Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lagarde-List burns ex Greek Finance Minister Papaconstantinou

Posted by keeptalkinggreece in Politics

For former Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou the New Year’s Eve fire cracker went of earlier than planned. Not on upcoming Monday night but on Friday noon. Reason for the drama unfolding before our eyes, were the claims that two of his relatives had bank accounts at the HSBC, Geneva branch. Nothing bad about it. Only that the names of his two cousins and of one of their husbands were not on the infamous Lagarde-List - the one the French authorities handed out to the Greeks in 2010. Or at least, they were not on the Lagarde-list that was going from office desk to office drawer for two years. Neither on the Lagarde-list that was published last October. But they were on the Lagarde-list handed out to economic prosecutors  who travelled to Paris on December 21st to receive the original list.

What had happened? How did these three names had disappeared from the list? A mystery that puzzled the economic prosecutors who compared the two lists and crossed checked account holders, amounts and obviously also family relations.

Had someone put a finger with a tiny eraser on the tip and ‘modified’ the first Lagarde-list?A mystery that needs to be solved.

According to Greek daily Ta Nea that made public the Papaconstantinou-HSBC-family relations on its website on Friday,  the two cousins of Papaconstantinou are the daughters of his politician uncle, Michalis Papaconstantinou, a former Nea Dimocratia politician who had also served as Foreign Minister under Mitsotakis government.

The account of at least one of the holders was containing 1,220,000 USD and thus at least until 2007, when bank employee Herve Falciani stole the data of account holders at HSBC branch in Geneva.

“These individuals, who had been dropped from the [original] list, allegedly held two accounts one of which included $US 1.222.000 while the movement of sums on the other [account] do not appear as it was a closed [account]. This is what emerged from the comparison of the two lists as a result of the investigation by the economic prosecutors Grigoris Peponis and Spyros Mousakitis” (Ta Nea)

The news spread like a wild fire and the suspicion the former FinMin had allegedly removed the names of his relatives from the list turned to a tsunami.

Government and opposition parties demanded immediate clarifications on the issue and George Papaconstantinou was forced to make a statement.

He vehemently dismissed all claims and denied any involvement in making even ‘tiny modifications’ on the list.

“I never had any account or any connection to any account at the HSBC bank. I never made any intervention when I received the list,” Papaconstantinou wrote in his statement among others.

Too bad only that he was the one who received the Lagarde-List in 2010, kept it secret for two years and declared in front of the economic committee of the Parliament in November, that he did not remember where he had put the list. Which was in form of a CD, by the way.

These must have also been the reasons that Evangelos Venizelos expelled George Papaconstantinou from PASOK on Friday afternoon in a fast track procedure.

Papaconstantinou is to face parliamentary inquiry.

George Papaconstantinou served as Finance Minister from October 2009 until June 2011 under Papandreou government. He was not member of the parliament after the elections in June 2012.

The Lagarde-list burned already one. Next, please :)

Lagarde-List burns ex Greek Finance Minister Papaconstantinou

Friday, December 28, 2012

Alexis Tsipras: 'We are the great hope for change'

Helena Smith in Athens The Guardian, Thursday 27 December 2012 17.10 GMT

Greece's young leftist firebrand held the future of his country in his hands for a few days in June. He may do again in 2013

Alexis Tsipras

Alexis Tsipras and his radical left Syriza party may have changes in tone but their main objective remains the same: ripping up Greece's bailout agreement. Photograph: Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters

He came from Greece's political wilderness – yet for a few days in June Alexis Tsipras held the future of the euro in his hands. Six months on, the fast-talking firebrand who took the world by storm in the run-up to the Greek elections may no longer be in the spotlight, but he has not faded into history. "We may have narrowly lost the battle," Tsipras says of the failure of his radical left Syriza party to clinch power. "But we have not lost the war."

As leader of the main opposition in the country on the frontline of Europe's debt drama, Tsipras is now ensconced in an elegant office on the ground floor of the Greek parliament, a former royal palace that looks on to Syntagma Square, the theatre for the robust rallies that have rocked Athens over the past three years.

Syntagma is likely to see more tumult in the months to come – next year is poised to be the roughest since Greece descended into economic freefall following revelations of the true scale of its budget deficit in late 2009.

"We are the great hope for change," the politician says, his arms sprawled across the back of an armchair. "And we don't want only to stop the catastrophe, the bad medicine," he adds, referring to the recession-inducing austerity cuts Greece has applied in return for rescue loans from its "troika" of creditors at the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. "We also want to change Greece – all the positive structural reforms can only be done by us. The political environment was one of the main reasons for the crisis, as was a public sector created to bring in votes."

At 38, with the addition of a newborn son to his four-member family, the young politician has come a long way since the days when his disparate alliance of leftists, greens, Marxists and Maoists worked out of a couple of shabby rooms on the second floor of the parliament building – a reflection of the mere 4.5% that the party then polled.

Propelled by vehement anti-austerity rhetoric and uncompromising opposition to policies that have seen the disposable income of most Greeks drop precipitously, Syriza's fortunes have risen dramatically.

Greece's landmark June election was billed by Antonis Samaras, the man who went on to win the ballot, as a stark choice between painful reforms that would keep the country in the euro and opting, via Syriza, for a return to the drachma. Support for the leftists soared, with the party taking 29.6% of the vote.

Tsipras's own oratorical flair and charisma have undoubtedly contributed to the ascent. Public opinion surveys have repeatedly put his party in the lead since the summer. He has his sights on power. Demands for fresh elections are likely to be heard frequently over the course of 2013.

"This government does not have a long lifeline," he says, waving his arms for emphasis as he lists the measures adopted by his "dogmatic neo-liberal" political enemies that, he continues, have been tried and failed miserably.

"Greece is unique. Even after its debt was restructured it continued to go up," he says. Because the measures were self-defeating, he adds, they were doomed to exacerbate the country's economic death spiral. "A haircut is inevitable and it will happen after the German elections [next September]."

Critics contend that Tsipras is betting on disaster. He is, they say, a demagogue with merely a schoolboy knowledge of economics and the intricacies of global finance. For Samaras and his junior partners, power-sharing in an uneasy coalition, Syriza is not only irresponsible but dangerous to boot.

The party's embrace of the state and steadfast refusal to accept the privatisation of public utilities – with Tsipras often being compared to the late socialist strongman Andreas Papandreou – is, they argue, disastrous for a country dependent entirely on international creditors to keep replenishing its near-empty public coffers.

The former pony-tailed communist sticks to his guns: "The problem with the public sector is not one of quantity but quality," says Tsipras. "We are at a European average in terms of size."

This week as he made his first official trip to Latin America – meeting not only the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, but her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Syriza's foreign policy was similarly derided. But the party shot back, saying the visit was part of efforts to "internationalise the Greek debt problem" by pursuing a multifaceted foreign policy that is not only dependent on the EU.

Yet while Tsipras is clearly preparing for power, he is also putting water in his wine – and not only because the disaffection of the middle class is bound to grow with the implementation of austerity measures in 2013 that are billed as the toughest yet. Last month Syriza took the historic step of uniting as a single force, with an overwhelming 75% voting to create a central committee led by Tsipras and the party's decisively pro-European wing.

With maturity have come moderation and a self-confidence on the part of Tsipras that was previously lacking. The dress code, like the first grey flecks in his raven black hair, has changed. Jeans, increasingly, have been replaced by sharper suits, Italian shirts and suede shoes along with a striking improvement in spoken English for a politician who, unlike many in the Greek political establishment, did not attend private schools or universities abroad. "I watch CNN and read the Guardian now," Tsipras says.

But aides insist that while the party's tone may have changed – a by-product of being forced to grow up abruptly – its overarching objective remains the same: abolition of the memorandum outlining the terms of Athens's bailout and renegotiation of the loan agreement it has signed with its partners.

"From the first year of the crisis everything we have said has come true," says Tsipras. "Of course we feel vindicated but it's not enough. The whole policy has to change."

Alexis Tsipras: 'We are the great hope for change' | World news | The Guardian

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Germany's austerity plans will beggar Europe

 Costas Lapavitsas

Costas Lapavitsas The Guardian, Wednesday 26 December 2012

Berlin's mantra about spending cuts in the eurozone is bringing unemployment and spreading hopelessness across Europe

Greeks protest against austerity measures outside the parliament in Athens

Greeks protest against austerity measures outside the parliament in Athens. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Has the eurozone crisis ended? Many politicians in Europe, including France's president François Hollande, seem to think so. Well, not so fast. Far from ending, the crisis is yet to reach its most difficult phase.

