Dispatch

The Greek God of Populism

Artemis Sorras is a self-professed trillionaire, former NBA player, and aerospace genius who is persuading Greeks he can save their country. One small problem: He’s on the lam.

artemis

ATHENS — In September 2012, as the European economic crisis entered its third autumn, a plump Greek man from the port city of Patras came to Athens and put on a press conference at the President Hotel, a few blocks away from the Acropolis. Few in the audience had heard of him, but he brought an astonishing charge against the Greek state. “Artemis Sorras here,” he began mildly. “You should know that your government is in league against you. Now is the time for them to come clean with it!” Sorras went on to explain that he was the inheritor of bonds from the Bank of Anatolia, which had been acquired — and, it was generally thought, incorporated into — the National Bank of Greece in the 1920s. Nonsense, Sorras said. Anatolia’s bonds, far from expired, had in fact accrued tremendous value. Just two of them could more than pay off the Greek national debt. Sorras claimed to possess 40 — a fortune of 145 trillion euro.

Few took notice, at first. Greek government spokesmen dismissed the story; Athens talk radio mused how a man missing three teeth could possess more wealth than the rest of Greece combined. Sorras waved off the critics, doubled down on his claims — he said he also possessed bonds in Montreal-based banks and would be willing to bail out the personal debt of all his supporters, as well as that of Cyprus and Jefferson County, Alabama — and watched as a following of thousands gathered behind him, carrying him to the brink of being elected into Greece’s parliament. Now those thousands of followers are clinging desperately to the latest saga in the Sorras story: a warrant for his arrest stemming from an old case in which Sorras was caught illegally exchanging expired Kuwaiti dinars for his best man’s used luxury car. Summoned to court, Sorras fled — to the innards of the Peloponnese, some now claim; to Italy, allege others; to Central America, runs still another rumor. He remains at large.

In an age of post-truth politics, Greece’s Artemis Sorras is at the forefront of something else — a movement that disavows any connection to reality’s most basic underpinnings. In the last year, he has turned his claims about Greece’s lost bonds into the basis for an upstart political party called Assembly of Greeks. It is an omnium-gatherum for the strays on Greece’s swelling ideological fringe — anti-Semites, astrologists, conspiracy addicts, and neo-pagans who speak of Atlantis as if it’s just another Greek island. Every week, some 12,000 Sorrites convene at meetings in one of 300 party offices located in nearly every mid-sized town in Greece as well as a handful of Greek diaspora enclaves. Sorras has addressed them in more than 4,000 public speeches and leads them on regular excursions to various classical ruins, where they don bed sheets as makeshift togas and re-enact ancient religious rites. Assembly of Greeks boasts a secret party handshake, a collection of manifestos demonstrating Sorras’s claims in meticulous detail, and a forthcoming party weekly, Assembly of Greeks. Ask them if they will enter parliament in the next elections and most Sorrites claim they will almost certainly secure a majority. “If I am wrong about what I say,” Sorras tells them with characteristic bravado, “then hang me in the middle of Syntagma Square.”

Assembly of Greeks sees itself as the lone beacon of truth in a vast wilderness of disinformation and intrigue. Part personality cult, part nationalist throng, and part protest movement, it insists there is no such thing as the nation-state; there is Greece and a collection of scattered land masses masquerading as something other than Greece. “There is Greece and only Greece,” Sorras likes to say. Jews control all other political parties in Greece — the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party included — as well as ballot machines and, naturally, the banks. “Jews control the Orthodox Church,” Vassilis Theodoropoulos, the party spokesman, informed me in Athens. The crisis, the austerity, the unemployment: These are fictions that Sorras will dispel upon taking up residency at Maximos Mansion as Greece’s prime minister whenever the next elections are held — this year, perhaps. Trillions of euros will be released to the public, the debt will dissipate, and every Greek will be entitled to a 20,000 euro deposit in his or her debit account. Zitw i Ellada! Long live Greece!

Seven years into an economic crisis that has decimated the national economy by one-third and destroyed the two political machines that traded power in Greece for 40 straight years, a cynical quip is hardening into a fact of life in Greek politics: It doesn’t matter which party you vote for, because the results are always the same — debt-ridden, internationally monitored economic austerity. This remains the pitiful lesson of Syriza, a party that climbed to power after years of vowing to put an end to it, only to inflict greater doses of austerity than any ruling party before it.

