Children around Greece are pacing up and down their schoolyards banging drums in preparation for the March 25 Independence Day parades. What could be more dramatic ahead of a day likely to be marked by vehement protest against the political system and the austerity measures it’s applying than a loud drumroll?
For some Greeks, March 25 is building up to be a moment to express disapproval of everything their politicians have come to represent. For others, it will be an opportunity to release their anger by hurling yogurt and abuse at their political representatives. Some will just be gripped by the fear that it could all get out of hand and rip the fragile fabric of Greek society.
On October 28, the determination of some protesters forced the annual military parade in Thessaloniki to be abandoned for the first time since the tradition began. There is little doubt that this unprecedented form of public opposition precipitated the collapse of George Papandreou’s government. In that sense it was a notable expression of people power. But several months on, those who celebrated the moment have to ask themselves exactly what was achieved — it certainly wasn’t a letup in austerity measures or a change of economic policy.
So, what is the goal of the March 25 protests? Clearly, there are many people in Greece who have a right to protest their treatment. They have had little, if any, part in causing the crisis but are paying the cost. They are suffering the effects of the harshest austerity measures Europe has seen for decades and are having the prospect of a stable future yanked from their hands. Most politicians, meanwhile, are clearly out of their depth, lacking the awareness or intelligence to deal with the testing circumstances. In fact, many MPs remain oblivious to the trials and sentiments of their voters. This was emphasized in the attempt by PASOK and New Democracy, supported by the Communist Party and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), to pass legislation reducing their massive debts at a time when most citizens are struggling under the weight of their own financial obligations.
All this is enough to make anyone’s blood boil but protesting about where we are, when elections that could decide where we’re going are just a few weeks away, seems utterly inadequate. The last two years have shown that public protests can scare and panic politicians but can’t change the country’s course. This will only come through the political system itself. The number of parties that will compete for seats in Parliament are multiplying by the day and perhaps if the time we spent planning protests and viewing videos of politicians wiping yogurt off their faces was invested in assessing the suitability of candidates and parties, our prospects would be stronger. It would be better still if more of the people willing to stand behind the barriers would be prepared to stand for office.
Protest cannot and should not be discounted as a way of communicating disapproval in Greek democracy, which is full of dead ends and deaf ears. However, the country’s precarious position means it cannot be an end in itself any longer. It has to lead somewhere and it has to stand for something.
There is something very wrong with a society willing to harangue the politicians it has elected but not bat an eyelid when fellow citizens are caught doing exactly the same thing — lying, cheating and stealing — it accuses its democratic representatives of. Over the past few days a couple of scandalous cases of civil service corruption have been uncovered: Five employees at an IKA social security fund office in Athens have been arrested for running a scam that cost the organization (as well as taxpayers and pensioners) millions and two Development Ministry employees were caught soliciting a bribe from businessmen who qualified for public funding for a major investment project.
It should be of great concern that so many people were aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it. Take the IKA employees, for example. That’s five families — perhaps more than dozen people — that were in on the scam of issuing bogus benefit payments. Then, add the fact that friends, husbands, cousins, brothers and nephews were also roped in to earn at least several hundred thousand euros in unjustified benefits. This means that close to 20 families, possibly more than 100 people, were aware or actually involved in the corruption. There are suggestions that the web of corruption was even wider than that. In the case of the ministry employees, other businessman have now come forward to recount how they were victims of similar blackmail in the past. Yet for so long nobody was willing to sound the alarm in either case.
There is little doubt that Greece’s politicians helped create this culture of impunity — Kathimerini commentator Stavros Lygeros refers to it as the “unwritten social contract,” whereby the public turned a blind eye to what its politicians were getting up to as long as the MPs and ministers did not interfere in what voters were doing. However, it seems we are only concerning ourselves with corruption at the top. We protest against politicians, and rightly so, but how many protests have there been about collecting taxes or catching corrupt public officials? Even after their arrest, the IKA and Development Ministry employees don’t have to worry about being on the receiving end of a pot of yogurt because our society is still ambivalent to their alleged crimes compared to those of politicians, which have been roundly – and justifiably – condemned.
Until we iron out this kink, we won’t be able to move forward. Until we realize that protest must have many forms and tangible goals, we will be condemned to wallow in the misery of the past. This week Diomidis Spinellis, the former general secretary of information systems at the Finance Ministry who left his post last year following a dispute with superiors over uncollected fines for fuel trading companies, launched an online form (www.spinellis.gr/istoria) for Greeks to record details of instances when they were victims of corrupt tax officials. His move came after the tax collectors’ union took legal action against him for claiming that many inspectors are corrupt.
Meanwhile, potato producers from Nevrokopi in northeastern Greece who were fed up with kowtowing to middlemen have now begun selling their products directly to consumers. The public’s response to buying cheaper potatoes has been enthusiastic and the profit is going directly to the producers. This form of direct action has worked.
In today’s Greece, these initiatives are closer to the type of protest we need. They make it clear that we have suffered collectively at the hands of the previous system but they also seek to change it. In comparison, raging against MPs and their “foreign masters” while lobbing “Greek” yogurt that’s likely to be made from imported milk seems a tremendously impotent act. The drums are rolling for us, not just the politicians.