Papandreou buys time amid political, economic scandals

Until last weekend, many people here would have predicted a miracle was needed to pull Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou from the shadow of widening financial and political scandals in Greece. Last weekend Mr. Papandreou engineered his own strategic political miracle. He had turned a parliamentary vote on the 1989 state budget into a vote of confidence, threatening that his beleaguered government would resign if the budget didn't pass. Succeeding with this tactic means that Papandreou avoids, for the time being, facing a no-confidence motion from opposition members in parliament.

According to Papandreou's own timetable, the country will now go to elections on June 18, as scheduled. But Western diplomats wonder how long Papandreou can withstand ``internal political pressures.'' Conservative opposition leader Constantine Mitsotakis charges that with the vote-of-confidence move, the ``prime minister was simply trying to buy time.''

Over the past weeks, the major opposition parties have called for immediate elections and the installation of a caretaker government in the face financial scandals that are seen to implicate the government.

Papandreou's public liaison with a stewardess, Dimitra Liani, has not helped. They now live together in a heavily guarded, suburban villa north of Athens. Mrs. Liani obtained a divorce from her second husband this fall, and Papandreou says he hopes to obtain a no-contest divorce in the spring, before elections.

Many observers believe that no matter when elections are held, Papandreou and his party will not win. ``No one can survive this accumulation of things,'' says journalist Helen Vlachos. Leonidas Kyrkos, leader of the Greek Left Party, claims Greece is witnessing ``the decline of Pasok under conditions of ethical and political decay.''

There is now much talk of prospective new parties, such as one combining centrist-liberal voters, and new coalitions, including one that would form a leftist front from communist and socialist parties and the left-wing of Pasok. Both scenarios place New Democracy first and Pasok third in upcoming elections.

There is still no hard proof of government corruption in the continuing stories of scandals. But recent events and charges by credible personalities have apparently convinced the electorate of at least some degree of government wrong-doing. November popularity polls show New Democracy, the conservative opposition party, leading by 37.5 percent to Pasok's 20.5 percent.

In the latest series of events, alternative national defense minister Stathis Yiotas resigned Dec. 14, saying he could not longer remain part of a government of ``adventurers, upstarts and swindlers.'' He charged former board members of the state-run Hellenic Armaments Industry with fraud and gross financial mismanagement. A day after Mr. Yiotas' departure, deputy minister of national economy, Theodore Karatzas, resigned.

Mr. Karatzas became the fifth minister to leave in two weeks. Most have resigned to protest the government's handling of charges of corruption and cover-up. Papandreou calls the resignations and scandals part of a ``foreign plot to topple'' his government.

Most of the scandals center on allegations that government members were paid off by or somehow directed operations of George Koskotas, a Greek banker and press baron, awaiting trial in Salem, Mass., on charges of attempting defraud the United States Internal Revenue Service while living in the US in the 1970s. Mr. Koskotas was this fall charged with fraud, embezzlement, and forgery, involving misuse of some $300 million worth of his bank's money. Greece is seeking his extradition.

The Koskotas tale follows news earlier this year of public-sector scandals involving the national electricity monopoly, a state trading company, a state agricultural company, and a state refinery.

The taint from these scandals and the Koskotas affair do not bode well for the deficit-ridden economy, which new democracy spokesman Stephanos Manos describes as ``out of control.''

Papandreou now speaks of a catalytic clean-up. His words could be prophetic. It might be just that - but without him at the helm.

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