By Patricia H. Kushlis
In late October a list of 2,059 Greeks and Greek companies with supposed accounts in the Swiss bank FSBC suddenly appeared in the Greek magazine Hot Doc. The list revealed only the names and professional identifications of the account holders. No other list of Greeks with foreign bank accounts has subsequently appeared. Yet the Hot Doc article created an instant political θυελλα (thiella), or storm, in Greece among the Greek 99%, the country’s wealthiest 1% and its politicians.
Yet, this intrigue - also reported in two lengthy articles in The New York Times – could, however, concern not one but two lists. Nothing in Greece is ever as simple as it seems.
The first is a list which IMF Managing Director Christine LaGarde apparently received when she was France’s Minister of Finance and passed on to then Greek Minister of Finance George Papaconstantinou who apparently lost it, hid it or, in any event, failed to use it when the Papandreou government had promised to – but didn’t – collect taxes from wealthy Greek tax evaders to help restore the Greek treasury to health. The second list is the one published in Hoc Doc in October. But are the two one in the same? And if so, why is the list published in Hot Doc likely out of date and just how important is the list, or lists, to resolving Greece’s economic failings?
One can hardly blame the shrinking Greek middle class for its anger at the harsh austerity which successive governments have forced upon it to keep the country from falling into bankruptcy and expulsion from the EURO. Those terms – which have thus far failed to regenerate the economy - have sunk this small Eastern Mediterranean country into an ever greater economic depression over the past six years. They have hit wage earners the hardest fueling anger not just at the EU, the Germans, the IMF and their own political leaders but also at the country’s wealthiest who live the life of Riley all the while stashing money in off-shore accounts to avoid the local tax collector.
But will The List published by Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis help resolve the Greek government’s financial problems? If you read his own justification in The Guardian October 30, 2012, Vaxevanis states only that the list he published contains names of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts (he does not say they are FSBC ones) nor does he state that the list he published is one and the same as the “Lagarde list” apparently given to the then Greek finance minister in 2010.
Transparency is often an amazingly effective antidote to the secrecy that envelopes suspect dealings and questionable relationships. But transparency also needs to be based first and foremost on the truth. To begin with, is the list of names that Hot Doc published in October a replica of the one reportedly given to Venizelos over two years ago? Or not?
If the latter, what caused the Athens police to arrest Vaxevanis but then seemingly to almost immediately back off and ultimately charge him with only a misdemeanor –the invasion of privacy for his publication of this list? Does the Greek government know something that the public doesn’t?
According to Zougla, a Greek radio station, which republished The List (Λιστα) on its own website in late October, the list is dated. Zougla, which translates into Jungle in English, suggests it could be about 11 years old with accounts listed having been registered in 2001-2. Point well taken: because at least two of the account holders on the list died several years ago: they include a well known deputy minister named Ioannis Boutos, who died in 2004 according to Zougla and Spiridon Doukas (1912-2005), the first publisher of the newspaper “Peloponnisos.” They may well not be the only ones on the List no longer among the living – even in 2010.
Also interesting is a concluding interview with journalist Panayotis Lampsias who told Zougla that he had opened an account with the FSBC branch in Glyfada, an Athens suburb, in 2011 to help finance his children’s studies in London. Another individual on the List is an FSBC branch manager in Greece.
Others on The List which Vaxevanis published included department store, shipping and construction company owners as well as one – if not more - of Greece’s best known jewelers who has stores in several European cities including Switzerland as well as New York. There are also academics, doctors, actors and even a poet and a sculptress: people one would expect to travel abroad for professional reasons and, for that matter, be paid for work done or sold outside Greece. Old habits may simply die hard – or maybe this is simply a not unreasonable reaction to the unsettled future of Greece’s relationship to the Euro.
A Little History . . .
For a Greek citizen traveling or living overseas prior to 2001 before the country joined the EURO, the drachma’s value was unreliable. The government traditionally “solved” its international credit problems by devaluing its currency on the international market. The amount depended on the country’s economic situation at the time. Therefore, if a Greek needed to pay bills abroad in a foreign currency – from college tuition to a hotel room – opening and maintaining a foreign bank account in a stable currency made sense. Years before, even trying to exchange drachmas for dollars – or another “hard” currency – was more akin to living through an Aristotelian tragedy than anything else. Suffice it to say, just about anyone who lived in Greece and traveled abroad kept a hard currency account outside the country – from students and guest workers to shipping magnates and department store owners.
The intervening years and the EURO helped change it.
Take a look at the names and professions or occupations of the account holders on the list that has been published. I wonder if it’s the smoking gun one might think. It’s written in French and English so even elementary Greek is not needed although if you’re looking for a particular name, the lack of alphabetical order makes the process more tedious than it could be. But why doesn’t the list indicate the name of the company or bank anywhere? Furthermore, I have to wonder whether Swiss bankers still kept account ledgers this way in 2010 or even 2001.
Yes, I came across several names of Greece’s one percent but it shouldn’t take a list like this to figure out that such individuals would have accounts abroad. But I also saw names of students, engineers, and professors. These people also travel abroad and need to pay bills overseas. Not to mention a few foreigners – perhaps married to Greeks – who would have wanted to protect their foreign currency earnings from domestic inflation or worse. And yes, there are a few Greek government officials – usually high ranking political appointees – on the list too. I would have expected to see more although FSBC is only one of a number of foreign banks where money can be secretly stashed.
Yet it seems to me the Greek government vastly overreacted to the list’s publication thus compounding one more unnecessary public relations problem. What doesn’t make sense is why. It’s obvious that the uncertainty caused by the continuing Greek financial crisis and the government’s difficult relationship with its foreign creditors should result in the hemorrhaging of capital from its citizens private bank accounts. But maybe that’s a more complicated issue best kept for another day. Meanwhile, is this story about a list – or lists - in reality just an October tempest in an autumn teapot?