No sleep till Athens

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There isn’t much to laugh about in Greece at the moment. So, it was with great pleasure that I read an e-mail last week from one of our readers in the USA in which he suggested how Greece could overcome its economic problems. One of his ideas was that Greeks should stop taking lunchtime siestas because they lose valuable working time. It was the first time I laughed out loud for weeks. I don’t know any Greeks under the age of 65 that take a nap at lunchtime, apart perhaps from my son. But he’s only 20 months old, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not using these hours to contribute to the country’s gross domestic product.

Although the e-mail from America provided a moment of light relief, it left a bittersweet taste because it also underlined how the crisis has created a negative stereotype of Greeks. It is patently obvious that many Europeans, especially Germans, are convinced Greece is full of freeloading slackers. The reality, though, is different. For instance, Eurostat’s figures for the average working hours in Europe for 2009 indicate that Greeks work an average of 42 hours a week. The EU average was 40.3 hours and in Germany it was 40.8. In fact, the Greek figure is the highest in all of the 27 EU countries.

So, if the Greeks work so hard why is their country in such a mess? Well, one answer is that working long hours does not necessarily mean you are productive. In fact, in Greece you often end up working longer because of the inefficiencies of the system. The time you could be using productively may be spent queuing at a public service to get paperwork stamped or writing out invoices by hand because there is no computerized accounting system.

Of course, there are very clear economic and financial reasons for Greece’s collapse but the causes of the illness go much deeper. One of the most serious underlying problems is a bloated and decaying public sector which neglects to punish inefficiency and indifference. Until 2007, according to World Bank data, it took 38 days to set up a business in Greece. In Djibouti it was 37 days. Of course, what statistics cannot measure is the frustration that causes so many people to lose the will to fight the system and eventually play by its warped rules, even if this involves corrupt practices. And what sustains this vicious circle? Political expediency. Governments created this monster and were afraid to tackle it because their support base, and therefore their destinies, were tied not just to the public sector but to the array of professions that are interlinked with it, such as doctors, civil engineers, lawyers, notaries and farmers.

Whatever you do in Greece, you cannot avoid dealing with the state and coming up against its inertia. According to Eurostat, roughly one in 10 Greek adults is a civil servant, which is the highest proportion anywhere in the EU. This is a legacy of the 1980s, when the governments of Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK sought to balance years of right-wing rule and dictatorship by finding jobs for the party faithful. Since then, each government has treated the civil service as just another party apparatus, hiring more people even when the country couldn’t afford it.

But, again, the story of the Greek public sector is a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause, which lies in the country’s political system. Since the 1970s, Greece has been ruled by two parties that helped themselves rather than the country. They awarded their friends jobs or state contracts and as soon as any social group or sections of the media resisted an attempt to change the status quo, they would cave in and abandon the offending policy. So, it’s no surprise that an opinion poll by GPO for Mega TV this week indicated that 54.3 percent of Greeks believe all the recent governments, rather than a specific one, are responsible for the current crisis.

The previous New Democracy government of Costas Karamanlis is blamed by 20 percent of those questioned. Karamanlis and his ministers have a lot to answer for. At a crucial time for the global economy and despite having a comfortable majority in his first term, Karamanlis dodged any attempt at structural reform. Instead, he handed over questionable statistics, a spiraling deficit and no new ideas.

But the current PASOK government is not without blame. As assured as Prime Minister George Papandreou may look on the international stage now, he had no idea how to be a constructive opposition leader for the previous five years. In fact, the period from 2004 to 2009 will go down as a barren time in Greek politics, when no party could come up with a vision for Greece. The leftist parties — the Communists (KKE) and the SYRIZA coalition — were content to simply battle for control of the unions. This fight is continuing and, as the crisis puts the unions in the spotlight, it is clear they have failed to overcome their esoteric attitude. Even now, they have not been able to refine their tactics beyond that of blackmail — if the government does something they don’t like, they block ministry entrances or central Athens.

So, when people ask “Why did Greece end up in this mess?” perhaps the best answer is that it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t done so. It’s only now that Greeks are beginning to realize the damage that has been done to the country over the last decades and that, as voters, they actively encouraged it. They were happy to turn a blind eye as PASOK exploited the public sector in the 1980s; they were equally oblivious to the failures of socialist and conservative governments in the 1990s, when money from the EU began to flow into Greece; and during the last decade, when entry into the euro secured cheap loans and a comfortable way of life, nobody wanted to ask any difficult questions.

The realization is a painful one for Greeks — it’s like thinking you have entertained a friend by taking him out for a few drinks only to find out that you actually fed his alcoholism.

The recovery from this crisis will not just depend on the emergency loans from the IMF, Germany and the other eurozone countries. It will not depend just on growth rates and bond spreads. It will, to a great extent, depend on whether Greeks are now prepared to take the extra step to demand better of their public sector, push for the private sector to be allowed to flourish and, above all, be ruthless with incompetent and cowardly politicians. To do all this when your salary is shrinking, your taxes are increasing and your livelihood is at risk is not an easy task. For all these reasons, Americans, Germans and everybody else should know that Greeks will not be sleeping well at night for many years to come, let alone taking lunchtime siestas.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 7.

