By Christos P. Panayiotides
THE story which follows is real.
The setting is the city of Athens, in the 90’s, and the protagonists are a couple of close friends, lawyers by profession, residing in the Greek capital, which, at the time, had been flooded by immigrants from various Eastern European countries.
As one would expect, amongst the immigrants were criminals who lost no time in indulging in the type of work they had been trained for; stealing new motor cars.
The formula was simple and straight-forward. First, they would spot a new expensive car worth, say, €60,000 to €70,000 at current prices. Then, they would trace the owner of the car. In the telephone conversation which would follow, they would advise the owner that his car had been stolen and to get it back, a “ransom” of the order of €10,000 to €15,000 would have to be paid. They would swiftly add that the failure to comply would result in breaking down the car into spare parts, which would then be sold as such.
My friends, having deprived themselves of other earthly pleasures, had just bought the car of their dreams but, prior to removing the protective plastic covers from the front seats, they were confronted with a telephone call confirming the theft of their car, which imprudently, they had not insured against the risk of theft. They were advised that they could recover their property through the payment of €15,000 by way of “recovery fees”.
They were in despair because they did not have the necessary money. They had already borrowed a substantial sum to finance the purchase of the car, but also because they felt that what was happening was grossly unjust and unfair.
I remember the following evening they came to my home to discuss the problem and to see what could be done. They were so upset that they assumed that a “cold-blooded” accountant might be able to come up with a suggestion they could not think of.
We tried to put our thoughts into some form of order and started considering the available options:
The first option was to ignore the instructions of the villains and formally file a complaint with the police.
However, in those days, Greek police did not appear to be in a position to find stolen cars and to secure their return in good shape. Filing such a complaint would have entailed a lot of time and running about and would have probably led nowhere. With these thoughts in mind, this option was abandoned.
The second option was to try to recover the car by utilising resources of their own. My friends did not find it difficult to conclude that the means they had at their disposal to undertake such a task were so limited that, short of a miracle, the chances of recovering their car were next to zero.
The third option was, of course, the payment of the ransom. The initial strong objection against this option was the obvious injustice of being asked to pay money – or any other form of consideration – to recover an asset that was unquestionably theirs, that had been decently and honestly acquired with hard work and effort and over which the thieves had no legal or moral right.
However, after much deliberation, the unanimous conclusion was that, if you do not have the practical means to enforce your ownership rights, such rights are left up in the air. They are useless and more of a source of distress and frustration rather than of comfort and consolation.
Once it was agreed that it would be pointless, wasteful and ineffective to focus on the injustice that would result from yielding to the payment demanded, the discussion led to the identification of another serious problem: how could we ensure that, on payment, the car would be returned in good condition? Obviously, my friends could not count on finding guarantors that would guarantee the good performance of the agreement struck.
This problem appeared to be insurmountable! So, it was agreed to put it directly to the other side and, depending on their reaction, to re-assess the risk of paying the ransom and remaining empty-handed.
The next day my friends got in touch with the thieves (through a complicated process that secured their anonymity) and directly posed the question: “Suppose we pay the requested amount, what guarantee do we have that we will take back our car in good condition, instead of being asked to pay an additional €15,000?”.
The response was disarming. “If we fail to deliver on our promises, the fact will become known and then no one will be willing to transact ‘business’ with us, knowing that the payment of ransom would fail to produce the desired result”. Setting aside the immorality of their argument, the villains obviously had clarity of thought and negotiating skills that were far superior to those of the law-enforcement agencies, whose reaction was confined to declarations of intent “to crack down all forms of criminal activity”.
Based on the above line of thinking, it was decided that a big “no” to the unfair demand to pay money for the re-acquisition of an asset that unquestionably belonged to my friends would not lead anywhere except to the permanent loss of the asset. In fact, once my friends began philosophising the matter, they firmly concluded that it was worth paying a relatively small amount – compared to the value of the car – to secure the re-acquisition of their ownership rights over property that was acquired with hard effort and to which the lawful owners were sentimentally attached.
The ransom was paid, the stolen car was returned and for many years it served as a source of joy and pleasure.
The reader has probably noticed that the dilemmas confronting the protagonists of my story have a lot in common with the dilemmas posed in the context of the Cyprus problem. If this is, in fact, the case, then one needs to think twice before sending the usurpers to hell. The risk of losing the property forever is very real. This property is our homeland.
The argument sometimes advanced that the Turkish Cypriots are as much usurpers of Greek Cypriot property as the Greek Cypriots of Turkish Cypriot property does not annul the conclusion. If anything it reinforces it.
Christos P. Panayiotides is a Certified Public Accountant