A storage disk that includes names of thousands of Greeks with Swiss bank holdings is missing, and authorities are getting tough questions about why they didn't use the information to find tax evaders.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 17/10/12
Greece’s Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras (left) talks with IMF Director Christine Lagarde during a eurozone finance ministers’ meeting last week in Luxembourg. [Reuters]
Already battling international lenders and facing rising social unrest over plans to impose 13.5 billion euros in spending cuts and tax hikes, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has become caught in a political firestorm over a stolen computer disk that included the names of 1,991 Greeks with 1.5 billion euros in deposits in a Swiss bank.
Files on the disk identified 24,000 people who were depositors at HSBC's Geneva branch. While the Greek government has not done so, other nations are using the information to hunt tax evaders.
Former Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou reportedly obtained the disk in 2010 from his French colleague, Christine Lagarde, who is now head of the International Monetary Fund. Along with the EU and ECB, the IMF is part of the Troika bailing out Greece with 230 billion euros in rescue loans.
When it was recently reported that the disk was missing, Papaconstantinou's successor, Evangelos Venizelos, claimed he had copies of the files on a memory stick, which he said he handed over to the prime minister's office. Venizelos came under fire for not trying to find out if there were tax cheats involved at a time when he was doubling income and property taxes and taxing the poor.
Before Venizelos stepped forward, current Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras vowed to find the data, and the saga had critics complaining about yet another misstep by Greek authorities. Venizelos said he couldn't use stolen data to prompt an investigation, but Lagarde said other European countries have done so.
Marios Evriveavis, a professor of international relations at Panteion University in Athens, said the revelation won't surprise Greeks.
"People know very well that a lot of politicians have been enriching themselves through corruption and know who most of them are," Evriveavis told SETimes. "They [the government] don't need a list of people with deposits in countries like Switzerland," he said, adding that it wouldn't be difficult to get information from Greek banks where deposits originated.
The timing of the discovery is sensitive because Samaras' uneasy coalition is aiming more austerity measures primarily at workers, pensioners and the poor while tax evaders who owe more than 50 million euros have largely gone unpunished, fueling a sense of injustice.
Dimitris Sotiropoulos, an assistant professor at the University of Athens and research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, said the mishandling of the so-called Lagarde List may be more costly to the government than the names, which reportedly include more business executives than politicians.
"There was negligence … that allowed politicians to hide it … and there are accusations they may have tampered with the list," Sotiropoulos told SETimes. "The names are being kept secret, adding to the furor."
While all eyes are on Samaras' attempt to get the troika to release a pending 31.1 billion euros worth of rescue loans, the distraction over the lists has led to speculation the government itself could be undermined.
An Oct. 12 poll showed that 72 percent of Greeks, weary of austerity, no longer support the bailouts and attached conditions despite Samaras' warning that the economy will collapse without them. Some 79 percent doubt that his uneasy coalition government, formed after the June 17 elections, will last its four-year term.
Thanassi Antoniou, 83, a retired tailor whose pension has been cut three times, said he has given up on politicians and the country's rich.
"They are not patriots. They are traitors for putting their money in Switzerland," Antoniou told SETimes. "I don't consider them to be Greeks. They look out only for their own interests."
(Kathimerini, 12/10/12, 11/10/12, 8/10/12, 6/10/12, 5/10/12; New York Times, 12/10/12)