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Greece’s defence minister faces questions in parliament on Monday over a controversial Greek-Saudi arms sale that could destabilise the leftwing government of prime minister Alexis Tsipras.
Panos Kammenos, the minister, pushed through a €66m order from Saudi Arabia for munitions supplied by a state-owned Greek defence manufacturer after allegedly agreeing the deal with a local businessman who claimed to be acting on the Gulf state’s behalf. This is in violation of Greek anti-corruption rules.
Mr Tsipras and Mr Kammenos both signed off on the sale when it was approved in March by Greece’s high-level defence and foreign affairs committee KYSEA, which oversees arms sales and purchases. After a visit by Saudi Arabia in August, the deal was put on hold and questions began to emerge.
Both Greece and Saudi Arabia officially ban the use of middlemen in arms sales on the ground that direct state-to-state agreements reduce the likelihood of bribes being paid. The apparent disregard for proper governance shown by a senior cabinet minister triggered criticism from the opposition conservative New Democracy party and also angered members of the governing Syriza party, which came to power promising to fight corruption in political life.
The defence ministry’s choice of Vassilis Papadopoulos, the owner of a private Greek munitions factory and a convicted arms smuggler, to act as a “mediator” in the Saudi deal, has prompted calls by New Democracy for a probe into the sale and previous arms deals handled by the Syriza government.
“What is the government trying to hide? Why are lawmakers not allowed access to relevant documents?” said a New Democracy spokesman. A government spokesman declined to comment. Mr Papadopoulos could not be reached for comment.
Mr Kammenos, the leader of the small rightwing nationalist Anel party which is Syriza’s coalition partner, is viewed with suspicion by many leftwingers because of his previous career as a New Democracy lawmaker and junior minister. But his party’s nine parliamentary seats are critical to the survival of the Syriza administration.
Tensions have also emerged in Syriza over the sale, with several lawmakers calling for a ban on arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Nikos Filis, a central committee member and former education minister said: “From the point of view of both national interests and of the left, which defends global values and ideals, it would be infinitely better to cancel the sale of ammunition and especially MK-82 bombs which could be used in Yemen.”
The Saudi deal concerned the purchase of 300,000 tank shells from Hellenic Defence Systems, a state-owned supplier, according to an official document circulated among Greek lawmakers. Mr Papadopoulos claimed to represent the Saudi side in the sale, according to another leaked document published in Greek media. The defence ministry is alleged not to have checked if this was true.
The Saudi defence ministry in June informed the Greek embassy in Riyadh that it had no knowledge of Mr Papadopoulos, but it was willing to complete the deal working directly with the Greek government. Saudi officials came to Greece in August to inspect the munitions at a plant operated by HDS and make transport arrangements, but specified they would buy only 100,000 shells. “They left without completing their mission,” the same defence ministry official said.”The sale appears to be frozen.”
It was not the first time that the Syriza-led government has gone ahead with an irregular arms sale. HDS signed a €78m deal in 2015 with the United Arab Emirates to supply 1,000 MK-82 bombs, a type used by the Gulf state and Saudi air forces in strikes against rebel fighters in Yemen.
The deal, revealed by the Greek news website Inside Story, was approved retroactively by KYSEA, months after the munitions had already been shipped to Abu Dhabi. Both transactions were part of a drive by the defence ministry to offset budget cuts by selling surplus munitions stockpiled during a defence spending binge in the early 2000s.