, performed an important symbolic action. It decided to burn about 100 tons of security files, collected since 1944, on hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens who were considered to be a threat to the state. The files concerned communists and had been compiled by conservative (right) as well as socialist (center) governments. This was an effort to immolate a painful past and purge old and bitter memories from the 4-1/2 year civil war that ended in August 1949.
I was shocked to hear that more than 16.5 million files were burned in the furnace of a steel mill in Eleusina, a few miles outside of Athens! Watching the darkest part of Greek history going up in flames on television, while the Greek Parliament was voting for “Catharsis,” filled my heart with hope for my country’s regeneration and a new beginning towards a healthier future for our nation. Alas, my enthusiasm was short-lived. On the 26th of September 1989, only a few hours before the Parliament debated the fate of Andreas Papandreou on Koskotas’ scandal, national “reconciliation” was dipped in blood. A prominent new lawmaker, Pavlos Bakoyannis, was shot dead by the notorious “November 17th” terrorist organization outside his office in Kolonaki. Who was Pavlos Bakoyannis? None other than the son-in-law and close adviser of New Democracy leader, Constantine Mitsotakis, husband of the current Minister for Foreign Affairs of Greece, Mrs. Dora Bakoyannis. The whole nation was shocked and everyone expected that the heated debate in Parliament would, at least, be postponed. It went on as scheduled, though, with roses decorating Bakoyannis’ empty seat in Parliament...
On September 28th, at three o’clock in the morning, after two days of vigorous debates in which Papandreou defended himself dynamically, the 300-member Parliament decreed with 166 “yes” votes to refer the former Prime Minister to a special Court. This court would be composed of 12 judges drawn from the high Courts of the country and would be headed by the President of the Supreme Court. Along with Andreas Papandreou, four of his former cabinet ministers would be tried, all facing charges of gross malfeasance in connection with the Koskotas scandal. A week earlier (September 20th), at midnight, Parliament had agreed by 169 “yes” votes that Papandreou should also be prosecuted for allegedly ordering illegal wiretaps on the phones of prominent politicians – friends as well as foes. Papandreou was absent during those parliamentary debates because of “too much respect for Parliament, the highest institution of democracy”! This is what he said in his letter to Parliament.
Within a week, the coalition government of “Catharsis,” having completed its role, dissolved Parliament and called new elections for November 5th, 1989. The Socialist campaign theme would now be the government’s “penalization of political life,” the “debasing of democracy,” the “biased handling of the alleged scandals,” and the question: “In the future, what will stop a parliamentary majority from indicting the minority with criminal charges with each change of government?” These were now Papandreou’s new arguments against “Catharsis”. On the top of it, he had already set in motion the most wondrous live laundry: the “laundry” of people! It was the people, i.e. the PASOK voters, who were now called to carry the burden of Papandreou’s defense. And they did carry it, quite effectively, while their idol kept declaring in high tones and in every instance, “No mud touches me.” Apparently, in Papandreou’s opinion, Parliament based its decision to refer him to a special Court upon “mud,” upon “despicable allegations,” and as part of an “unprecedented political conspiracy” aimed at destroying him as well as Greek democracy! And his faithful followers believed him.
This kind of campaigning proved quite effective for PASOK as it increased its percentage in the November 5th election returns! PASOK took 40.7% of the votes and 128 seats, i.e. three more seats than before. New Democracy increased its percentage, too. It received 46.2% and 148 seats, but it still fell three seats short of an absolute majority! The loser was now the “Alliance of the Left” which lost seven seats. It was “punished” for collaborating with the right to send Papandreou to court. Once again, the electoral law produced no government. For this, no one was more furious than C. Mitsotakis. It appeared that his life-long goal of becoming Prime Minister was out of his reach. How ironic and frustrating for him to know that under the previous electoral law, which was in force during the 1985 elections, PASOK had secured 161 seats with only 45.82% of the votes!
New negotiations and bargaining started, new coming-and-going of party leaders to President Christos Sartzetakis, and the Greek drama continued with all national affairs being “frozen.” I was beginning to be sick and tired of all this. I had seen the same “play” before. “Who is going to deliver us from this stalemate?” I wondered. The only thing that had now become obvious was that any viable government should include PASOK in it. No one could ignore the will of 40.7% of the Greek people. The accusers had to collaborate with the accused! It seemed absurd, but there was no other way...
On the 21st of November, a new-old “Messiah” was sworn in as Prime Minister of an “ecumenical” government. He was Xenophon Zolotas, eighty-five years old, a professor of economics and former governor of the Bank of Greece for many decades. He was considered to be a wise man and many hoped that, with his knowledge and vast experience, he would manage to face the chaotic economic situation of Greece effectively. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. From its inception, the “ecumenical” government was systematically undermined by New Democracy’s leader, C. Mitsotakis, who couldn’t wait to become Prime Minister. He kept stating publicly that this “discordant” alliance of conservatives, socialists and communists was unable to govern, because the three partners couldn’t agree on any important policies, nor could they find solutions to pressing economic problems. The funny or rather tragic thing was that Mitsotakis started grumbling about the government of “national unity and national necessity” only three days after he had agreed to support it! He demanded that new elections should be held, at the latest by April 1990. This meant that the Greek people would be drawn to elections for the third time in nine months!
