Greece finally getting tough on corrupt politicians: experts

Greece has finally begun to crack down on corrupt politicians but anti-graft experts say much remains to be done to end decades of impunity.

Greek courts recently sent two veteran politicians, one conservative and one socialist, behind bars in the same week.

Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, former mayor of Greece's second largest city Thessaloniki, was handed a life sentence last month for turning a blind eye to the embezzlement of nearly 18 million euros ($23.5 million) from municipal coffers between 1999 and 2008.

A few days later, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, former minister in a succession of socialist governments, was sentenced to eight years for hiding revenue in the first of a series of trials related to his stint as defence minister.

The court also ordered the seizure of Tsochatzopoulos's luxurious home, situated near the Acropolis and purchased in 2009.

Just two days after the sentencing of Tsochatzopoulos, another three former ministers -- a socialist and two conservatives -- were charged with failing to properly declare their wealth and revenue.

Greek authorities have upped their game by carefully examining the annual financial statements that politicians, high-ranking civil servants and magistrates are obliged to submit.

These documents only came under scrutiny recently, following the establishment of an independent authority as part of good governance reforms imposed by Greece's EU and IMF creditors.

"Taboos are slowly collapsing and the impunity of politicians is coming to an end," public administration inspector Leandros Rakintzis told AFP.

"There is a strong desire for cleansing on behalf of politicians, a realisation that it is a question of national survival" to bail out the country, re-legitimise Greece's tarnished political class and mend the social tissue that has been torn apart after three years of austerity, he said.

The current coalition government of conservatives and socialists, which have alternated in power since 1974 before facing an electoral debacle last year, "also helps, because each one has information on the other," Rakintzis says.

But the opposition is accusing the two parties, conservatives New Democracy and socialists Pasok, of launching a superficial clean-up to appease the crowds.

This view is shared by the thousands of protesters who, at every anti-austerity rally, denounce the "thieves" sitting in parliament.

The politicians currently targeted, who are being kept at a distance by their respective parties, are "the usual suspects," says Costas Bakouris, head of the Greek branch of anti-graft group Transparency International.

These include George Voulgarakis, former conservative minister in charge of security during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, who had publicly justified his right to engage in tax bluffs by claiming that "what is legal is moral."

"There is strong international pressure pushing for a clean-up as well as public outcry, but it is too early to talk about a catharsis," said Bakouris.

Bakouris -- who was himself a senior Olympics organiser over a decade ago -- is waiting for the outcome of the so-called "Lagarde list" affair, a scandal involving more than 2,000 Greeks -- including prominent politicians, media and industry moguls -- with Swiss bank accounts.

Originally sent from Paris in 2010, the list of names was kept buried for two years and under two successive governments before recently resurfacing in the press, with calls to use it in the battle against tax evasion.

Bakouris said he remains cautious about a Transparency International study that said there had been a drop in low-level corruption.

Meanwhile, the Greek association of human rights has criticised the severity of the penalty imposed on Thessaloniki's former mayor.

The association warned against a form of justice that would create scapegoats and condemn "one corrupt person to a thousand-year sentence rather than one thousand corrupt persons."

Greek magistrates have their own reputation to defend for failing to take a stand on corruption until now.

And they also have an axe to grind against politicians after being included by the government in the pay cuts affecting all Greek civil servants.