ATHENS – After declaring that a supposed scandal in which the Swiss-based Novartis pharmaceutical company paid 10 Greek politicians 50 million euros was the worst in the country’s history, the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA is in flux as prosecutors try to find evidence there were kickbacks.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, meeting with his party’s political council, couldn’t decide what to do after his government spokesman said the Novartis case was a “massive scandal,” but there’s been nothing to back up that claim yet.
The Parliament controlled by SYRIZA and its junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) has received a case file for prosecutors which named two former prime ministers and eight former ministers, all from rival parties.
They include Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras and EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos— as being linked to a major medical bribery scandal in which it was alleged that Novartis paid off people over nearly a decade to boost subscriptions of their products at public hospitals and sales prices.
Stournaras said the accusations against him are politically motivated and are aimed at “pushing me out of the Bank of Greece.”
“The efforts of certain people to implicate myself and my family in the Novartis scandal will not succeed. My career, as well as that of my wife, are completely transparent and cannot be tainted by the urges and ulterior motives of those seeking to eliminate me in every despicable way possible,” Stournaras said. “I unequivocally state that these shaky accusations will not stand.”
He said Tsipras wants him out so that the Premier can appoint a crony to run the bank, which is supposed to be independent from the government and as critics said the rattled Prime Minister wants greater powers.
“These are unprecedented accusations based on obvious lies, but also on inaccuracies coming solely from ‘anonymous protected witnesses,’ without being backed by any evidence, that are doing the ‘dirty work’ for those behind the effort to annihilate me,” he said.
Under Greek law, politicians do not face prosecution directly from judicial authorities. Allegations must first be referred to parliament for review before lawmakers vote to strip the accused of their automatic immunity.
Others named were former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras from New Democracy and interim Premier Panagiotos Pikramenos, who served only a month, and five former health ministers, including Avramopoulos. Stournaras was finance minister before moving to the central bank post. They have all denied the allegations.
Avramopoulos, also from New Democracy condemned what he called an “unsubstantiated and flawed case file” sent to Parliament.
“It is now clear that it is an unprecedented plot which cannot stand in any member state of the European Union. Only sick minds could have invented and attempted it,” he said.
Mr Avramopoulos, who belongs to Greece’s conservative New Democracy party, said the investigation was a bid to “exterminate political opponents”.
Samaras, who served from 2012-15 before being beaten by Tsipras, said the allegations against him were politically motivated, and vowed to file a lawsuit against the Premier, a common tactic in Greece used against alleged slander or libel. “This is the most ruthless but also most ridiculous conspiracy ever,” he said.
SYRIZA was said to be easing up on the allegations, with reports the case was built on the changing testimonies of secret witnesses and that government officials were being unlawfully briefed about the case they aren’t supposed to see.
Judicial sources told Kathimerini that the witnesses, whose names aren’t being revealed and are being kept in protection, keep changing their story about how many politicians were allegedly bribed.
That has led prosecutors to seek the help of their counterparts in other countries to try to find the supposed kickbacks, the paper said, including in Switzerland and Cyprus where they want access to bank accounts of a former high-ranking executive of Novartis and others believed involved in a purported scheme to fix prices and secure market access.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
According to sources the paper didn’t identify, some of these people had their own consultancies and thus were able to facilitate illicit payments and prosecutors were said to be especially eager to get their hands on a Novartis account said to be in Swiss bank UBS.
Judicial sources believe it is quite likely that Parliament will return the case file to prosecutors to find more concrete evidence on which to base their claims and as the government, which critics said was manufacturing a scandal to divert attention from its plans to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the word Macedonia in a new composite, was backing off.
New Democracy officials were reportedly worried that SYRIZA is trying to infiltrate the judicial branch as is happening in Poland and as the Leftists are plummeting in polls after Tsipras reneged on anti-austerity promises.
SYRIZA has denounced judges for not supporting the party’s policies, setting off a feud with judges amid charges the government wants to stifle dissent and take autocratic control of the country and courts.
“When there is no distinction between the branches, we do not have a just state,” unnamed New Democracy sources told the paper, with SYRIZA responding that it was the Conservatives who were trying to “intimidate” the justice system and state institutions.