It is easy to see why politicians claim the crisis is over. Greece has just been promised another €50bn, provided it accepts still more austerity, deregulation and privatisation. Elsewhere in the periphery, Ireland is in its sixth year of recession, Portugal is heading for major economic contraction, and Spain is going from bad to worse – but their governments are imposing austerity, and people appear to be putting up with it. Even core countries, including Italy and France, have accepted the need for balanced budgets. Across the eurozone, there is no effective opposition to the mantra of austerity emanating from Berlin.

The financial markets, meanwhile, have been placid since September when Mario Draghi, chairman of the European Central Bank, announced that he would buy the debt of countries in difficulties provided they accepted bailout conditions. The spreads on Italian and Spanish debt have tumbled by 250 basis points. The official launch of the European Stability Mechanism has also helped, since the ESM is fortified with €500bn. The calculation of bond markets is transparent: for the moment it is not profitable to borrow money to speculate against the debt of weaker European countries.

But austerity and calmer financial markets do not amount to ending the crisis. Rather, they point to the emergence of a German eurozone. Commentators who have protested that crisis leadership in the eurozone has been weak have been wide of the mark. In practice, austerity is transforming the periphery into a vast East Germany: a zone of weak growth, low wages, poverty and no economic dynamism. There will not even be some of the fiscal transfers, amounting to perhaps €60bn annually, that have supported East Germany.

Equally wide of the mark have been those who stress the importance of an overarching state in charge of fiscal policy, or of a banking union to lessen the risks of banking collapse in the eurozone. Germany will not accept either a fiscal union or a banking union that would use its taxpayers' money to subsidise others in the eurozone. These debates have merely distracted attention from Germany's determination to impose rigid fiscal discipline on "delinquents" and to monitor only the biggest banks in the eurozone, leaving smaller German banks out of the net.

But the most telling piece of evidence of the emergence of a German eurozone has been the reluctance to confront the deeper cause of the crisis, namely the divergence in competitiveness between – mostly – Germany and the rest. German gains in competitiveness have not been due to greater efficiency, but are a result of the fact that Germany has systematically undershot the eurozone inflation target, while other countries have either hit, or overshot it thanks to the wage restraint imposed on its workers, harsher than elsewhere. Over the years a great gap has emerged between Germany and the rest, especially the periphery, whose competitiveness has collapsed.

The benefit to Germany has been sustained current account surpluses, the true aim of wage restraint. By the same token, the periphery has accumulated deficits and debts. Austerity is now forcing a brutal correction of these imbalances – by crushing peripheral wages. Yet, the cure cannot be effective since German wages have not been rising strongly.

The solution would be for Germany to rebalance its economy by strengthening domestic demand. Instead, Berlin's reliance on exports has grown: in 2012 the contribution of its domestic economy to growth will be zero. The eurozone is becoming a vehicle for German mercantilism, whereby the German people are first beggared in order subsequently to beggar others.

This situation is manifestly untenable. It brings unemployment, destroys productive capacity and spreads hopelessness across Europe. In Greece conditions went beyond absurd long ago. As the eurozone moves deeper into recession in 2013, social and economic tensions will ratchet up across the continent. The most difficult phase of the crisis is still ahead of us.

Germany's austerity plans will beggar Europe | Costas Lapavitsas | Comment is free | The Guardian

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Greece not doing enough to fight tax dodgers, say EU and IMF

1:49PM GMT 24 Dec 2012

Greece's drive to crack down on tax evasion risks "falling idle" and must be reinvigorated, a report by the European Union and International Monetary Fund said on Monday.

Greece's drive to crack down on tax evasion risks

A protester wears a Guy Fawkes mask during a 24-hour strike in October. After a Christmas recess, parliament is expected to pass a new tax law which aims to raise about €2.5bn over the next two years as part of a €13.5bn austerity package. Photo: Getty Images

Athens has collected just half the tax debts and conducted less than half the audits it was supposed to under the targets set by its lenders, according to a survey by the country's international lenders which was compiled in November.

The lenders urged Greece to improve tax collection and focus on the cases most likely to produce results. "Doctors and lawyers are a good place to start," they said.

"The mission expresses concern that authorities are falling idle and that the drive to fight tax evasion by the very wealthy and the free professions is at risk of weakening," it added.

By the end of September authorities had conducted 440 checks on suspected wealthy tax evaders, compared with a full-year target of 1,300. About €1.1bn in overdue taxes have been collected so far, less than the €2bn targeted.

Tax evasion is endemic in Greece, making it more difficult for the government to shore up its finances under its €240bn international bailout.

With revenues falling short and the austerity-hit country obliged to meet its fiscal targets when its economy is shrinking for a fifth year, Athens is hiking taxes on middle-class wage earners who can't hide their income.

After a Christmas recess, parliament is expected to pass a new tax law which aims to raise about €2.5bn over the next two years as part of a €13.5bn austerity package.

A second piece of long-delayed legislation to crack down on tax evasion will follow later in the year, the government said.

In May, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, caused controversy when she warned that Greece could expect little sympathy from the International Monetary Fund on its bail-out terms, and called for its citizens to "help themselves" out of the financial crisis by "paying their tax".

Perceived tax injustice has dented the popularity of Greece's pro-bailout ruling coalition. The radical leftist Syriza party, which opposes austerity and advocates a big and immediate debt writedown, has taken the lead in almost all the opinion polls published since a June election.

Improving Greece's slow tax administration and justice is a key objective of the bailout. According to the report, individuals and companies have racked up €53bn of tax debts to the government, a figure that corresponds to about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product.

But just 15-20pc of that amount can be collected, the EU/IMF said, given that a large number of these tax cases are old and the debtors have already defaulted.

Source: Reuters

Greece not doing enough to fight tax dodgers, say EU and IMF - Telegraph

Thursday, December 20, 2012

President Demetris Christofias has brought Cyprus to this sorry state

 alexander apostolides

Alexander Apostolides, Wednesday 19 December 2012 12.25 GMT

Christofias may rail at bankers over Cyprus's bailout, but it was bad governance that let to the country's rapid deterioration

Cypriot President  Demetris Christofias

The Cypriot president, Demetris Christofias, in Brussels last week for an EU leaders summit. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Cyprus should be receiving approximately €17bn from the so-called troika in January, subject to a series of measures that introduce austerity while leaving questions of reform unanswered. This breaks down as follows: €1bn is set to cover the government budget deficit; €6bn is earmarked to rollover short-term debt since the current government refused to borrow long-term (hoping for better interest rates in 2013); and €10bn is needed for the troubled banking sector to be in compliance with ECB requirements on capitalisation.

Although the bailout is far smaller in absolute terms than other eurozone packages (the current tranche given to Greece is far larger), the bank bailout looms large and President Demetris Christofias, who is not running for re-election, rails that this is the bankers' fault, singling out in particular, the former head of the Cypriot central bank, Athanasios Orphanides.

Cyprus reached this sorry state surprisingly rapidly, and despite his protestations, Christofias's government bears most of the blame. First, Christofias wields significant power with very limited constraints. He could and did made decisions without asking parliament, his finance ministers or the former governor of the central bank. He has the right to do this, but it is now mainly his decisions that led us to this crisis: the president's inability to listen to advice was a key factor in the rapid deterioration of Cypriot finances.

His decision to store rather than destroy weapons bound for Hezbollah and confiscated by Cyprus led to the weapons exploding in 2011, taking down the largest Cypriot power station. The large increases in the cost of generating electricity are preventing the recovery of the small business sector, which comprises most of the economic activity in Cyprus. While the president could not predict that the weapon containers would blow up, he must take responsibilty for the decisions made in relation to the economic sector. These have had depressingly predictable results.

Cypriot banks were heavily exposed to the Greek market, in particular to Greek government debt. When the Marfin Laiki bank (now the bank that needs a bailout the most) announced in 2009 that it was moving its central offices to Greece, thus making it subject to Greek rather than Cypriot regulator jurisdiction, Christofias rushed to support the bank president in the bank's disagreement with the central bank governor. The political pressure paid off: the bank stayed and now it requires €3bn of government aid to remain as a going concern.

Close to half of the bank bailout is related to the decision to haircut Greek government bonds at an EU level. The president could have vetoed a resolution on the haircut until Cypriot bank losses were integrated in the Greek financial sector bailout. This measure alone would perhaps ensure the current viability of the banking system. Cyprus was locked out of international markets because of the banking system viability fears, so the government successfully arranged a €2.5bn loan from the Russian government. Yet the loan was spent on regular government expenditure rather than being used to safeguard the banking sector.

