Jailing of corrupt former minister buys time for Tsipras
It is a rare sight for a once powerful politician to be seen pushed into a black police van, barely hiding his handcuffed hands, while his wife being led separately by police to the central Type B High Security Prison in Piraeus, Greece, after the court’s decision to remand them in custody pending a final verdict.
Last Wednesday, Oct. 24, Yannos Papantoniou and his wife Stavroula Kourakou had to face scores of journalists and TV cameras scrambling to catch a sight of this elegant couple, who up until recently had lived in a luxury Swiss home, feeling their large bank accounts would not be traced down by Greek anti-corruption investigators.
They were wrong. The court’s decision for their custody came after almost 20 hours of testimony. The court concluded the couple was guilty of money laundering of illegal proceedings—a “gift” of almost 3 million Swiss francs for assigning the upgrading of six Greek Navy frigates to a French company.
Papantoniou rejects the accusations as a ploy. He and his wife were sent to the Korydallos maximum security prison, where some of the worst criminals are kept in its overcrowded cells. They will have to wait for their trial.
Yannos Papantoniou was a high-profile minister, personally picked by late Prime Minister Andrea Papanadreou to lead the Ministry of Economy and Finance during the late 1990s and prepare the country to enter the euro zone. His successful term as the “Tsar of Greek economy” was followed by a term as defense minister in the early years of 2000. It was during that period, according to the court, that he got involved in acts of grave corruption and money laundering, causing losses to the Greek State amounting to 400 million euros.
Papantoniou was the second defense minister sent to Korydallos prison for corruption. Akis Tsochatzopoulos, now in his early 80s, was a founding member of the same party as the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and was given several ministerial portfolios before taking over the Ministry of Defense. He was arrested in 2012 and found guilty of money laundering and taking bribes over defense procurement projects. He was given 20 years in prison but was discharged last year on health reasons.
The detention of Papantoniou could not have come at a better time. Since Tsipras came to power in 2015, he was unable to fulfill one of his main electoral promises to fight corruption and bring before the courts members of the old political regime, who nearly led the country to bankruptcy. The Tzochatzopoulos case had taken place under the previous government under Samaras.
During the three years under the Tsipras government, no big former politician had been able to be brought to court. The anti-corruption crusade of the Syriza government was beginning to wear out. Putting the blame on the slow working pace of Greek judicial authorities was no longer a satisfactory explanation.
Tsipras’s party—which is still trailing behind the conservative main opposition—hopes the Papantoniou case will refresh peoples’ memory of the “old corrupt system, which ruled the country for almost half a century” and highlight the “moral advantage of Syriza” as the new unblemished party thatcan put things right. With the Papantoniou case, Syriza is also hoping to kill two birds with one stone: To hit the socialist PASOK, which is trying to pick up under a new political narrative and which may become a challenge in the coming elections.
But the image of a handcuffed Papantoniou on the way to prison may have been a necessary distraction for another reason. To divert the public attention from the small tsunami created by Nikos Kotzias, who resigned last week from the position of foreign minister.
His plan for the extension of Greece’s territorial waters, which he revealed while handing over his portfolio, is causing a stir in relations with Turkey, as the Greek prime minister is trying to recalibrate his next moves toward Ankara. More than that, Papantoniou gives respite from the serious hints by Kotzias during a recent TV interview, that billionaire Soros may have financed certain members of the Tsipras government.
The fact that the main opposition party New Democracy (ND) took the matter to the Greek Supreme Court shows that the Papantoniou effect may not be as lasting as the Greek government would have wished it to be at this moment.