Artemis Sorras doesn’t even bother suggesting that debt relief is on the way. He’s the only Greek politician to have recognized that opposition to austerity is at the center of national politics but that it is now essentially a matter of rhetoric, not policy. Sorras doesn’t speak of negotiating with Brussels elites, reducing the public sector, showing humanitarianism toward refugees in exchange for political goodwill, or mass privatization. To do so is to engage in a more conventional sort of post-truth politics that Greeks have gotten used to since the crisis began — that is, campaign fictions that have been promised by one ruling party after another, to no effect.

Instead, in his bid for power, Sorras focuses on provoking and indulging Greeks’ deepening mistrust of the state, their firmly rooted predilection for conspiracy theory, paranoia about great-power intrusion, and pedestrian anti-Semitism. Greeks already sense their current predicament is dire; Sorras persuades them that matters are so dire that they require a savior — and that he, as the world’s wealthiest man, stands ready and able. Some Greeks — and, judging by a few recent opinion polls, just enough to send Sorras to parliament — are willing to take the gamble on Assembly of Greeks. In Sorras, we get a glimpse of what happens when a decade of politics on both the left and right fails people completely and utterly: From the ashes emerges a post-truth world, in which citizens are willing to suspend all grasp of common sense if it might offer some relief, however improbable, from their misery.

“The potential reward is enormous,” a Sorrite named Petros told me in Athens. “The risk? What risk? Could our situation really get any worse than it is already?”

* * *

Anarchists had set the Assembly of Greeks office on fire a few days before I arrived in Thessaloniki. Swaths of ash still lay encrusted around the doorway. Inside, walls were painted white with blue trim. There were murals of ancient ruins and charts displaying the ancient Greek value system. “Virtue: It is the great knowledge reflected in all the world’s events and decisions.”

“Soros’s people burned the door,” the local chapter head, Niki Sinoglou, said. “That’s Soros, mind you, not Sorras.” Sinoglou, a middle-aged woman with her hair wrapped neatly in a bun, had run a hairdressing studio in Thessaloniki for 30 years until it collapsed with the crisis. “I was never a very political person,” she told me. “But I found myself with a lot of free time to start doing some research. Who was against us? How did the banks actually operate? I found Artemis on YouTube. He was the first Greek who told us, ‘This is who you are, this is our plan.’ And you know, the state has still never denied his claims.”

Those claims have accumulated over the last five years. Whenever one myth threatens to be dispelled, Sorras pivots to still more brazen terrain. Along with being the world’s wealthiest man, he now claims to have served as Athens’s liaison to the CIA, that he may or may not have spent a few seasons in the NBA, and that he helped broker NASA’s acquisition of ancient Greek spacefaring technology. But the claim Sorras stands most steadfastly by, the one for which he remains a gadfly to parties whose electorates he is now undermining, remains a version of his original one: Greece is owed 145 trillion euros in “heritage funds” that will become available as soon as he takes power. “He’ll get the money,” Sinoglou said. “Trust me, he’ll get the money.”

Sinoglou had never been political before; now she was running her own campaign office. But the process took time. First, she had to attend a handful of meetings. After a month, she sanctified her commitment to Sorras by swearing upon the “Oath of the Fighter,” a rambling declaration in which one vows never to leave Assembly of Greeks: “I am dedicated to the word of the benevolent Prince of Light.” After, Sinoglou drank a glass of the party’s holy water. “If I violate my oath, all my cellular tissue will dissolve into mud!” She paid a 60 euro initiation fee and now 10 euros in dues every month. She estimated that she had given hundreds of euros to Assembly of Greeks. If Sorras wasn’t rich before, his detractors like to say, he certainly is now.

The source of Sorras’s appeal is not so much his charisma — he possesses next to none — as his own murky biography. In a country that has been chronically misgoverned by dynasties of political elites, stemming from the same lineages, for decades, there can be something peculiarly refreshing about a figure whose most basic life details are subject to dispute. Few Sorrites know anything about the man on whose behalf most have stopped filing their taxes. (When confronted by authorities, many hand over Sorras’s business card and coyly refer any questions to their leader.) Rumors have it that Sorras used to work in a marble quarry in the Peloponnese before coming to Athens with his claims. Many Sorrites insist that he was responsible for developing a technology that allows airplanes to fly an unlimited number of hours in the sky without refueling.

