Move on up

P1010355First of all, I apologise for my absence from Inside Greece for the last few weeks. I can assure you that after posting on this blog at least once a week over the last four years, it has felt strange to neglect it.

There is, however, a good reason for this. After 274 blog posts and more than 2,300 comments, it is time for Inside Greece to become part of something bigger and more comprehensive. I am part of a team effort – involving several colleagues and friends – to provide economic and political analysis about events in Greece.

Our new website, www.macropolis.gr, launched this week. You can find out more about what we aim to do here.

This blog has been viewed by almost 170,000 people since it began in September 2009. Back then my aim was simply to create an archive for the commentaries I wrote for Athens Plus. Over time, Inside Greece has evolved into something much more important for me. The feedback and interaction with readers has been the blog’s lifeblood and has helped my development immeasurably.

Inside Greece’s cycle is now complete but much of what I learnt and enjoyed here will be incorporated in Macropolis. We have already created a blog section, which is called The Agora and can be found here.. I have already made my first entry and hope you will also join the discussion and read what others write there as well.

I appreciate that being able to subscribe to this blog has helped many readers keep in touch with what I’ve been writing and I’m happy to say that subscribing to the posts on The Agora is equally easy. It can be done by clicking here.

In the meantime, many thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my thoughts over the past few years. It’s time to move on up.

Nick

When US presidents meet Greek premiers: Tales of high significance and low expectations

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

As he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras might allow himself a wry smile. For so long an outcast of Greek politics and more recently a pariah among European peers, Samaras has seen international leaders rally around him since he came to power last June. And now, the big one: A meeting with Barack Obama in the White House.

Leaving aside the moment’s personal prestige, Samaras is actually following a well-trodden path, which has led Greek premiers from Athens to the White House over the course of eight decades. Since Konstantinos Tsaldaris left the civil war behind in December 1946 to visit Harry Truman and ask for financial and military assistance, eight Greek leaders have made a beeline to Washington in the hope of finding some succour. In fact, Costas Simitis, who met George W. Bush in 2002, is probably the only Greek prime minister who arrived with something to offer. The ex-PASOK leader gave Bush a new euro coin and a sweat shirt with the Athens2004 Olympics logo on it.

Samaras will be in Washington when Congress is not in session. Some have seen this, along with the fact he was not offered a working lunch with Obama, as a sign that his visit is of minor importance. The Greek premier, however, can take comfort in knowing that his arrival will be less of an inconvenience to the US President than the April 1961 visit of Constantine Karamanlis. The conservative leader was having lunch with John F Kennedy at the White House on the same day that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched in Cuba.

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No debate please, we’re European

shhhOn the eve of Greece agreeing its first EU-IMF bailout in May 2010, the CEO of investment firm PIMCO, Mohamed El-Erian, expressed doubts about the package,  what it demanded of Greece and whether the Europeans would be able to manage the  process. “This is a daunting challenge,” he wrote in the Financial
Times
. “The numbers involved are large and getting larger; the  sociopolitical stakes are high and getting higher; and the official sector has  yet to prove itself effective at crisis management.”

El-Erian raised the  issue of private sector involvement, or PSI, almost two years before it happened  and warned the eurozone that it was walking into a potential disaster. “What started out as a public finance issue is quickly turning into a banking problem too; and, what started out as a Greek issue has become a full-blown crisis for  Europe,” he wrote.

This week, Bloomberg revealed that PIMCO has been selling the Dutch bonds it was holding. Until now a financial, AAA-rated safe-haven in the eurozone crisis, the Netherlands’ bond yields are edging upward, its coalition is under pressure and “austerity fatigue” is apparently setting in. El-Erian’s warning in May 2010 that the Greek debt crisis would “morph into something much broader” has been proved correct.

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Ring of fire

ringoffire“I want my life back, now!” was one of the chants heard at a teachers’ rally on Friday, when they protested against job transfers and sackings in the civil service. It’s been clear over the last three years that our daily comforts, as small as they may have been, are slipping away one by one and being replaced by uncertainty or, even worse, dead ends. To be alarmed by this is only human. We shouldn’t forget, though, that for some Greeks the wish of having their life back is not a slogan but the basis for their epitaph.

The death of three employees at the Stadiou Street branch of Marfin Egnatia Bank in central Athens remains one of the most shocking moments of this crisis. Coming on May 5, 2010, shortly after Greece agreed its first bailout agreement with the troika, the arson attack on the bank and the deaths of Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, 32, Vivi Zoulia, 34, and 36-year-old Nondas Tsakalis serve as one of the bookends for this crisis. When the other will arrive, marking the culmination of this exacting period, nobody can be sure.

