As negotiations inch along between the Syriza government and Greece’s international creditors, the blame for the nation’s looming financial collapse would seem to rest entirely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Alex Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. But not really: History provides ample evidence that a long line of leaders, from Winston Churchill to Constantine II, helped make Greece the economic basket case it is today.
Here are some of the guiltiest culprits:
Konstantis and Georgios Mavromichalis (died 1831)
When Greek-born Ioannis Kapodistrias was appointed independent Greece’s first governor in 1827, little did he realize that the job would be tougher than his former post as Russia’s foreign minister. Accustomed to working on the diplomatic stage, Kapodistrias soon found that his vision of a modern Greek state was not shared by everyone, especially the provincial elites.In 1831, he was stabbed in the stomach and shot in the head as he made his way to church by Konstantis and Georgios Mavromichalis. The killing was revenge for Kapodistrias’s jailing of their respective father and brother, the warlord Petrobey Mavromichalis. His assassination plunged Greece into chaos, leading the European powers to impose a foreign king, the young Bavarian prince Otto, on the young country, giving it a first taste of German rule.
Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
In 1944, Greece’s leftist partisan movement managed to see the backs of the German army after three and a half years of brutal wartime occupation. Unbeknownst of them, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had secretly divvied up eastern Europe and the Balkans on a piece of paper, placing Greece within Britain’s sphere of influence. While communist leaders also bear responsibility, Churchill’s determination to restore the unpopular Greek monarchy, as well as his determination to exclude former communist partisans from the new Greek army, pushed Greece further down its calamitous path to civil war.
Constantine II (1940–)
Since Greece became a parliamentary republic in 1974, its former king has had no role in political or public life, to almost universal relief. Assuming the throne at the age of 23, Constantine caused enough damage from 1964 to 1967. Soon, he found himself at loggerheads with the centrist government, led by George Papandreou, who eventually resigned. Constantine then sought to create amenable governments using centrist party defectors, which fuelled a constitutional crisis and political instability that ultimately led to the 1967 military coup.
Georgios Papadopoulos (1919–1999)
The weak state of Greek democracy was dealt a major blow in 1967 when a group of mid-level army officers, led by Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, staged a successful coup d’état. Seven years of dictatorship followed, during which Papadopoulos himself was deposed in a coup by hardliners. While Papadopoulos would later die in prison, his asinine medical metaphors—he often likened himself to a doctor trying to cure a sick patient (Greece)—were redeployed by advocates of taking a tough line on Greece when crisis struck in 2009.
Andreas Papandreou (1919–1996)
Greece’s longest serving prime minister since the restoration of democracy in 1974, Andreas Papandreou left an indelible mark on Greek politics and its economy. Over the course of his decade in office (1981–89, 1993–96), the Harvard-trained economist introduced long overdue social and progressive reforms and stacked the civil service with his socialist Pasok party supporters. While he elevated many Greeks to the middle class, that success came at the heavy cost of drastically increasing the budget deficit and public debt levels. As corruption scandals mounted in the late 1980s, Papandreou created a sideshow by ditching his wife in favor of his airhostess mistress.
Kostas Karamanlis (1956–)
Like many Greek prime ministers, Kostas Karamanlis became leader of the county largely on the strength of his surname – his uncle was prime minister and president at various stages from 1955 to 1995 – and because he promised to “re-establish” the state. But in his five year tenure (2004–2009), few reforms were enacted, and the government lost control of Greece’s public finances. Had Karamanlis spent less time in front of his Playstation, as is widely rumored, maybe things could have been better. The rocketing budget deficit and debt-to-GDP ratio, which were continuously revised upward during and after his rule, paved the way for the next government to ask for a bailout.
George Papandreou (1952–)
Prime minister like his father and grandfather before him, George Papandreou was elected in October 2009 using the vote-catching slogan “there is money,” despite being aware of the county’s dire economic situation. Unable to manage the ensuing fiscal crisis, Papandreou requested a €110 billion bailout deal from European Union and International Monetary Fund six months later. To the disbelief of most Greeks, the oblivious former leader attempted a political comeback in the 2015 election, in which he campaigned on an anti-austerity programme.
Akis Tsoschatzopoulos (1939–)
Greece would be in a far worse place today had former interior minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos been successful in his bid to become prime minister in 1996. Luckily, he only came within six votes of replacing Andreas Papandreou as leader of the socialist Pasok party. In 2013, a court sentenced Tsochatzopoulos, now 75, to life imprisonment for pocketing €55 million in kickbacks from military procurements from 1996 to 2001, when he was defense minister. His wife, ex-wife, daughter, cousin, and business associates were all implicated in the scandal, most of whom were also jailed.
With legacies extending back decades in cases, Greece’s oligarchs have emerged relatively unscathed from the Greek crisis and continue to control vast wealth, which is largely inherited but also derives from continued interests in shipping, communications, banking, construction and public works. This coterie of powerful Greek businessmen used political connections with former conservative and socialist governments to win contracts and restrict the Greek market. They also own and exert editorial control over most, if not all, of the privately-held media companies, in a country where public broadcasting remains largely under state control. The new Syriza-led government has promised to rein in the oligarchs, but some things are easier said than done.
Petros Kostopoulos (1954–)
Businessman and flamboyant publisher Petros Kostopoulos gained fame during the media boom years in the 1990s. He introduced a series of highly popular lifestyle magazines to Athens that sought to break taboos and emulate urban fashions from more affluent western countries. The underlying message in his publications and editorials was one of unbridled consumerism. Cue the multiple credit cards, Cayenne Porsches, skiing holidays, extravagant home loans, and private swimming pools. All these status symbols became more attainable after Greece, one of the poorest countries in the European Union, adopted the euro in 2001, which gave its banks easier access to cheap money.
Nikos Michaloliakos (1957–)
Relatively unknown until a few years ago, Nikos Michaloliakos and his neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party have capitalized on the Greek crisis to propel them to seats in the Greek and European parliaments. Appearing immune from the police or the justice system, Golden Dawn gangs patrolled inner-city streets, intimidating and sometimes beating migrants and political opponents. Only after a Golden Dawn supporter fatally stabbed the anti-fascist singer Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 did the state react by jailing Michaloliakos and several other Golden Dawn leaders, who will soon go on trial on charges of forming and running a criminal organization.
The troika – made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund – bears a fair share of the blame for Greece’s current state. The troika’s programs are based on over-optimistic growth projections, which have led to a number of revisions to Greece’s debt sustainability. Fiscal austerity has imposed a huge social cost upon the Greek people, pushing people out of work and into poverty, and leaving hundreds of thousands without access to public healthcare.