September 23, 2020

For Greece, Oligarchs Are an Obstacle to Recovery

But as Greece’s economy soured in recent years, his fortunes sagged and he began embezzling money from a bank he controlled, prosecutors say. With charges looming, it looked as if his rapid rise would be followed by an equally precipitous fall. Thanks to a law passed quietly by the Greek Parliament, however, he avoided prosecution, at least for a time, simply by paying the money back.

Now 40, Mr. Lavrentiadis is back in the spotlight as one of the names on the so-called Lagarde list of more than 2,000 Greeks said to have accounts in a Geneva branch of the bank HSBC and who are suspected of tax evasion. Given to Greek officials two years ago by Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now head of the International Monetary Fund, the list was expected to cast a damning light on the shady practices of the rich.

Instead, it was swept under the rug, and now two former finance ministers and Greece’s top tax officials are under investigation for having failed to act.

Greece’s economic troubles are often attributed to a public sector packed full of redundant workers, a lavish pension system and uncompetitive industries hampered by overpaid workers with lifetime employment guarantees. Often overlooked, however, is the role played by a handful of wealthy families, politicians and the news media — often owned by the magnates — that make up the Greek power structure.

In a country crushed by years of austerity and 25 percent unemployment, average Greeks are growing increasingly resentful of an oligarchy that, critics say, presides over an opaque, closed economy that is at the root of many of the country’s problems and operates with virtual impunity. Several dozen powerful families control critical sectors, including banking, shipping and construction, and can usually count on the political class to look out for their interests, sometimes by passing legislation tailored to their specific needs.

The result, analysts say, is a lack of competition that undermines the economy by allowing the magnates to run cartels and enrich themselves through crony capitalism. “That makes it rational for them to form a close, incestuous relationship with politicians and the media, which is then highly vulnerable to corruption,” said Kevin Featherstone, a professor of European Politics at the London School of Economics.

This week the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Greece as the most corrupt nation in Europe, behind former Soviet states like Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Under the pressure of the financial crisis, Greece is being pressed by Germany and its international lenders to make fundamental changes to its economic system in exchange for the money it needs to avoid bankruptcy.

But it remains an open question whether Greece’s leaders will be able to engineer such a transformation. In the past year, despite numerous promises to increase transparency, the country actually dropped 14 places from the previous corruption survey.

Mr. Lavrentiadis is still facing a host of accusations stemming from hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made by his Proton bank to dormant companies — sometimes, investigators say, ordering an employee to withdraw the money in bags of cash. But with Greece scrambling to complete a critical bank recapitalization and restructuring, his case is emblematic of a larger battle between Greece’s famously weak institutions and fledgling regulatory structures against these entrenched interests.

Many say that the system has to change in order for Greece to emerge from the crisis. “Keeping the status quo will simply prolong the disaster in Greece,” Mr. Featherstone said. While the case of Mr. Lavrentiadis suggests that the status quo is at least under scrutiny, he added, “It’s not under sufficient attack.”

In a nearly two-hour interview, Mr. Lavrentiadis denied accusations of wrongdoing and said that he held “a few accounts” at HSBC in Geneva that totaled only about $65,000, all of it legitimate, taxed income. He also sidestepped questions about his political ties and declined to comment on any details of the continuing investigation into Proton Bank.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/06/world/europe/oligarchs-play-a-role-in-greeces-economic-troubles.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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