Tag Archives: Athens Plus

Athens Plus: Readers respond

The messages about the closure of Athens Plus keep coming in.

We have published a second full page of letters in Kathimerini English Edition

You can read them here: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_columns_2_09/12/2010_121722

Some of the messages are truly moving.

This will be the last batch that we publish. Thank you to all those who took the trouble to write in and sorry to those whose letters we couldn’t publish.

Nick Malkoutzis

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Athens Plus: Readers’ responses

I would just like to take a minute to thank all the people who have been writing to express their sadness about the closing of Athens Plus.

We have receieved dozens of e-mails at the newspaper in what has really been an impressive response. We managed to publish one batch in Saturday’s daily edition and will do so again later this week.

Here is a link to the first lot: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_columns_2_04/12/2010_121614

The messages are well-thought out and moving. I hope they will be a source of encouragement to those colleagues who had to leave last week, as well as those that have remained.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to write.

Nick Malkoutzis

When things fall apart

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Amid the upheaval unleashed by the near-collapse of the Greek economy and the austerity measures adopted by the government to halt the juggernaut of bankruptcy, it seemed an odd thing to notice as evidence of how the crisis was affecting daily life. But, somehow, the absence of the young woman who usually sat behind the ticket counter at the metro station seemed poignant. It was a reminder that there are faces to go with every cutback, tax increase and structural reform and how catastrophic policies and lousy leadership have led to the fabric of our society gradually unravelling.

It’s been a while since the ticket office was vacated – the woman who worked there was probably one of about 300 contract workers on the metro system who did not have their deals renewed in September due to public spending cuts. Since then, passengers have only been able to get tickets from one of the four machines in the station. It struck me as the first clear sign that even the things we have come to appreciate will not remain untouched. The Athens metro was one of the few public services Greece could be proud of but the absence of that face behind the glass felt like a portent that the crisis would soon get its bony fingers around the neck of this pristine network as well as so much else. 

There have been other telltale signs that the status quo is being buried beneath the ruins of the crumbling Greek economy: The growing number of people looking through dumpsters, the increasing frequency with which Gypsies drive through neighborhoods collecting scrap metal and how traffic jams are briefer, as Athenians think twice about using their cars because the cost of fuel has risen faster than Greece’s bond spread. As people pay more for their gas or basic goods, which have been hit by rises in value-added tax, so they spend less at shops – retail sales were down by almost 12 percent in August compared to last year. This has led to the crisis leaving the visible scar of empty stores in every neighborhood. 

With the closing down of shops and businesses come redundancies. The most recent figures put unemployment at 12.2 percent, or just over 613,000 people, up a staggering 35 percent since the same time last year. Like the woman from the metro, these are faces now out of the public eye. Instead they can be found in queues at dark unemployment offices or in front of the mesmerizing light of computer screens as they search for jobs. This is a crisis the impact of which can most accurately be measured by what is no longer happening rather than what is, by the people we don’t see rather than the ones we do.

At the metro station, soon after the woman in the ticket booth disappeared, one of the four machines stopped working. It has been sitting idle ever since, blinking an error message like Apollo 13 trying to contact a Houston control room that’s just not listening. A few weeks after the first ticket dispenser went into its death spiral, a second machine started rejecting banknotes. Metro staff taped a handwritten “Out of order” notice on it, advising commuters to use the other two machines. Presumably the engineers responsible for looking after these machines are no longer employed or are so few they can’t keep up. With the government looking to save 850 million euros a month from public enterprises next year, this is the new reality we have to get used to. But the lack of maintenance means that soon none of the machines will be working. It will be impossible to buy a ticket to travel, the system will disintegrate. What happens underground will be replicated above the surface. In the headlong rush to cut, scrimp and save without a thought for supporting or strengthening, things will fall apart.

That is the moment when the last chapter of this crisis will be written: When all the people who have been cheated, betrayed and mangled by the system step into the breach to reorder things. We are not there yet. For the moment, there is an eerie silence on the streets. After a flurry of public protests at the beginning of the year, the situation appears surprisingly calm – by Greek standards at least. To some extent this can be attributed to three bank employees being killed in May when a bank in central Athens was firebombed during a rally. But there is something more than that. There is a feeling of numbness that has seeped into Greece since the beginning of the year. The numbness that comes from realizing that events have caught you unprepared, the numbness of stepping into the unknown and the numbness of fearing for your future. Most of all, though, it is the numbness of seeing things around you being dismantled while you’re powerless to prevent it. This is what has stopped people from raging against feckless leaders, callous bosses and incompetent unionists. 

