Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

No tax please, we're Greek

The cast of Mama Ellada, a Greek play about corruption
Mama Ellada satirises the corruption and nepotism pervading Greek society

The Greek government is trying to recover billions of euros lost to tax evasion as part of its austerity programme, but as the BBC's Malcolm Brabant finds, many Greeks see it as their right to keep as much black money as possible.

A good friend of mine bent my ear with a vengeance on the day the Greek government cranked up its austerity programme another notch.

"My husband is thinking of writing the word vlacha on his forehead in very big letters," she said.

Vlacha means stupid.

Her husband's name is Stelios and he is anything but a stupid man.

Stelios is a leading cancer specialist whose dedication to saving lives is such that he rarely takes time off, or holidays.

But he has come to the conclusion that he is stupid because he has been honest.

Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the American health system knows that even if you are critically ill, many hospitals will not let you near a doctor until they have swiped your credit card.

There is an old adage here that Greece is a poor country full of rich people

In Greece, if you try to pay for private treatment with a credit card, even the most distinguished surgeon might raise his eyebrows and click his tongue, which means: "What part of no don't you understand?"

Because the doctor wants cash. Stelios is one of the few doctors who will give you a receipt. He declares his income to the taxman and pays his proper dues to the state. As opposed to many of his colleagues who are pillars of Greece's thriving black economy.

Blackmail fears

"We know surgeons who earn 700,000 euros a year," fumed Stelios's wife. "And they hardly pay any tax at all."

"So why didn't Stelios do what everybody else did?" I asked.

"Partly because of fear," she replied. "Fear of a visit from a tax inspector who would try to blackmail him by demanding 10,000 euros in an envelope in return for not going through his accounts with a fine toothcomb. And also because he wanted to do the right thing."

There is an old adage here that Greece is a poor country full of rich people.

That is only partially true.

Women look at the discounted prices in front of a shopwindow at a shoe shop in central Athens
Sales draw crowds of window shoppers

I know lots of poor Greeks. I have several friends who are teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

Some of my friends' wives are losing their hair and their faces are developing deep lines from the worry of the cash running out.

In my local high street, which boomed after the Olympic Games of 2004, the favourite sport is now window shopping. Clothes and shoe shops seem to be staging permanent sales.

In Kolonaki, the upmarket Athenian equivalent of Knightsbridge, I saw a shop offering 80% off. People are becoming desperate.

Corruption scandal

Last month I went to a hysterically funny play called Mama Ellada, which satirises the corruption and nepotism pervading Greek society.

In it, two corrupt politicians sell off the Acropolis to businessmen so they can turn it into a casino. The purchasers turn out to be priests.

The plot wasn't so far from the truth. It was parodying a land scandal involving ministers from the last government and monks from a monastery on Mount Athos.

One of the co-authors of the play said that Greeks were all in favour of higher taxes, just as long as other people paid them.

The Greek economy is like an aircraft that's caught in a flat spin and the pilot, George Papandreou, is struggling to regain flight by trying to increase tax revenues

Greece used to boast a bold enterprising culture, but now people dare not gamble money on new ventures in case they don't get paid.

The owner of a small computer store I know tries to offer his customers credit in order to shift hardware. He says he has spent a year trying to chase up the money, and he reckons he has just a few months left, if that.

Taking bribes

The Greek economy is like an aircraft that's caught in a flat spin.

The pilot, Prime Minister George Papandreou, is struggling to regain level flight by trying to increase tax revenues. His critics say he is not doing enough to cut the bloated civil service.

Now the government is going to raise income taxes, Stelios the cancer specialist is going to be digging even deeper into his pockets to pay his dues, while his medical colleagues will find new ways of trying to keep as much black money as possible.

Demonstrators in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens
Greek public sector workers have gone on strike over the austerity plans

And if that means bribing the odd civil servant then so be it.

Stelios's wife signed off with this missive: "Until they give some incentive for those who actually declare their income and figure out how to get rid of the black money that most rich Greeks see as their right, they will never solve the problem.

"Run that by your friend George for us, would you?"

She meant the prime minister, but I'm not sure I'm welcome back at his residence…

In December, I picked up a heavy marble table on the prime minister's balcony to move it out of camera shot, and when I put it down, it fell to the floor and shattered in a thousand pieces.

I had omitted to pick up the table's base. It was, I thought, not the best of omens.

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