The secret of our success

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 As far as cringeworthy moments go, it was right up there: Prime Minister George Papandreou being given a standing ovation by his Cabinet last Friday, just a few hours after the eurozone agreed on a new support package for Greece. That’s not to say that Papandreou — or indeed Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos — doesn’t deserve some credit for the energy and purpose he brought to those marathon negotiations, but with everything still at stake and so many questions about the deal unanswered, a triumphant welcome for a conquering hero hardly seems appropriate.

To be fair, Papandreou tried to play down his moment of glory last Friday — and continued to do so over the ensuing days — by arguing that securing the second package, worth 159 billion euros, had been a “success that belongs to all Greeks.” Nevertheless, painting the deal as a success at a time when the effects of the debt crisis are being felt far and wide and when the worst is still to come seems not just premature but immature. Greece is still tiptoeing along the precipice — it’s no time to break out into song and dance.

In fact, it’s likely to be a long time before the word “success” can be spoken with confidence in the same sentence as “Greece.” You only need to take a look around to confirm how far we are from that moment.

As Papandreou and his Cabinet met last Friday, like most Greeks, I went about my normal business rather than stopping to celebrate our moment in euro history. I got into my French car to run some errands. I would happily drive a Greek vehicle but Greece has hardly ever had any car industry to speak of, apart from short productions runs of the three-wheeled Reliant Robin and the Citroen Pony. There’s the Hellenic Vehicle Industry (ELVO) but it mostly manufactures military vehicles. Just as it does with cars, Greece imports most of its military equipment. For Greece, success would necessitate the manufacturing of something more than debt.

I parked my French car at a retail park next to Athens International Airport. The airport could be regarded as a sign of Greek success — a modern, well-run facility that gives the impression you are arriving in a modern, well-run country. But Athens airport is far from a Greek success story. The European Union helped fund it and a German-led consortium was paid to build it. The same consortium owns close to half of the shares in the airport, which produced revenues of some 400 million euros last year. The Greek government, which has a 55 percent stake, is about to sell up as part of its privatization plan. In Greece, success is not always what it seems.

Leaving my car, I entered a well-known Swedish furniture store. My preference would have been to support the shops in my neighborhood but Greece is now awash with foreign stores or franchises that sprang up over the last decade thanks to the cheap credit lines extended to consumers. The truth is, though, that you’d be hard pushed to fund Greek products in Greek shops. Greece imports practically everything: from Korean TVs to Argentinean lemons. In fact, Greece spends roughly 3 euros on imports for every 1 euro it earns from imports. In anyone’s language, that’s no recipe for success.

With the shopping out of the way, I used the Attiki Odos to get home. Like the airport, the 65-kilometer highway, which runs along the periphery of Athens, was built for the 2004 Olympics. Like the airport, the Attiki Odos is also a sign of an efficient state that seems to be going places. Unlike the airport, it was built by Greek companies. But before we prepare to hail a Greek success story, perhaps we should consider that some of these firms have benefited over the years from a very cozy relationship with the media or from actually owning media outlets. It gave them a position of strength from which to “negotiate” with governments when tenders for public contracts were issued. In fact, there is an ongoing judicial investigation into whether Greek taxpayers were damaged by the contract for the project, which was delivered over budget. Success for some in Greece does not mean success for all.

After leaving the car at home, I got onto the metro to head for work. The Athens metro is another sign of a city and a country that can get things right if it tries. Punctual, clean, safe and cheap, it can rival any subway system in the world. But like other modes of public transport in Greece, it has suffered from the inefficiencies of the wider public sector, such as imbalances in wages, too little control over expenses and failure to collect enough revenues. The metro is one of the more financially healthy modes of public transport, but as government spending is cut it is beginning to suffer. Many stations, for instance, are missing ticket validation machines as a result of lack of personnel to maintain them and lack of funds to replace them. Success requires a structure that will support it.

The final leg of my journey was on the Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP). When it began operating in 1863 as the world’s second underground metropolitan railway, it was a sign of success, that Athens was joining the elite of European capitals. Over the last couple of years, amid never-ending engineering works, it has been a symbol of abject failure; a line that leads to nowhere but more misery for its passengers. To top it all off, a key station, Monastiraki, has been unable to fully open for the last few months because a small group that worships the ancient gods has sued ISAP over plans to cover up an altar found beneath one of the lines. They, at least, can boast some success.

In response to the claims of a Greek success following the eurozone deal, perhaps the most useful observation that can be made is that, like a lot of things in life, success is relative.

Nick Malkoutzis

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