A close associate of the Greek prime minister has stepped down because of his ties with far-right extremists. The disgraced politician claims his boss knew nothing of this, but the opposition is not convinced.
Panagiotis Baltakos is not just anyone. The attorney served Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras as a kind of general secretary to the government. He was the equivalent of a chief of staff, shunning the limelight to work in the background. For the past 20 years, Baltakos has been Samaras' legal and political adviser and he was there in the 1990s when Samaras resisted the country's traditional political dynasties to found his own right-wing party.
But now Samaras has professed surprises at Wednesday's (02.04.2014) revelations, contained in a video showed Baltakos having a casual, friendly conversation with Ilias Kassidiaris, spokesman for the far-right Golden Dawn party, who is currently facing charges of membership of a criminal organization. It remains unclear when exactly the conversation took place.
In the video, apparently recorded secretly, Baltakos chats about internal government business and even criticizes the head of government. No less awkward is his comment on the current criminal investigation into Golden Dawn. Baltakos claims that both Justice Minister Charalambos Athanassiou and Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias intervened with the judiciary to make sure that the far-right party would be investigated. But there was no clear evidence of criminal activity, Baltakos alleged when questioned by Kassidiaris.
"We shouldn't forget that Kassidiaris faces charges," political analyst Dimitris Tsiodras told TV network Skai, arguing that the Golden Dawn spokesman had asked suggestive questions to get Baltakos to make certain statements that would exonerate him. But the courts will have to decide whether the video will be admissible as evidence.
Far-right conspiracy theories
The Golden Dawn representatives have been the subject of criminal investigations ever since the murder of musician and left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. After the suspected perpetrators identified themselves as members of the party, police arrested Kassidiaris, party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, and six members parliament, including hardline MP Christos Pappas. A few days later, two of the lawmakers as well as Kassidiaris, were released pending trial.
Kassidiaris' release of the controversial video was a calculated step - on Wednesday, the Greek parliament had made use of a secret session to lift the MPs' immunity, who included Eleni Zaroulia, wife of party leader Michaloliakos, and Nikos Kouzilos, the party's candidate for mayor of the town of Piraeus.
All of them have said they are innocent and claim the state's actions are politically motivated. But Tsiodras said the video's release is a futile attempt to re-awaken this conspiracy theory. "Was the murder of Pavlos Fyssas a conspiracy?" he asked. "Were the militias and the Hitler salute by the far-right activists a conspiracy? Were the assaults on innocent people a conspiracy? No, these were reality." But he added that it was encouraging that the MPs did not capitulate and lifted Golden Dawn's immunity despite the pressure.
Consequences for Samaras
According to a subsidiary of the center-left daily "Eleftherotypia," there are more video clips in circulation that could be released in the next few days. The opposition wants to increase pressure on the Samaras government. Panagiotis Lafazanis, parliamentary faction spokesman of the left-wing SYRIZA, said on Thursday that the problem could not be solved with the resignation of one Samaras adviser. He called on Samaras to remove all far-right elements in his party. The conservative Independent Greeks party is even considering instigating a no-confidence vote against the government.
But Justice Minister Athanassiou sees no reason for alarm, and told Skai that the allegation that he himself had intervened in the judiciary was a "product of fantasy" and a "joke."
"I have been serving the Greek judiciary for 40 years and have never done anything that could justify such claims," the former judge said, adding that Samaras had never intervened in his work. For that reason he said he sees no reason to resign - despite the opposition's charges.