In addition, the decision by the current government to move the debt issuance and monitoring department from the central bank to the ministry of finance meant that debt management became political. The then finance minister, Charilaos Stavrakis, borrowed only short-term in order to avoid austerity measures, and €6bn is needed today as a result of that decision. More worryingly this government, like all governments before it, decided to bestow patronage, despite the economy taking a nosedive. In 2009, government expenditure rose by 7.8% even though revenues fell by 8.5%. Despite a sluggish recovery, government expenditure only fell in 2011 when Cyprus entered a double-dip recession: this irresponsible spending led to an unsustainable funding gap which the government created.

As well as the above there are significant and long-term failures of governance that neither this nor any other government of Cyprus has ever attempted to tackle. Here all Cypriot stakeholders have a share of the blame as they all took part: parliament, business, bankers, unions and political parties. The government, health and education sectors are bloated by low-productivity workers, made worse by the fact that the incentive system within government is broken. The payout system of public wages has no relationship to the economic cycle, adding a tremendous strain on government finances in a recession. The largest government union is not working on purely democratic principles, and its stance has made it very difficult for any government to correct a system in desperate need of reform.

The cosy nexus of bank executives and big business produced uncompetitive market outcomes and were allowed to get away with unfair practices by the broader political spectrum. In the end the government of President Demetris Christofias will go, but the long-term failures of governance will remain. That is what Cyprus will need to tackle in order to be competitive again.


President Demetris Christofias has brought Cyprus to this sorry state | Alexander Apostolides | Comment is free |

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Greek austerity measures make for a lower-key Christmas in Athens

Helena Smith in Athens, Tuesday 11 December 2012 18.44 GMT

City is spending a tenth of the usual budget on fairy lights and fir but promises to spread the 'real meaning of Christmas'

A dog gets in the Christmas spirit in Athens

A dog gets in the Christmas spirit in Athens' Syntagma square, which will this year feature an assortment of smaller concept trees in order to save money. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

When you are bankrupt, you have to do Christmas on a budget. And so it is in Greece, starved of cash thanks to the country's great economic crisis. Only years after it had basked in the glory of erecting Europe's biggest Christmas tree, city hall in Athens is now forced to be more thrifty with its display of fairy lights and fir.

"This year's Christmas events do not aim at an easy and ornate spectacle and they are not based on thoughtless waste," declared Giorgos Kaminis, the capital's mayor, as a very different kind of tree was unveiled in Syntagma square.

They would, said Kaminis, spend only a tenth of the budget of previous years. Although "young and old alike" would be entertained with music, theatre, dance, carols and clowns, it would be merry-making in the age of austerity.

With the municipality barely able to pay its bills, only three central squares and Athens' biggest boulevards are to be illuminated, in stark contrast to years gone by when spendthrift authorities had given it their all. "Our goal this year," said city councillor Vasilliki Georgiou, "is to spread the real meaning of Christmas – solidarity, love and fraternity."

In the spirit of such times, Syntagma square – which has been the focus of mass protests against punishing austerity measures required to secure international rescue funds – will be adorned with not one but 16 miniature trees carved by fine arts students in Athens. An ice-rink sponsored by Wind, the mobile telephone company, will also grace the plaza.

"There's also going to be a light show so the tree will look very different at night," enthused a municipal employee overseeing last-minute preparations ahead of the unveiling. "And there'll be music too," she said as trumpeters and saxophonists with the town hall's orchestra got into the mood with a jazzy rendition of Christmas carols.

Athens is home to almost half of Greece's 12 million people, but with poverty and unemployment on the rise it is not the only city that will look different as the festive season approaches.

Authorities in the western port city of Patras have had to dramatically shrink celebrations partly because they have been deluged with requests for help over the Christmas period.

"Last year we fed 800 families living below the poverty line," said Theoharis Massaras, who as deputy mayor directs the municipality's social services. "This year that number has gone up to 1,300 families and every day sees the birth of yet more new poor, We're finding it very difficult to cope," he told the Guardian.

In Thessaloniki, the country's second-biggest city, mayor Yiannis Boutaris, a popular businessman, caused shockwaves this week when he announced that, like most Greeks, he could not afford to heat his eighth-floor rented apartment, being forced instead to keep warm under a blanket.

Greek austerity measures make for a lower-key Christmas in Athens | World news |

African migrants face 'impossible' life in Greece

Stuck in a small Athens flat all day to avoid being caught by police, earning another stint in prison and possibly a beating, 29-year-old Cameroonian Eugene Manaa rues the day he came to Greece.

"Life is not just difficult here. It's impossible," says Manaa (photo), who recently spent two months in prison on the island of Crete for illegal entry into Greece.

"There's no work, no money, no housing," he tells AFP. "There are fifteen of us sharing a flat, we face police checks at every corner, we are subjected to racism and we cannot go to another country."

Like many of his compatriots, Manaa is among tens of thousands of undocumented migrants caught in a vicious trap.

Lured to the European Union from war-torn homes in search of safety and a better future, they find themselves in Greece at the worst possible moment in the country's postwar history.

Near-bankruptcy, recession and soaring unemployment have created a hostile environment for migrants and refugees who are seen to be taking jobs from suffering, law-abiding, tax-paying Greeks.
For the past few months, the government has been rounding up migrants who cannot prove residency and placing them in detention centers for repatriation. Over 61,000 people have been inspected since August and over 4,000 have been detained according to police figures.

Ironically, the operation is code-named Xenios Zeus, named after supreme ancient Greek god Zeus, protector of guests.

"You go out to buy bread and you vanish for three months, it happened to me," says Eric, an Ivorian just released from a detention center in Corinth.

Worse still, gangs of racist thugs now roam Athens and other main cities by night, looking for foreigners to beat up.

Violent attacks on migrants have escalated after the political success of a neo-Nazi group, Golden Dawn, which in June won over 400,000 votes in national elections and sent 18 lawmakers to parliament.

Though police have been unable to find hard evidence linking Golden Dawn to the attacks, migrant groups say victim testimonies incriminating supporters of the ultra-nationalist group are irrefutable.
A Congolese man who declines to give his name takes out his cellphone to show a picture of a friend, lying on a hospital bed after being stabbed on the street in one such attack.

"Four people attacked him," says Guy, a fellow Congolese from Kinshasa.
"They chased him down the street like a goat."

"When I first arrived in Greece in 2011 there was not so much racism. Now it's very hard," says Guy, lowering his head.

The response of police authorities to these attacks is at best halfhearted. Rights groups say migrants are often discouraged from lodging complaints, and some officers are themselves suspected of beatings that go unpunished.

Out of a population of 10.9 million, Greece has around 1.5 million immigrants of whom around 600,000 lack residency papers. The largest group is Albanian but most come from Asian and African countries.
"A month ago, the other residents of the building who are Greek held a meeting and told us to leave," says Eric.

"A few days later at the bakery, a woman spat at me, saying 'Black man, why are you here, go back to your country'," adds Eugene.

Many of these men would like nothing more than to leave Greece for other EU countries, where some have relatives and friends.

But hundreds are intercepted at the country's borders, or by authorities in neighboring countries and sent back to Greece.

"Some of these men have lost four, five consecutive air tickets after being intercepted at the airport," says Father Maurice Joyeux, a Jesuit priest who holds mass for them every Sunday.
Unable to make a living, the small group face additional humiliation in having to ask their families and friends in Africa for help.

