Scion of Austerity: A Tall Order for New Greek Reform Minister
Kyriakos Mitsotakis has only been minister for administrative reform for a few weeks. But he is already under heavy pressure from the troika to reduce Greek spending. To show he means business, the ambitious son of an old political family will soon cut thousands of jobs.
When Kyriakos Mitsotakis steps onto the balcony of his office, he can see the gray outline of the Hymattos Mountains to the left and, even in August, the vibrant green colors of the National Garden park to the right. From this vantage point, he can also see the presidential guard marching in formation, as well as the demonstrators who have once more gathered in front of his office. They include teachers, nurses and police officers.
Mitsotakis doesn't spend much time on his balcony. He has only been Greece's minister of administrative reform and e-governance for a few weeks, but he is already short on time. The so-called troika -- the trio of lenders made up of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Union -- is returning to Athens in the next few days, and the advance guard has already arrived. Greece's creditors are no longer satisfied with mere numbers. They want to see results.
The massive holes that regularly appear in the Greek national budget are not exactly encouraging. A budget shortfall of up to 5 billion ($6.6 billion) is expected for next year, an amount Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras was quick to dismiss as a "small sum," noting that Greece has what it needs for now. For now.
But the creditors want to see numbers from Mitsotakis. They want the country, with a population of 11 million, to substantially reduce the size of its civil service from the current level of 769,000 public servants and other employees. This isn't a new request, but what is new is that the troika is no longer willing to grant Athens a respite.
As a result, Mitsotakis had to cancel his summer vacation with his family. In fact, he is now so busy that his spokesman had to reschedule our meeting with him in Athens four times.
When we finally sit down with him in his office, a room as big as a mid-sized ballroom, it feels as if a white rabbit were present in the room, a rabbit with a pocket watch. Is he familiar with the frantic rabbit from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," we ask? Of course, says Mitsotakis with a smile. But it's only a brief smile.
The Hardest Job in Greek Politics
The office furnishings and décor are those of his predecessor. But there are a few exceptions: Four narrow, blue ties hang in the closet, ties his predecessor probably wouldn't have worn. Blue is the color of the Greek conservatives, the color of Mitsotakis' party, New Democracy.
The tall, slim 45-year-old with a boyish face has what is perhaps the most challenging position in Greek politics, which long ceased to be a comfort zone for the powerful. Mitsotakis had only been in office for three days when he had to start negotiating with troika representatives over how to slash 15,000 government jobs by the end of next year.
Although close to a million Greeks have lost their jobs since 2009, that number hasn't included a significant number of civil servants. His predecessors were playing for time, says Mitsotakis.
One of those predecessors, Dimitris Reppas, was once caught whispering to a fellow minister on a stage: "When the troika is here, always say yes, yes. They'll leave again." Reppas didn't know that his microphone was still on.
Mitsotakis has the authority to put an end to the absurdities that pervade the Greek administration. He also has the power to shut down departments that notoriously have a boss but no clear function. He can also withhold funding from the more than 1,000 small organizations that the government still keeps afloat.
There are some highly qualified officials in his ministry who would be very pleased if he did that. They have already numbered and listed these organizations, whose purpose is vague at best. For example, number 1040, the "Organization for Water Management in Certain Areas," has exactly one employee. No one knows exactly what he does, and yet his name appears on the salary rolls of the Greek republic.
Mitsotakis wants to do a lot of things differently, and he is determined to "finally satisfy" the troika's requirements. To do so, he will have to transfer 12,500 civil servants into a so-called mobility reserve by the end of September, and another 12,500 in December. He signs each transfer order himself. Once the transfers are complete, a team will spend eight months reviewing the pool to determine which employees are suitable for other positions. The rest will be let go.
It is also up to Mitsotakis to prove that the Greek government, in the sixth year of the crisis, can not only announce changes, but actually implement them. His credibility is also at stake. Contrary to what the European politicians paying lip service to Greece's willingness to institute reforms would suggest, not much has happened. From the tax system to the administration, very little real progress has been made.
In a recent study, Athens social scientist George Tzogopoulos accused the political elite of being "absolutely incapable of implementing structural reforms." The reasons, he says, lie in "their populist rhetoric, their credibility deficit and the constant emphasis on personal and political interests." Anyone interested in Greek politics must realize that Tzogopoulos' list of deficits is anything but malicious gossip.
It's true, says the minister, that 80 percent of structural reforms should have been implemented 10 years ago, before the troika even existed. A sculpture by his nine-year-old daughter, a gift for her father when he took office, stands on the bureau next to his desk. It's a shelf made of popsicle sticks, a little skewed and filled with colorful bits of newspapers and magazines. It could very well be called "Chaos on Wood." Mitsotakis had it framed in glass. When he asked Dafni, his daughter, what the sculpture represented, she replied: "Papa, it's politics."
Although Dafni Mitsotakis is only nine, she already seems to have a pretty good idea of what politics is all about. In addition to her father being a cabinet minister, her grandfather was prime minister, and her aunt, Kyriakos' sister Dora Bakoyannis, was once Greece's culture minister, then mayor of Athens and later the country's foreign minister.
Konstantin Mitsotakis, the father of Dora and Kyriakos, was the Greek prime minister from 1990 to 1993, and Kyriakos' great uncle was the revolutionary and subsequent statesman Eleftherios Venizelos. There is at least one square or street named after him in every Greek city, and both the Athens airport and a Mediterranean ferry also bear his name.
"I know that I come from a political family," says Mitsotakis. He understands that this is why people treat him with a certain amount of skepticism.
'I Can't Make Any Mistakes'
For some of these people, he is simply a kleptocrat like every other politician before him. His sister was once pelted with yogurt and has since withdrawn from politics. "I'm aware that with my name, I have to do more than others. I can't make any mistakes," says Mitsotakis.
After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, he worked as an analyst for a bank in London and later as a consultant for McKinsey, a major American management consulting firm. Mitsotakis, who had a German nanny for many years, speaks English, French and German fluently. In 2003, at 34, he was voted the "global leader of tomorrow" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
For a long time, he says, he was fundamentally opposed to going into politics, which he associated with too many bad experiences. His brother-in-law, Dora Bakoyannis' husband, was assassinated. His father Konstantin was ousted from his position as prime minister in a power grab led by Antonis Samaras, who had previously been his political protégé. Now Samaras is prime minister, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis is a member of his cabinet. It's the Greek version of elective affinities.
Entering the Game
At some point, however, says Mitsotakis, he became annoyed over his tendency to spout his own opinions about what should be done about Greece. Instead, he decided to try his hand at shaping policy and went into politics.
It was easy at first, he says. It helped that he was from a well-known political family. But then things became more difficult. Mitsotakis quickly became unpopular among other members of parliament when he proposed getting rid of official cars, as well as the generous fee of 300 lawmakers were paid to attend each committee meeting. "Committees are part of a lawmaker's job. That's what we're paid for."
His rivals were quick to criticize Mitsotakis, saying that as the upper-class scion of a wealthy family, he could certainly afford to do without certain benefits. In the end, Mitsotakis was the only one to relinquish his official car, although he did manage to have the fee for committee meetings cut in half.
Today Mitsotakis has plenty of opportunities to implement some of the things he was demanding in 2007. For instance, the government still pays for sports associations created for the 2004 Summer Olympics. "Money is being paid for sports that no one is familiar with," says an official with Mitsotakis' ministry. And why, he asks, does the hockey association receive 3 million a year? "No one plays hockey here," says the official.
Perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea for a former McKinsey consultant to take a stab at reforming the Greek administration. And maybe, for once, his family background really doesn't make any difference.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Translated from the German by
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