Business

Greeks worry about ambitious privatisation plans

Man filling in OPAP lottery form
Image caption The Greek lottery OPAP will be sold as part of an ambitious privatisation programme

Go into any of Greece's 5,000 OPAP lottery shops and there is one thing you definitely cannot bet on.

It is that the array of Greek state assets lined up for sale will fail to raise an agreed 50bn euros by 2015 to lighten the country's crushing international debts.

OPAP is on a long list of nearly 20 entities earmarked for full or partial sale, by order of the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

They are the sell-offs Greece's European partners are now demanding should be stepped up, not least because efforts to raise revenue through tax receipts are still defeating the country.

But in spite of Greece's lofty plans, the BBC has found that only one solitary stake has actually been sold in recent months: a 10% stake in the mobile phone group OTE has been bought by Deutsche Telecom for 400m euros.

Consequently, the chances of Greece reaching its target of raising 5bn euros by the end of the year from asset sales look slim.

Fear and frustration

It is easy to see why the programme is being opposed every step of the way by most of the state's employees.

As protesters unfurl their banners in Syntagma Square, it is clear that they bracket all the mooted sell-offs with other unpalatable measures, such as austerity tax rises and job cuts.

Image caption Greek utility workers are wary about plans to sell off the companies they work for

Staff fear that as public services - from power and water supply to transport and defence industries - are sold, it is inevitable that their pay and pensions will be drastically cut.

For their part, Greece's European partners are infuriated at the painfully slow progress in freeing up all these utilities.

Critics frequently suggest Greek privatisation is mired because the Pasok party in power has traditionally protected state workers, and is not pushing the measures through with enough vigour or conviction.

Much resistance

Whether or not this is true, there are several other reasons for the delays.

Some of these are apparent if you take a ride to the Athens suburb of Zografou.

(Bids for 49% of the railway OSE are welcome, by the way, but offers may not be forthcoming until losses of a billion euros a year have been stemmed.)

Image caption Greece remains "the last Soviet bastion in Europe", says Eydap's chief executive Nikolaos Bardis

This is where you find the headquarters of Eydap, the well-respected water and sewage utility serving Athens, which employs 2,800 workers and has a good reputation for maintaining supplies of high-quality drinking water.

Eydap is supposed to be privatised next year, but the company says little has happened since it was put on the list.

Few workers are expected to lose their jobs after any sell-off, but bosses admit that pay, conditions and pensions may not be maintained at current levels.

Yet a huge union poster outside the front door shows a wad of euro notes, with a running tap emerging from them.

The message: Do not try to profit from our essential services.

'Soviet bastion'

There are two reasons why the sell-off process has been slow, according to Eydap's chief executive Nikolaos Bardis.

Bureaucratic delays have contributed, as have investors' concerns that the potential value of the company might fall, given the current financial climate.

"We can say that Greece remains the last Soviet bastion in Europe," Mr Bardis says.

"There is a lot of opposition to the process. Socially this is a completely new idea. People here are just not used to private investors controlling state-owned companies.

"It is also true that the (Eydap) capitalisation is low because the market is extremely distressed and [the sell-off] didn't happen much earlier when the capitalisation was larger."

Investors' concerns

Mr Bardis has recently returned from a visit to the City of London to drum up investor interest in his company.

Image caption MP Elena Panaritis says privatisation is slow because democracy in Greece is weak

One concern expressed there was that the Greek government was retaining the right to set water charges, a job that might be expected to fall to an independent regulator.

Potential buyers do not like the idea of political interference in consumer charges, which could easily have the effect of wiping out profits or investment spending plans, Mr Bardis observes.

"They are also concerned about the country's solvency and whether it will stay in the eurozone or be forced to re-adopt the drachma," he says.

"And they are making the assumption that the country will ask its lenders to take a 50% haircut on its loans," he adds, which means the lenders should expect only half their money to be repaid.

While investors are getting used to the idea, the same seems to be the case with the Greek people, who are gradually coming to realise that their country is broke.

"I do believe there is now a a silent majority in the society which is in favour of reform," says Nikos Koritasis, a principal at the Koultadis law firm that is deeply involved in the country's gas privatisation.

The company is working for a new Greek agency that has been set up expressly to run the sale of the country's assets, and Mr Koritasis insists people understand Greece has to try something new.

"There have been long delays, but there is now a new will to speed up the whole process," he says.

Speedy privatisation

One member of the Greek parliament who has a clearer perspective than most is Elena Panaritis.

She is a former World Bank executive, brought into the ruling Pasok party by Prime Minister George Papandreou to help oversee decisions and educate other politicians about the ways of the markets.

Following another long night of parliamentary debate, the country is making "superhuman" efforts to clear the way for the privatisations, yet it is taking time, she laments.

"We haven't been able to be as effective precisely because our bureaucracy is so bad," she reasons.

"Getting anything done is so complicated, with conflicting regulations and far too many people involved in taking decisions on each single asset.

"All this is taking longer than the 16 months we have to get it resolved. There really is the appetite to get the job done, but there are layers of steps and we get bogged down with the actual details."

It took the privatisation pioneer Britain well over a decade to free up and sell off its essential industries. Greece is expected to do much the same in a few months.

So it is no wonder that privatisation is a hard sell. It is another leap for this state-dominated island nation into what are seen as shark-infested commercial waters.