In the meantime, Greece has to deal with the fallout from its dire situation and the truth is it hasn’t done that particularly well. The fact that the hooded arsonists who smashed the windows of Marfin Bank during an anti-austerity protest and then set fire to the building are still at large is symptomatic of the country’s failure to deal with some of its most obvious problems. That it is unable to provide justice for three of its young people denotes wider failings in caring for this generation. Bright, hardworking and foreign-educated, Papathanasopoulou, Zoulia and Tsakalis had much to offer but Greece, tragically, missed out. It is missing out in a similar way as more young Greeks with similar qualities and who have the skills to be agents of change abandon the country due to a lack of opportunities and eclipsing faith in decision makers.

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Is VAT all you’ve got?

P1030112 (390x293)Grabbing a coffee for 20 cents less doesn’t really sound like the start of an economic recovery but who knows, maybe after this week’s decision to cut value added tax at restaurants and cafes, Greece will soon be measuring out its success with coffee spoons.

Naturally, the government has made the most of the skeptical troika finally giving in on a longstanding Greek demand for VAT in the food service sector to be reduced from 23 to 13 percent. Even so, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announcing the temporary measure in a televised address was a touch excessive given he only informed the nation that a nightclub drink would soon be about 50 cents cheaper. For the government, though, the symbolism of the reduction is perhaps more important than its economic impact.

Samaras presented it as a personal triumph of persistence. Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos said it was a sign that the troika had begun listening to Greece. Indeed, the VAT reduction represents something of a milestone in the Greek bailout program as tax hikes have been the norm and a regular source of much anger over the last three years. It was billed as the first tax cut since the program began, which is not quite accurate. Technically, it was the second as a 15 percent reduction in the emergency property tax introduced in 2011 had been agreed a couple of months earlier. This came after pressure from Democratic Left, which was still part of the coalition at the time. There was no televised address, though.

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For SYRIZA and Tsipras, youth is not enough to unseat Greece’s ‘aged powers’

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Alexis Tsipras told delegates at SYRIZA’s founding congress on Wednesday that it is time for the leftists to rid Greece of its “aged powers,” namely New Democracy and PASOK. But to do so, SYRIZA can’t rely just on being younger than them.

SYRIZA was founded as the Coalition of the Radical Left in 2004 thanks to a cooperation between several leftist parties, most notably Synaspismos. As is to be expected of youth, SYRIZA spent its formative years not really knowing what it wanted to be – a sounding board for leftist intellectuals, a springboard for political activists or a launch pad for the left to come to power. SYRIZA members had this existential question answered for them last summer thanks to the party’s impressive showing in the June elections, when it garnered almost 27 percent of the vote and won 72 seats in Parliament.

Since then Tsipras, just 38, has been on a mission to mould SYRIZA into a party of government rather than a collection of leftist factions happy with life on the opposition benches. The conference is due to end with almost all the factions voting themselves into oblivion and SYRIZA becoming a single unit. Over the last year, though, Tsipras’s has been far from a steady hand at the helm. He was veered from an anti-austerity platform last summer to the attempt at reconciliation with Greece’s lenders and center ground voters earlier this year. He toned down his rhetoric after the elections, then ramped it up as Cyprus was being bailed out, before settling for a holding pattern ahead of this week’s congress.

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Coalition unwound

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras marked one year in the job on Friday by becoming the leader of what was effectively Greece’s fifth government in four years after Democratic Left’s decision to drop out of the coalition left his New Democracy party and PASOK as the two that remained from a previous partnership of three. The dire economic situation, the pressure of its lenders and the historical absence of consensus politics in Greece meant it was always going to be a challenging job. Samaras enters the second year of his premiership on an equally shaky footing.

Democratic Left’s departure had been in the making for some time. The three parties that formed the coalition in June 2012 did so knowing that Greece had been balancing on the precipice but their intention of moving the country to safer ground soon lost its potential to drive this three-wheeled vehicle on. Beyond securing Greece’s place in the euro and rebuilding trust with the skeptical troika, there was no grand, or even less pronounced, vision to spur the coalition’s efforts. As the drachma risk faded and lenders were placated, so the three-party government’s raison d’etre dissolved. It was replaced by friction fuelled by each party’s desire to stake its claim to any positive development and distance itself from anything negative. As the stardust was blown away, the political and ideological splits were revealed.

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