How successive Deputy Foreign Ministers led the cover-up of the NGO demining scam

For a decade officials have known about the scandal of the International Mine Initiative (IMI) - the NGO believed to have embezzled millions of euros provided for demining operations. But the political leadership of the Foreign Affairs Ministry not only turned a blind eye to allegations, but actively covered for those responsible.
Former Deputy Foreign Ministers Andreas Loverdos (left) and Evripidis Stylianidis (right)

By Vasiliki Siouti @vassiouti 

The bosses of the NGO ‘International Mine Initiative’ (IMI) are currently facing prosecution accused of perpetrating a 9 million euro scam. The financing came from the International Development Office, a branch of the Foreign Affairs Ministry first established during George Papandreou’s tenure as minister.

For demining operations in Lebanon supposedly involving the removal of 225 landmines, the Greek NGO received approximately 4 million euros, when the cost of destroying one landmine is estimated to be in the region of 300 – 1,000 euros. In other words for an operation that should have cost at most about 225,000 euros the Greek government spent 4 million.

According to reliable sources within the Foreign Ministry, on the 18th of January, 2004 the then Greek Ambassador to Lebanon, N. Vamvounakis wrote to the Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos requesting information about the activities of the specific NGO in the country. Yet a response never came. (Andreas Loverdos, a professor of Constitutional Law by profession, served later as minister of labour and minister of health in successive PASOK governments. He was and still is one of the most enthusiastic pro-memorandum politicians in the country).

However the ambassador continued to press the Ministry for information about the NGO. Following the March 2004 elections when the PASOK government was ousted by Kostas Karamanlis’s New Democracy and Evripidis Stylianidis was installed as deputy foreign minister, additional, detailed diplomatic wires regarding the specific NGO were sent. Yet still, not only was no one was willing to investigate, but disapproval was expressed over the Ambassador’s insistence on doing his job properly. Mr Vamvounakis explained that, by law, it was the embassy’s duty to oversee the project, but the NGO’s leadership as well as the political leadership of the ministry were continually evasive. Diplomats at the Foreign Ministry with knowledge of the wires’ contents say they contain damning evidence of wrongdoing.

Yet Andreas Loverdos, in response to a journalistic inquiry with regards to NGOs, and specifically the IMI, gave assurances that everything was above board as the UN itself had attested. He even went so far as to state that an on-site visit and investigation that he had personally conducted had confirmed that the NGO was conducting highly effective mine removal operations. Questions over the NGO’s suspect operations had also been directed at the NGO’s head, Kostas Tzevelekos – a former journalist of the PASOK newspaper ‘Exormisi’ who also maintained that all was legitimate and had that the operation had been checked and authorized by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Anyone who knows the process by which NGO’s secure funds knows that such amounts would never be granted to just anybody. All of the organizations that received millions of euros for projects the completion of which – and even their final costs – were never confirmed, were run by people with close ties to the political leadership of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. That is why the Ministry never requested embassies to conduct the oversight audits required by law. To the contrary, any diplomats attempting to do so paid a price.

Neither George Papandreou’s excuses, nor those of Alex Rondos convince anyone. (N.B. Before becoming Prime Minister of Greece in 2009, George Papandreou was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs during the period 1996-1999 and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1999 to 2004 in the PASOK government led by Costas Simitis, i.e during the time the IMI is alleged to have defrauded the government out of millions.

Under his leadership, the International Development Office (named also “Hellenic Aid” with a similar role to that of USAid)  was launched in 1997. In the years that followed the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs poured hundreds of millions into international aid projects through the International Development Office framework.

At the time Alex Rondos was one of Papandreou’s closest advisers and head of the Ministry’s International Development Office working closely with numerous NGOs. Rondos had significant power and provided handsome levels of funding to many NGO’s including International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) an NGO for which he served as the first executive director.

The Karamanlis government is also culpable. New Democracy came to power in 2004 having promised to put an end to wasteful public spending, yet the new Deputy Foreign Minister Evripidis Stylianidis kept the party going, doling out favours and money to the NGOs of ‘friends’ and the well-connected. Indeed under his watch numerous funds earmarked for foreign development aid ended up in Rodopi, a region near Greece’s north eastern borders with Turkey and Bulgaria, which just happens to be his constituency.

Andreas Loverdos, Deputy Foreign Minister from 2002-2004 and responsible for overseeing NGOs,  will clearly be called to testify and provide explanations as none of the ministry employees currently facing charges could have acted without his authorization.

Furthermore, while the lack of audits means that nobody could have known the extent of the work performed (or not) by the IMI, Andreas Loverdos as Deputy Minister went out of his way to attest to the organization’s greatness saying on the 6th of October 2003:

“We have said in the past how one of the greatest humanitarian activities funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the demining operation in the Nabatieh region in Southern Lebanon. Responsible for the progress of this work is the non governmental organization the ‘International Mine Initiative’. We recently had the exceptional honour of having this project referred to in the report by the General Secretary of the UN on the temporary force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as it was submitted and is being examined by the UN Security Council.  Specifically in the report covering the period between the 15th of January to the 23rd of July 2003 and in the section regarding the situation in the theater of operations of UNIFIL, there is a reference to the demining programme which is being funded by Greece which, according to the report, has contributed to the ‘impressive progress which has been made by demining attempts’ in cooperation with the UN, the Lebanese government and various donors. This reference is proof of the importance given by the international community to the activities funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as of the proper targeting and management of funds that are disbursed to NGOs.”

Yet in the UN report (Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, 23 July 2003 – pdf, Section II, par. 12), contrary to what Mr Loverdos maintains, there is no specific praise of the work performed by the Greek NGO which could be taken as evidence of ‘proper targeting and management of funds disbursed to NGOs’. Below is the relevant text of the report referred by the former minister which only mentions that a Greek government funded project had been initiated in Lebanon. The praise is reserved for others…

“In southern Lebanon as a whole, collaboration between the United Nations, the Government of Lebanon and various donors has made possible dramatic progress in demining efforts. Well ahead of schedule, the Operation Emirates Solidarity project has cleared over 4 million m2 and over 33,000 anti-personnel mines, some 1,500 anti-tank mines and 1,700 pieces of unexploded ordnance. A demining project funded by the Government of Greece was initiated in the Nabatieh area. The Lebanese Army engineer regiment has been clearing areas along the Blue Line in the vicinity of Markabe and Abbasieh. The United Nations continued to coordinate international assistance to the Government of Lebanon through my Personal Representative and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).”

Translated by Pavlos Zafiropoulos

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