This silence, though, is deafening. It means that anger is building up. If you listen closely, you can hear the whisperings of a gathering storm. This isn’t something that’s happening in the streets or at the squares — it’s taking place in homes, where families are struggling to make ends meet and can no longer feed themselves on the broken promises of the past, it’s happening at cafes where friends meet while dreading they’ll hear more bad news rather than share in some good, and it’s happening in workplaces, where colleagues encounter empty desks rather than the people with whom they shared most of their daily lives.

As we prepare for a new year, when more sacrifices will be made – some fair, others particularly harsh – the clock will not just be ticking for the government, desperate to meet the targets it has been set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Time will also be counting down for the people who feel genuinely wronged by what is going on around them: those who are prepared to pay their share but are not prepared to pay for the failures of others. And, when the moment arrives, we will see again the faces of those who had disappeared and remember the pieces of our lives that were chipped away. Then, we will be spurred on to build things again, only this time fairer, stronger, better.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on December 3, 2010.

Athens Plus: The end

Dear friends,

I am sad to inform you that we put the last issue of our weekly newspaper, Athens Plus, to bed tonight. A decision was taken earlier this week by our publishers to stop printing the newspaper.

I will not go into the details of why this decision was taken but I would like to remind you that Athens Plus, which was first-published two-and-a-half years ago, has won three design awards and was voted the best-designed weekly newspaper in Europe in 2008 – the first Greek newspaper to win this award. Also, since the first issue on June 13, 2008, it was built a faithful and sizeable readership in print and online.

A tremendous amount of work from a dedicated team went into producing Athens Plus each week. Clearly, mistakes were made along the way but nobody could fault the effort, commitment and inspiration that this group of journalists, copy editors, proof readers, designers and page maker s put into each issue.

Ten members of this team are now jobless. Although we all accept that it is part of life for people to be hired and fired, it’s galling when the loss of a person’s job has nothing to do with the quality of his or her work. This only exacerbates the guilt and sadness felt by the eight of us who are left behind to work on Kathimerini English Edition and its website.

Our loss, and the company’s loss, is epitomised by the fact that all 10 of those who were fired came into work for two extra days without pay to help put out the last ever issue of Athens Plus. I think this alone tells you about their character and professionalism and how much they all believed in what we were doing.

Bidding farewell to them was a painful experience but there is something that we can all take from this experience. We were involved in creating something from nothing and we did it as a real team. You don’t get to say that too many times in life. If we can all carry this with us alongside the valuable lessons we’ve learned thanks to Athens Plus, we will be stronger and wiser.

For those who supported us over the past couple of years, we are very thankful. We will do our best to be the best again.

Nick Malkoutzis
Deputy Editor

Unbelievable? Not anymore

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Brussels – The British indie dance band EMF had only one hit. It was with their first release in 1990, a single called “Unbelievable.” Twenty years on, the possible existence, let alone success of another EMF, the European Monetary Fund, seemed scarcely believable. But Greece’s descent into fiscal hell over the last few months has changed all that and on Monday the European Union essentially took its first, albeit tentative step, toward constructing its own version of the International Monetary Fund.

As far as historic moments go, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who also heads the Eurogroup, and European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn, did their best to make their announcement that the other 15 euozone members had agreed to provide Greece with financial assistance as underwhelming as possible. The briefing room at Justus Lipsius building in Brussels must rarely have been as packed for a monthly Eurogroup news conference as it was on March 15 when journalists gathered to hear that eight years after the euro went into circulation and almost two decades since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that laid the foundations for the single currency, those using it accepted that the framework needs to be strengthened.

 

Juncker and Rehn announced that a procedure had been put together by which a eurozone member in economic trouble, in this case Greece, would be able to rely on financial backing from its partners. From being one of the European members of the so-called PIGS economies, Greece could soon be handed the key to the EU piggy bank. The EU is not an organization that adapts particularly quickly to changing landscapes but Greece’s plight has caused a seismic shift that puts the very viability of the euro at stake. So, the Union has decided it needs to update its tools to ensure it’s not lost in this new financial geography.

