by Maria Spiliopoulou
ATHENS, May 15 (Xinhua) -- Latest data surveys showed that Greece has begun to effectively crack down on corruption following the start of the acute debt crisis, but still has a long way to go, according to anti-graft experts.
One of the major challenges in the ongoing battle which is closely linked to efforts to address the country's financial woes, is the change of culture, Costas Bakouris, Chairman of Transparency International-Greece, the Greek chapter of the global anti-corruption organization, told Xinhua in a recent interview.
The chronic plague of widespread corruption is considered as one of the key factors leading to the four-year economic crisis, therefore the success of the new anti-corruption campaign is of major significance for the Greek state and citizens.
"Corruption was indeed in the core of the economic crisis. We have come to realize that the real problem was a crisis of values and a lack of inspired leadership political and otherwise. The governments during the last 30 years or so were characterized by lack of transparency and accountability. The result of all that was an unprecedented economic crisis," Bakouris explained.
Corruption spread across several public sectors as well as the private sector with the health system and the fiscal authorities being the most corrupt and the economic effects were enormous.
"In tax evasion alone, it is estimated that at least 12 billion euros (16.45 billion U.S. dollars) annually were lost from the coffers of the government. Such an amount would have reduced the fiscal overrun and minimized the amount of debt," Bakouris noted.
The 2014 annual report of Transparency International- Greece showed promising signs.
Last year corruption in Greece dipped by some 15 percent compared to 2012 based on the cases reported to authorities. Seven out of 10 corruption incidents still occur in public services, with state hospitals and tax authorities ranking highest on the list of corrupt institutions.
In the private sector, the health system, construction sector and banks are the most problematic areas.
The change in public attitude toward corruption is attributed to recession and the stepped up efforts to address graft.
So, what has changed over the past two years?
For Bakouris, past governments have promised a lot and delivered little. The current ruling government coalition has proceeded "with a more systematic approach; however it is slow in showing results."
Pointing to some key steps taken, he refers to the adoption of a new tax collection strategy. A permanent secretary-general has been appointed to oversee the new organization that is implementing this strategy.
In parallel, a national coordinator against corruption has been appointed reporting to the Prime Minister and responsible to implement a national roadmap against corruption. He will coordinate the efforts of all the anti-corruption agencies including the relevant ministries.
Furthermore, there is more emphasis on enforcing the law, more prosecution of corrupt people and faster verdicts from the courts.
The sentence of former defense minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos to 20 years in prison last year for receiving multi- million kickbacks and money laundering in the most high-profile corruption case in decades is presented as a turning point in the war against corruption.
His imprisonment was a good example of the seriousness of the new efforts to curb corruption, according to Bakouris. It was a positive development, but not enough.
"Common people believe that more should be done if we are to reverse the problem of lack of credibility of the Government and the parliamentarians. The most important lesson is that people have to understand that there will be severe consequences if they bribe a public official or commit another corrupt act. As more people are going to jail the message will go through and the public will start changing behavior," he said.
Much remain to be done. "The achievements are not yet significant, but it is a good beginning. The major challenge is the change of culture - a difficult and slow process," Bakouris stressed.
The stakes are high for the Greek state in this battle against corruption, since the outcome has a significant impact on the overall efforts to counter the debt crisis.
Emphasis in transparency reduces significantly the tendency of officials for wasting resources. The increased inspections in small businesses and self employed people have forced them to pay added value tax.
The investigation of money transferred abroad is also helpful. Fighting tax evasion is the biggest contribution to reducing debt, according to Bakouris.
For first time in years, the head of Transparency International-Greece voices optimism over the future. "Yes, I am optimistic. Absolutely yes," he said.
"My compatriots have gone through an unprecedented crisis and slowly we all have started to realize that the way we have been behaving has not led us to anything good," he said.
"Politicians have also been penalized by the voters for their irresponsible leadership. The government as I mentioned has been taking concrete action to enforce the law and improve its tax collection efficiency," Bakouris noted.
"All of us, or at least a lot of us, understand that we need to change which is a prerequisite to growth and prosperity," he concluded.