Category Archives: Athens

How Greece could go from solidarity to division

Solidarity is probably a word that you would not associate with Greece following the events of the past few days. Love and understanding were in short supply on the streets around Parliament, where protesters and police clashed this week, as well as within the walls of the prominent sand-colored building, where Greece’s politicians failed to strike a deal to form a government of national unity to oversee the latest austerity measures the country has to adopt to qualify for more loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

However, solidarity is a very relevant word in terms of Greece’s plight 13 months after the EU and the IMF agreed to bail it out with 110 billion euros ($157 billion) in loans. Firstly, it’s a word that’s on people’s minds because the government said it is introducing a “solidarity tax” that will lead to crisis-fatigued Greeks having between 1 percent and 4 percent of their incomes kept aside to help pay benefits for the rapidly growing number of unemployed.

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The paradox of the ‘Indignant’

Photo by Stratos Safioleas

Thousands of protesters packed Syntagma Square in Athens for a third consecutive day on Friday. Those giving up another evening to vent their anger at Greece’s plight continued to display great enthusiasm and persistence. There was something dramatic about their protest, which took place as ominous clouds rolled across the Attica sky and boneshaking thunder boomed throughout the capital. It felt like someone had splashed out on the special effects in preparation for the ultimate battle: the people vs. the political system. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

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Inverting the pyramid

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It is with the same sense of guilt that a parent feels when a child slips out of their grasp in a crowd that Greeks, like other Europeans, have been watching events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria unfold over the past few weeks. Shudders were sent down millions of spines with the realization that under our noses so many people were living in poverty and oppression created by duplicitous regimes willing to exploit them.

For Greeks, though, the surprise shouldn’t have been so great because they have discovered firsthand how many in authority will not think twice about casting destitute people like chaff into the wind to advance their own causes. If nothing else, the debacle surrounding the brief sit-in protest by North African migrants at Athens University’s Law School has taught us just how easy it is for the weak to be manipulated right under our very noses.

There is no doubt that the organized transfer of the 237 immigrants from Crete to the Law School a couple of weeks ago was misconceived on a grand scale. Campaigners who helped the migrants board a ferry and then moved them onto the campus did so in order to promote what they billed as “the largest mass hunger strike in Europe.” Right from the beginning, the whole event took on the air of a very badly run circus.

The protest’s organizers’ were apoplectic that the media did not focus on the fact the migrants were on hunger strike but instead insisted on paying greater attention to questions about whether the university asylum law was being abused. It was like a chemistry student being upset nobody could see the genius in his experiment when it had just blown a great big hole in the lab.

Those who backed, and actively aided the migrants in their campaign — a cross section of people including students, journalists, lawyers and human rights campaigners — should have been savvy enough to realize that by staging the hunger strike on university grounds, they were undermining any message they wanted to get across.

They gave politicians of various hues the burst of oxygen they needed to reignite the debate about whether the law that places strict limitations on when police can enter university grounds should be scrapped. Pumped full of opportunism, members of New Democracy, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and even governing PASOK sought to identify with a public that has started to lose its appetite for the asylum rule, a remnant of the post-junta era. The MPs showed that two can play at the exploitation game — if the activists could use the migrants as a vehicle to highlight the government’s failings, then there was no reason why politicians could not use the protest to give them a leg up onto the popularity bandwagon.

The opposition leaders and deputies chided the migrants and their supporters for daring to bring an issue as base as immigration policy into the sacrosanct corridors of Greek academia. How dare these foreign laborers and the woolly liberals supporting them transform a Law School auditorium into a political bear pit? they asked. Of course, they conveniently overlooked what has been going on at Greek universities for the last 30 years. They chose not to mention how many academic appointments during that time have been politically motivated, they opted not to talk about how many technical colleges (TEI) and university departments have been built in far-flung parts of Greece simply because the government or minister at the time was fulfilling a favor to a local community and they decided to overlook the behavior of their own student groups, which tempt members to join with free drinks and club nights and have led to university life becoming politicized to a self-destructive degree.

Make no mistake, there has been hypocrisy on all sides over the last couple of weeks. But then again, there always is when there are weaker people to be exploited. The real tragedy, though, is that a vital message has not been heard because of this. The 237 migrants, half of whom are now living like metropolitan Bedouins in tents pitched up in the backyard of a listed building, had been working legally in Greece for the past few years. But now, like many Greeks, they are the victims of the economic crisis. Their work has dried up and they do not have enough social insurance credits to receive unemployment benefits or to renew their residence permits. The security they once had in Greece has disappeared and, as we have discovered by watching events across North Africa over the past few days, there is precious little for them to return home to. They are stuck in a purgatory where their screams for help cannot be heard because everyone else is shouting over them.

The fate of tens of thousands of economic migrants who have been left on the edge of a precipice is too important an issue to be relegated to publicity stunts and slanging matches. Greece has to decide whether, given the current economic climate, it is willing to cut any slack for people who were until recently legal residents here. It has chosen, for instance, to go easy on Greeks who owe money to the state, so, some might argue, why not relax the criteria for people who need to renew their residence permits? If not, then can the country get help from the European Union to help repatriate migrants following the success of the pilot schemes that were launched last year?

That’s the thing about economic migrants — you don’t have to dress up their story. You don’t need to stage a media event to turn them into causes celebres or martyrs because they’re heroes already. It takes guts to leave everything you have behind to pursue a life in a land where you don’t know anyone and you start with nothing. Greeks are very familiar with this type of heroism because they embodied it in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Stoking their anger will not achieve anything, rekindling their compassion might. Greeks need to be reminded there are destitute people susceptible to all kinds of abuse and manipulation living right under their noses, not just in TV footage from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that during these extraordinary times, these people have a right to know, like their brothers back home, that someone is willing to stand by them.

