By Barbara Van Haute
In December, Millstone published my interview with former Greek Ambassador to Canada, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos. The interview was initiated because I was curious about the impact of financial austerity policies on a struggling populace and Greece was the most obvious place to look for evidence.
I published the Ambassador’s responses verbatim. I believe the overall content of his answers gave us a clear understanding of just how and why Greek society, and perhaps culture, was changing as a result of the long standing economic crisis. For almost six weeks, the interview seemed to be an interesting analysis but just one of many opinion pieces on the Greek crisis, consigned to the loyal readership of Millstone News with perhaps the occasional outside foray from Ottawa.
However, this was simply the calm before the storm. Greek bloggers and newspapers started picking up the interview around February 1st. Within a week, the article’s publication proved to have ripple effects beyond what I could have ever imagined. The European interest has focused on the Ambassador’s comment about a private security firm, ACADEMI (yes, the organization is officially spelled in all caps and, ironically for this story, is consciously modeled on the Greek philosopher Plato’s Academy), formerly Blackwater, being hired to protect the Greek Parliament from civil unrest. Based on virtual ‘hit’ statistics, the interview has been read by at least 2000 people in Greece alone. Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos also received numerous requests for interviews from the Greek, German and British media to confirm some of his statements. [For readers interested in more observations from the Ambassador, check the German media source ‘heise online’ for February 7th.]
As of February 15th, direct Facebook and Twitter links have passed the 500 mark; the Millstone piece is referenced in scores of European blogs; and the full article itself has been re-published even in Armenia and cited in Finland. Just a few hours ago I found that the Millstone interview was cited in the Italian newspaper Padova News (padovanews.it) of Padua on February 15th. These numbers may be small compared to truly viral stories spread through the internet, but the breadth of the European reaction is certainly remarkable for a story originally published in an online Lanark County community newspaper.
Because of the volume of responses, queries for additional information, and requests for permission to re-publish the interview because of the Ambassador’s supposedly ‘bombshell’ claim regarding ACADEMI, I decided to do more research on that issue. Essentially I chose to become an ‘investigative’ journalist; at least for the moment; and with the assistance of my research partner Lee Marmon.
I began by asking myself how any government weighs the conflicting demands for increased security in a climate of significant cutbacks in public expenditures. In short, with an EU bail-out program, based on implementation of a national austerity program to cut public expenditures, where would the money come from to justify such a decision? The second question was why some Greeks might see this particular statement from the Ambassador as being so incendiary. If the claim was in fact accurate, then the claim would be an understandable ‘bombshell’ for much of the Greek public. The reputation of Blackwater is as negative in Greece as it has been in many other parts of the world. In fact, one of the Greek headlines labeled a possible ACADEMI connection as a “mercenary battalion for protection of the House”. (dimokratianews.gr). Despite the obstacles of distance and access, I decided to see if it were possible to independently verify the accuracy of the allegation and determine the context for such a possible decision.
Initially, I contacted government departments in Greece requesting comments on the story with particular reference to the ACADEMI security firm allegation. Neither the Hellenic Police Force, nor the Ministry of Civil Protection responded to those requests.
My next inquiry to Academi, strangely enough, was answered both promptly and decisively. According to press officer Kelly Gannon, there was some “confusion” on this issue and Academi wanted to confirm that “ACADEMI does not now, nor have we ever, provided security services to any entity of the Greek government.” Ms. Gannon’s reference to ‘confusion’ undoubtedly stems from various other incoming requests for clarification from Greek-based media sources. I discovered that the one Greek news editor making a similar contact was given a simple “no comment”.
I also asked Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos to divulge the source of his claim. He reported the information was obtained from the leader of the small leftwing EPAM party, Dimitris Kazakis (an economist). Asked for a direct quote on how he had come across information that confirmed ACADEMI’s presence in Greece, Kazakis stated that he had “… confirmed information that the whole Academi mechanism has been set up and is ready to act.” Mr. Kazakis’ sources are confidential but he sees them as trustworthy and accurate.
Shortly after receiving this information, I was emailed a statement from the Greek Embassy in Ottawa declaring that “The allegations provided and hitherto reproduced in media, regarding Greek Parliament’s connection with Blackwater/Academi are completely unfounded”.
So I was left with two diametrically opposed and categorical responses to the current role of ACADEMI in Greece. For now, it may not be possible to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, in the course of my research I discovered much of interest that sheds light on the current domestic security situation in Greece, as well as how news is reported and disseminated. The choices the present Greek government has made regarding austerity measures and how to deal with the ensuing civil unrest provide an instructive lesson beyond its borders.
Mr. Kazakis apparently received his information from confidential sources in November. I was curious to determine if there might be any public sources to shed light on the background of this allegation. So I began to comb English versions of various Greek news sources. Much to my surprise, I found a story in the English-language Athens News from August 1 that opened with a government notification that ‘a private security company will take over the [external grounds of] parliament building security’. What made this news item so surprising to read is that no one followed up on this nugget of information at the time. More than three months passed before the substance of the announcement was even noted in political circles and it took the Millstone article to magnify its significance. To date, there is no further government information on “the private security company” or its nationality.