Juncker and Rehn did not reveal exactly how the scheme, which bypasses the “no bailout” clause in the Maastricht Treaty, would work although it appears that it will take the form of bilateral or multilateral loans from other eurozone members or banks in those countries that will be funneled through the European Commission. Strangely, for a measure designed to ward off speculators who think they can still make a quick buck off Greece’s economic weakness, Rehn played down the landmark moment, speaking of “coordinated assistance” which “could be activated if needed” while underlining that any action would be in line with the “treaty framework” and “national law.” 

The EU specializes in technocratic double speak but this time there was a good reason for obfuscating. Any deal relies on the acquiescence of Germany, the eurozone’s most powerful and healthiest economy. Beyond any qualms that the Germans may have about giving cash to a country that has so flagrantly ignored the currency’s rules, the government is concerned about telling the country’s taxpayers they might have to cough up for Greece’s recklessness. Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a three-party coalition of her own Christian Democratic Union, the liberal Free Democratic Party and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union. Elected to power only last year, the so-called “black and yellow” coalition is suffering. Its popularity in opinion polls is sinking faster than Greece’s credibility on international markets and the FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is vice-chancellor and foreign minister is pursuing a populist agenda that makes it difficult for Merkel to consider Germany’s participation in an emergency fund for Greece.

This might explain why less than 24 hours after the meeting of EU financial ministers in Brussels, when the bailout was again given approval, Merkel was telling Germany’s Parliament: “We do not need a solution that helps in the short run but weakens the euro in the long run.” This double talk is part of the cat-and-mouse game that Merkel is playing with German voters but also reflects Berlin’s determination not to commit to the financial package before it is absolutely necessary as it fears setting a precedent that would make it easier for another struggling member – Portugal or Spain maybe – to call for assistance in the near future rather than itself taking measures to fix its public finances.

But in essence, the precedent was set on Monday night with the landmark breakthrough in the eurozone, which brought the creation of a European Monetary Fund a step closer. The EMF may be several years away because changes to the EU’s treaties are first needed but it appears to be a natural continuation of what was agreed this week.

Given the financial turbulence of the last couple of years, it makes absolute sense for the EU countries to have a fund that they can rely on to rectify economic problems. It means that the option of the IMF would be off the table and Europeans could be true masters of their own destinies. The IMF, in the view of many economists, provides a one-size-fits-all solution that does more damage than good in many of the countries that call on its help. With the EMF, the EU could adopt a more tailor-made approach based on European economic and social particularities. Also, the idea of each member state contributing toward this fund on an annual basis would make them real stakeholders in the future of the Union and take the EU closer to a more complete economic and political union.

The economic crisis has brought the EU to the point of no return. If Greece doesn’t get the financial help it needs and turns instead to the IMF, as it has threatened to do, then hopes that the Union could stand for more than a collection of common goals and practices would be in tatters. If Germany were to decide that it has had enough of the economic shenanigans of countries like Greece and considers reintroducing the Deutschmark, which would please some in Berlin, then the effect would be even more devastating.

Giving Greece a cash injection is a logical short-term decision to help it and the EU ride the current storm but if the Union is to safely navigate through this crisis then a more substantial solution is needed for the long-term. For all the coyness and brinkmanship on all sides, it is patently obvious that there are still powerful common interests at the EU’s heart and that its future depends on these outweighing individual designs or whims. That’s why the idea of an EMF is not so unbelievable anymore.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on March 19.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, when the issues that our leaders have to deal with become infinitely more complex, our expectations of them become very simple. As the pressure is ratcheted up, we like our decision-makers to fall into one of two broad categories: either Mr Nice Guy or Mr Tough Guy. Greece embarked on its current treacherous journey with a prime minister that appeared more nice than tough, but George Papandreou increasingly looks like he’s steeled for the struggle.

If this metamorphosis is successful, apart from leading Greece out of the economic wilderness, Papandreou will also cause a reordering in the minds of most Greeks, whose default position during testing times is to pine for a tough guy, a man who will stand up for the country and put the others in their place, someone who will be unswerving in his attempt to reach a specific goal.

So, it was no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, speaking to the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, took a meaty swipe at the caliber of European Union leaders. He reminisced about a time when Europe was led by political heavyweights, such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, not technocratic lightweights. “This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today. The quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand provided era-defining leadership but they did so in completely different circumstances. They were political giants who roamed lands whose destiny could still be shaped, where national interest could still come first and in which they could rely on the unflinching support of a section of society. None of these conditions exist today: In an increasingly competitive world, there is little room or time to reshape a country; in an expanding European Union, collective interest often prevails; and in the age of “undecideds” or middle-ground voters, politicians have an ever-shrinking base of support to call on.

