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Super-rich keep lavish lifestyles, sit out crisis

world Updated: Jun 15, 2012 01:49 IST

Scudding across the turquoise waters of the Argo-Saronic gulf, Ioannis Arnaoutis singled out the pearl-white sands of a little bay. The shore glistened in the midday sun. "It was especially imported from Asia by the owner of the mansion above the bay," said the boatman, one hand on the steering wheel of his water taxi, the other pointing in the direction of the cove. "It's a private beach, which is why there is only one umbrella on it."

Nearly three years into their country's worst crisis in modern times, life goes on as normal for Greece's super-rich. As the sun sets, oligarchs, shipowners, singers and media stars gather at the Poseidonion hotel on the island of Spetses opposite the little bay. They tuck into a menu that includes pasticcio laced with foie gras. Among them is a middle-aged man in a T-shirt proclaiming 'More is less'.

Three days before Greeks cast their ballots in a make-or-break election, their country could not be more divided. Here there is no talk of the pain of crisis - the only topic of conversation elsewhere in Greek society. The destitution and despair of Athens is a world away - and for many quite clearly it is best kept that way.

But since the outbreak of Greece's runaway debt crisis, its moneyed class has been notable more by its absence than presence. Oligarchs, who made vast fortunes cornering the oil, gas, construction and banking industries, as well as the media, have been eerily silent - often going out of their way to be as low a profile as possible.

Greek shipowners, who have gained from their profits being tax-free and who control at least 15% of the world's merchant freight, have also remained low-key. With their wealth offshore and highly secretive, the estimated 900 families who run the sector have the largest fleet in the world. As Athens' biggest foreign currency earner after tourism, the industry remitted more than $175bn to the country in untaxed earnings over the past decade. Greece's debt stands at 280bn euros.

As ordinary Greeks have been thrown into ever greater poverty by wage and pension cuts and a seemingly endless array of new and higher taxes, their wealthy compatriots have been busy either whisking money out of Greece or snapping up real estate abroad.