When your life’s work is rooting out corruption in Greece, you have to savour even the smallest signs of progress.
For Leandros Rakintzis, still working full time at age 78 as Greece’s inspector general of public administration, one has come courtesy of the country’s economic crisis.
The downturn has prompted doctors to reduce their demands for fakellakia — envelopes stuffed with cash — from patients seeking to ensure the best possible treatment.
“A surgeon who used to ask for €5,000 for a serious operation will now settle for €500,” Mr Rakintzis says with a wry smile.
After 11 years of labouring to “ensure the efficient and effective functioning of public administration”, the former supreme court justice is at last stepping down. He tried to leave his post six years ago but no one could be found to replace him.
“What was I to do?” he asks. “I was like a sentry who stays in his guardbox because nobody turns up to relieve him from his duty.”
For all his effort, Greece still comes bottom of most league tables for EU transparency and good governance, its public mismanagement on humiliating display throughout the country’s long-running economic crisis.
“It’s true that Greece is very corrupt . . . but by comparison with the northern European states — not the east European ones and the Balkans,” Mr Rakintzis observes, sitting at a large, untidy desk strewn with papers and thick law books.
A cheerful, rotund figure wearing a pink shirt without a tie, Mr Rakintzis is unusually approachable for a senior member of the Greek judiciary. He is not shy, either, about skewering the Greek system’s failings.
“There are several reasons for the corruption problem,” he explains. “It’s a legacy of being part of the Ottoman Empire and it’s a lack of regulation but mostly it’s the result of the poor functioning of the justice system. It’s very, very slow.”
His modern office near the city centre is open to anyone bringing a complaint against a public employee “whether or not they have an appointment — though they must be prepared to wait,” he says.
By his reckoning, Greece’s infamous problem of bribe-taking by civil servants is most pervasive in the state health system, at local offices tasked with issuing building permits and monitoring illegal construction and in the tax service.
The health sector is particularly resistant to reform because Greeks are fearful of denouncing their doctor “in case the profession takes revenge,” says Mr Rakintzis, estimating that two-thirds of surgeons still accept fakellakia.
He and his team of inspectors tend to work behind the scenes. Apart from disciplinary cases that eventually reach the courts, virtually the only proof of their labours is a 250-page annual report published electronically and providing details of Greek corruption.
Still, Mr Rakintzis is not averse to campaigning publicly when he feels the need. When the conservative government slipped through legislation in 2013 ruling that “a small material gift” offered to a civil servant out of “gratitude” did not constitute a bribe, he exploded into action.
“I ran a really big campaign to get this law revoked. I was on television every day. I gave interviews everywhere. And in less than a month it [the law] was abolished,” he says.
But he is resigned to having failed in what he hoped would be his legacy: persuading a reform-minded government to ban civil servants in sensitive posts, such as tax collection, from working in their home region, where they are subject to pressure from friends and family.
“It’s the obstacle of locality,” he says. “Outside Athens, there are so many intertwined connections, family relationships, pressure from local government . . . is [reform] were to happen things would change a lot.”
“We’ve made progress in many branches of the public administration, but in the provinces things never change easily,” he adds.
One helping hand has come from the much-loathed “memoranda”, as Greeks refer to the successive bailout agreements, which Mr Rakintzis views as a catalyst for improving administrative standards.
“The memorandum is positive. It’s helping fix some things . . . and it certainly provides for improvement in the public administration. It should be much clearer to everyone that if that [the administration] doesn’t work properly we won’t have sound economic growth,” he says.
That is a contrast from other senior Greek jurists, who have used their legal expertise to win concessions on salary cuts demanded by the country’s international creditors. Judges, prosecutors and court employees have also resisted demands to speed up court decisions and boost specialised skills, for example, to tackle financial crime.
Now that he is retiring, Mr Rakintzis is hardly receiving a hero’s farewell. In fact, scores of civil servants sacked or suspended for disciplinary offences are arguing that Mr Rakintzis’ standing has been unofficial since his original term in office expired six years ago. As such, they are demanding damages and reinstatement, arguing that Mr Rakintzis had no authority to take action against them.
Asked what would be his advice to his successor, he smiles: “Steer clear of politicians and put everything you do in writing — that’s how I survived.”