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Friday, February 22, 2013

'The Nation' on political corruption and media retribution

Below is an excerpt from an article published in The Nation.

In Greece, the so-called kleptocracy has taken intimidation to another extreme in an attempt to silence those who dare speak out against elite tax evasion and economic injustice. Journalist Aris Chatzistefanou had already raised the hackles of the Greek oligarchy with the documentaries he co-directed with Katerina Kitidi, Debtocracy (2011) and Catastroika (2012), which denounce austerity, corrupt privatization and elite tax evasion. In January, though, he published a piece in the new magazine Unfollow that has sent shock waves around the Greek business elite.

Chatzistefanou and fellow journalis Lefteris Charalampopoulos addressed a notorious method of tax evasion by sections of the Greek oligarchy: the resale of contraband shipping fuel, which enjoys tax deductions as part of the Greek state’s traditional support for the shipping industry. “Shipping oil is tax free, so if someone sells it at the regular price, he can double his profits, while the state loses billions in taxes,” said Chatzistefanou in a recent interview. “The article mentions the names of two companies controlled by a couple of the richest men in Greece—Spyros Latsis from ELPE and Dimitris Melissanidis from Aegean Oil. Melissanidis owns the biggest oil supply fleet in the world, and he is a major contractor of the US 5th Fleet.”

In Greece—two years further along the road to economic and political collapse than Spain—the elite’s bullying of journalists denouncing tax evasion is much more brutal than in Spain. In early February, a man who claimed to be Dimitris Melissanidis called the magazine and threatened to kill one of the reporters and his family. According to Charalampopoulos, the voice said: “I am Melissanidis. You will not be able to sleep. You will not be able to go out. I’ll be your nightmare. Fear of me will haunt you. They will come to your house and blow you up in your sleep. I am used to talking to big journalists. I looked you up and I will tear you down.”

Soon after publication, Melissanidis’s lawyer contacted Unfollow, denying he had made the call and demanding a retraction. But the magazine stands by the story and says it has traced the call to Aegean Oil’s head office in the Port of Piraeus.

Whoever made the call, such a violent tone suggests how unaccustomed the Greek elite is to being publicly accused in the media. “Elite tax evasion is equivalent to about a third of our public debt,” said Angelous Kourous, a tax inspector who supports the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza. But “the media here prefer to talk about old men with two pensions or blind people who receive a disability allowance without being entirely blind.”

This is not so surprising, he adds, since nearly all the big media outlets in Greece belong to members of the business elite, many of them ship owners. Aristidis Alafouzos owns the daily Kathimerini, a partner of The New York Times. A rival shipping magnate, Victor Restis, owns 40 percent of the weekly Proto Thema. The ship-owning family Vardinoyannis has an ownership stake in the TV channel MEGA, the largest station in the country, and owns another channel, Star.

Unfollow is one of a new generation of outlets in Greece that are breaking stories the traditional media have ignored. Late last year Kostas Vaxevanis, the editor of another new rebel magazine, Hot Doc, was imprisoned briefly for publishing a list of more than 2,000 elite tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts that had been delivered to the government by Christine Lagarde, then French finance minister and now head of the IMF. Until the Hot Doc revelations, the issue had been swept under the carpet. 

Incredibly, the “Lagarde list” of fat-cat tax evaders across Europe, from Britain to Greece and Spain, has not led to any prosecutions. “Many of them are offered deals and amnesties by tax authorities,” says John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, which is leading the campaign against tax evasion and avoidance in Europe. “Corruption is eroding everybody’s confidence in democracy and people’s respect for tax laws, because we know that people at the top are being protected.” This is particularly true in Spain and Greece, where polls show that confidence in the old political parties and institutions is at historic lows. Only the unhindered action of an independent media and judiciary can restore faith in democracy, but that’s maybe the last of the ruling elite’s concerns.


  1. I really don't see anything ever improving in Greece. I know there is corruption in every government but the legal system there is so nascent that these oligarchs can get away with anything. The country's in need of a widespread cleaning, starting from the top, and no PM or President can dismantle the red-tape culture and the loopholes--even if he wanted to.

  2. Sorry, things don't add up here. From my times in the shipping business I can tell you that the major Greek shipowners are far too rich and powerful to be involved in Greek oil smuggling. If they do it it is in such a scale (financial or political) that is much bigger than Greece. Think of financing CIA (Melissanidis) or EU political (Latsis) black ops or something on this scale. Lesser mortals do it in a big way, but the top echelon only does such things when launching their career. After all sanction basting by Greeks goes back to before the Trojan war and many a shipping fortune has started this way. If someone in the top echelon is doing it, is doing it as a favor to some major political personality which means that, assuming the story is true, Melissanidis suspected that the guys taking the money were angling for more.Hence the explosion. It is Athens worst kept secret that big names buy or create news media to then blackmail the political class and get lucrative public contracts. This is the correct angle for interpreting the above piece of news. Journalists have been, reliably, accused of often running extortion rings. Remember Mr. Anastasiadis and his arrest in the French-Swiss border with mysterious money.
    I will not comment at all about this SYRIZA supporting tax inspector. These SYRIZA supporting civil servants are deluded.In any case the possibility of taxing Latsis (Swiss resident) or Mr. HajiIoannou (Monaco)or similar is zero. They make their money in places with dual taxation treaties with Greece. The SYRIZA leadership is just giving talking points to its troops.Tax evasion is lower in the pecking order. For example most wholesale operations in Greece are owned by Communist party members. Why? Because they pay their party dues and the party covers their infractions through the civil servants under its control. KEPYO for example (the tax IT center) is under communist trade-union control
    Finally the list. The latest informed opinion in Athens is that the list includes systemic political money ie money the PM collects from business interests and then distributes to the rest of the political system.That is why the lawyer that is supposed to control the 550 mil dollars is a PM aide. It is believed that this is the reason for the list disappearing. Also note that the voluminous MRs Konstantopoyloy suddenly shut up after pointing this connection of the PM to the list.

    1. Your absurd delusions and half-truths show exactly how bad Greece really is.
      Blaming journalists and communist civil servants for the Greek elite's obscene corruption. Idiot.

    2. Anonymous

      I couldn't edit your comment and I didn't want to delete it but allow me to say that your comment has one word too many - the last one!

  3. Can anybody explain to me why the rest of Europe should continue to support Greece, trying to keep it in the Eurozone no matter how much it will cost the honest taxpayers in the other countries?

    1. I agree. I think that Greece should go back to the Drachma and fend for itself. I am Greek and I think it would be the best alternative for the long run.

    2. First of all it doesn't cost all that much. Things must be kept in perspective. If properly handled it might cost nothing eventually(to taxpayers). In any case honest taxpayers in the EC have more pressing problems to deal with, like the non-resident tax status scandal in the UK or the Monaco joke in France.
      But the short and to the point answer is the one given by a senior German industrialist: look at the map. If it sounds like blackmail to you then welcome to the club. All politics is blackmail.

    3. Anonymous, Greece is a cesspit but many of the other EU countries are not much better. After 9 years in Belgium I came back to Greece saying "Greeks are amateurs". I was referring both to Belgium itself and the EU, which is corrupt from top to bottom. Big countries like France and Germany just do it in a more refined way.

  4. One final point: to understand how these names referred in the above post are used in Greek politics read the following study in delusion (inGreek):