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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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