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If politicians were willing to cope with bribes, they would do it in a day

12 March 2012 / 18:03:14  GRReporter
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George Patoulis is undoubtedly the most successful Greek mayor. He heads Maroussi municipality in northeastern Attica, which is one of the largest municipalities with its 70 thousand inhabitants. Every day you can see him tirelessly tour the streets on his motorcycle. So, his fellow citizens re-elected him for a second term giving him the overwhelming 57% support. While other public figures in Greece are afraid to appear in public, George Patoulis as Chairman of the Medical Association in Athens is on Syntagma Square whenever demonstrations are held to provide first aid to injured people. Observers consider him one of the new faces of New Democracy and predict a great political future for him.  

Interview by Maria S. Topalova

- Mr. Patoulis, the violence during demonstrations in downtown Athens is absolutely inexplicable to foreigners. You were there on 12 February when over 100 buildings were burned. How would you explain this inexcusable aggression?
- Yes, let me first clarify that I was there as the Chairman of the Medical Association in Athens to participate in the makeshift first aid centre in case it came to the usual clashes. At the beginning, I actually saw a peaceful protest of the Greek people there, of those who believed that the austerity measures required by the supervisory Troika should not be voted. So, a little later, I saw the use of a lot of chemicals, tear gas, against the peaceful protest, which made many participants in the protest run to save themselves because it was impossible to breathe. Thousands of demonstrators fled because tons of chemicals were used without any reason. As a result, few people remained in Syntagma Square and street clashes between hooded youths and riot forces started after about two hours. These clashes have been happening in recent years, as long as I can remember my involvements in demonstrations, and those who have gone to protest peacefully know that other known or unknown persons captured by no one could take part at the end of the protest. In this sense, it could be said that the accidents began after the withdrawal of thousands of demonstrators - employed, unemployed, heads of households, and once they scattered, clashes between hooded youths and riot forces started. And we saw the results - how Athens burned, the destruction in some places because marble pieces were broken and, of course, we wonder why the police are constantly trying to cope with this handful of people and are failing.

- Do you see any solution?

- I think it is one thing to protest with your physical presence against any measure that you think should not be accepted as a kind of pressure on political parties and quite different when some attempt to impose their opinion by force. I am a democrat to the core, I believe in democracy, I believe in the democracy of the majority and whoever wins a majority through his or her beliefs should play a leading role on the political scene. In this sense, I think we should all prevent such things from happening. At one point, we all ask ourselves who benefits, who takes advantage from not capturing these people? Does it help an ordinary citizen who goes to protest? No, it does not. Perhaps it helps to transfer our attention to these incidents and not to the solutions to the problems we face in our everyday lives? I think it is just that. Therefore, the solution will have to come from those who find it advantageous this scenario to be repeated almost every time, during every protest of citizens.

- We are witnesses of the emergence of a huge anti-European wave in Greece. Ordinary citizens whose protests are full of anti-European slogans have started it and it has reached the President as well. How dangerous is that wave and how could the state restrict it?

- First, I believe that there should be elections in order to have a clearly expressed will of the people. What is certain is that people's lives have changed radically in a very short period of time. And if optimism reigned before, now people are mainly pessimistic about their future. Surely, there is a lot to be corrected in the country. Because there was no control and there were no rules, many things went out of control, a vast government apparatus was created that wasted money, had no principles, left anyone and everyone hide taxes and because of all this, we ended up here. It is logical and correct that we all must correct ourselves through self-criticism and self-government. What is not right is that our creditors, Europe, want things that have not happened in the last 30 years be implemented in an extremely short period of time, in several months. This cannot happen. We will have to look at reality with realism, to understand that things need to be corrected and they will be corrected, but not in such a violent way, because this will cause more violence, will lead to uncontrollable events, and if Europe really wants Greece, then it must pay attention to this. Because the changes will be made, but let them be made in a reasonable time that will not allow us to reach poverty level, which will lead to violence.

- So, how do you see it over the time? When will the privatization start, for example, when will the cuts in the public sector start, when will the market as a whole, not only of closed professions, be liberalized?

- Look, what you are saying applies to the central government and the central government itself has signed the memorandum, but does not implement it. It should explain this to those with which it signed it but also to the Greek people. Because if you say to the Greek people, "We will take this road, it will be hard but it will bring hope, optimism and faith in tomorrow", the people will adapt, will assimilate it, will go this way and always with the rule of the law. What angered the Greeks the most is that some, quite a few, have exported millions of euro to Switzerland. These are the ones, who were managing  the property of the Greek people in one way or another and at this point, none of the representatives of the big capital are paying as they should, but cuts of salaries and pensions are required and this is repeated by violent means. The Greek people could do anything if things were planned, organized, happened in a fair state under the rule of law. It has lived through much worse times, has survived wars, occupations, hunger, misery, and yet it has managed to become a worthy member of Europe, relying on its great history. And now, it is willing the central government and politicians to do what our country's history demands.

- You are the Chairman of the Medical Association and the health care system is like a deep swamp, where many changes are needed. The Greek state spends big money on health care and the system does not offer the relevant services. Why is that?