"I have to ask friends in Africa to send money so I can pay my rent," says Manaa, reflecting on the bitter irony of his condition. [AFP]

Greece pays EU Task Force members €92 daily compensation, accomodation & travelling expenses

Posted by  in Economy
Now we know why EU Task Force members, Reichenbach & Co, are keen to come to Greece and extend a helping hand with know-how and other nice things. We may also understand, why the reforms do not proceed as quickly as they should. Because on Greek taxpayers expenses the esteemed helpers, preferably the Germans like the Fuchtels and the Reichenbachs, enjoy the sun, the mild temperatures and the delicacies of local tavernas…
Ministry of Administrative Reform and Electronic Governance confirmed to Parliament that members of the Task Force receive a daily allowance to provide technical assistance to our debt-ridden country.
In a letter  sent by the Secretary for Administrative Reform Manousos Voloudakis to the Parliament,
Greece pays to foreign public officials/experts (tickets, accommodation and daily compensation of 92 euro) in the context of  the EU relevant legislation  ”Operational Program -Administrative Reform 2011″.
Voloudakis emphasized that “Greece will by no means pay any higher compensation to any state official of another country or Task Force member.”
The letter was sent after a relevant question posed by independent MP Nikos Nikolopoulos, former Nea Dimocratia.
PS We still need to know how many people enjoy this compensations and the total cost per week, per month, per year

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Greek MP calls for firearms crackdown, fearing of parliamentary shootout

Helena Smith in Athens, Friday 14 December 2012 19.31 GMT

Nikos Nikolopoulos 'deeply worried' by rise in requests for weapons permits by MPs given febrile mood in parliament

TOPSHOTS  A man walks in front of the Gr

As Greece's debt crisis has worsened, concerns have emerged that MPs may be carrying pistol into the parliament building in Syntagma Square, Athens. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

An independent MP has called for a crackdown on firearms in Greece amid allegations that a growing number of politicians are carrying weapons.

Reports of pistol-carrying deputies entering parliament have added to the febrile mood in a 300-member chamber in which hardcore Marxists sit with fascists, euro communists, rightwing populists, conservatives, socialists and an array of independent dissidents.

The MP, Nikos Nikolopoulos, told the Guardian he was "deeply worried" by the dramatic rise in requests for weapons licenses by parliamentarians.

"I have real concerns that MPs are entering the house with weapons and because of that I asked how, in our temple of democracy, it was possible for deputies to carry guns?"

Expelled in July from the conservative New Democracy party, a partner in the coalition government, the MP expressed alarm over the number of parliamentarians who had sought permits to carry arms since Greece's debt crisis erupted three years ago.

"More and more MPs are requesting licenses for guns and it's clearly connected to the crisis," he said. "I have been a politician for the past 23 years and have enough evidence from various police departments to be very concerned."

At least half of the 18 deputies representing the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party have applied for gun permits, according to local media reports.

In September a Golden Dawn MP, Panagiotis Iliopoulos, was detained by police after brandishing a gun during clashes with anti-establishment leftists in the central city of Volos. Two other deputies were reportedly stopped while attempting to enter parliament with pistols last week.

Although the party, which has been linked to attacks on immigrants, was quick to deny the report, police sources say the extremists have been seen carrying pistols in holsters in parliamentary committees.

Amid the turmoil of Greece's worst crisis since the second world war, tensions in parliament run high with many refusing to toe the party line in an age of austerity. After a series of physical and verbal attacks in public – MPs from across Greece's divisive political spectrum admit they are licensed gun holders.

"Many consider it an essential form of self defence," said Vasilios Kapernaros, a lawyer who represents the fiercely anti-austerity Independent Greeks party in parliament. "There's also a long tradition of terrorist attacks on politicians in this country."

A former royal palace, the sandstone building in Syntagma Square, Athens, is protected by a 250-strong police force overseen by the president of the house. Takis Kampras, who heads the speaker's press office, said suggestions that MPs posed any danger were exaggerated. "In this building the president calls the shots and no deputy can enter with a gun. The safety here is top notch. I won't say anymore but this building has its secrets."

But other politicians beg to differ. Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, a New Democracy MP, said that while easy access to weapons permits was considered to be "one of the privileges of being a politician", what was more worrying was the lax security in the parliament building.

"Personally I don't like guns and don't have one, but my experience from other parliaments is that security is much higher," he said. "I'm not talking about MPs, I'm talking about visitors. It's a joke and should be tightened up."

The concerns have shone a light on one of the lesser known legacies of Greece's seven-year period under military rule as revelations have emerged that MPs are neither checked nor controlled when they enter parliament.

"Out of respect for their standing as politicians they are not physically searched when they enter the parliament building," Lefteris Economou, a former public order minister who headed the Greek police, told the Guardian. "It's a hangover from the junta."

Nikos Dendias, the current public order minister, said as such it was up to MPs to use their "moral judgment" if as licensed weapons holders they entered the parliament building and decided not to leave their weapons with guards at the door.

"I am very unhappy with Minister Dendias' response," said Nikolopoulos. "When you have politicians like Golden Dawn circulating with guns this approach is totally inadequate and unacceptable. Next week I will raise the issue in parliament again, but this time with the prime minister."

Greek MP calls for firearms crackdown, fearing of parliamentary shootout | World news |

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Syrian refugees 'turned back from Greek border by police'

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in Edirne and Athens, Friday 7 December 2012 18.26 GMT

Asylum seekers crossing from Turkey say they have been illegally deported by Greek police or blocked from entering


UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon talks to refugees during a visit to the Islahiye Syrian refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photograph: Veli Gurgah/Anadolu/EPA

On the edge of Europe, where the river Evros meanders towards the Aegean sea, a new tragedy involving two of the world's most troubled peoples is unfolding.

On one side of the river border are gathered clusters of Syrian refugees, desperate to escape the misery of war and put the Turkish camps behind them. But beyond the perilous currents lies Greece, a nation so economically bereft it has little time or resources for them.

The Evros has always been a barrier to those seeking asylum in the European Union, but now the surging tide of migrants fleeing Syria faces something new. Refugees, non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers and lawyers have told the Guardian that border forces have been pushing asylum seekers back into their boats and escorting them back back across to the Turkish side.

This summer two people smugglers left 25 Syrian refugees to cross the Evros alone at night. There were two rubber dinghies. The first disappeared across the river into the night. The second floated towards Greece, developed a leak, spun for 15 minutes and then capsized. Most of the men, women and children could not swim. Some survived using a fallen tree and some of the islands that peek out of the shallow waters.

The bedraggled Syrians who made it ashore walked for a couple of miles through dense woodland and asparagus fields.

It was nearly dawn but still dark when they arrived in a small Greek border village. Hungry, muddy-booted migrants are a common sight across northern Greece. Since the start of this year, 23,000 undocumented migrants and asylum seekers were arrested in Greece after crossing the border from Turkey. Syrians were the second-largest nationality arrested.

After their arrest, they are usually detained in administrative holding centres by the EU border police, Frontex, which has been deployed a few miles from the border since 2010. However, the group of Syrian refugees who made it across the Evros that night were not registered.

Instead, they were arrested by officers in "blue uniforms" and driven back to the river. "There were between 100 to 150 people by the river," said Farouk (not his real name), a 29-year-old from the Qamishli region in northern Syria. "They were of many nationalities, mainly Syrian. Some tried to make problems: they had paid a lot of money to get that far. When that happened, the police beat them. The police kicked and slapped them, including the women, they picked up children and threw them into the boat."

The officers put people in small plastic boats, which they tied to larger, motorised boats, and returned them to Turkish territory.

"We shouted loudly and said: 'We don't want to go back,'" Farouk continued. The Turkish border patrol helped them ashore. "We told the Turkish police and showed them signs of beating. They said they will make a complaint to the Greek police and we don't know what happened after that."

The accusation that Greek or Frontex officers returned refugees from Syria without screening them first is a serious one. Italy and Malta have been fiercely criticised for using "push-back" methods in the Mediterranean. This year the European court of human rights found that Italy had breached international human rights law by returning a boat of migrants back to Libya.

NGOs, lawyers, and locals working in Greece and Turkey say it is well known that Greek border police sometimes push back undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

Levent Dinceli, a Turkish lawyer based in Edirne, close to the border with Greece, represents asylum seekers held in detention centres around Turkey. Many of his clients tell him about being pushed back by Greek border police. "There is a readmission agreement between Greece and Turkey, but it is not working well," he said.

"Very few people are sent the legal way. It is either the push-back method or they regroup these people in detention centres, then send them back to Turkey with boats. These boats are not safe. Putting people in these boats is also pushing them to their death."

A UN High Commissioner for Refugees source said the organisation could not comment on Farouk's story or illegal push-backs by Greek police in general. However, they acknowledged hearing similar accounts. "People say that there is a situation where people may enter the territory but are not registered as persons who are arrested in Greek territory. They are returned through use of force at night through the river. We think that these operations have been eliminated in the last two years."

Kelly Grivakou, a lawyer at the human rights NGO Aitima in Athens, said they often heard of Greek border police acting in breach of the law. "It is well known," she said. "It is illegal. When you enter a state and you need protection, and this state has ratified the Geneva conventions, the state has obligations to protect you. When you send a man from Iran or Afghanistan back to Turkey, when you know that maybe he is going to be deported back to his country, and might face danger or violence, you violate article 33 of the Geneva conventions."

