Greece's super-rich maintain lavish lifestyles and low profiles | Digg Topnews
Three days before Greeks cast their ballots in a make-or-break election, their country could not be more divided. Here there is no talk of the pain of crisis – the only topic of conversation elsewhere in Greek society. The destitution and despair of Athens is a world away – and for many quite clearly it is best kept that way.
"Greeks brought this crisis upon themselves," said a London-based shipowner upholding the sector's vow of silence by insisting on anonymity. "They allowed crooks and corruption to prosper."
Almost 100 years after it was built by a tobacco tycoon, the elegant Poseidonion remains the favourite playground for Athenian high society. The former King Constantine, who was schooled on the island, is a frequent visitor. Tonight, as the crowd sits on its terrace sipping cocktails, staff with long-handled brooms clean the bows of their mega-yachts moored in front of the hotel. A tiny pony takes their children – all guarded by nannies – around the plaza. While locals fret that Spetses, already known as the "new Monaco", is at risk of becoming a "club for the rich" there are also obvious payoffs.
Christina Ioannidis, who runs a high-end clothes shop on the island, says one of them is that the crisis has not affected her at all. "If truth be told, business couldn't be better," she says, knocking on wood. "I've had to employ an assistant all year round because there's such demand, even in winter."
Pumping money into the economy of Spetses – or the islands from which they hail – is a far cry from the world of philanthropy with which Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos and other fabled shipowners were associated. Known as the Golden Greeks, both men left large bequests in the form of charitable foundations. The Niarchos foundation recently gave €100m (£81m) to help civic society fight the crisis's many ills, with the aid including food vouchers for the children of the new poor and support for organisations dealing with the homeless.
But since the outbreak of Greece's runaway debt crisis, its moneyed class has been notable more by its absence than presence. Oligarchs, who made vast fortunes cornering the oil, gas, construction and banking industries, as well as the media, have been eerily silent – often going out of their way to be as low a profile as possible.
Greek shipowners, who have gained from their profits being tax-free and who control at least 15% of the world's merchant freight, have also remained low-key. With their wealth offshore and highly secretive, the estimated 900 families who run the sector have the largest fleet in the world. As Athens' biggest foreign currency earner after tourism, the industry remitted more than $175bn (£112bn) to the country in untaxed earnings over the past decade. Greece's debt currently stands at €280bn.
As ordinary Greeks have been thrown into ever greater poverty by wage and pension cuts and a seemingly endless array of new and higher taxes, their wealthy compatriots have been busy either whisking their money out of Greece or snapping up prime real estate abroad.
An estimated €8bn flowed out of the Greek banking system in May as speculation over the country's possible exit from the eurozone mounted. Another €4bn was reported to have been withdrawn in the last two weeks – on top of an estimated €20bn since the start of the crisis in late 2009. Stories of rich Greeks sending their wives and best friends on "shopping missions" to remove secret hoards kept in banks in Switzerland and Cyprus are legion.
"At a time when Greece, more than ever, needs symbolic gestures from its rich citizens, they seem to be doing practically nothing to help their country," said Theodore Pelagidis, professor of economic analysis at Piraeus University.
"We need to see cool-headed entrepreneurs not only complain about bureaucracy and corruption but do something for Greece."
In an atmosphere that has become increasingly aggravated between the haves and have-nots, displays of wealth are clearly being downplayed, especially in Athens, where the majority of the 11 million-strong Greek population lives and which has been worst hit by the belt-tightening.
Over the past year, Pelagidis said a growing number of very wealthy Greeks had even taken to inviting academics, like himself, to their mansions, in the capital's leafy northern suburbs, to be apprised of the situation. Lectures in particular demand were political, economic and historical in nature.
"They are so cut off they know nothing," he said. "I'm not sure whether it's a case of the spoiled and uneducated rich trying to overcome their remorse, or a case of them simply wanting to fight their boredom but after going once I decided never to go again. I came away thinking it was like a form of psychotherapy for them."
What is sure, however, is that the super-rich appear to have come up with contingency plans to disperse their wealth as the crisis deepens. In recent months, acting on a trend that began soon after Greece's debt woes erupted, a growing number have been snapping up property in London. Increasingly, many have made their way to the door of 88 (London) Ltd, a high-end property brokerage run by Panos Koutsogiannakis. Suddenly the Greek Australian has found himself investing in properties worth £5m and more.
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