Nick Malkoutzis

Bulldozers and barricades

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There was a banner hanging from a pedestrian bridge over the Athens-Thessaloniki national road until a few days ago that read: “Every neighborhood should be like Keratea.” Presumably, those who hung the sign (which bore the anarchist symbol) meant that every part of Athens should display the kind of resistance to authority that Keratea residents have become synonymous with over the last couple of months rather than that every neighborhood should become a dumping ground for the city’s rubbish, which is what has sparked the uprising on the outskirts of Athens.

For many Greeks, the ongoing conflict in this small corner of southeastern Attica encapsulates everything that is wrong with the country. On one side there are those who see the fervent, and sometimes violent, resistance of people in Keratea to the construction of a waste management center as being symptomatic of Greeks’ unruly nature: an irrational and immature reaction to the functioning of a democratic state that’s in the same vein as the refusal of many motorists to pay road tolls. On the other side are those – the anarchists who hung the banner included – that believe Keratea is a shining example of how an irresponsible and corrupt state should be resisted.

Both opinions are valid but neither is particularly correct. At its essence, the dispute in Keratea – where a section of the main highway leading to the port of Lavrio has been closed for several weeks and resembles 1980s Beirut, strewn with burned debris and overturned vehicles – is about trust, not about a phobia of abiding by laws or taking a principled stance against dirty deals between a shady state and dodgy contractors. The people of Keratea simply do not trust their government when it says it will build a modern and clean landfill that will not affect their way of life or the value of their properties.

Successive governments over the last two decades have failed to inspire any confidence in their handling of the waste management issue. It was decided in 1998 that Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, would be the sites for Attica’s new landfills. Yet it took several years, millions of euros in European Union fines and the threat of losing additional millions of EU funding for the new projects before the government got the wheels in motion. For decades, Athens has relied on just one landfill – in Ano Liosia – but it’s only now it has reached saturation point that any concerted effort is being made to create alternatives. Suddenly, and with no awareness of the irony, the government and sections of the media are slamming concerned Keratea residents for holding up the process, claiming that it is an absolutely vital project for Attica. It would be interesting to find out how many times a member of government, say a public works or environment minister, has visited Keratea since 1998 to speak to local people about the significance of the project and exactly what will be built on land that lies just a couple of kilometers from their community. I would hazard a guess that it’s none. Certainly there has been no effort by any government to make the project a more attractive proposition for locals by promising to hire people from the area or to counterbalance the fact that festering rubbish will be amassed next to their homes by pledging to improve local infrastructure.

If you want people’s trust, you have to explain to them why you make certain decisions, but successive governments have scorned the people of Keratea. It’s hardly a surprise that these people should now return this rejection by the dumpster load. Until a decade ago, Keratea was just one of the sleepy villages dotted around the Mesogeia area southeast of Athens. But the construction of Athens International Airport, the Attiki Odos (the highway linking Athens and the airport) and the metro have changed all that. In a short period of time, this area has seen furious construction activity, much of it illegal, and has essentially been transformed into a suburb of Athens. Given this climate, local people want reassurances about what else is going to be built in their backyard. The government, however, has been particularly guarded about exactly what kind of trash facility will operate in Keratea. Environmentalists expressed concerns last week that an incineration facility would be constructed there. The government remained tight-lipped, only fueling anger, concern and suspicion that the whole scheme will just be a big pay day for the contractor and will leave a permanent and ugly scar on Keratea’s landscape.

A similar breakdown in the transparent communication that should exist between a government and its people has prompted many motorists and residents of Attica, the Peloponnese and central Greece to take matters into their own hands over the increasing number of tollbooths and the rising cost of tolls on the national roads. The most notable moment of this campaign came on January 10 when soap opera actor-turned-Mayor of Stylida Apostolos Gletsos clambered onto a bulldozer and defiantly knocked down the roadside barriers at the Pelasgia tollbooth, allowing motorists to pass for free. His action was a protest against the government’s decision to increase toll charges to 2.60 euros and to remove special passes that allowed some 1,000 Stylida residents to pass the tollbooth for 50 cents. Locals argue that because there are no other roads they can use to go about their daily business, they are forced to pay tolls to use the national road. They point to EU legislation which states that when tollbooths are built, toll-free roads must also be made available to motorists.

Again, the issue is one of trust: The government has failed to live up to its obligations but expects Stylida residents to swallow toll rises without complaint. Trust has also been eroded due to a lack of clarity over the five contracts the previous government handed out to consortia to manage sections of the highway network. Campaigners claim that the successive toll charge rises over the last couple of years and the creation of more toll stations contravenes these agreements. The government, as ever, has remained tight-lipped, which has only stoked protests against the tolls. It’s significant that government sources have said that current talks with the consortia over renewing the expiring contracts are focusing on a reduction in toll charges by up to 25 percent. Gletsos, greeted by hundreds of supporters when he appeared in court for destroying the barriers, has already transformed himself from cringeworthy soap star to fearless road warrior but the slashing of toll charges would be a moral victory for the campaigners and a blow against those who argue that such shows of disobedience have no place in a civilized state.

However, knocking a few cents off the cost of tolls will do little to mend the broken bond of trust between the government and its voters. As long as those in power are dismissive of the people they govern and as long as they act without transparency, they will meet resistance. Sometimes frustration or bloody-mindedness means that this resistance can stray beyond the normally accepted boundaries. However, rather than suggesting that Greece is in a state of anarchy, as those who dangled the banner over the national road would like to believe, it’s a sign that we are living very much in a democracy, albeit one that malfunctions more often than it functions.

Nick Malkoutzis

Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 2010.