Greeks and Greek-Americans in the U.S. Diaspora, like myself, have been watching the strikes, demonstrations and tragic deaths that have brought our country to a standstill with mixed emotions. The images of Athens burning, tear gas rising and riot police clashing with citizens sharply contrast with images of white sandy beaches, beautiful islands, historic landmarks and mouthwatering cuisine that usually come to mind. Despite feelings of shock, sadness and even anger, to those who know Greek public political culture in its entirety, it is not surprising to most that this day would eventually come. Greek citizens, immigrants and those with strong ties to the country, admit the role that societal norms, mainly tax evasion, nepotism, clientelism and bribery (all very persistent in Greek public political culture) are in part responsible for bringing the country to the brink of collapse. For the past decade, Greek citizens did not heed warning their culture of corruption and the shadow economy could not sustain the system.
Reality set in the past few weeks, with Greece at “the edge of the abyss” (Greek President). An estimated 100,000 citizens participated in a nationwide strike that closed all services, left hospitals with emergency staff only, grounded flights and public transportation as well as pulled news broadcasters off the air. The riots were sparked over the announcement of strict austerity measures, along with a $150 billion EU and IMF bailout, aiming to prevent Greece’s collapse, which would likely take other EU countries down with it. These measures have ignited rioting and social unrest that have not been seen in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974.
The crisis can be partly attributed to corrupt customs so pervasive in Greek public political culture, it is considered a normal way of life. A study by Transparency International concluded that Greece is the most corrupt in the Eurozone, of the 16 countries that use the Euro. Due to the daily corruption and inefficiencies in the system, it is estimated that $30 billion each year, or 20% of Greece’s Gross National Product is lost to its shadow economy. Transparency International claims that private households paid more than €780 million in bribes in 2009. An average of €1,355 in bribes was paid per household for public services and €1,671 on average for private sector services such as lawyers, doctors or banks. You do the math.
Although there are many forms of corruption that pervade Greece, I will focus on the three most detrimental. First, is the commission paid for illicit services. This includes widespread tax evasion. It is widely understood that Greeks will present a “fakelaki” or “envelope” of cash as bribery to tax officials in order to avoid claiming all income earned. Taxes were dealt with “in a three way split: You pay a third of what you owe to the government, a third to the collector and a third remains in your pocket” (CNBC). Citizens become accustomed to claiming only a portion of their income and some of their assets. This past year, only 324 residents claimed to owning pools even though satellite surveys of the land counted 16,974. Other petty corruption includes paying to have your car pass inspection and to obtain permits for construction that would otherwise be illegal. This has led land developers to frequently ignite forest fires to acres of land every summer, the worst being in 2007 and 2009, in order to bypass laws disallowing development on farm land; in the process ruining homes, the livelihoods of many farmers, killing trees that would take generations to replace and draining public funds.
Second, it has become a social norm to pay unwarranted fees for public services. This is most notable in the public health care system. The “fakelaki” is handed over to public doctors to ensure you are provided the best care. It also relieves the burden of long hospital waits. This cash-only system has greatly contributed to the shadow economy. Thirdly, pulling strings and nepotism became a common way for people to do certain things, such as obtain jobs. This has been detrimental to the state by stifling competition by keeping people in jobs that they are not necessarily qualified or entitled to. Companies also commonly pay to keep competitors out. Adding to the problem is the “brain drain,” created by the fact that professional Greeks are better off leaving the country if they do not have good enough connections for a decent job. Corruption in this sense has prevented innovation, growth and competitiveness that are imperative for a healthy and profitable state.
There is a huge threat to society when the status quo is to participate in everyday corruption. Refusal to participate in these practices is seen as deviating from the norm if “everyone else is doing it.” The ruling class sets the precedent that everyone else follows. Thus, it is also considered foolish to abide by certain laws when many in society do not. Many Greeks have the mentality of “why should I pay for taxes when my neighbors are not?” There is a sense of entitlement, of not owing the state anything, especially in a country where it is very easy to get away with it.
Greece is not the only country where this is customary. Studies in “Everyday Corruption and The State,” by G. Blundo & J-P Olivier de Sardan show that this type of public political culture is also prevalent in certain developing countries in Africa. Corruption is often justified by citizens as a preventative measure or as a means of survival. It serves to compensate for high taxes that do not necessarily provide for high-quality public services. Corruption is legitimized because it is prevalent and widely accepted in society. Thus, corruption in Greece has become a never-ending cycle.
Nonetheless, the system cannot sustain itself. In order for the state to survive, it is imperative that citizens contribute to good governance and give back to public funds. The future of not only the country, but generations to come, heavily depends on the ability of citizens to change their mentality, behaviors and social norms. Sadly, they have resulted in belt-tightening measures that will greatly impact hard-working individuals with modest incomes.
Photo Credit: Stratos Safioleas