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Thursday, December 09, 2004 

Bribing Your Way to Destruction

Just as the saying goes "there is more than one way to skin a cat", there is more than one way to swindle someone in Greece.

Paying and receiving bribes undermines the integrity of a nation putting not only the economy at risk but people's lives as well. Most Greeks consider bribes to be 'fees without a receipt' which sounds so much better than the dirty word 'bribe'. Whenever anyone accepts money to perform a service they are already paid to do or to produce a favourable outcome, it's a bribe.

It's only a traffic violation but when it's in Greece, it could be the difference between life and death for a lot of people considering the sorry state of road conditions here. When policemen take bribes to tear up traffic offence tickets, it might be you who takes that fateful step into the path of a serial speeder who should have had his licence revoked long before he or she has a serious accident. It might be your child who gets hit at a crosswalk when the driver knows that the STOP sign doesn't really mean "STOP". If they take bribes from brothel owners operating without licences, the human traffic industry gets a boost.

The Greek word "fakelo" literally means "envelope" in English. As innocuous as this word might sound it belies it's figurative meaning which is "bribe". Doctors, lawyers, judges, policemen, civil servants in Greece are notorious for asking for and receiving a fakelo. This whole system, which is commonplace and basically accepted by Greeks as a way of life here, is an abomination and needs to be eradicated.

One of my friends paid 3,000€ to her doctor to deliver her baby. Even though the couple has private health insurance and federal health insurance which covered 100% of the total cost of the delivery, the fakelo is paid to the doctor and no receipt is given. The husband of another woman I know had to pay 10,000€ to his doctor when he was admitted for a heart attack. He was a retired member of the Greek Air Force and therefore, had full medical coverage as well. The reason the doctors give for taking bribes is that they don't get paid enough and what's worse, they say it ensures the patient the best care while in the hospital. That's like being paid to fix a car and then saying "that'll be an extra 30o0€ to make sure you can drive it out of the garage" but 1000 times worse since a person's life may hang in the balance. This is sheer extortion and yet people continue to pay these bribes. They even justify them. In the birthplace of the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, they ought to be ashamed of this corrupt practice. I guess this part of the Hippocratic Oath has been omitted in Greece..."I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption;"

Lawyers will take a 'fakelo' from a client in order to procure a positive decision in a lawsuit or to get immigrants a favourable decision for a residence permit.

Civil Servants
Many people here pay tax officials bribes to get their tax payments reduced but in doing so, the government finds itself deeper and deeper in debt trying to pay for infrastructure improvements, education, healthcare and pensions because everyone's shirking their tax obligations. The government then has to increase the taxes and come up with more draconian laws in order to squeeze money out of the people. What the government does or doesn't do with your tax dollars is another story. But you can't cry 'foul' when the roads are a mess and the schools are abysmal since you do nothing to alleviate the situation. Pay the tax, then make the government accountable with your vote.

I was asked to pay 200€ in order to get my driving licence here. This was AFTER I had already driven for 18 years and passed driving tests in two other countries and AFTER I had already paid 1200€ to pay for driving lessons as required by law. I refused to pay. I still passed with perfect marks. But other people paid the bribe when they should have failed and then we wonder why Greece has so many road accidents.

Development and housing officials routinely accept bribes for issuing building and safety permits. The next time a someone buys a house that is built to substandard specifications and there isn't a single right angle in the house, they'll know why. In an earthquake zone, payments to cut corners on construction and mainenance requirements is a very risky thing to do as the relatives to the victims of the Ricomex factory disaster of the 1999 earthquake discovered.

This common and corrupt practice of bribery should be abolished and it's a simple thing to stop. Just ask for a receipt when a bribe is demanded or just don't give one at all. It is not my fault doctors, lawyers and civil servants think they're underpaid. They should have chosen a different profession. There is NO justifiable excuse for anyone to give or take a bribe no matter what lies the bribe takers tell them. Bribery is synonomous with corruption regardless of the word chosen to describe it.