14 responses to “No sleep till Athens

  1. Nice article.

    But: “as voters, they actively encouraged it” – I believe this gravely underrepresents the citizens’ responsibility. I don’t believe it is simply a matter of incompetent politicians and a failing political system.

    • Thanks Hans. You’re right that citizens have maintained the corrupt and outdated status quo in other ways as well. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how they have done this.

  2. stephanie (bokas) anderson

    Being of Greek decent, our family has been in discussion for six years about a return to the homeland after two generations in the US. Sadly, what Greece is experiencing is exactly what the US is experiencing. A total rebellion may be exactly what it takes – I don’t think those who have robbed the rest of us think we are capable of standing up for ourselves. They should fear the public. Government should fear the people, not the other way around.

    • Stephanie – you are considering a return to Greece at an interesting time. I think your message strikes a note of optimism and I think you should carry this positivity with you. For Greeks, and many other nationalities, the financial and economic crisis have made it clear that there is too little accountability among the people the take the decisions which impact on our daily lives. It’s a shame it has got to this but at least it means that people are becoming more aware that they hold much greater power than they ever thought. This has to translate into pressure from the people on parties, governments and financial institutions to change they way they work. In this respect, I believe that Greece’s future may be much brighter than its immediate past. The country is balancing on the edge at the moment but it if it recovers, it will be a much fairer and better place to live. I look forward to hearing your thoughts again.

  3. Dear friend,

    I am aware of the troubles that your country is going through. I was born in Macedonia and have been in the USA for the last 17 years.

    Although there is a diplomatic dispute between our countries, I know that the people in our countries have more in common than not.

    For one, the corruption in both countries has been cause for much of the economic problems. Can you imagine how rich our countries are that they can support our corrupted politicians?

    I pray that the people in Greece will voice their disapproval of the people who are being elected to represent them, that the new generation of politicians will rise up, who will have heart, will, strategy, knowledge and endurance to change the economical situation in Greece. I believe if such thing happen, it will have a positive impact in the whole region.

    I believe that I speak for majority of the people of Macedonia and we are looking forward to better days in the region.

    In the days ahead, I’ll cheer for USA, Greece, and Serbia in the World Cup.

    God bless,


    • Thank you for your heartfelt message Petar. We all hope that this is a turning point for Greece. I think many countries will be going through this situation. I also hope that a solution will soon be in sight in the dispute between Athens and Skopje. The economic crisis just highlights what a thorn in everybody’s side this argument is. Let’s see.

  4. stephanie (bokas) anderson

    Yes, it is more than politics. Always follow the money.

  5. Great article! Wake up world we are all in the same condition. American is in the same mess. We the people have allowed it to happen. We have just looked the other way. Government is not the way to go. It must be less government more private for all to flourish. There is just too much waste. We are all to blame.

    • Hi Debra. I don’t thing the state should be discounted as a force for good or an agent for change. But we should not forget that the state, or government if you prefer, relies on us – the people – to function. And, as such, we should be demanding more of it. We pay for it, we give it moral authority and we conceed power to it, so we should ensure that it works for the greater good.

  6. Time to root out the nepotism in the goverent.Have every politcian declare a list of his relatives that are employed by the Gov’t and publish it. Then start looking at politicians expense accounts and publish thiis like they did in the U K. Yes,the Greeksaybe need a better news reporting system.A good press is sometimes a country’s best opposition.

    • Hi Earl. Great point – we need far greater transparency in Greece’s political system. Expenses must be published every year. The government is apparently thinking about changing a law that gives current MPs and former ministers immunity from prosecution. This would also be a great step forward.

  7. Andonis Kanakis said during last week, ‘we were willing accomplices’ and he was right. As a greek raised abroad and having returned in 2000, it has struck me that Greeks have accepted the status quo, we vote the same parties into office every election and then complain. Yet, we all seem to fall in the same line. we will pay the bribes for medical care and a job to be done. Never has the case of its not what you know but who you know applied more strongly than in this country. I work 7 days a week in our tourist industry, I get just as angry and abhorred by the violence happening in athens as anybody. The fact is, we, as a people, have sat back and LET it happen. We can blame the politicians as much as we want, but we allowed them to do this.
    It is only now that Greece is on the international stage as the black sheep of the Eurozone that we get angry and horrified at the thought of public spending cuts.
    There was no outrage like this in Ireland when they announced their spending cuts, of a much similar degree to what Greece is doing now. The reason being, the Irish people have a faith in their government and do not see them as corrupt, trying to score the most amount of favours as possible in a term and therefore are willing to sacrifice a little so the state will get back on track.
    and yes, its a different situation, salaries in Ireland can hardly be compared to Greece, or working hours but if we as a nation are so worried about the economic crisis, then shouldnt we as citizens be prepared to work at fixing the problem?

    • Eva, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think this is the time for everyone in Greece – members of the public included – to accept responsibility for the country’s plight. Raging against the failure’s of the political system is fine, and necessary, but it mustn’t stop there. There is a danger that politicians will become easy scapegoats and people will let them shoulder the responsibility for everything. People should not forget that these politicians were not so bad when they were part of a system that found jobs for the boys and did people the favours they wanted. Everyone has to take a long hard look at themselves if Greece is going to move on from here.

  8. Pingback: 2010 in review | Inside Greece

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