Pasxalis Syritoudis, police chief of the northern Evros region, denied that his officers operated a push-back policy. "Migrants who don't succeed in crossing make these accusations to create problems for [us]. These accusations are being made because it is hard for a migrant to travel hundreds of kilometres to reach Greek borders and then not be able to make it across," he said.

However, Syritoudis admitted that his main goal was to "prevent people entering Greek soil". This meant sometimes his officers used boats to block migrants in dinghies from crossing the border. "We have 10 boats patrolling the river all the time. The boats are used to block people from crossing – to stop them getting to Greek territory." When asked how they demarcated the border in the river, he said: "The border is at the halfway point in the river."

He said: "Using the thermal-vision vans and night cameras, we try to see them [migrants] before they enter the river, when they are on the Turkish side to prevent them crossing. When we detect migrants on the other side, we go to the spot and by using police sirens and lights, we make our presence clear to them to prevent them from entering."

Greece is under huge pressure to seal off its borders, from the EU and at home, because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment among ordinary Greeks. Operation Shield, paid for by the European commission, is the government's latest attempt to stop illegal crossings from Turkey.

Since the start of Shield in August, 900 extra police officers have been sent to Orestiada, a small border town in northern Greece. The effects have been immediate: in July 6,000 migrants were arrested in the area. This dropped to 1,800 in August and September.

The government has also spent €3m (£2.4m) on a barbed-wire fence for its eight-mile land border with Turkey, a few miles from the river Evros. Even during construction, Demiertzis Nasos, whose company is building the fence, said he saw refugees crossing the border. "We see families, once even a four-month-old baby. They were wet from the river."

Many of those pushed back or stopped from entering Greece through its northern border have simply chosen to try their luck by boat across the Aegean sea. This route is fraught with danger. In September 58 people died after their boat sank off the west coat of Turkey. A number of the dead were Syrians who had travelled with Farouk just a few weeks before.

The effort spent on keeping migrants and refugees entering Europe brings little return because there is no structure in place in Turkey to stop them simply trying again. When a person is caught crossing the border to Europe they are put in one of Turkey's immigration removal centres. Between January and July this year, Turkish police arrested 14,559 irregular such migrants.

Increasingly, as border controls tighten between Greece and Turkey, migrants and asylum seekers choose to enter Europe through Bulgaria. Syritoudis said there had been an increase of about 200 people a week evading capture and crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria. Mahmud, 39, and his wife, Fadwa, 35, are one such Syrian family. As Damascus collapsed around them, they packed up their four children and left. The family has spent six months at an open camp in Pastrogor, an isolated border village in Bulgaria. During that time they have been given little information on what will happen to them.

Farouk is living at the same camp. "We don't know what to do. We cannot go back because there is a problem with our country. We cannot continue because we have no money. We are like slum dogs. Before we came here we heard that Europe is a country of humanity. But after all these experiences we see the opposite."

Syrian refugees 'turned back from Greek border by police' | World news |

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Golden Dawn offices damaged by bomb

 Alex Spillius

By Alex Spillius, and agencies 2:47PM GMT 04 Dec 2012

A makeshift bomb exploded at the offices of the far-Right political party Golden Dawn near Athens in the early hours of Tuesday, ripping through a wall and smashing the windows of an adjacent building but causing no injuries, police said.

Golden Dawn offices damaged by bomb

Police stand guard outside the Golden Dawn offices after the explosion Photo: REUTERS

A police official, who declined to be named, said the attack was most likely carried out by a far-Left group. "It was a powerful blast that caused a lot of damage," he said. "It looks like [domestic] terrorism."

The device packed with dynamite was placed outside the party's local offices in Aspropyrgos, an industrial suburb west of Athens.

The bombing was the first recorded occasion that the group has been targeted since its surge popularity during Greece's debt crisis. Riding a wave of public anger at austerity, corrupt politicians and immigration, its members have repeatedly been accused of using violence against immigrants.

There are growing calls for the banning of the ultra-nationalist party, whose members have been seen giving Nazi-style salutes and whose emblem resembles a swastika.

Golden Dawn has said it wants to rid Greece of all foreigners, including what it calls the "stench" of immigrants.

Latest opinion polls show the popularity of the party - the first ultra-nationalist group to enter parliament since a military junta was overthrown in 1974 - has risen since the last election in June, when Golden Dawn won 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament with 7 per cent of the vote.

A survey by VPRC, an independent polling company, put support for Golden Dawn at 14 per cent in October, making it third most popular party.

The party denies it is neo-Nazi and frequently accuses journalists and critics of mudslinging and misrepresenting it.

Explosions of small homemade bombs - usually gas canisters or explosives packed together - are frequent in Greece, which is in its fifth year of a recession that has left one in four jobless and eroded living standards.

Parliament recently lifted the immunity of three Golden Dawn MPs accused of smashing up migrant stalls at two open-air markets.

The party's main spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris assaulted two women during a live television discussion earlier this year.

Golden Dawn offices damaged by bomb - Telegraph

Greece can root out corruption – just like Hong Kong did

 Costas Bakouris

Costas Bakouris, Wednesday 5 December 2012 18.53 GMT

A strong anti-corruption body helped turn Hong Kong around. Now it rides high in an index that embarrasses Greece

Greece parliament

Greece is the lowest ranked EU country in an index that measures experts’ perceptions of public sector corruption. Photograph: John Kolesidis/Reuters

Sadly, news that Greece is last among European Union countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index is not surprising. The emerging tax evasion cases, the scandal of people falsely declaring themselves blind on the island of Zakynthos, and the drama over the leaking of the "Lagarde list" of tax evaders have hit the headlines around the world.

Not only is Greece the lowest ranked EU country in an index that measures experts' perceptions of public sector corruption: in 94th place, it ranks a massive 19 places behind the next EU member state, Bulgaria.

Greece is not alone in Europe in needing to wake up to corruption. Portugal and Spain share the same weak oversight of public spending, with auditors too weak or lacking independence from government. Many European countries do not oblige political parties to disclose donations from companies, are lax in regulating the way businesses lobby politicians and officials, or lack scrutiny over governments tendering of contracts to businesses.

Greece's low rank tells a story. It illustrates the "crisis of values" that is driving the economic crisis, according to a report on corruption risks in Greek institutions published earlier this year.

The lack of accountable leadership – together with the deficit of transparency in the management of public finances and public spending – left us exposed to risk-taking and exploding debt, which brought us to today's crisis.

To a large extent, Greece's economic future depends not only on bailouts, but on how well it fights corruption. Bribery, tax evasion and a host of other mistakes have contributed to the present crisis Greece faces, and threaten to block any economic route the country takes in the future – default, bailout, austerity or stimulus.

When Transparency International assesses Greece's institutions, we see flaws, but also positives that show corruption can be tackled. Greece's ombudsman, for example, is well equipped to combat corruption thanks to a clear mandate enshrined in law and a well-trained staff.

Corruption can be tackled, but the reforms must run deep.

Last week in Athens, Transparency International Greece and the European commission presented a plan for tackling corruption in the country. Looking at today's Corruption Perceptions Index, it becomes imperative that the anti-corruption initiatives presented at the conference are implemented promptly.

A good start would be greater coordination of Greek anti-corruption agencies under a national coordinator. Our study earlier this year on corruption in Greece has found that despite the extensive cases of corruption reported, only about 2% of civil servants are subject to disciplinary procedures. .

If the anti-corruption initiative is to have any chance of success, the government should send a strong message by having the national coordinator report to the prime minister. Only when the prime minister champions the cause of transparency will Greece start to get rid of corruption.

The creation of a strong anti-corruption body proved a turning point in Hong Kong in the 1970s, helping it emerge from the control of organised crime to its present reputation for integrity – it's now ranked 14th in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. It has prosecuted more than 12,000 public officials. Greece, sitting 80 places further down that ranking, needs to follow that example and allow no impunity for corruption.

We live in an era where there is a rising tide of public demand for leaders to be more accountable for their actions. Time and again we are seeing leaders who fail to respond to that demand swept from power.

It is time for leaders to step up, lead by example, and cultivate a culture of integrity.

