Greece’s tax collectors face public hostility
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The deal that is now under discussion between Greece and its creditors would involve the country paying a lot more tax.
That’s bad news for Maria Papadopoulou. She’s a tax official and would be required to collect more revenue — no easy task when you consider what she and her colleagues already face from the reluctant taxpayers of Athens.
“Physical threats, swearing, spitting and sometimes they even try to grab you. We have that on a daily basis.” she says. “They threaten you, your mother, your family. This is their way of expressing their anger and their depression.”
Papadopoulou describes her job in Greece’s tax collection agency as “underpaid and difficult.” So why do it?
“Two reasons,” she says. “For the medical insurance and a steady paycheck.”
Antagonism towards the tax collectors in Greece is aimed at the humblest officials — and the highest. Hari Theoharis became the Greek equivalent of the head of the Internal Revenue Service in 2013 with a mission to crack down on evasion, and soon his office was getting some menacing phone calls saying: “You know, it would only cost 5,000 euros to have his legs broken.”
Today, he plays down the threat.
“The police always assessed it as not an organized thing. Nobody will come round and break my legs. Hopefully,” he says.
Nevertheless, only 17 months into a five-year term, Theoharis quit the agency after intense political pressure to lay off investigating well-connected individuals and to lighten the crackdown ahead of an election.
“Those things increased more and more, and instead of doing my job, I would have to deal with pressure of that kind on a daily basis.” he says. “I was relieved to get out.” His departure from the tax office led to a new career in politics and he now represents the centrist To Potami party in the Greek parliament.
The fate of Theoharis was no surprise to Aristides Hatzis, a professor of law and economics at the University of Athens.
“The problem with Theoharis was that he was very good at his job, so his behavior annoyed a lot of people — especially economically and politically powerful people,” Hatzis says.
Cronyism and corruption have further undermined the willingness of millions of ordinary Greeks to pay their taxes.
“I understand their reluctance,” says tax collector Papadopoulou. But I don’t condone it.”
Under pressure from its creditors, Greece raised an extra $1 billion in revenue last year, but it’s estimated that more than $50 billion is owed in unpaid back taxes. The tax collectors will have their work cut out for them.
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