- The problem is that the health care system has been cast adrift for many years. Our national health care system was the fifth in quality in the world five years ago and it has suddenly collapsed. Today, a person without health insurance cannot reach the national health system; the unemployed cannot be treated there. They have to pay, but how can they since they are uninsured or unemployed. There is no answer. That is why the Medical Association in Athens along with the Archdiocese and its non-profit organization called Mission have established a social hospital. Over 300 patients were examined during the first 20 days of its operation. There is a social pharmacy close to it to give free medicines and examination is free too, of course. It is certain that a lot should happen from now on in terms of drugs and medical treatment. And in particular the following policy should be pursued - that health does not start from treating the patient but from preserving the good health of the patient, which is called prevention, because if we build better prevention throughout the country, for all population groups, we will not need so much medicine and medical care. Therefore, I raise the bar high as I think we should approach the issues of prevention with the necessary organization. Our Medical Association as a defender of public health is interfering in these matters, pressing the Ministry of Health and of course, we do not believe that the reduction of funds, which should be implemented through a rationalization, should lead to lower quality of the health care services. Reduction of funds does not mean lower quality; it means rationality. Let's cut wastefulness through central transparent competitions to prevent some from making money at the expense of the Greek people.

- In health care, we see many phenomena related to corruption, the well-known bribe. What is the solution to this problem in your opinion?

- I believe and I am saying very clearly that if ministers were willing to cope with bribes, it could happen in a day. If they vote a law saying, "Those who take a bribe will lose medical rights and the right to practice." Strict laws, which the management of hospitals, which are subordinated to the Minister of Health, could implement through various internal policies. However, the bribe has "developed", so to speak, has grown in the 1990s and 2000s, because it provided additional funds to doctors because their wages are low compared to their European counterparts. So, we have come to the point at which one cannot come to the health care system if he or she does not give something under the table, a bribe to the doctor. It has become part of people's consciousness. However, we believe that the health care system and doctors provide many important services. If you go to a hospital dispensary, you will find that there is a great shortage of medical personnel today, and this leads to deterioration of the services provided to citizens. Hospital doctors in the national health care system are around 10,000 and they are constantly decreasing because they retire and there have been no new appointments for many years. And as made clear by signing the new memorandum, this will continue for a long time, whatever the consequences for the quality of health care after 1-2 years. Salaries are low. A doctor, who is on duty, may take 1,500 euro provided that he or she should continuously follow the developments in their field. And of course, I will tell you that there will be more cuts to the alignment of salaries, in the range of 20 to 30%. This means that a hospital doctor could take about 1,000 euro a month.

- The system of local government was reformed with the Kalikratis law. Does it help you deal with the crisis?
- Yes, this law brought many municipalities together and from 1,130 their number has reached 320. At the same time, many responsibilities were transferred to municipalities, i.e. to the primary local governments and regional governments were abolished. As I said, many responsibilities were transferred to us but not the relevant funds. As a result, the activities carried out by municipalities multiplied and the funds allocated were reduced rather than increased. For example, the subsidy we receive from the state dropped by over 40% compared to last year, while the revenues from municipal taxes and fees paid by the residents of the municipality have decreased because the people cannot pay the amounts. Therefore, it is certain that local governments, which are very close to the problems of citizens, create conditions for social care, kindergartens, soup kitchens, social supermarkets and pharmacies, which provide for the homeless and the poor fellow citizens what they need the most. In several municipalities already, and in our city, we are building shelters to protect people who have become homeless in these difficult times. Therefore, as I have already mentioned, local governments are facing many problems because the things they have to do have significantly increased while the funds available have drastically dropped. We do not provide money for infrastructure projects we should implement, nor does the state. They are funded through the National Strategic Reference Framework of European programmes, but pass through the state and wallow in bureaucracy again.

- You have won the election in Maroussi in the first round and with 57%, a percentage for which any politician would envy you. I personally do not think you will stay in Maroussi long. Is politics in your plans?

- You see, I do not like to leave anything undone. I want to build strong foundations for the area in which I am now and which gave me its support. Although I am not from Maroussi, I came here in 2000 as a doctor and I love this particular area. Of course, if I am called and can be helpful for our country in these difficult days in another position or post, I will take it. I have learnt from the work at the City Hall that anything can be achieved with patience and perseverance and with calmness too. One should not run away in hard times and return when it is easy. The country, society, the people want you to solve the problems in difficult times. And here, when I took up office, things were very difficult. The municipality was very indebted, but we did research, drew a plan, made an organization and most importantly, tried not to spend more than what we produce. So, we as a nation must learn to spend less than what we produce. Then a nation is great, and then a nation makes great things and is able to gain the place it deserves in Europe and the world. That is what I think any politician should make. Not just sit in a chair and get some stripes. I do believe that the posts do not make the individuals but the individuals make the posts. And we all should realize that it is not important where you are but what matters is that you do your job well every time you take responsibility for something.

Follow Maria S. Topalova on Twitter

Tags: George PatoulisMaroussi municipalityMedical AssociationBribesCorruptionReformsElections
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