Greece can root out corruption – just like Hong Kong did | Costas Bakouris | Comment is free |

Greece slips to 94th in corruption index as austerity makes it EU's weakest link


Helena Smith in Athens, Wednesday 5 December 2012 20.55 GMT

With 30,000 homes a day cut off for unpaid bills by the state, corruption has become a matter of survival for many Greeks

An old person is seen outside the Bank of Greece

An old woman begging in Greece, where one in three now live below the poverty line. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

On top of the litany of woes that have befallen Greece, comes the news that the euro zone's weakest link is also its most corrupt. From holding 80th place in the 176 countries on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index in 2011, Greece's global ranking, this year, fell to 94, the global watchdog announced on Wednesday. In terms of perceived levels of public corruption, Greece was on a par with Moldova and Mongolia. In the 27-strong EU, there was no other state that fared worse.

For economic experts who were surveyed for the report, the finding will be further proof that Greece is not just an economic basket case that is only barely keeping bankruptcy at bay but entrenched in a crisis of values that, like its debt drama, refuses to go away.

For Costas Bakouris, who spends his time exclusively monitoring corrupt practices as the head of Transparency International's Greek chapter, the survey underscores the desperate need for the nation at the heart of Europe's financial mess to organise a fresh political way of operating.

"We need to create a political system where politicians care more about the fate of the country than themselves," he told the Guardian.

"In short, we need to make politicians accountable," he said, emphasising that wanting ethical standards had played a pre-eminent role in bringing the country to "this critical place".

Ironically, most Greeks would agree. Corruption, as many now understand, was the thorn in the side of a society that held back economic enterprise and competition. It was their nation's overarching affliction.

But the drop will also come as little surprise. And, for many, it will have less to do with the lack of role models – and punishment, or not, meted out to corrupt politicians – as it will do to the sheer need to survive.

In a country not only mired in a fifth straight year of recession but enduring a third year of unprecedented austerity, where one in three now lives below the poverty line and a quarter of the population is unemployed, corruption is a means to an end.

It is, say analysts, the flipside of austerity in an economy in freefall. "To survive in such a hostile situation, you have to bend the rules," said political commentator Giorgios Kyrtsos. "There is no other way when things are so hard – you are forced to resort to corruption to deal with the state mechanism."

Economics professor Theodore Pelagides says rampant tax evasion is a case in point. With VAT at 23%, thanks to policies mandated by Greece's creditors at the EU and International Monetary Fund, withholding of official receipts has assumed proportions that even by the standards of pre-crisis Greece have become chronic.

"People have been pushed to their limits. They have calculated in a very rational way that avoidance of such receipts is a necessity at a time when they have been hit by so many wage cuts and unexpected taxes," Pelagides said. "We should not be at all surprised by the report's findings."

Will it get worse? Very likely, yes. This week another global survey conducted by the consultancy group Mercer found that, in Athens, citizens endured the worst quality of life of any major European city. It was also the 78th most expensive of the 214 cities that were surveyed.

With no prospect of development or growth to get them out of the economic depression, and more biting belt-tightening measures on the way, Greeks are the first to say they fear "a jungle-like" mentality is bound to emerge.

Desperation is on the rise with the state power company DHE reporting it is cutting off electricity supplies in an estimated 30,000 homes every day as bills, which now include a hefty property tax, go unpaid.

"Our country is being destroyed a little more every day," said Tassos Vassiliou, who runs an electric supplies store in a downtown office.

"This shop has been in my family for more than 100 years and at Christmas we will close. We will open up in my family home next door, but don't ask for a receipt because we won't be giving them out."

Greece slips to 94th in corruption index as austerity makes it EU's weakest link | World news |

Monday, December 3, 2012

George Papandreou's mother 'linked to €550 million Swiss bank account'

10:51PM GMT 02 Dec 2012

The 89-year-old mother of a former Greek prime minister has been reportedly linked to a Swiss bank account containing more €550 million (£446 million).

Greece's debt default crisis: latest reaction

George Papandreou's mother is allegedly on the "Lagarde list" of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts. Photo: EPA

Margaret Papandreou, whose son George served as the country's prime minister during the height of the Euro zone crisis, is said to be on the "Lagarde list" of Greek citizens with fortunes hidden in Switzerland.

The list of alleged tax evaders, named after Christine Lagarde, the head International Monetary Fund (IMF), has caused deep resentment as Greece struggles with austerity.

Mrs Papandreou, whose late husband was also a prime minister, denied the allegations reported in two Greek newspapers yesterday.

"Why such lies? Why such attacks? Perhaps because my family never served this country’s interest groups," she said in a statement.

Mr Papandreou, who stood down as prime minister in 2011 but remains a member of parliament, said the stories were "rumours without facts" and were part of a backlash against his anti-corruption battles while in office.

After taking power in 2009, his government announced that the country's financial situation was far more dire than originally thought, largely due to tax evasion by Greek citizens.

Mrs Papandreou's name reportedly surfaced in a report made by police to members of parliament last month.

The "Lagarde list" was provided to Greece by the French government while Mrs Lagarde was still finance minister in Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

George Papandreou's mother 'linked to €550 million Swiss bank account' - Telegraph

Sunday, December 2, 2012

‘Chancellor’s Majority’ Eludes Angela Merkel in Greek Vote

By MELISSA EDDY Published: November 30, 2012

BERLIN — By the time German lawmakers convened to vote on a fresh bundle of bailout money for Greece on Friday, it was widely expected that the measure would pass easily — as it did.

 But in the numbers game that is parliamentary politics, the important figure was not the 473 votes in favour of the next instalment of loans and aid for Greece, totalling €43.7 billion, or $56.7 billion.

The focus instead was on the 23 lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own centre-right coalition who voted against the measure, robbing her, for the third consecutive vote on Greece, of the so-called chancellor’s majority, or absolute majority among her government’s own deputies.

While not relevant for Friday’s vote, the chancellor’s majority is widely seen as an indicator of the strength of the incumbent’s power base, because most legislation put before the lower house of Parliament requires only a simple majority of those voting. Missing it on three votes in a row on one policy matter, in this case, Greece, is unusual.

“The missed chancellor’s majority is a clear sign that even if one wants to be a good colleague, even her party colleagues do not agree with her government’s policy of pushing these packages through Parliament,” said Manuel Becker, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.

With federal elections set for next Sept. 22, Ms. Merkel remains personally popular with voters but faces rising discontent from within her own Christian Democratic Union, or C.D.U. While she does not appear to face any clear threat before next week’s party congress, where she is virtually certain to emerge as the party’s nominee in the election, disgruntled members have become more willing to voice unhappiness at her perceived shortcomings.

“The C.D.U. must convince people, and especially businesses, with strong arguments as to why they deserve their votes,” said Kurt Lauk, a party economic expert. “The slogan ‘Peace, Happiness and Merkel’ will not be enough.”

The fate of the Free Democratic Party poses the greatest challenge to Ms. Merkel’s current coalition, made up of Free Democrats, Christian Democrats and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union.

The Free Democrats are now polling dangerously at or below the 5 percent minimum needed to get into Parliament. And they are balking at the idea of more debt relief for Greece, although they apparently acknowledge that Athens will need more help before it can borrow on the open market.

“We need to recognize that no one at any time has promised that in one fell swoop, we will flip a switch and the issue will be resolved,” said Otto Fricke, a Free Democrat deputy. “Anyone who thinks this is the last time that we have voted on this issue is mistaken.”

Germany is one of Greece’s largest creditors and all parties understand that Berlin’s support is crucial not only for the success of the package but also the entire euro zone. That leaves the opposition parties with few options other than to criticize Ms. Merkel’s government.

The Greens joined the Social Democrats in criticizing Ms. Merkel for failing to level with German taxpayers about the true cost of the effort. The current package aims to cut Greek debt, estimated at 175 percent of gross domestic product, down to 124 percent by 2020.

For the first time this week, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble acknowledged that the Greek package would cut into the federal budget: €730 million this year and €660 million in 2014.

Speaking in favour of the debt package, Mr. Schäuble praised the restructuring efforts of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ government and warned that the current discussion of writing down Greek debt would sap Athens’ drive to continue with the painful course of reforms required by Germany and the other international lenders.

“If we say that the debt will be forgiven, then the readiness to save in exchange for further help is weakened,” Mr. Schäuble told Parliament. “If we want to help Greece along this difficult path, then we must go forward step by step.”

In Greece, government officials welcomed the German vote and expressed hope that it would influence similar votes in other European legislatures.

The International Monetary Fund has insisted that fresh money, or even a write-down, will be needed to put Greece on a path to manageable debt by the end of the decade. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble have repeatedly rejected such a measure.

The Netherlands is also leery of more debt relief for Athens. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, called for a change in E.U. laws to allow a country to leave the euro.