The point that corruption is wrong is hard to argue against. But in an economical world, bribery will always exist. People are not obliged to offer bribes, as you clearly showed when you were getting your driving licence. You saved yourself €200. Someone else who does not reach your levels of perfection, that €200 to them is money well spent. Corruption will not end, as there will always be those who offer money for a quick resolution to their requirement, or for added protection, etc, and there will always be those prepared to accept bribes offered.

I think instead of denouncing bribery you could accept the fact that you are fortunate to live in a society where such actions can be used. You never know, one day you may find a small 'Fakelo' to the right person may save you a lot of hassle. It is an ingrained way of life in countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, etc. It should be valued as any other custom or tradtion.


Well first of all, congratulations on another excellent blog. Definitely better than the last one where you ATTACKED the church and all things holy in the same month that we celebrate the birth of our lord and savoir of all mankind. Now I know you’ll be thinking how can I put things right? Well donate 500€ to your nearest church, they’ll make things right with the man upstairs and your guilt will be gone.

So anyway, back to the theme of bribes, now I feel your probably going to have trouble making sense of my answer because in theory I agree with you totally and agree that the current system is totally unacceptable and needs to be changed however I’ve also used it to my advantage. The best examples would be traffic violations, they stop you, they give you a ticket, you make a contribution to the charity of their choice and all of a sudden you don’t have a ticket. It’s certainly not right but it can work to your advantage.

Another scenario, a close family of mine got very sick and was told that they needed an operation. Now after arranging the operation at one hospital and then having it cancelled 4 days before it was due to go ahead (because the doctor had suddenly decided he was going away on vacation), we had to find someone else. So we arranged a meeting with a doctor at a different hospital. So during the appointment we established that the operation could be done the following Monday (this was on the Friday) and that the insurance would take care of all the costs except the ‘doctor’s fee’ (yup, you guessed it, the bribe) so we said fine and made the arrangements. When we went back for the operation, it turned out the ‘fee’ was going to be 8000€. Well after a huge argument where lines such as “I’m not going pay that much, it’s a rip off” and “It’s only money, what’s more important, money or your life?” were thrown around the room, we decided to go ahead. So yeah the bribe was paid, the operation was successful and as a result, that family member is still with us.

I remember at the time discussing this with you and if I remember rightly, you told me it was a form of blackmail and the doctor knew he could get his ‘fee’ because of the life and death situation we were dealing with. Now this is what I mean when I said I’d probably not make sense because you are right, he was and that makes him a bad bad man but I can’t think of him that way because he’s the guy who did the operation, he’s a life saver and the money means nothing at a time like that. The fee we paid doesn’t mean anything, it was 8000€ but I wouldn’t have cared if it’d been 80.000€ mainly because when it comes down to it, money is only money.

Also at the time, I remember discussing the ‘fakelo’ issue with a friend who told me that we can’t complain about people who give / take bribes as it’s our own fault, basically because Greeks have the kind of mentality that makes them think money can get you anywhere. A simple example is if your mothers in the hospital, you slip some cash to the nurses and say “take extra care of her” and it’s little gestures like that which evolved onto the situation we have today.

The same friend was telling me about her husband, he’d had an operation and when he’d told her that he had to pay an extra ‘fee’, she went crazy and said “no way”. But in the end he paid it anyway because he explained to her that if he didn’t, the ‘aftercare’ might not have been great.

So yeah, to sum up my rambling, you say “.There is NO justifiable excuse for anyone to give or take a bribe no matter what lies the bribe takers tell them” and in theory you are right. But I know for sure next time I find myself face to face with a cop and he’s asking me “why are you doubling the speed limit” or “what on earth made you think this was a suitable place to abandon your car” or “it doesn’t matter that they are American, you’re still not allowed to run them over and then reverse over them to make sure” then my first reply will be “can I make a contibution to the charity of your choice officer?”, of course that’ll be right after “it wasn’t because they were American officer, it was because they’re all wearing matching bright green skin tight velour tracksuits, I assure you officer, I was totally unaware of their nationality until I was going through the contents of their wallets”

So yeah, the system sucks, I wish it wasn’t like this but sadly it is, it’s not gonna change anytime soon so you may as well use it to your advantage. There’s no point being morally right if it’s gonna cost me my licence. But in theory you are totally right!

