Greece’s Model Mayor: Reform Hero Takes on Corruption in Thessaloniki
European Union officials have nothing but praise for the mayor of the Greek city of Thessaloniki. Yiannis Boutaris has been pushing ahead with far-reaching reforms to undo the abuses of his predecessors and has already slashed the city’s spending by 30 percent. He’s even asking the Germans for advice.
On a recent Thursday, the mayor of the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki was sitting in an enormous office in Berlin’s Tempelhof district. He didn’t mince his words. “Your city is clean, while ours is dirty,” said Yiannis Boutaris, speaking in a deep and gravelly voice. “What works in your city doesn’t work in ours.” He had come to Berlin to learn how to change this deplorable state of affairs. And he wants to do it as quickly as possible.
Boutaris, 69, is a slim, wiry man with gold-colored, metal-rimmed glasses, a gold stud in his ear and spiky gray hair. He and his delegation are visiting the headquarters of the Berlin waste utility BSR. A projector hangs on the wall above him. Boutaris has just watched a PowerPoint presentation about Berlin’s approach to the “recycling of biogenic waste to use organic residual material from residential waste.” He now knows that the German capital generates 1.3 million tons of garbage a year, and that the city’s 200,000 dogs present one of the biggest obstacles to keeping streets clean.
Dogs are the least of his problems in Thessaloniki, where the entire waste disposal system doesn’t work. Boutaris raises his hands and says: “We need your help.”
The fact that the mayor of Greece’s second-largest city is making this request is a minor sensation in itself. Not a day passes on which one Greek paper or another doesn’t discuss the supposed parallels between present-day conditions in the country and the Nazi occupation. And now a Greek politician is asking the Germans for advice on how to clean up his city?
It would be an understatement to say that relations between the Greeks and the Germans are in bad shape. The Greeks hate German Chancellor Angela Merkel even more than their own politicians, who don’t dare to go out in the streets anymore. The Greeks believe that the austerity measures Merkel is demanding of them are making their lives increasingly impossible.
A New Project
Boutaris is the most unusual politician in Greece, despite his insistence that he is not a politician at all. In fact, he says, he is the opposite of a politician, a businessman who has taken on a new project: running the city of Thessaloniki, where he has been mayor for almost exactly a year.
It’s relatively uncommon for the international observers working for the so-called troika of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) in Athens to say something complimentary about a Greek politician. And it’s almost unheard of for them to praise a Greek for his penchant for reform, as they are doing with Boutaris. In their reports home, the officials write that, since Boutaris came into office, Thessaloniki has been an “island of hope” and a “model for all of Greece.” A member of the European Commission team in Athens says: “Boutaris is the exception, a beacon. Everyone else can learn something from him.”