“We want to make it possible for a euro zone country to be able to quit the euro if it wants,” Mr. Rutte said, insisting that all members must respect the rules governing the currency union. He did not specifically mention Greece.

The overall unemployment rate among the 17 E.U. nations using the euro has climbed to 11.6 percent, its highest rate since 1995, according to official figures. While the German economy remains largely immune to the suffering on its borders, the most recent figures show growth slowing and investor confidence dipping.

So far Ms. Merkel has been able to quell calls from within her coalition for Greece to leave the euro zone by insisting that the consequences would be far more dire for Germany than giving more assistance.

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.

‘Chancellor’s Majority’ Eludes Angela Merkel in Greek Vote -

Friday, November 30, 2012

Court blocks release of Greek accounts

Julia Kollewe and Martin Farrer, Thursday 29 November 2012 18.31 GMT

EU court throws out freedom of information request relating to credit swaps which allowed the country to increase its debts

Greece's Finance Minister Stournaras arrives for a news conference in Athens

Greece's finance minister Yannis Stournaras arrives for a news conference in Athens this week following news that the EU and IMF had agreed a €40bn bailout. Photograph: Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters

The EU's general court has blocked an attempt to force the European Central Bank to release files showing how Greece used derivatives to hide its debt in the run-up to the financial crisis. The case was brought by Bloomberg News under the EU's freedom of information rules in August 2010 but was thrown out on Thursday by the court in Luxembourg.

"Disclosure of those documents would have undermined the protection of the public interest so far as concerns the economic policy of the EU and Greece," the EU's general court said.

Goldman Sachs and other investment banks have been criticised by European leaders over claims that they helped Greece disguise the true scale of its debts over several years. German chancellor Angela Merkel said in February 2010: "It's a scandal if it turned out that the same banks that brought us to the brink of the abyss helped to fake the statistics."

The ECB is headed by a former Goldman banker, Mario Draghi.

The ruling means European taxpayers who are footing the bill for the €240bn Greek bailout will not find out whether EU officials knew of irregularities in Greece's national accounts before they became public in 2009.

Georg Erber, a specialist in financial market regulation at the German Institute for Economic Research, told Bloomberg: "The courts are bending the rules to legalise the policies of the European institutions and help stabilise the region. It reveals implicitly that the EU was well informed about what was going on and didn't take steps to avert the crisis."

Bloomberg sought access to two internal papers drafted for the ECB's six-member executive board. In April 2009, ECB officials spotted a "swap operation in unusual terms" involving the National Bank of Greece, according to a cover note to the two documents seen by Bloomberg. From October 2009, repeated revisions of Greece's budget figures drove up the country's borrowing costs and eventually forced it to seek aid from the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

Euro stat accounting rules allowed member states to use off-market rates in swaps to manage their debt until 2008. The use of swaps, which Greece had not disclosed as debt, allowed the country to increase borrowings by €5.3bn (£4.3bn), Euro stat said in 2010. In the largest derivative disclosed, Greece borrowed €2.8bn from Goldman Sachs in 2001.

The mood on stock markets was lifted by optimism that US lawmakers will be able to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of higher taxes and spending cuts looming in the new year. Republican speaker John Boehner said his party could broker a deal with the White House while Barack Obama said he thought it could be done by Christmas.

The comments propelled the FTSE 100 index in London to three-week highs. It closed up nearly 70 points, or 1.2%, at 5870.30 while Germany's Dax gained 0.8% and France's CAC rose 1.5%.

David Madden, market analyst at spread betting firm IG, said the comments "have filled investors with confidence that the US economy will not plunge into a recession come new year. However, just because Mr Obama says everything will be OK doesn't make it so, and dealers will want more than words as we approach the deadline.

"I think we are in for a see-saw ride on the run-up to Christmas, as traders closely follow politicians' statements – take last night for example. All we need is an 'optimistic' outlook to move the market higher but if there is any doubt that a deal will not be in place, we will see another sell-off."

The better mood was also helped by an increase in business and economic confidence in November in Europe which ended eight monthly declines in a row, while German unemployment rose by less than feared, leaving the jobless rate at 6.9%.

Bond yields in struggling euro zone countries fell in the wake of a successful Italian bond auction and the Greek deal earlier in the week, with Italian 10-year yields briefly touching levels last seen in December 2010. Italy sold €2.98bn of 10-year bonds, just shy of the maximum targeted amount, and paid a yield of 4.45%, down almost 50 basis points from a sale at the end of October. A year ago, Italy paid a record 7.56% to get 10-year bonds away.

New data also showed the American economy grew faster than previously thought in the third quarter, by an annual rate of 2.7% rather than the 2% estimated by the government last month. This was due to companies building up stocks more quickly than thought but is not expected to be sustained as the nation prepares for tax increases and spending cuts.

Court blocks release of Greek accounts | Business |

Greece and Germany: this is a crisis of cousins

 Mark Terkessides

Mark Terkessidis The Guardian, Thursday 29 November 2012 21.00 GMT

My family's experience shows how easily Greeks and Germans forget what they have in common

Greece's finance and development ministry

Employees of finance and development ministries in Athens on 29 November working on the debt buyback plan. Photograph: John Kolesidis/Reuters

I recently bumped into a cousin in Switzerland. I hadn't known she even existed – she and I never moved in the same family circles when I visited relatives in Athens. But since the start of the crisis, Greeks abroad have become more aware of their family trees. My relative completed a degree in Germany 25 years ago and returned to Greece to get a job in the food industry. Two years ago she was made redundant. For 18 months she tried to find work, then gave up and begged her mother to call her contacts in Germany – such as my father, her cousin once removed, who helped her move to Germany, and from thereon to Switzerland.

Although the German parliament should on Friday pass a deal that eases the pressure on the Greek economy, many Greeks have gone back to doing what they have always been good at: they activating networks of relatives in the Diaspora and moving abroad. Statistics released this month show that Greek migration to Germany has shot up almost 80% in the past few years. They are a different breed to the unqualified workers from rural areas who moved abroad in the 1960s, however, the new migrant comes from one of the crisis-hit cities and has a bagful of degrees and qualifications.

In this respect, the Greek disaster is a German boon: the brain drain from the Mediterranean is helping to plug Germany's chronic lack of qualified workers. And yet Greeks who arrive are rarely welcomed with open arms at German borders. A large part of the population still insists that "we" will end up having to cough up for "their" welfare. Out come all the old clichés: haven't "those Greeks" always been feckless layabouts? People empathise with the situation in Greece but often wouldn't want to go as far as letting out their flat to a Greek family.

Accepting that migration is once again part of the Greek experience isn't easy for Greeks, either. Expectations are higher than they used to be. In the 90s, Greece had managed to turn itself from an emigration into an immigration country (even if not a particularly welcoming one, as the rise of Golden Dawn shows). In 2004, when Athens hosted the Olympics and the Greek football team won the European Championship, it briefly looked like the country had finally arrived in Europe. That dream has now come to a sudden end: in the eyes of most Europeans, we've been pegged back to "oriental" levels.

I grew up in Germany with a Greek father and a German mother, and I find it relatively easy to look at the situation from both sides of the divide. But for Greeks in Greece to accept partial responsibility in their downfall isn't easy. Greece experienced modernisation, but no real reforms. Mentally, it never kept up with economic progress. The EU and the euro arrived and living standards rose, but in politics the same old family structures remained intact, tourists were served the same old souvlaki and moussaka for notched-up prices, and the country continued to consume, "Balkans-style" – as if the whole dream could be over by tomorrow.

Analysing what really happened during the boom years is much harder than blaming the big bad Germans, those heartless, work-obsessed robots. Of course you can question Angela Merkel's austerity politics. And there's no question that some Germans – much like many Greeks – have simply failed to grasp where the European project is at: there's a widespread and enormously inflexible fixation with savings, wage restraint and fighting inflation that is simply outdated.

But ultimately Germany and Greece are simply opposite poles at a new phase of European integration. If you look at the relationship between the two countries from a distance, the overwhelming impression is not of a culture clash but a historical enmeshing. You only have to remember that the blue-and-white Greek flag is based on the colours of the state of Bavaria – whose Prince Otto became the first king of independent Greece. These shared links and influences – all too quickly forgotten – should be the starting point for solving Europe's problems.

Europeans are currently going through an astonishing learning curve: Greeks are coming to terms with the fact that the European Union isn't just the friendly aunt from the distant west that sorts out our infrastructure but that it can make demands too. And Germany is slowly starting to grasp that the EU can't just be an export market with a stable currency. A union also has to involve solidarity with people who don't speak the same language as you.

