Bribery. Image from Pixabay, CC0.

In the last few weeks, Greece has witnessed an increasingly turbulent political scene. Initially, a large part of the current political events was due to the re-emerging national debate about the FYROM/Macedonia naming dispute; however, the latest turmoil has been triggered by a financial scandal involving the pharmaceutical colossus Novartis and alleged bribes to political officials.

On 6 February 2018, Parliament received allegations against the pharmaceutical company which were made by anonymous witnesses in the case. According to the earliest known facts, there are indications of “bribes” which tallied up to 50 million euros and involved 10 high-ranking political figures from the previous Greek administration in a total of more than 30 people, including former general secretaries, political counselors and former directors of government agencies. The loss for the Greek state is estimated to exceed 3 billion euros for the period between 2000-2015.

Τhe scandal has already been dubbed a “megaton bomb“. Minister of Justice Stavros Kontonis has called it “the biggest scandal since the creation of the modern Greek state“, even surpassing the Siemens Case, a corruption and bribery scandal regarding security systems and the purchase of state contracts in the 1990s.

Novartis and the current investigation

Novartis Building in Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Novartis, a multinational healthcare company based in Switzerland, is at the epicenter of a global investigation about alleged illegal payments to state officials which led to unfair competition practices and established its leading position in the global market.

Since 2014, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI have been investigating and discovering numerous company malpractices — allegedly applied in Greece as well. These malpractices include bribes to politicians, state officials associated with the Ministry of Health, doctors and hospital staff. Doctors would allegedly promote and prescribe Novartis’ products which would sometimes cost much more than their competition.

As pointed out in several media outlets over the last few days:

[…] η Ελλάδα είναι χώρα ειδικού ενδιαφέροντος για την Novartis, αφού η τιμή ενός προϊόντος στην Ελλάδα, θα επηρέαζε την τιμή του διεθνώς. Έτσι, μια αύξηση 10 σεντ στην Ελλάδα, υπολογίζεται ότι μπορεί να μεταφράζεται σε κέρδη 25 εκατομμυρίων για την εταιρεία.

Greece is a country of special interest for Novartis; the price of a product in Greece would influence its price worldwide. An increase of 10 cents in Greece would bring a 25 million profit for the company.

Novartis had played a crucial role in promoting ophthalmologic and oncological drugs for cancer patients as well as high numbers of vaccines against the H1N1 flu virus with significant financial gain for the company. As indicated in a 2009 article by news portal Euro2Day:

Η μετοχή της εταιρίας καταγράφει αυτήν την ώρα άνοδο της τάξης του 3,16%.

The stock of the company is currently recording a 3.16% rise.

Twitter user NikosBovolos now sarcastically wonders:

Who could imagine that we would see scandals in the Health sector, when [ex-Ministry of Health and now accused] Mr. Avramopoulos ordered 16 million vaccines for a country with a population of 10 million?

Reactions from the Greek political scene

After news of this latest scandal hit the press, social media outlets started getting flooded with reactions, comments and memes by netizens under the hashtags #novartis or #Novartis_gate. There have also been reactions offline in response to the allegations by the accused prominent political figures themselves.

Among the first questions raised about the credibility of this latest news was the convenient timing of its revelation. The anonymous protected witness testimonies were given last November and the last one was given on February 4th, at the peak of the “Macedonia/FYROM talks”. The news about the scandal gained more traction around the same time a massive rally took place in Athens which protested the use of the term “Macedonia” as an official state name by neighboring FYROM. As the current scandal takes over headlines, some feel that this might be a tactic to distract from this pressing political issue affecting the current administration:

See how easily agenda and headlines are shifted and the rally just fades out

A “Novartis” [case] a day keeps “Macedonia” [case] away

Even if you reveal 100 Novartis [cases], Macedonia is ONE and is Greek

In addition, a crucial issue for the Prosecutor of the Corruption Bureau is preserving the anonymity of the protected witnesses — two men and a woman — since they have allegedly expressed fear for their own lives. And not unreasonably.

One of the accused Greek politicians, Evangelos Venizelos, former Deputy Prime Minister and current Minister in various departments for the PASOK party, asked for the witnesses’ protection to be canceled so that anyone can sue them for slander or perjury. Later, he made comments which many felt threatened the witnesses.

Evangelos Venizelos for the Novartis scandal witnesses: “…poor people, they believe they will be protected forever”.

Maybe the vilest phrase said by a politician at the 21st century. And the competition is rather not insignificant…

Marios Salmas, the former Deputy Minister of Health for the New Democracy party, also accused of receiving illegal payments by Novartis, appeared live in a TV broadcast and also threatened to punish the case’s protected witnesses. According to the feature video in an article by the Tribune news portal, he insists:

[…]Σας λέω ένα πράγμα οι μάρτυρες αυτοί που κατέθεσαν εδώ –ας τους άλλαξαν ταυτότητα- θα βρεθούν και θα τιμωρηθούν. Είναι μικρή η Ελλάδα.

I only say one thing. Those witnesses that testified here — even if they got new identities — will be found and will be punished. Greece is a small country.

Twitter user @Kyria_Katy acutely mourned:

I live in the Country, where an ex Minister of Health of remarkable nerve threatens protected witnesses in a live TV broadcast.

And user @Paralogistis exclaimed:

Greece, the only country in the planet where the ones judged are the witnesses.

[The image reads]:
Novartis Scandal.
Ev. Venizelos: Do the witnesses think they will be forever protected?
M. Salmas: The protected witnesses will be found and punished!

A public debate has also been initiated regarding whether or not the allegations made in the testimonies have any base or are simply an attempt to tarnish prominent political figures from both the opposition ex-ruling parties of PASOK and New Democracy, as German business newspaper Handelsblatt notes.

The ten prominent politicians, two ex-Prime Ministers and eight ex-Ministers alleged to be involved in the scandal, have denounced the accusations against them. Some of them even threatened to react with lawsuits, calling the case “political targeting” and “bullying”. Ex-Prime Minister Antonis Samaras declared that he will press charges against Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and against Dimitris Papaggelopoulos, ex-Director General of the National Intelligence Service and current Minister of Justice.

Another accused MP, Adonis Georgiadis, ex-Minister of Health for the New Democracy party, known for his controversial statements, expressed his belief that the whole scandal is “set and directed” by the Alternate Minister of Health Pavlos Polakis, who was implied to be an FBI agent.

Mr. Polakis himself answered via his Facebook page with a hilarious meme he had received from netizens:

Adonis, you are right!!!! I even received my ID card !!!!
Haha, I just died laughing, I was sent this not long ago!!!

The main argument against the accusations of this case is that the alleged perpetrators claim they cannot be brought to justice due to a statute of limitations.

How much nerve you must have, when you tweet a news story saying that the Novartis scandal offenses – taken place during your term as a Minister – have been time-barred! As if he even had honor and lost it!

Is it possible that the official argumental line of New Democracy party about #Novartis_Gate focuses at the possibility of time-barred offenses? Seriously now?

This scandal is unfolding slowly and has been shaking the whole Greek political and social scene. However, there are doubts about whether or not any real results will come of the case, as many feel that Greece has a bad history of bringing “real” justice to similar cases. Let’s see what the repercussions will be in the following days and months.





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