International Herald Tribune Published: October 26, 2008

 

Land swap scandal threatens Greek leader    

By Anthee Carassava  

ATHENS : A scandal over more than 250 questionable land swaps is threatening to bring down the Greek government and tarnishing a storied Greek monastic society.

Two government officials have already resigned over the dealings, in which a wealthy Orthodox monastery traded cheap tracts of lakeside property for prime public real estate, including a former housing venue for the 2004 Athens Olympics. An initial judicial inquiry put the loss to the state at $136 million.

The monastery, Vatopedion, is one of 20 on the northern peninsula of Mount Athos, home to a 1,000-year-old monastic community in which all females are entirely barred.

The scandal embroils its abbot, Ephraim; at least three senior aides to the prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis; judicial officials linked to Orthodox faith groups; and the wife of a former minister who acted as notary public for the land swaps. And many Greeks are asking whether Karamanlis, who canceled the deals after their scope emerged this month, knew of the arrangements all along.

"This is the biggest scandal to hit Greece in recent decades," said George Kirtsos, a publisher and political analyst who is based in Athens. "Its effects are bound to be far-reaching because of the wide range of interests that are implicated."

The land deals began in 1999, under a Socialist government, but about 260 swaps were finalized after Karamanlis's center-right New Democracy Party took power in 2004.

Revelations by the news media of the deal details and grainy pictures showing government officials hobnobbing with Abbot Ephraim - whose monastery is the legal proprietor of a number of houses, hotels and mines and the owner of large pieces of land in Greece, Cyprus, the Balkans and Turkey - have drawn furious accusations of corruption and breach of faith, even from members of New Democracy.

On Tuesday, Greek lawmakers unanimously agreed to start a special investigation into the dealings, but the members of the governing party warded off a more serious motion by rival Socialists, refusing to vote Friday for a criminal investigation.

On Wednesday, a government spokesman, Theodore Roussopoulos, resigned to defend himself from what he called "malicious and totally groundless attacks." He accused opposition Socialists of orchestrating his "political demise" and said of them, "Whoever cannot walk the difficult road of politics adopts the slippery path of mendacity." Roussopoulos had twice tendered his resignation to the prime minister before it was accepted Tuesday.

Last month, the Greek merchant marine minister quit after accusations that his wife had acted as the notary public for several land-swap deals between Vatopedion and the state.

Karamanlis surged to power in March 2004, promising to stamp out widespread corruption and cronyism after nearly 20 years of Socialist rule. But since winning re-election last year with a meager two-seat majority in Parliament, he has had to face down swelling dissent from several of his party deputies. The land scandal has scorched his party, which polls show trailing the Socialist Pasok Party for the first time in eight years.

Karamanlis's aides contacted Friday suggested that his decision to endorse a congressional commission to investigate would buy him time for a fresh political offensive.

"Karamanlis has to show again that he is fighting for Joe the Greek Plumber and that small- and medium-size enterprises are the government's priority," said Nicholas Karahalios, a senior New Democracy strategist.


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Dernière modification : lundi 27 octobre 2008