That sinking feeling

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A few weeks ago, when the economic crisis was still a novelty, Finance Minister Giorgos Papconstantinou inadvertently filled us with fear when he likened the Greek economy to the Titanic. But there was an attempt last Friday to dispel those terrifying mental images of our good ship being swallowed up by a sea of debt and its passengers hurtling towards financial destruction, when Prime Minister George Papandreou chose his visit to the far-flung Dodecanese island of Kastelorizo as the right moment to announce that Greece was formally requesting outside help.

As Papandreou spoke, the sun shone in the background, the sea glimmered and the white island houses beamed brilliantly. This was an ingenious way to dress up bad news. The message was clear: Greece’s economy is not at all like the Titanic, steaming toward a deadly iceberg. In fact, it is like the Love Boat, destined to float around quaint destinations aimlessly, and if it ever runs into any trouble, a friendly tugboat will soon come along to help it to safety.

Everything about the setting radiated calm, which is in short supply in Greece at the moment. Nevertheless, it puzzled many Greeks that a speech of such national importance, which would normally have been made in Athens, was being delivered almost 600 kilometers from the capital. For foreign observers, the subliminal message being broadcast from across the Aegean Sea was obvious.

“No wonder George Papandreou picked the exquisite Aegean island of Kastelorizo for his live broadcast last Friday, when he finally called on the world for emergency help,” wrote Bronwen Maddox in The Times daily. “The backdrop was the best advertisement that the prime minister could have found for Greece’s assets. It’s also a long way from the protests and strikes against austerity measures that are rocking Athens and other cities.”

The Financial Times’s Kerin Hope reported on how two ministers had apparently convinced Papandreou to deliver his speech “outside, in a stunning setting that would partly offset his gloomy message.”

If one of the purposes of Papandreou’s mis-en-scene was to assure foreigners that Greece was still open for desperately needed business, then it seems to have worked. The images of a sun-baked island coupled with talk of an economic crisis sent the writers at Britain’s conservative Daily Mail into a spin. “Holiday prices set to fall in Greece as country battles financial meltdown,” the newspaper informed its readers with glee.

For Greeks, though, the message implied in the dreamy backdrop was not as clear. Responses ranged from those that felt it was a sneaky political stunt designed to avoid a public backlash in Athens, to others who interpreted it as a symbolic gesture aimed at showing the diversity and richness of Greece — resources that will have to be tapped into if the country is going to survive the crisis.

The mixed domestic response perhaps reflects the underlying confusion in the way the message was conveyed. Papandreou spoke of “a new Odyssey” for Greece but did so from an island whose best years lie in the past — more than 100 years in the past — when it hosted the country’s most significant shipping fleets. Now, Kastelorizo is home to a dwindling population of some 400 people, who rely on nearby Turkey for many of their supplies. The message seemed to be that Greece was embarking on this “new Odyssey” without any new ideas or impetus.

“We are on a difficult course but we have charted the waters and we will reach Ithaca safely,” said Papandreou in reference to Odysseus’s legendary journey from Troy to his homeland. As was pointed out soon afterwards, Odysseus took 10 years to reach Ithaca and by the time he got there all his traveling companions had died. Dipping into Greece’s ancient past, Papandreou failed to come up with an inspiring message for the country’s future.

The mixed messages in his speech were symptomatic of a leader, a government, a country that is in a state of confusion. Papandreou talks about ignoring the bond spreads when it’s those very figures that are driving Greece into the arms of the IMF. His finance minister is negotiating salary cuts with the fund’s representatives, even in the private sector, at the same time as the labor minister is stating publicly that PASOK would never accept such a thing.

This bewilderment is reflected in the actions of common Greeks as well. “Hire more people, don’t cut wages,” demands one group, as another damages tourism, one of Greece’s economic pillars, by blocking a cruiseliner at Piraeus port. Then, the same day the Cabinet discussed an overhaul of local government that would save 1.8 billion euros of public money every year, crossing guards — people who are employed for a couple of hours every day — staged a protest to demand permanent jobs in the public sector.

The sun may have shone when Papandreou delivered his speech but many Greeks remain in the dark, confused about where the country is going. Hearing about a “new Odyssey” only compounds this because the journey Greece has embarked on is not a new one at all: pension reform, trimming the public sector, liberalizing closed professions and clamping down on tax dodgers — these were all things that were meant to have been done over the last three decades. We have set out on this Odyssey many times before, only to return before we had even left port.

It is only now that bleary-eyed Greeks, woken from years of sleepwalking, are beginning to realize that these issues remain untouched, and that as voters they must accept a huge share of the responsibility for this. Now, these reforms, and others, will have to be carried out under the watchful eye of outsiders. And in this sense, Kastelorizo was a good choice — at various times it has been occupied by the Crusaders, the Neapolitans, the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Italians, the French and the British.

The IMF with the backing of the European Commission is the one that will chart Greece’s course for the next few years, not Papandreou or his government. During that time, Greeks will have to emerge from their state of confusion and brace for the treacherous waves ahead — perhaps they will consider Papandreou’s words, not those spoken in Kastelorizo but a slogan he came up with during last year’s election campaign, which seems so prophetic now: “Either we change or we sink.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 30.

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