Can a memory stick bring down a political order? That is the question in Greece, where a tragicomic debate over what became of a list of nearly 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts is rapidly turning into a full-blown political crisis that is imperiling Greece’s fragile coalition government at a crucial time.
When the Greek finance minister and one of his predecessors said last month that the list was missing — and another former finance minister then said he had belatedly handed it over to the authorities — the story was seen as an almost laughable caper. But amid other high-profile corruption investigations that have opened in recent weeks, it assumed a darker cast. On Thursday, a former deputy interior minister — who according to the Greek news media was under investigation for corruption himself — was found dead in what appears to have been a suicide.
As the coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras struggles to agree on a package of austerity measures to secure the foreign financing the country needs to stay afloat — and ahead of Tuesday’s expected visit to Athens by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — the corruption investigations are seen as a gloves-off fight, with politicians breaking allegiances in a destabilizing climate of suspicion and even blackmail.
“What we see unfolding in the political system is a tragedy with elements of low comedy,” said Pantelis Boukalas, a columnist for the newspaper Kathimerini.
The same people singled out in the investigations are in the parties that form the pillars of Mr. Samaras’s government — a government blessed and supported by European leaders — and it remains to be seen how much self-examination, and how many criminal charges, it will take before the entire structure collapses.
As the investigations gain momentum, the relationship between the Socialists and Mr. Samaras’s New Democracy party, “is that of the scorpion and the frog,” Mr. Boukalas said. “It’s in their nature for one to sting the other” until both sink.
“They might be forced allies now, but each other’s value is based on the devaluation of the other,” he added. “However, if the Socialists completely fall apart, there goes the government; New Democracy and Democratic Left alone cannot hold it together,” a reference to a smaller third party in the coalition.
The investigations have also revealed the close ties between Greece’s political establishment and its oligarchs and business elite. There is growing public outrage that no Greek government wanted to touch the infamous list of 1,991 Greeks with accounts at a Geneva branch of the global bank HSBCthat the French government gave Greece in 2010 to crack down on tax evasion.
After Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras told the Financial Times last month that the list appeared to have gone missing in the Finance Ministry, one of his predecessors, George Papaconstantinou, gave an interview on Greek television saying that he had received the list in late 2010 from Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. He said he had given a handful of names from the list to the chief of Greece’s financial crimes unit in early 2011 and the full list to that official’s successor, Ioannis Diotis, in June of that year.
Speaking to Parliament’s ethics committee last week, Mr. Diotis said he had received a memory stick with the names from Mr. Papaconstantinou in June 2011, the month the finance minister left office. Mr. Diotis said that he had passed the list to Mr. Papaconstantinou’s successor, Evangelos Venizelos, the current Socialist leader, but that Mr. Venizelos had not instructed him to investigate it. Mr. Diotis also suggested that the list appeared to have been obtained illegally and might not have been usable in an investigation.
On Monday, the committee said it would summon the current and three former finance ministers to testify about the list. In a television interview last week, a furious Mr. Venizelos said he had handed the memory stick to Mr. Samaras when he realized that no investigative agencies had a copy. On Monday, he said he never received the list from Mr. Papaconstantinou.
Beyond the memory stick’s contents, the claims and counterclaims reveal “a difficult period, the most difficult we’ve had since the war, and you find very few exemplary figures in public life,” said Thanos Veremis, a professor and a co-author of a history of modern Greece. “There’s also fear — fear that they will be accused of this, that or the other — so they behave accordingly.”
That much was clear last month when the Greek news media published a list of 36 politicians who were ostensibly under investigation on corruption charges. It included the speaker of Parliament, who temporarily stepped down on Sept. 24, and several former ministers and mayors. It was also believed to include Leonidas Tzanis, 57, a Socialist politician and former deputy minister. Mr. Tzanis’s wife found him dead in the basement of their house, where he had apparently hanged himself on Thursday, days before he was expected to testify to the authorities, the Greek news media reported.
Greece’s financial crimes unit has not confirmed the existence of the list but has not denied that it is investigating politicians for corruption. It did not respond to requests for comment.
In another investigation, the authorities are looking at a list of 54,000 people who transferred nearly $29 billion abroad since 2009 and, in 15,000 cases, declared income significantly smaller than that found in the foreign accounts.
After 40 years in which the Socialists and New Democracy alternated rule before their traditional support dropped by half, punished by austerity-weary voters in elections last spring, analysts said the investigations could turn into the kind of bribery scandal that brought down Italy’s political establishment in the early 1990s, leaving a vacuum eventually filled by Silvio Berlusconi.
But in Greece, it remains to be seen what new political forces might emerge. The political landscape has already been radically transformed by the debt crisis and three years of austerity, during which the gross domestic product has dropped 25 percent and unemployment has hit 50 percent for young people and 25 percent over all.
In last spring’s elections, the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, a growing antipolitical force that preys on fears of illegal immigration and has accused the mainstream parties of corruption, earned seats in Parliament. Last week during a parliamentary session, members of Golden Dawn shouted at their Socialist colleagues, calling them thieves who had stolen from the country for 20 years.
The main opposition party, the leftist Syriza, is finding its footing. It placed second in the elections.
Mr. Boukalas, the political columnist, said Greek politicians accused of corruption used to stay out of the public eye before re-emerging, wagging their fingers at others to “regain their virginity.” With the old leadership in disarray, that strategy no longer worked, he said.
“There is this lake in Argos where Hera would take a swim after every copulation session with Zeus, so she would always be a virgin,” he said, adding, “This lake doesn’t exist anymore. It was dried up in a public works project.”
—Dimitris Bounias and Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting