Happy anniversary. How about a reform?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

It is one year to the day since Greece held its second general election in two months and third in three years. What better way to celebrate the occasion than trying to relive the uncertainty and tension we experienced during the summer of 2012? The leaders of Greece’s three coalition parties go into a meeting this evening with the future of their government less secure than it has been at any point during the 12 months. The cause of their dispute suggests that even if this crisis is overcome, deeper problems lie ahead.

The spark that threatens to burn the house down is the closure of public broadcaster ERT. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who ordered the shutdown, suggested over the weekend that the bigger picture in this standoff is that he is a reformer and the others, both in his government and in opposition, are not. But what does he really mean by reform?

His justification for closing ERT was that it was overstaffed, too expensive and a source of corruption. Greece needs a more modern broadcaster, along the lines of the BBC, it has been suggested. All of these things may be true to a greater or lesser extent but there has been no attempt by the government to back this up with any substance, just the standard smattering of platitudes.

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ERT: From test card to test case for Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Having ploughed on through a number of sticky patches over the last 12 months, it would be more than careless of Greece’s coalition government to sink into the mire due to differences over how to deal with public broadcaster ERT. Yet, a year on from when a second election in June led to the formation of the three-party administration, its future seems less secure than ever.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s decision to announce on Tuesday the immediate closure of the state TV and radio service left his coalition partners, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left, apoplectic and demanding a meeting, which will take place on Monday and could put the administration at risk if a compromise is not found. They had not consented to this move and there had been no debate about it in Parliament. A legislative act was signed only by the ministers from Samaras’s conservative New Democracy party and, after 75 years, the broadcaster went silent.

The problem for Samaras is that the backlash to his decision was rather noisy. ERT employees refused to comply with orders to abandon their posts and continued to broadcast with the help of volunteers who got the broadcaster’s main TV news channel, NET, back on air. Thousands of people gathered outside the service’s headquarters in northeastern Athens and opposition parties condemned the decision. Criticism soon began arriving from journalism federations outside Greece. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also labelled the shutdown “a damning first in the history of European Broadcasting.” In a letter to Samaras, 50 director generals of Europe’s public broadcasters said his action was “undemocratic and unprofessional”.

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ERT off air: Thought for the day

erttestcard_390_1106One of the great moments in global radio is BBC Four’s “Thought for the Day.” Greek state broadcaster ERT is one of many that have adopted the format, giving a couple of minutes of airtime on its Second Program to the great and good musing about faith, current affairs and life in general. One can only wonder, though, exactly what the government’s thought for the day was when it decided to shut down ERT and dismiss some 2,700 staff on Tuesday.

There was plenty wrong with ERT, which had long been treated like most other parts of the public sector by successive governments who felt they had supporters to take care of and money to burn. Its 19 regional radio stations speak of an excess that was simply unsustainable. Thessaloniki, a city with 800,000 inhabitants, had three radio stations when Inner London, which has a population of more than 3 million, has only one.

There was also a lot to cherish about ERT, though. It continued to make challenging documentaries when practically nobody else in Greece did. Its stations played music that nobody else would. Even its insistence on sticking with tinny 80s theme tunes for its news and sports shows had a naive charm about it. Most of all, though, it did the job that all national broadcasters should do by being a common reference point for millions. There are few more emotional experiences one can have listening to the radio than hearing Diaspora Greeks cast to the four corners of the earth calling in to a Saturday night show on the Second Program to request Greek songs and share their memories and feelings about the homeland they left behind.

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We need to talk about unemployment

AFP

AFP

At the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Council of Ministers in Paris on Wednesday, Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras challenged the institution’s forecast that Greece will remain in recession next year, which would mean a seventh straight year of contraction. Stournaras thinks the OECD will be proved wrong. There isn’t a Greek in the world who doesn’t hope  he will be proved right.