In that respect, the crisis could be an opportunity to complete European integration. But that chance will come and go if we don't get a glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel. I am pleased that the Bundestag will, in all likelihood, pass a measure on Friday to cut Greek's debt mountain by €40bn. For the short term such measures are important, but in the long run "rescue packages" are no recipe for a Europe in which Greece and Germany can coexist happily.

Translated by Philip Oltermann

Greece and Germany: this is a crisis of cousins | Mark Terkessidis | Comment is free | The Guardian

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Greeks turn to the forests for fuel as winter nears

Helena Smith in Tsagarada, Pelion The Guardian, Wednesday 28 November 2012 21.03 GMT

As austerity tightens its grip, many of the middle class find themselves in a desperate struggle to make ends meet

Wood poacher's warehouse

A wood poacher's warehouse near Mount Pelion, Greece. Illegal logging has recently taken on epidemic proportions. Photograph: Despoina Vafeidou/AFP/Getty Images

It is early Sunday. The sun has barely risen above the chestnut forest that lies somewhere near the crest of Mount Pelion, but loggers' pick-up trucks are already streaming through the muddy slush, their cargo bouncing in the back. Theirs are rich pickings, much in demand as winter envelopes the villages and towns of an increasingly poverty-stricken Greece. As they pass, they do not look up because many do not have permits to do what they have just done.

From their new home a little further on, Yiannis Chadziathanasiou and Natasa Rempati watch the ebb and flow of this traffic. So, too, do the residents of Tsagarada, the picturesque hamlet where the sound of chainsaws pierces the morning air. "Things are getting desperate," says Chadziathanasiou, who clothed Greek celebrities before he moved to the countryside. "You hear all the time of people illegally clearing forests for firewood. It's horrible if you're a green like me."

In their wellington boots and designer jeans, the couple stand out in Tsagarada. Like most middle class Europeans raised in cities, nature is a new world and one that does not come naturally to them. Until last year, both enjoyed successful careers in fashion and architecture. "But then we did our sums," said 29-year-old Rempati, whose firm had designed hospitals and metro stations before being forced to close down. "And although we were both earning good salaries, taking home around €3,500 a month, we were really squeezed. There was never a euro left over. Our heating bill alone cost €3,000 and that was before the €500 we spent on petrol and all the new taxes. We were stressed and really anxious and didn't think we could afford to go through another winter in Athens."

The young professionals then did something they never thought they would do. In June, they got into their black Chrysler and drove 200 miles north of the capital to Mount Pelion, where Chadziathanasiou had spent holidays as a child. "All our friends ever did was talk about the crisis and a lot of them were leaving," he said. "You'd turn on the TV and all it did was bombard you with terrifying news, day after day, about how this country was going down the tubes."

There was also the issue of survival. The fashion aficionado had always had a dream of opening a luxury hotel and with its spectacular villages and rivulets, streams and beaches, Pelion appealed as an all-year-round tourist destination. "We thought if we try this out, living in a little stone house, working in the industry, we might be able to make ends meet," said the 33-year-old. "I'm not used to chopping firewood and my body aches but then doing it this way we only spend €300 on heating our home."

As the eurozone's poorest member state stares at the prospect of a sixth straight year of recession with unemployment and poverty levels reaching peaks not seen since the second world war, growing numbers of Greeks are experiencing the effects. After first felling society's most vulnerable, with pensioners and low-income workers at the fore, debt-stricken Greece's great economic crisis is now destroying the middle class. The announcement this week that €44bn in emergency aid will soon be funnelled into the country – the latest in a series of rescue programmes by the EU and IMF to prop up an economy running on empty – comes as little consolation for people on the ground.

Poised for their worst winter since the eruption of the crisis three years ago, Greeks who once thought nothing of heating their homes now hesitate. After relentless waves of austerity and tax rises that have seen their purchasing power drop by up to 50%, even doctors and lawyers are feeling the pinch, with many saying they cannot afford the 40% surcharge the government has slapped on heating oil.

"In my own block of flats," said boutique owner Tina Kanellopoulou, who lives in the posh Athens neighbourhood of Kolonaki, "the central heating hasn't been turned on because most of the flat owners haven't got the money to pay for it. We're all rushing out to buy little electric heaters. You go to a doctor or lawyer and you see they are doing the same."

Having been on the frontline of Europe's debt drama from the outset, Greece embraced austerity in return for international financial assistance that has kept bankruptcy at bay and tied it to the family of single currency nations. But the effect has been ever more devastating on its social fabric. Middle class downsizing is the latest tell-tale sign in a country whose GDP officials predict will shrink 25% by 2014 – a contraction unheard of in an advanced western economy since America's Great Depression.

The side effects of taming runaway deficits and a debt mountain projected to amount to 190% of national output has been brutal, with once proud Greeks now openly speaking of their nation being brought to a point of economic, political and psychological collapse. Nationwide, suicides have soared, with the public order minister, Nikos Dendias, saying last week that 3,100 people had taken their own lives since the onset of the crisis in a country that in 2009 had the lowest suicide rate in the EU.

Last week, Greece heard that malaria, officially eliminated 40 years ago, had also made a comeback with cases being noted in eastern Attica and the Peloponnese. News of the outbreak came on the day Greek sports, already a dying art, took another blow with the Hellenic Olympic committee unexpectedly announcing the closure in the capital of the pool used by elite swimmers because authorities can no longer afford heating oil. Insolvency has rocked schools and hospitals, where staff complain they not only do not have the money to heat classrooms and wards but even to purchase painkillers for children and patients.

"Greece is being taken back to the 1970s," said Gikas Hardouvelis, chief economist at Eurobank. "People are desperate. The recession has affected every home with the drop in living standards not being distributed equally. People who once lived decently have seen their wages drop by 80%."

Average income has dropped to levels not seen for more than a decade, according to the Greek Labour Institute. But it is the latest round of spending cuts and structural reforms that are expected to hit Greeks the hardest. In return for long-overdue bailout loans and a deal that will see the country's debt pile cut by €40bn, Athens' coalition government has agreed to a draconian €13.5bn package of belt-tightening measures. The policies, to be implemented over two years from January, have been described as the death knell for the urban middle class, already hit by a barrage of taxes on incomes, purchases and property by governments desperate to meet deficit targets set by foreign lenders. To keep up, the older generation has begun pawning heirlooms and jewellery to get through the winter.

"If 2012 was the year of 'the death of a salesman', 2013 will be the year of 'the death of the middle class,'" said Takis Pavlopoulos, a senior aide of main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras. "It will be Year Zero for Greece. For the first time self-employed professionals will see their income taxed from the first euro they earn, adding to their already reduced turnovers as a result of five years of austerity. And civil servants will have their salaries cut once again. That in turn will lead to a dramatic drop in consumption and internal demand."

Pavlopoulos's views might be less important if he were not also Tsipras's speechwriter. The US-trained economist has a way with words and they are paying off. Tsipras's vehemently anti-bailout radical left Syriza party is leading in every poll conducted since prime minister Antonis Samaras's fragile alliance assumed power in June.

"The further downward pressure on the middle class, to the point of disappearance, will radicalise it," he said. "And in so doing it will bring it closer to Syriza, the only realistic alternative political choice for power with a government programme to immediately end catastrophic austerity."

So far Greeks have shown remarkable fortitude in the face of such adversity. Although soup kitchens have proliferated and hunger levels have grown, the younger generation has hunkered down, opening new businesses with a display of entrepreneurial skills not seen before the crisis.

Analysts and insiders worry that as the crisis moves into another phase with new middle class victims, the potential for the protest base to widen will also grow. With the number of jobless Greeks topping 1.2 million, extremism on left and right has risen alarmingly, with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn now the third biggest party with 12% in the polls.

"I am concerned that everyone is angry and that somehow this anger can be channelled in the wrong direction," said Hardouvelis, the economist. "I am worried about nazism, yes."

Up in Tsagarada, the younger generation embodied by Yiannis and Natasa say hope is in short supply. "This is not a country where you can even have children anymore," they say. "Under these latest measures you're taxed even harder if you have kids."

But as new as their brave new world is, the couple are giving it their best. "All our friends have gone to England and Holland mostly," said the fashion designer. "We could easily go to New York where I'd often attend shows and have lots of contacts but we want to give it a go here. Greece is a beautiful country even if our politicians have destroyed it. Come back in a year and see if we have survived."

Greeks turn to the forests for fuel as winter nears | World news | The Guardian