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Golden Dawn – or same old corruption?

John McGurk sends Scot-Buzz a letter from Greece...

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the biggest story in Greece right now is the plight of the country's public service television and radio. The Police moved in the other day to evict those journalists who've been occupying the ERT building in northern Athens since the broadcaster was shut down in May.  BBC News became particularly agitated, presumably as a declaration of solidarity, but the reality is that this is a side-show.

Greece has been in the grip of right-wing extremists who would not have looked out of place in 1933 Weimar Germany.   Brandishing swastika-styled flags and armbands, kitted out with black shirts and marching in torchlight processions, the Golden Dawn party exploded into popularity after Greece sank into financial chaos. The austerity measures imposed on the country only served to increase its support.

Golden Dawn has been responsible for murder and racist hatred.  Gangs of supporters wielding baseball bats and screwdrivers reportedly patrol streets in Athens seeking out immigrants to attack or intimidate. They don't have far too look. Victims can be easily spotted sleeping in the open or languishing in dark doorways.      

Astonishingly, the party has been secretly supported by senior Police officers in the Peloponnese and central Greece who have been forced to resign following a Government crackdown. Uniformed officers have also been photographed taking part in Golden Dawn street protests.  As we sat having lunch in an Athens restaurant and watched Police chase a street seller and frog march him to their car, we wondered who was breaking the law.  

Even some in the Greek Orthodox Church are said to be sympathetic to Golden Dawn but maybe that's not so surprising.  The Church was exposed last year as managing to avoid paying its income tax bills.   

After the murder of a Greek musician who got caught up in a bar brawl in Piraeus this summer, Golden Dawn's two leading figures were jailed last month and now face charges of forming a neo- nazi criminal organisation.  As they left court, they hurled abuse and kicked onlookers.  Other prominent Golden Dawn figures, including one of their MPs who slapped an opposition woman MP in the face on live television, have been released on bail.

Despite this quite shocking catalogue of events, not much appears to get mentioned by the mainstream media in Britain. Yet Greece has never been a more popular destination for UK holidaymakers. Here in Scotland, Easyjet now flies all year round twice a week from Edinburgh to Athens while Ryanair from Prestwick to Crete has proved hugely popular.  There's hardly a vacant seat on either flight.

Here's another story which Britain has never been told about.  It involves Greece's former Defence Minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulous, who was jailed a few weeks ago for 20 years. In a country now famous for tax evasion and corruption, this really does emphasise how Greece is a poor country full of rich people.

The case against him centred on orders for Russian short-range missiles and German submarines destined for the Greek military.  Suspicions were raised when the 75 year old politician, nicknamed Beau Brummel because of his dapper dress, bought one of the most expensive houses in Athens tucked away under The Acropolis.  When it was discovered that he hadn’t mentioned this luxurious purchase to the tax man, Police raided the property and found gold bars under his bed.

An investigation uncovered how he had received 55 million euros in kickbacks and bribes during his five year tenure as defence minister. The scandal has led to lengthy jail sentences for 18 others including his young wife and her brother, his cousin, accountant and lawyer.  Keeping corruption in the family remains obligatory in Greece.  Everyone seems to have a cousin who can help.                              

The former finance minister George Papaconstantinou is likely to be more recognisable in this country because he was often a guest on Newsnight explaining the latest moves in the Greek financial meltdown.  He does, of course, speak impeccable English and his likeable manner clearly impressed the BBC but not any more.

It turns out that when he, as a government minister, was sent the “Lagarde List” of wealthy Greeks suspected of huge tax evasion, he accidentally lost it.  The list, sent by Christine Lagarde, the director of the IMF, did eventually turn up but the names of Papaconstaninou's relatives had mysteriously disappeared. Papaconstantinou was indicted in July for allegedly doctoring the list but, incredibly, he may yet get off because of Greece's statute of limitations.  The constitution stipulates that crimes by ex-ministers expire if two parliaments have been voted in since the crime was committed.         

Given the corruption at the very top, is it any wonder that ordinary Greeks feel that they want their share?

We toured the Peloponnese a few weeks ago, before taking the boat down to Crete, staying in various small hotels. The Greek government, in an effort to boost tourism, has told pension and taverna owners to reduce their rates. Visitors are also entitled to refuse to pay unless they get a proper receipt. 

In Monemvasia, the site of a wonderful historic medieval fortress 200 yards off the mainland, the landlady refused to entertain any reduction for our overnight stay.  Her husband even suggested that we didn't need receipts in Britain and later appeared with all his paperwork for the tax man just to let us know that they were all above board. Did we get a receipt when we paid up the following morning? You must be kidding.

It was a similar story in the beautiful town of Nafplion where the rich from the cruise liners descend on the clothes boutiques and the Rolex shop as barefoot children beg in the same streets. Greece is full of these contradictions. The head waiter in what looked like a decent restaurant could not be more helpful in getting us to sit. “You want fresh calamari? Come see it”. And there it was, individual baby calamari, the best type.  But when it arrived on the plate it was exactly the opposite; a slab of deep fried rubber.  A receipt arrived with the bill and was swiftly removed. When we insisted on getting it back, it was returned crumpled up. Clearly it had been thrown into a bin.

In Chania on Crete, a pretentious hotel bar served an ouzo without the traditional meze as an accompaniment and when challenged presented a single tomato.  When the bill came they charged 1.50 Euro just for the tomato. Taxi drivers in Athens are also at it. They wanted to charge us double the normal fare because there were two of us.  There's nowhere in the world where taxis work like that.               

Thankfully, not all Greeks are crooks.

Sonia, an old lady dressed in a pinafore and wearing a bashed hat, was unwittingly entertaining tourists as they sat in a harbour coffee joint watching her fish with a stick and length of yellow string on a hook.  She dunked the hook again and again while moving around the edge of the harbour wall.  Her efforts looked in vain until suddenly she pulled up the biggest octopus I'd ever seen.

Astonished tourists offered her money to take a picture of her with her crazy catch but she wouldn't hear of it. “I am a businesswoman. I have my lawyer clients,” she said as she pulled out her mobile phone.

The octopus was destined for the bus to Athens.   

John McGurk is a former Editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday

Email: [email protected].