The OECD’s recent Economic Outlook contains some alarming messages for Greece, messages that are in  contrast with the recent wave of positivity from the government and upbeat  assessments from the media domestically and abroad. The Paris-based organisation  does not see a return to growth in 2014 but predicts a further economic contraction of 1.2 percent, a gap from Stournaras’s projections that translates into about 3.6 billion euros of economic output. It goes as far as suggesting that additional financing from the EU/IMF program will be required for Greece so automatic stabilizers are allowed to kick in if the recession turns out to be deeper than initially anticipated.

As much as Stournaras was quick to challenge the OECD’s projections on growth, he did not comment on the devastating projections for unemployment. The finance minister has designed Greece’s medium-term fiscal strategy based on average unemployment of 22.8 percent for 2013 and a lower figure of 21.4 percent for 2014. The OECD and the Bank of Greece, which also gave its forecast this week, think otherwise.

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Consensus, conviction and the anti-racism bill

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was fitting that a debate about the late British Prime Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was being held on Monday night in Athens at the same time as Greece’s three coalition leaders were trying to reach a compromise over an anti-racism bill. Since Thatcher was a self-professed opponent of consensus and saw herself as a “conviction politician,” she may have been smiling down as the heads of the tripartite government failed to find common ground.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly presented himself as a leader with convictions when he took over New Democracy following the party’s disastrous showing in the 2009 general elections. Although less than four years have passed since then, it seems like light years away. Samaras has since had to shed many of his convictions, going from anti-memorandum crusader, to peacemaker with the troika and now standard bearer for fiscal adjustment. Greece’s economic plight and the endless capacity for the country’s substandard political system to tie itself into knots led the conservative leader down the path of compromise. Here, perhaps Thatcher’s statement that compromise “seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies” is particularly apt.

There is, however, one thing that Samaras did not abandon, which is his apparent persuasion that New Democracy, and perhaps Greece, can be revived by appealing to the conservative streak that runs through the country. Faithfulness to tradition, religion, the nation and the armed forces are notions that can rally Greeks and unite enough of the population behind a cause to follow, Samaras seems to believe.

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Greece: A reality check

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

And like that… poof, the crisis is gone. More bailout loans approved by the Eurogroup, a sovereign rating upgrade from Fitch, economic sentiment at the highest it’s been for the last 40 months, the Athens Stock Exchange becoming the best-performing stock market in the European Union and Greek bond yields dropping below 9 percent for the first time since 2010 have helped give the impression Greece has overcome the worst of its problems and that recovery is within touching distance.

This is certainly the story that the government will, understandably, run with. The three parties in the coalition have taken on considerable political cost in sticking with the EU-IMF fiscal adjustment program and their only hope of survival is to convince a large enough section of the Greek population that the chosen path leads from economic catastrophe to stability and then prosperity.

In Athens, there is also a belief, which seems to be shared by decision makers in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere, that a change in mood alone will make a significant contribution toward overcoming the crisis. This rising tide to lift Greece’s boat will not only make the program more acceptable to the public, it will also make investors more buoyant, the thinking goes.

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Greece’s privatizations: New beginning or false dawn?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Greece’s first major privatization since the crisis began, secured on Wednesday when a private consortium agreed to buy a 33 percent stake in state gambling monopoly OPAP, will bring some relief to the government and its lenders. Athens has been under pressure since the start of its bailout program three years ago to sell state assets so it could raise revenue and pay off some of its mounting debt. Privatization even caused the first major rift between the troika and Greece, when the country’s lenders announced a 50-billion-euro sell-off program in February 2011 before the government.

The target for privatization revenues has since been revised downwards, first to 19 billion euros and then 11 billion euros by 2015. The pressure, however, has not decreased. The sale of the stake in OPAP to Emma Delta for a total of 712 million euros will give the Greek government some breathing space but the troika expects to see more sell-offs soon as more than 2 billion has to be raised this year.

Much has been made of how Greece has dragged its feet, failing to kickstart the privatization process quickly enough. The country’s privatization agency (HRADF) has also been slammed for lacking organization, with one analyst recently labeling its efforts as “simply not up to par on any international standards.” The fund has also been blighted by several changes of leadership.

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