The dust of time

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

The weathermen said the dust that covered Athens last weekend came from the Sahara Desert. Don’t believe them. The air was thick and unpleasant but not because of Saharan sand – the choking, claustrophobic atmosphere was caused by the particles that spewed into the air when time finally caught up with Greece.

This dust was a filthy amalgam of the cobwebs blown out of the corridors of power by the wind of pragmatism, the mould spores sent flying as an antiquated public sector collided head-on with the 21st century, and the tiny particles of wasted potential and lost hope released into the atmosphere as inertia was dislodged by ruthless economic reality.

Breathing in this dusty air was both terrifying and edifying: Something unknown entered our system but something that reeked of decay left it. This was Greece’s moment of apocalypse, when it became clear to its government and its people just how far down they had slipped and how long a distance they need to cover.

Emerging through this thick dust, like Lawrence of Arabia on his sleepless camel ride through the Sinai Peninsula, is the man whose destiny it is to lead the country at this vital hour. How ironic that the party leader who wanted to increase public spending, is now the prime minister who has the task of slashing it like a sword-wielding Arab.

Although fate has played a cruel trick on George Papandreou, he seems to be warming to the task. Following a few months of disbelief and apprehension, his government appears to be getting to grips with the size of the mission, if not necessarily striking on a coherent strategy to accomplish it.

Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou is set to announce more austerity measures as it becomes evident that the dire state of the country’s finances will not be solved by snipping civil servants’ pay and tweaking some taxes. If PASOK does announce more measures, the implications will be greater than just economic. If the government chooses the additional measures rather than letting the European Union impose them, it could be the first sign that Greece – a country not so much living in denial as languishing in its amniotic fluid – is facing up to the future.

It could also be the first, liberating step toward economic recovery. For the first time in recent history, a Greek government will take painful but necessary action without sweetening the pill, without bowing to the ghosts of the past, without fearing the forces of inertia and with little regard for the political cost that its decisions carry. It would be a small but significant move toward putting the country on a new footing – one where Greeks expect their government to make policy, not grant favors.

As the EU and the International Monetary Fund wait in the wings, ready to be called on should they need to assist Greece, it’s becoming ever clearer that the next few months and years are not just about reducing the public deficit or debt – they are an opportunity to initiate a change of mentality.

Some of the measures themselves will prompt a different mindset. For instance, making people collect receipts to qualify for their tax-free allowance might have a reasonable impact on tax evasion but it will have an immeasurable effect on changing people’s attitudes to collecting proof of payment. Those who were once embarrassed to ask for a receipt will soon do it by habit — abiding by the law, rather than breaking it will become the norm.

With or without the help of the EU or the IMF, the economic battle will eventually be won but Greece’s future won’t depend just on that. It will be decided by the outcome of the psychological war – the fight to conquer the hearts and minds of the Greeks, where collecting receipts, paying tax and rediscovering the necessity of living within certain means will be vital.

It appears there’s a much more positive attitude to some of these measures than many would have expected. A number of opinion polls have shown support for the core of the government’s policies running at 60 to 70 percent. It’s worrying that this level of consensus should not be mirrored on the country’s political scene: After briefly providing PASOK with limp backing, New Democracy and its new leader Antonis Samaras have chosen to revert to the traditional role of Greek opposition parties, which is to lambaste, negate and obfuscate first and ask questions later.

Tempers between the two parties have been raised further by PASOK’s decision to table a proposal in Parliament this week for MPs to investigate how economic statistics were compiled between 2004 and 2009 – the period that ND was in power. The conservatives have hit back by saying any probe should go back to the early 80s, when PASOK was first elected to government.

It has often been said that Greeks get the politicians they deserve but it seems the current crisis has generated a maturity among the country’s citizens that is not reflected in the people that lead them. On PASOK’s part, going back over ND’s five years in power is irrelevant and a waste of time. There is only one question that needs to be answered and that is why a conservative government estimated in the spring of 2009 that the deficit for that year would be 3.7 percent of GDP and by the fall, the socialist government had revised the figure to 12.7 percent. If the country is to regain any credibility or trust within the EU, then it must answer this question. ND’s suggestion of delving back into the 1980s is ridiculous. All we’ll find there is ancient history and Greece has enough of that already.

If Papandreou is to truly make his mark by presiding over a change of mindset in this country, then he must push for a different mentality within Greek politics. The inertia that holds the system hostage will not allow this change to happen naturally, as it appears to be happening among normal citizens.

Papandreou has to be the instigator. Like T.E. Lawrence, he has to throw caution to the wind and maybe ponder one of the British army officer’s most famous quotes: “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.”

For Greece, the dreaming is over. It’s up to Papandreou now to shake those around him from their slumber and get them to rub the dust of time from their eyes.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 26, 2010.

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