Anonymous...if you didn't have the money to pay a doctor the bribe they demand to save your life, would you still value it as a tradition? With regards to my driving licence, it wasn't a matter of my perfect standards, because if I hadn't studied those 1,000 theory questions and 20 hours of driving lessons then I would have deserved to have failed. When I'm in the wrong, I'm just wrong and I accept it. I don't try to weasel my way out of it by offering a bribe.

Ellas...I fully understand WHY people want to give bribes but as I told anonymous, what would you do if you DIDN'T have the 8000€???

Stugots says:

Not having the money doesn't mean you won't get the life saving treatment you deserve, just means you may have to wait a bit, that's all. Can't honestly see a doctor refuse treatment just because his palm was not greased. More trouble for him than €8,000 is worth.

The principle of your argument mat be sound, but the reality dictates the 'Fakelo' should be accepted as a way of life and use it to your on advantage. It is to you disadvantage if you do not....


I am appalled at the level of corruption in virtually all sectors of the business, health and political arenas from supposedly "civilized" countries. Unless you live in a country like Canada, Sweden or Switzerland, you may not have a high regard/ appreciation for moral and ethical standards. And you many not realize just how different things could be if everyone at least tried to act with integrity.

You may be interested in the following websites:

TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL: the only international non-governmental organisation devoted to combating corruption, brings civil society, business, and governments together in a powerful global coalition."

INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL ETHICS: an excellent organization that promotes ethical behaviour and moral courage.

I highly recommend everyone visit these sites and get involved.

Just because bribery is considered a "fact of life" in Greece certainly does NOT mean it can't be changed.

Seawitch...I'm surprised you're not involved with www.transparency.org!!! Check it out.


Seawitch, What is this Ellas Devil's obsession with Americans. I'm going to have to pursue that later when I have time, or at least create some blogs that covertly give him a hard time. Maybe he's just jealous of us Americans, like most Greeks. Greeks love power, and with American, they are forced to take orders from who else "Americans". oooh, how's that Seawitch...

or how about this... Greeks have a superiority complex naturally anyways because they think they are somehow better because of their lineage, but with Americans, they don't know how to act because Americans are generally superior (Just cuz we are so powerful and all, and we make all the rules) and thus make Greeks feel inferior with all our arbitrary decisions against Greece. So, if they (EllasDevil) can make themselves feel better by slighting Americans, than I'm glad I can be a small part in the recovery of their mental health.

By the way, I think I'm going to tell Mr. Bush to screw Greece over a few more times just to spite EllasDevil.

Wow, that was good... I feel better now. Time for my Xanax.

Obviously corruption is bad, especially cases of blackmail by doctors but your comments are very simplistic.

The bribing in Greece can range between a "tip" just like waiters get in countries such as UK and USA, and money given to a doctor after he says something like "I will do the operation only if you give me 10K euro".

Almost all of the people who get bribes work in the public sector where salaries are very low, even for people with high profile jobs, for example I believe there are university graduates earning less than 2000 euros a month. A young person staying with his/her parents can probably survive with that kind of salary but someone with a family definitely cannot. Therefore he/she will resort to accepting bribes in the range I described above, depending on how ethical and how much in financial need the person is.

It may be easy for you to say he/she can find another job, however unemployment is high and the majority of the people will not be able to get a job with a much higher paying salary. Besides when you are stuck in a public sector position working few hours and earning some extra tips, considering the permanent position (most public sector employees in Greece cannot get fired) and the need to feed your family, you won't give this up for a position in a private company which could even fire you at any time.

For doctors in particular, I know many people who just give them money as tips, and even I know a few cases when they actually demanded tips. Are you sure though the a family in total poverty would also be asked for such a bribe? I think by some doctors yes, but maybe some can be smart enough to judge the person's income :)

Overall, I think yes the problem can be serious, but only with a policy by the government to fight corruption step by step (something like slowly increase police raids and salaries at the same time) this can eventually be improved.

PS: Recently I heard from someone in the US (country without any social health system) that in Canada people do receive free health care, but ric h people who can pay the doctors are a lot better off and they get higher priority in hospitals for critical operations. I am not sure of the credibility of this, but it sounds reasonably enough to be true - if this is the case in Greece why not also in Canada?

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