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What happens when an oligarch takes on a prime minister?

The drama started three months ago with spyware allegations. Now it prompts a big question: where does power really lie?

It’s been three months, and Greece has been embroiled in one of its greatest political crises in recent memory. It began as a wiretapping scandal. In August, two members of Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s government tendered their resignation following reports that the phones of a financial journalist and a rival politician had been sent links to spyware designed to whisk their data away to a shadowy company in Athens. Greece’s press dubbed it the country’s Watergate. “Mr Mitsotakis must give explanations to the Greek people,” said Alexis Tsipras, the head of Greece’s opposition. “A lot of our questions remain to be answered,” the leader of a European parliament committee said, after a fact-finding mission to Greece.

Then, earlier this month, events took a stunning turn. A leftist newspaper called Documento claimed that, in addition to the two Greeks already known to have been targeted, attempts had also been made to sweep up dozens more into the spyware net. They included Mitsotakis’s own cabinet members, newspaper editors and the wife of the governor of Attica. A week later, Documento released nearly 40 additional names. The paper accused the government of involvement – it strongly denied the accusations.

Among the purported targets were associates of Evangelos Marinakis, a man often seen surrounded by a contingent of black-clad bouncers, and one of the most powerful figures in international shipping and soccer. The night of the publication of Documento’s initial findings, a few blocks from Mitsotakis’s office, Marinakis watched as his soccer team Olympiakos conceded a 90th-minute penalty that resulted in a draw against their historic rivals, Panathinaikos. Within an hour, Marinakis had encircled himself with cameras for an impromptu press conference outside the stadium. The awarding of the penalty, he contended, was evidence of a rigged referee and a fixed match – and a deep-state conspiracy.

similar declaration came from the managing director of Olympiakos: “I think what’s clear is that Greek football is run by a fascist parastate governed by illegality and organised crime,” Ioannis Vrentzos said. “In the last three years an unlawful regime has been operating from Maximos Mansion [the prime minister’s office] with links and connections to organised gangs.”

Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis is one of the richest people in Greece.
Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis is one of the richest people in Greece. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

It was, to any Greek watching, a curious choice of words. For years now the Greek state has been investigating Marinakis over allegations that in 2014 he was involved in financing an operation by a criminal organisation to traffick the largest amount of heroin ever seized in Europe. Marinakis strenuously denies the allegations, which his newspapers called part of “a game of many years”. He has been successful in spite of the allegations – buying up a big chunk of media in Greece, purchasing Nottingham Forest FC in the UK, merging his tanker fleet with that of Donald Trump’s former commerce secretary in the US, and winning lucrative contracts to handle the transportation of Iraq’s state oil out of the Persian Gulf.

Now Marinakis is flipping the script against the state investigating him, saying that the government, or factions within it, form the real criminal organisation. As for the spyware scandal: where the Greek justice system had proven unwilling or incapable of investigating it, and where the European Union had been confounded, consequences would follow.

Over the next days Marinakis ranged his considerable power against Mitsotakis, whom his media empire helped push into office in 2019. Marinakis threatened to withdraw Olympiakos from Greece’s Super League, of which he was elected president in June. The team’s supporters’ club published a statement on social media, warning Mitsotakis of a forthcoming “appointment at the polls”. In print, Marinakis’s newspapers went from dismissing the wiretapping scandal as “over”, to insisting it had only just begun. “Weakness, questions, impotence” ran the front page headline of Ta NeaMarinakis’s daily newspaper. When Mitsotakis balked at Marinakis’s offensive, chalking it up to the threats of someone attempting to extract favours from the state, Marinakis fired back: “Only those who are implicated in wiretapping and the underworld would do such things.”

It all raises the question: who is blackmailing whom, here? The government that needs favourable coverage from a media tycoon as it heads into next year’s elections? Or an oligarch offering to bring accountability to a state that just so happens to have him under investigation for involvement in drug trafficking? In certain respects, the focus of the scandal has shifted, becoming no longer about wiretapping per se but about how the Greek state actually operates beneath the veneer of electoral politics.

Greece may be a small country, its GDP less than that of Peru, but its richest families possess huge fortunes and outsized influence. The postwar decades vaulted the country’s fabled shipping class into a position of unusual geopolitical indispensability, when they provided the vehicles – literally – of global oil dependence. Their money was made beyond Greece, typically stashed outside it, then sometimes used to acquire assets – TV channels, soccer teams, hotels – within it. The financial crisis of the early 2010s proved a boon, with EU-imposed austerity putting swaths of the state itself up for sale at a cut rate price, as the shipowners’ privileged tax status went untouched. All the while, the most powerful among them kept funnelling cash into the country’s political system, brokering opportunistic alliances with parties across the political spectrum that came – of course – with strings attached.

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in Athens, October 2022.
Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in Athens, October 2022. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

So entrenched is this arrangement – the interlocking of Piraeus’s oligarchic capital and Athens’s political machines – that in certain instances it has taken on generational form. Take Marinakis, who took over his father’s tanker fleet, and Mitsotakis, who took over his father’s political party: the relationship between the two dynasties – whose scions are now claiming to be victims of one another’s exploitation and blackmailing – goes back at least 40 years.

It’s little wonder that wiretapping crises have been recurring in Greece for decades now. Such a system of subterranean glad-handing requires not just cash but also collateral of the type that rogue spyware campaigns are likely to be adept at harvesting. If there was any reason to be optimistic about this latest scandal, it might have been the opportunity it presented, after a decade of financial upheaval, to be transparent about a reality that virtually everyone in Greece rails against and yet no one of any political stripe makes any great attempt to dismantle. The irony of Marinakis’s intervention is that it would have probably never happened had an earnest investigation been conducted in the first place, months ago, when news of the spyware scandal erupted in Athens. But instead, Mitsotakis’s government cast blame on “dark outside forces”; his intelligence agency reportedly destroyed crucial files; and his party is alleged to have blocked witnesses from testifying. He has called the accumulating allegations “an unbelievable lie”.

And now a heavy-handed oligarchic intervention is masquerading as an overdue push for public transparency. Mitsotakis limps around the pitch as Marinakis grins from the sidelines. All the while, ordinary Greeks wait for the contest to end and the answers to come.

Source : The Guardian