The messages are as curt as telegrams: “Pregnant woman comes to Athens for a Caesarean section. The doctor requests 500 euro [US$640] to perform the operation. The husband has only 300 [$390]. The doctor re-joins with threats.”
In this case, the Greek doctor relented and performed the discounted C-section.
The entry is from Greece’s first website dedicated to sharing stories of corruption in the public sector. The response has been impressive – after just two weeks online, the site has logged 40,000 visitors and highlighted more than $85,000 in bribes requested and paid.
“What we’ve noticed is how incredible the bribes can be,” says Panos Louridas, one of several volunteers who built the website. “The funniest thing I saw was a hospital patient who had bribed staff to allow his wife to sleep in an empty second bed in his room. It was reported by a patient in an adjacent room.”
Anyone can make an anonymous entry on teleiakaipavla.gr, loosely translatable as “Stop it. Period”. Names and dates are not mentioned, but institutions are – the top eight by number of entries are hospitals.
Sometimes the kickbacks are significant. “Five thousand euro were requested to reduce penalties following an audit of company books for the years 1998-2003.” The money was paid.
It can be a game of chicken, who will blink first. As was the case of one doctor who “was careful not to ask for anything, but she sat there in front of me without saying anything. Well …” The doctor ended up happily accepting 800 euros she hadn’t asked for.
“Papandreou essentially tried to do a good thing in empowering a disadvantaged population, but he abolished meritocracy and awarded positions of responsibility to socialist goons.“
– Kostas Bakouris, Transparency International
The site is a cast list of corrupt characters: the tax collector who blackmails a business, the surgeon who turns public healthcare into private practice, an official who wants a grigorosimo, or speed-up fee to avoid delays.
Corruption is a big part of Greece’s unrecorded and untaxed economy, estimated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at roughly $90bn this year, dwarfing the deficit of $17bn.
Corruption is also a major hidden expense of doing business in Greece, helping to keep out foreign investment.
According to Transparency International’s latest “Corruption Perceptions Index”, which tracks public and private corruption, Greece tied for 80th place with El Salvador, Colombia, Morocco and Peru. It lags behind every European Union member, save Bulgaria, including many Eastern bloc nations that have had a mere two decades’ experience with free-market economics and democracy.
Why does Greece fail so badly?
Kostas Bakouris, the head of Transparency International’s Greek office, blames former socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou, who came to power in 1981 on the back of what many saw as a social revolution.
“Papandreou essentially tried to do a good thing in empowering a disadvantaged population, but he abolished meritocracy and awarded positions of responsibility to socialist goons,” says Bakouris.
“Society was flattened, principle disappeared, people became selfish and stopped feeling any social solidarity,” he adds. “The prime minister allowed people to take bribes, and the result was that there was inculcated a tendency to sidestep the law.”
Greece’s ranking on the CPI index has fallen almost every year since 2001, when it was 42nd out of 91 countries surveyed. The problem has became dramatically worse during the economic crisis. Over the past three years, its nominal score fell from 4.7 to 3.4. New Zealand currently comes first with a squeaky clean 9.5.
The survey suggests that public Greek functionaries have aggressively tried to make up for slashed salaries and benefits, the result of austerity measures.
But there are a few non-rotten apples in the barrel. Transparency International found 22.5 per cent of people who were asked for a bribe refused. “It may be partly due to lack of money, but I would like to believe that it is due to a change in attitude as well,” says Bakouris.
The government’s medical bills are among its biggest liabilities. The troika of creditors – the International Monetary Fund, European Commission, and European Central Bank – have demanded about $2.5bn in cuts to pharmaceutical and hospital expenditures this year alone.
Greece did set up an electronic medical prescription platform as a way of checking redundancy. But fraud has persisted, with prescriptions remaining at above five million a month, suggesting one in two Greeks needs medicine at any given time.
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“An electronic platform means nothing on its own,” says an Athens-based surgeon who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The key is to get doctors to prescribe according to scientific guidelines, and get the system to flag excessive prescriptions.”
Hospital supplies are another area where the government wants to clamp down on waste. In the last two years, it has reduced payouts for various kinds of surgical materials by as much as 90 per cent.
“Besides customs duties on surgical materials, the importer usually claims a 55-65 per cent profit,” the surgeon tells Al Jazeera.
“He sells to a distributor who introduces his own mark-up of 40-60 per cent, before bribing the hospital director and individual surgeons another 20-30 per cent each. Each mark-up compounds the previous one, so materials end up vastly inflated. That’s what the government has stopped paying for in its new price lists.”
Teachers on the take
Corruption does not always take the form of a bribe. A survey conducted for the European Commission last year found that before the crisis, Greeks privately paid a staggering $1.2bn a year for after-school tutors.
Supplemental tutoring, known as frontisteria, is considered mandatory by most parents, not to give their children an advantage, but to bolster the education provided by a semi-competent public school system. Many public school teachers break the law to moonlight as tutors.
The conservative-led government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has vowed to make the state accountable and transparent. Last month the financial crimes squad sent the case files of 35 politicians under investigation for money-laundering and illegal enrichment to the Supreme Court Prosecutor. That prompted the parliament speaker, who was on the list, to suspend himself for a few days.
Not everyone is convinced that Samaras and his team will clean up Greece.
“It is well known that the vast majority of tax collectors is deeply corrupt,” says a former minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This shop cannot be easily fixed. You have to break lots of eggs.”