Notes from the field
There are many factors that distinguish the Greek experience from the other five European countries we explore in this project. First, the prolonged crisis: the Greek economy just entered its seventh year of recession, while the incumbent government is negotiating the terms of the fourth bailout program.
Second, the inability of the political elites to reach a minimum level of consensus has resulted in heated disagreement about the causes and those responsible for the crisis.
Even today there are several competing narratives of ‘what went wrong’ and ‘who’s fault was it’, some focusing on domestic institutional failures, while others apportion blame on the policies of austerity imposed by external creditors.
This lack of consensus is reflected in the politics of accountability. With no visible sign of economic recovery in the near future and growing levels of polarization, backward-looking policies of accountability are useful instruments to bolster domestic political capital for incumbent governments.
In May 2017 we visited Greece to shed light on these processes. We interviewed leading politicians/former ministers from all sides of the political spectrum, academics, journalists and NGO members all informed observers of the politics of accountability.
Prosecutions: justice or scoring political points?
Since the beginning of the crisis a number of politicians, bankers, and civil servants were prosecuted – often convicted — mostly on corruption-related charges. This marks a departure from the past experience of impunity. A number of participants pointed out that the crisis, and the subsequent grassroots mobilization calling for justice, acted as a legitimizing force for the national prosecutorial authorities.
This sheds light on a very interesting cultural aspect of prosecutions. There is a long historical legacy of purges and (often politicized) trials following all major crises in Greek national history. As such, prosecutions are a salient — and a politically expedient — mechanism in times of crisis.
One of the issues emerging is whether punitive justice, tailored to investigate and punish individuals’ actions, is effective in dealing with well-entrenched problems of corruption.
First, by focusing on individual cases inevitably there is a selective process, fuelling further suspicion instead of fostering trust to institutions. Second, given the widespread levels of corruption it is questionable whether judicial investigations could shed light on institutional failures that could be turned into lessons for the future.
Paradoxically even though more prosecutions now reach the court, the (inevitably) selective nature of criminal prosecutions seems to have further bolstered public suspicion instead of strengthening trust to institutions.
Parliamentary commissions of inquiry
Over the past 7 years different parties in government have set up more than a dozen of parliamentary commissions of inquiry, tasked to investigate corruption-related scandals that (allegedly) were partly responsible for the meltdown.
All participants, including high-ranking politicians with first hand experience of how these commissions operate, questioned the utility of this mechanism in shedding light to the past.
First, MPs tasked to lead the investigations do not have the expertise or technical knowledge required to investigate very complex cases (e.g. corruption related scandals, or white collar crimes).
Second, they are overly politicized. A good example of this is that most often the committees do not publish a single final report; instead different parties publish different reports with different findings and recommendations stemming from the proceedings of the same commission.
As such, these initiatives often conceal rather than reveal the truth and potential lessons that can be gleaned from revisiting the past.
A non-apologizing culture
Although ‘apology’ stems from the Greek word ‘Απολογία’, it seems to be an unknown word in Greek political culture. As opposed to other European countries (Iceland, Ireland and Spain) where politicians and other public officials have apologized for actions or omissions that led to the crisis, we have found no such expression of public remorse in Greece.
Most participants found the prospect of a public apology impossible or even irrelevant. Two interesting hypotheses emerged. First, some participants pointed the broader culture of blame avoidance discouraging self-reflection. Second, the hegemonic role of powerful political parties in Greek politics potentially blocks individual actions of apology, as any such action should have prior party approval.
Both hypotheses point to the same direction, namely the subordination of the individual in the Greek political culture.
Our project is also geared towards examining whether and how countries, political elites and institutions learn from past policy failures. It is worth noting the notable steps forward taken, primarily in dealing with well-entrenched problems of corruption or tax evasion.
In that respect, the crisis was the catalyst and external influences critical in bolstering domestic initiatives. Two new prosecutorial authorities (Corruption Prosecutor and Prosecutor for Economic Crimes) were created in the first year(s) of the crisis. Both have been quite effective in bringing cases to the court. Similarly, these authorities have introduced effective new measures to deal with these problems (i.e. provisions for whistleblower protection, wire-tapping etc).
Most importantly, as part of the bailout Greece has signed agreements with international organizations, such as the OECD, offering knowledge, capacities and legitimacy in tackling corruption. A silver lining of the external supervision is that by monitoring the progress on these issues these organizations have legitimized and pushed further the work of domestic judicial authorities.
Yet, institutions remain weak and their independence should not be taken for granted. An illustrative example is the decision of a number of prosecutors to resign allegedly as a result of the pressure or threats stemming from their investigations.
Overall Greece remains an outlier. Despite the positive steps taken towards both punitive and prospective accountability, this has not resulted – at least for the moment – in greater trust in institutions or creating a legitimate narrative about the causes of the crisis. On the contrary, as political elites cannot take credit for the recovery of the economy, the past remains a useful instrument deployed by politicians to play the blame game, and score points against political opponents. The Greek experience sheds lights on the pitfalls of accountability and, partly, confirms the ‘realist’ perspective which prioritizes forward looking policies to help the economy recover over delving into the past.