Meet The Eccentric Greek Mayor Fighting To Keep Thessaloniki Afloat

Iannis Boutaris, a different kind of mayor...
Iannis Boutaris, a different kind of mayor...
Alain Salles

THESSALONIKI - Great defender of bears and forests, a winemaker who left the family business to launch his own high-end wine – Iannis Boutaris was an eccentric businessman. Since 2010, he is the atypical mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city with a population of 800,000.

In his seventies, Iannis Boutaris wears colorful suspenders; tattoos, earrings and a small spider-shaped brooch did not have any bigger political ambitions than to become the mayor of the city. "I'm not a politician," he claims, puffing on his unfiltered cigarette.

"He is a unique figure, different from the other mayors. He is not afraid of speaking his mind. This sometimes causes him to make mistakes, but it is refreshing in the Greek political sphere," says former Finance minister Stafanos Manos, who was backed by Boutaris when he launched his liberal party, Drasi.

Politically, Boutaris likes to mix his influences. As a business owner, he advocates left-wing ideas and was elected to the city council in 2001 as a communist. Yet the union between the eccentric winemaker and the very conservative Greek communist party did not last long. Elected mayor of the city of Thessaloniki in Nov. 2010 with the support of the socialist Pasok party, he discovered an "elephant," a huge and disproportionate city budget, in the image of Greece’s public spending.

Upon his arrival into office, Boutaris requested an audit of the city’s finances and restructured its management, which had crumbled during the conservative rule and its pork barrel spending. The ex-mayor was accused of embezzlement along with 23 other city officials. The former prefect of the region, Panagiotis Psomiadis, was also indicted and forced to resign. He was replaced by … his brother.

Iannis Boutaris tried to clean up the mess. He got rid of cash payments and set new and more transparent accountancy rules. Little by little, he restructured the city council's management. "It was a chaos, based on personal affairs," he explains.

One of his first measures was to organize a meeting with the 32 city deputies. "I realized that they had never met all together." He then chose to reduce their number to 22 and set up weekly meetings. He also came up with a method to evaluate them, determine their activities and improve their efficiency. Studies showed that the efficiency rate of the 5,000 city workers was the same as if they were 3,000. Extra hours were cut.

Reforms amid resistance

Thanks to thorough management, Boutaris managed to decrease local taxes by 7.5% in 2012 and should be able to bring them down even more in 2013. And this despite the crisis – which often forces local councils to increase taxes to face increasing social costs. In order to make up for the drop in government subsidies, the city council picks projects that can vie for European development funds. "We obviously have to cut spending, but we also need to favor growth, otherwise the economy goes down." 

He blames the plan signed by the Greek government with the Troika for not focusing on investments. "We need these reforms, but we also need time to implement them," he says. "We need five years to solve the countries' three major issues: heavy administration, tax collection and investments constraints."

As mayor, Boutaris knows how difficult it is to implement reforms and how long it takes to overcome resistance from both the left and the right. "We have to make people understand that if mindsets don't change, we won't be able to do anything. For instance, I am trying to get the shop owner association to revise their working hours. I suggested they close Monday mornings and open their shops Saturday afternoons when people are shopping. They are opposed to the proposal, but we are still negotiating."

Before his election, he had promised to clean up the city in six months. "It was a mistake. I underestimated the obstacles ahead. We need to teach people how to do things differently, like recycling, for example." Boutaris also wants to promote bicycling and pedestrian-only streets, yet he is facing tough resistance from the Thessaloniki district.

Changing the habits of the population has not won him many friends. "He presented himself as a progressive candidate, but he wants to privatize and implement the same policies as the ruling coalition in Athens," says Elefthéria Hatzigeriorgio from Syrizia (the radical left), the country's second biggest party.

His relations with the Church are also quite complex, especially after he traveled to Bulgaria to have his wife cremated in 2007. The Orthodox Church does not allow cremation. "You will not become Mayor of Thessaloniki as long as I'm alive," had warned his holiness Anthimos, the city's very-conservative bishop. The Church was also annoyed by the fact that Boutaris did not pledge a religious allegiance when he became mayor, because he advocates the separation of state and church. This is rare in Greece.

During the ceremonies of 100th anniversary of Thessaloniki, on Oct. 28, he once again went against the flow by saying how much he disliked military parades, which are "made to boost national populism." This is a risky topic in a city with a cosmopolitan legacy – something that Boutaris is very proud of. In 1913, there were 157,889 people living in the city. 61,438 were Jews, 45,867 were Muslims and a bit less than 40,000 were Christians. "This cosmopolitan city is Thessaloniki's identity. For years, we refused to acknowledge this. But when one does know his past, one cannot build one's future.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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