Greece is greeting European outrage over its dubious economic data with repentance, defensiveness and fear that no one will believe them again — even if they do clean up the statistics and accounting agencies slammed by an EU report for faking growth and deficit figures.
"Right now, even if everything they say is correct, they are not going to believe it," Manolis Kontopirakis, who headed Greece's statistics agency between 2004 and 2009, told the AP.
Kontopirakis quit shortly after Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists took over from the conservative New Democracy government in October. He angrily refuted claims his agency had knowingly forwarded the faulty data, which he said had hurt Greece's standing abroad.
"Credibility will return gradually," he said. "It will come, but in due time. I don't think that will happen in a few months or even a year."
The 30-page European report suggests why. It accuses the two Greek statistical agencies, Kontopirakis' National Statistical Service of Greece, or NSSG, and the General Accounting Office, of a string of offbeat practices and occurrences.
Page 18 of the report indicates that an unnamed general secretary of the NSSG — the post Kontopirakis held — "repeatedly contacted Eurostat claiming political interference over the provision of figures" between Oct. 12 and 21, just as the agency was preparing a revision of Greece's numbers. Kontopirakis, however, denied being the official who made the calls.
"I was working totally independently and I had absolutely no pressure. And there was not an attempt made to ever, to ever change any data," Kontopirakis said.
The government announced his resignation Oct. 22. Kontopirakis complained the government failed to defend his agency against allegations it was involved in producing the false data.
The government denies opposition claims that it overestimated the revised deficit figure to make its own fiscal recovery effort look more impressive.
Such recriminations are not new. In 2004, a new conservative government ushered in what it called "a new era of transparency" and revised the deficit upward by a factor of four. It accused the ousted Socialists of misreporting data, while the Socialists claimed it was a cynical attempt to blacken their record in office.
Fast-forward five years, and the situation is reversed. In a year of heavy borrowing and budget overruns across the EU, Greece is forecast to overtake Italy this year with Europe's highest national debt at 125 percent of gross domestic product.
Government officials under new Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou are eager to show they are reforming the system. The new Socialist government says its has no illusions about the country's debt crisis and has accused the previous conservative administration of issuing "tampered" figures.
It has called for an urgent inquiry that could result in parliamentary hearings and even prosecution, after the deficit estimate for 2009 increased from 3.7 percent of gross domestic product to a shocking 12.7 percent.
Another problem identified by the report was an ongoing failure to accurately report debts run up by state hospitals, underreporting that by euro1 billion ($1.4 billion) in deficit calculations, despite separate NSSG figures showing the actual extent of the debt.
"This is to be considered as a case of deliberate misreporting of figures," Eurostat said.
Shoddy accounting practices also include relaying data over the telephone without a corresponding written record, the EU agency said. Confidential deliveries to the military went unrecorded as expenditure.
Adding to EU anxiety, Eurostat said further revisions were possible for the 2008 and 2009 deficits.
The government has promised to revamp Greece's statistics agency by March into an independent body tasked to verify government data instead of simply processing it.
The trouble for Athens is that the EU has heard many of the same promises before.
Since adopting the euro in 2002, Greece has only once complied with fiscal rules and kept its budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product.
Greece's economy makes up less than 3 percent of the 16-nation eurozone output. But its debt crisis has given Europe jitters about the high cost of a potential bailout, and raised fears that borrowing costs could soar for other vulnerable countries like Spain and Ireland.
That potential fallout has many Greeks worried they could be punished to set an example to other over-borrowing eurozone members. Some officials even say EU officials share some blame.
Manolis Drettakis, a former finance minister and economics professor, said Eurostat also carried some of the responsibility for signing off on past Greek budget figures despite successive inspections.
"What I find strange is that the people who today accuse the agency are the ones who approved the (data) from the statistics agency two and three years ago," he said in an interview. "But the (EU) cannot push us into a corner as if we were not a member of the European Union. There must be some solidarity."
"We are in a very difficult position," said Stella Savva-Balfoussia, of Athens-based Center for Planning and Economic Research, an independent group that also carries out research for the government.
"No one has perfect figures ... In our case, there were two very large revisions so the spotlight is on us. And now we have to be whiter than white — that's difficult."
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