Regardless of what security contracting firm may be used, the ultimate responsibility for civil order lies with the Greek police, and the protection of Parliament from demonstrations and violence is the assignment of the riot police. Earlier in 2012, the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Civil Protection (under Mr. Nikos Dendias) announced the implementation of Operation Xenios Zeus to allow for major police sweeps to detect, detain, and expel illegal immigrants. While illegal immigration is major social and border security issue for Greeks and for the EU, evidence of increased racism has also become a major issue for Greeks to deal with. And some of that racism is coming from, apparently, Greek police forces.
In news stories coming out of the Guardian (UK), and New York Times, some of the accusations of police brutality and racist activities are related to the influx of Golden Dawn political party members into the police force, especially the riot police (MAT) who “protect” Parliament. Golden Dawn is an ultra-right nationalist party rife with ethnic intolerance and with a proclivity for vigilante violence. Many commentators have referred to the party as neo-fascist or neo-Nazi. It has been denounced by the European Commission on Human Rights and some of the party’s own Members of Parliament have been threatened with criminal prosecution by the current government.
Quite rightly, Minister Dendias has noted that it is important the police operations be separated from political influence, but it is certainly necessary for accountable and elected politicians to supervise the police, and, if necessary, rein in their excesses. It is also questionable how non partisan certain police units may be with the enrollment of right wing groups.
Police actions also can have a negative impact on the average ethnic Greek. Greek residents are not only finding it more difficult to support themselves and their families, but their freedom of movement is being threatened by an apparently national security threat that is beyond their control. That sort of all-encompassing sense of restriction and limitation in any individual’s life is sure to lead to a negative outcome.
It is also curious to note that the Hellenic Police Force has experienced notable budgetary cutbacks in terms of pay and pensions. However, certain units of the force most specifically MAT and YMAT are receiving greater support from the Ministry of Public Order and Civil Protection. YMAT is a supportive unit of MAT that is more heavily equipped and specially trained. The justification for such support may stem from the illegal immigration and civil unrest issues, but the no one has calculated any type of cost-benefit analysis of this decision. Civil Protection Minister Dendias has, however, managed to get the Israeli Ministry of Public Security to send four ‘crowd dispersal’ devices to Greece along with ‘a representative’ to train Greek police. So perhaps international agreements to cooperate on security measures can help a government to address internal security concerns– as long as the friendly neighbour has a stable economy, and an interest in gathering information about terrorism.
It may also be significant that the Greek political culture has long embraced the need for a strong and well funded military. Indeed, Greece traditionally has spent a higher percentage of its budget on armed forces than any other European NATO member. The irony, however, is that the only reason for such military preparedness is an illusory threat from the much more robust Turkish military, a fellow member of NATO.
So after all of the inquiry and searching for background information, there are three options to explain the existence of opposed stories dealing with the protection of the Greek Parliament: (1) the government of Greece is not being fully transparent with its citizens; (2) the private security firm protecting Parliament could be Greek-based but in a strategic relationship with ACADEMI (rather than ACADEMI per se) or with another foreign firm confused with ACADEMI; and (3) Mr. Kazakis is mistaken about a foreign connected security firm and the mainstream Greek media and politicians have done a poor job of uncovering the firm’s local identity. Deciding which scenario is the most likely, especially when one is a foreign national inquiring from a distance, is a bit like trying to separate fly dung from pepper.
As for private security firms creating subsidiary companies or establishing strategic partnerships with firms or agencies in foreign countries where government contracts are available– it happens. A case in point is Canada’s own Tundra Group. Tundra Group has several sister or subsidiary companies; Tundra International, Tundra Strategies, Tundra Maritime Defence Services, and another “specialist support maritime services company” (http://ericanada.com/press/). The business has offices or operational experience in many “hot spot” countries including Djibouti, Jordan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan as well as others (such as Barbados and the Bahamas) not known for serious threats of insurrection or subversion). Trying to follow the corporate history of Tundra Group in general or any of its subsidiary firms, much less any of their ‘strategic partnership’ contracts is difficult to say the least. I’m sure the same applies to many other large private security firms.
Regardless of the correctness of any one of the three scenarios presented above, the fundamental issue is identifying what private security firm has been granted the contract to protect the Greek Parliament and providing an explanation as to why this is justified, given the sensitivity to costs and “farming out” this responsibility. The response can only come from the Ministry of Public Order and Civil Protection with proof in hand. If the signed contract is not presented to the Greek public, then they will likely assume that their government is being either non-transparent at best, or dishonest. As we all know, when a population distrusts its government, even with regard to a seemingly unimportant event (remember the Robo-call debate here in Canada?), general distrust develops over time unless the initial episode is publicly resolved and responsibility accepted.
The lack of government and business transparency, accountability and reluctance to handle fiduciary responsibilities is certainly a relevant issue for any democratic society. The absence of those three elements in both government and business management has led to a long history of negative social trends running from increasing crime rates (white-collar, blue-collar, violent etc) to conspiracy theories and, in some cases, civil unrest. We don’t need expert psychologists, criminologists, sociologists and conspiracy theorists to explain to us why an ever increasing number of people fighting for bits and pieces of an every decreasing pie leads to such unrest, resentment etc. All of us have witnessed the consequences of forcing people to experience the downward spiral of personal and social insecurity; only the scale is different.
Creating security for a Parliament building or a society in crisis is ultimately a public, not a private concern.