There are, of course, other sources of his allure. In Thessaloniki, Sinoglou, the campaign office head, handed me a pamphlet detailing Sorras’s arguments. She and other Sorrites spend their weekends handing them out to pedestrians on the street. It read:

HERITAGE FUNDS, the “FUNDS,” from the INTERNATIONAL COMBINED COLLATERAL ACCOUNTS OF THE GLOBAL DEBT FACILITY, THAT ARE BLOCKED IN INSTITUTIONAL PARENT REGRISTRATION ACCOUNTS of the FEDERAL RESERVE SYSTEM for the INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENTS, through the CENTRAL GREYAND/OR BLACK SCREENS AND/OR IMLS SYSTEM or OTHER SIMILAR AND/OR RELATED SYSTEM.

Travel around Greece and you’ll find hundreds of Assembly of Greeks offices, each filled with dozens of phone book-sized manifestos, all packed with pages of such prose — thousands of references to Bretton Woods, the gold standard, international creditors, and banking regulations, many seemingly verified with papal seals and the signatures of U.N. dignitaries. These pages say something not just about how far Sorras has gone to lend credibility to his claims, but why a surprising number of Greeks are willing to take him seriously in the first place: Sorras has hijacked the same intricate language of global finance that has been ruling their lives for the last seven years now. The economic alchemy that has been ruining their lives throughout the crisis — maybe they can use it to resolve the crisis as well.

* * *

Sorras arrived late to the Assembly of Greeks headquarters in Kallithea, a working-class neighborhood of Athens. The night before our meeting, it had been spray-painted with Celtic crosses. “Fascists!” read a line in all caps on the sidewalk. “You think Greece is broke?” Sorras grunted as we entered. “The politicians have enough money to pay anarchists to attack my offices.” A lapel bearing the star of Macedonia, indicating that Macedonia is the name of a Greek territory, studded the pocket of his black button-down. His hair was a shiny mat of gelled-back black. His goatee, a strip of stubble extending toward his ears in two peppery wings, has become a popular style among Sorrites.

“You should know that I didn’t actually play in the NBA,” he began, taking out a cigarette. “I couldn’t possibly have. I’m too short. But the World Academy did recently award me ‘Most Dangerous Economic Mind on the Planet.’ They gave me a golden star.” He lifted a medal out of a drawer. “[Barack] Obama himself thanked me for not suing the United States,” he continued with affected weariness. “The Americans have been withholding my trillions for a long time.”

The first thing you notice when talking to Sorras is that he is unusually adept at deflecting his critics. He answers questions with an exasperating onslaught of details, tantalizing his interviewer with conspiratorial tidbits, registering their curiosity, and then sneering audibly at their ignorance. “What? You don’t know about the 13 Families?” he asked me. “The families which rule the world? Just print that and certain readers of your magazine will know what I’m talking about. Now, about the IMF. You should know that Greece’s wealth predates the IMF, and the foundation of Brussels, by many, many years.” Our meeting lasted almost two hours, during which time Sorras smoked lazily and sketched asterisks onto a piece of scrap paper. He was conspicuously bored by my presence.

“What did your parents do, Mr. Sorras?”

“What do you mean? What are parents? I had no parents. My parents are Greece. Parents? Whoever speaks of parents—”

“Sure, but I’m just asking—”

“No, it’s your turn to answer this one for me. What is a nation? Is England a nation? How about Uganda? Tell me. What, other than Greece, is a nation? America is not a nation. It’s not even close to a nation.”

I asked Sorras what would happen if his revelations turned out to be false. Thousands of Greeks are literally banking on them being true. Last winter, one Sorrite murdered another in the town of Lamia, allegedly under Sorras’s order. Did he have misgivings about parading these fantasies before his followers? No, he answered emphatically and then hastily bid me adieu. The next day, when Sorras appeared on primetime TV and was asked a similar question by his interviewer, he threatened to kick him for his impudence.

Come next election, Sorrites will have to decide who Sorras is for themselves. By that time, he may be sitting in a Peloponnesian jail cell, offering promises he is less capable of keeping than ever.

Photo credit: YouTube/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

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