For me, all this was frustrating, ridiculous, absurd, and even treacherous. I couldn’t wait to put pen to paper to denounce all the political machinations that had brought our country to political, economic, and moral chaos. To immediately start a book about all this was premature, though, as I had to wait for “Catharsis” to be completed in the special Court. This would take another two years, but it was important for me to speak now. I felt that I ought to get actively involved in what was going on in my country. Ideally, I would like to have a column in one of the daily papers and pour out my soul. I firmly believed that I not only had a calling in writing but, moreover, I had a practical and rational thinking and that my opinion would be interesting and useful. So, I started writing political articles, sending them to various newspapers together with an application for employment. However, I had no success. Once again, what I already knew had been verified: in Greece, it doesn’t matter what you know and what you can do, but whom you know. And, unfortunately, I had no acquaintances in high Media places.
Eventually, I resorted to “Physe” (“Nature”), a bi-weekly ecological paper published by the “Union of Ecologists.” Its publishers and editors – two partners – were thrilled with my fiery articles. They published them without any censorship, although, I must admit, quite often my language was strong and sharp against vile politicians. I wasn’t getting paid for these articles, but the publishers agreed that at the end of the year, they would compile all my articles into a book and publish it for me. I was more than happy with this deal and made sure that I tackled all the political, social, and religious issues that burdened me the most. I wrote articles about the real ecology – which should start from our own selves – about education, anarchy, populism, union strikes, terrorism, the predicament of communism, the vulgarization of the Media, what the characteristics of a good politician should be, the Orthodox Church, and more. I also wrote “open” letters to Constantine Mitsotakis and Andreas Papandreou, the protagonists of social and political chaos during that period. I was happy with what I was doing and, although I was aware that “Physe” did not have a particularly large circulation, I believed that I was fulfilling my mission to Greece.
In the election returns of April 8th, 1990, the New Democracy Party took 46.88% of the votes and 150 parliamentary seats, still one seat short of an absolute majority! This time, however, C. Mitsotakis was luckier than before. Theodoros Katsikis, the only deputy of DIANA – a party then headed by the later President of the Hellenic Republic, C. Stephanopoulos, who had lost his seat – was willing to support Mitsotakis’ government. He even joined the New Democracy Party soon after the government won a vote of confidence in the Greek Parliament on the 26th of April 1990. This left DIANA without any representatives in Parliament.
With the fragile majority of one, C. Mitsotakis was now called to implement “Catharsis,” to strengthen the shattered Greek economy, and to reform the “hydrocephalic” and incompetent public sector – difficult tasks, indeed, for a Prime Minister who was walking on a tightrope. Regarding foreign policy, for those who are able to read between the lines it might be interesting to know that the very first political decision of Mitsotakis’ government was to recognize, de jure, the State of Israel, something that Andreas Papandreou had stubbornly refused to do during his previous eight-year tenure as Prime Minister.
It is worth mentioning here that, during the first three months of 1990, I often contemplated getting actively involved in politics and putting myself forward as a candidate for the elections of the 8th of April. The thing that eventually stopped me from doing this was that I couldn’t find a political party in which I felt at home, or a party leader who was worthy of my trust and respect. One way or another, they had all disappointed me and it was obvious that they put their personal and party interests above the interests of our country and the Greek people. My eyes were now fully opened to the degeneracy of politics and the corruption of politicians. I had no illusions, though, that the Greek ruling class would allow an independent voice like mine to be heard.
In the meantime, the so-called “Catharsis” of the Greek political life had gotten well under way. The first major trial was completed on August 11, 1990, and it concerned the “Yugoslavian Corn.” The Special Court found the former Deputy Minister of Finance, Mr. “N.A.”, guilty of fraud and forgery and sentenced him and five of his colleagues to 3-1/2 years of imprisonment. The hilarious, albeit tragic, thing was that the imprisoned “N.A.” was proclaimed a “martyr of democracy” by many PASOK followers on the grounds that, although he had confessed that his crime was collective, he had added, “I am not going to become a nightmare and I shall not betray my colleagues.”
None was more upset by the imprisonment of his ex-cabinet minister than Andreas Papandreou himself. His turn might now be approaching. However, he didn’t shrink back. A. Papandreou was a fighter and a survivor. During his eight years in office as Prime Minister, he had managed to gain control of most trade unions and he now used them to undermine the government of C. Mitsotakis. Throughout September 1990, nearly all Greek workers of both public and private sectors were on strike. The whole country was paralyzed. The situation was chaotic. How utterly tragic this was! Such was the picture of a nation at the time it was demanding to be the host of the “1996 Golden Olympiad!”
On the eve of the 17th of September, only a few hours before the I.O.C. members’ decision about the city to host the Golden Olympiad, Andreas Papandreou addressed a huge rally of PASOK supporters in Aigaleo, the most populous working class district of Athens. And what did he call for? New elections! As the mesmerized crowd shouted, “Down with the Junta of Mitsotakis!” (A democratically elected government only six months’ old), Andreas Papandreou called his followers to shout even louder so that their message could be heard in Tokyo! And, sure enough, the message about the Greek chaos was heard in Tokyo, not only by Prime Minister Mitsotakis himself and the numerous (226) Greek Olympic committee delegations, but also by the I.O.C. members who, quite rightly, gave the Golden Olympiad to Atlanta instead of Athens! Unfortunately, many prominent Greeks, among who was the late Melina Mercouri, instead of blaming ourselves for the result, blamed... “Coca Cola” and our hidden “enemies” who... “envy the glory of our history”!
It is this old syndrome of grandeur in the collective Greek subconscious that often blinds Greeks to our poor contemporary performance. And it is exactly my attempt to highlight our shortcomings through my books and articles that rendered me unpopular among my fellow Greeks...