Former Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos was jailed for 20 years on Monday after being found guilty of money laundering. Although the ex-PASOK veteran will serve only a fraction of this sentence, his conviction is notable moment in Greek politics as it is the first time a frontline political figure has been found guilty of corruption since the early 1990s.
Tsochatzopoulos was deemed guilty of accepting bribes totalling about 55 million euros during his spell as defence minister between 1996 and 2001. Another 16 people were convicted of helping him disperse the money through a complex network of offshore companies and property deals.
The 74-year-old was one of PASOK’s co-founders and came within a whisker of becoming Greece’s prime minister in 1996 so the fact he is going to be spending at least the next couple of years behind bars goes some way to reversing the sense which many Greeks have that their politicians can act with impunity.
It is worth remembering that money laundering charges were brought against Tsochatzopoulos because they were not subject to the statute of limitations that prevented a bribery case being mounted against him. The judiciary used the full range of its powers to pin the ex-minister down and jail him. Again, this is somewhat of a landmark moment given the way Greek politicians have evaded the consequences of their actions in the past.
Tsochatzopoulos’s conviction also comes in the wake of two other high profile local politicians, ex-Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos and former Central Macedonia Governor Panagiotis Psomiadis, also being convicted of corruption. Papageorgopoulos is currently serving a life sentence for embezzling 18 million euros from the Municipality of Thessaloniki.
There are a number of other cases pending. Three ex-ministers are being investigated over their tax declarations and ex-Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou could be indicted for allegedly doctoring the so-called Lagarde list of depositors, which included the names of more than 2,000 Greeks with savings in the Geneva branch of HSBC. Papaconstantinou denies removing the names of four of his relatives from the list before asking for it to be investigated for possible tax evaders.
Voters have persistently complained since 2010 that they are lifting the burden of the crisis while some politicians and other members of Greece’s elite remain untouched. The fact that business owners and taxpayers are being arrested for being unable to pay their obligations to the state but that decision makers are not held accountable for stealing or wasting public funds is often cited as a cause for Greeks’ indignation.
Tsochatzopoulos’s conviction will not rectify this overnight but if his prosecution proves to be just one strand of a multi-pronged attack on corruption in public life then it would help restore some faith in the country’s institutions and instil hope that they will ensure the law is applied fairly.
Former Supreme Court prosecutor Yiannis Tentes took over a newly created post in the summer as Greece’s anti-corruption supremo. He will coordinate efforts to tackle graft and draw up a national anti-corruption strategy. It remains to be seen if he can have any impact on ensuring justice is administered.
However, as long as cases like the Siemens cash-for-contracts scandal and the Lagarde list are not properly investigated and those responsible are not brought to account, it will be very difficult to convince Greeks that this government is serious about correcting many of the wrongs committed by its predecessors.