The sweeping transformation of Europe’s political and economic landscape since the 1980s to one where right and left, capitalism and socialism, have all been damaged, means that although the lessons learned from their time in power will always be relevant, longing for another Thatcher, Kohl or Mitterrand to make the ground shake is like wishing the dinosaurs would roam the earth again. Pangalos, an intelligent, outspoken politician who gives no quarter to the opposition and couldn’t give two hoots about what others think of his views, is a man of this bygone generation. But while Pangalosaurus Rex may miss running with the other political beasts, today’s leaders have to contend with a whole different set of challenges.

That’s not to say Papandreou and his peers cannot learn from what those who went before them got right and what they did wrong. But while Pangalos invokes the spirit of the loud, the proud, the dominant, perhaps the Greek prime minister should instead examine the achievements as well as the failings of a more quiet and unassuming political character: Michael Foot.

Foot, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died last week at the age of 96. For someone who led the party to one of its heaviest ever election defeats, Foot was remembered with surprising passion. The fondness that many within, and beyond, the Labour Party have for him is kindled by the rare qualities he brought to politics: high principles, independent thinking and exquisite oratory skills that drew heavily on his love of literature.

It was Foot’s insistence on existing above politics, rather than sinking into its mire, that meant he stuck by ideas he felt to be morally correct rather than politically expedient. He kept to these principles when compiling Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, prompting one of his aides to call the program “the longest suicide note in history.” The Conservatives blew Foot’s party out of the water, Thatcher swept to 10 Downing Street and Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, course shifted in a new direction.

Foot actually produced the most eloquent put-down of Thatcher ever uttered by a rival politician: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.” Foot had plenty of both and although his manifesto in 1983 proved to be a disaster, looking back on it now, he appears much more imaginative and less of an idealistic dreamer than once thought. In fact, some of his policy proposals – increased public spending to ease an economic recession, greater control over the financial system, energy conservation and corporate regulation — are actually being implemented now by governments in Britain and elsewhere. Interestingly, the manifesto called for the return of exchange controls to “counter currency speculation” – the 1980s equivalent of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which Papandreou has been touring the world trying to prevent. As he does so, Greece’s premier might want to consider that one of Foot’s greatest failings was that despite his unique grasp of the English language, he was unable to communicate his ideas convincingly.

Another of Foot’s failures was his inability to keep his party united – a problem that is already starting to rear its head at PASOK, as the party’s old, socialist guard attempts to resist Papandreou’s austerity measures. Foot found himself unable to bridge the gap between Labour’s left, which was still committed to the socialist policies that were torn apart when the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic spending cuts on Britain in the late 1970s (sound familiar?), and the more centrist wing, which eventually broke away to form a new party, the SDP. Foot was never able to get in step with the party’s base, tap into society’s sources of power or develop a strategy that would broaden Labour’s appeal. That’s why Foot was essentially a wonderful caretaker rather than a true leader. These are all aspects for Greece’s prime minister to ponder as he tries to balance harmony within his own party with the arduous changes being demanded of the country.

But if Papandreou is to take just one thing from Foot’s legacy, then it should be the words that he spoke in his final speech as Labour’s chief. Quoting from Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon,” a story of a steamer encountering treacherous conditions in the South China Sea, he told his audience: “The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery… the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.” Forget nice guys and tough guys, that’s what leadership is all about.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 12, 2010.

The rebirth of a nation

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When learning of the death of fellow writer Truman Capote in 1984, Gore Vidal’s response was blunt: “Good career move,” he said. This is how many people have treated the reports of Greece’s untimely demise, believing that the unprecedented publicity makes it a perfect opportunity for the country to hit the reset button, to spruce up its image, to re-establish the brand.

With or without the media attention, Greece finds itself at a crossroads. European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn may have called the austerity measures announced on Wednesday a “turning point” for the country but the path Greece decides to follow isn’t about just tax and public spending — it’s more a question of how it defines itself and what its values are.

To get to this, we must first understand the circumstances of the current situation. Yes, Greece’s standing in the world has fallen so low that we would have to look up to see the bottom of the barrel, but this hasn’t happened simply because someone momentarily fiddled with economic statistics or failed to execute effective policies. As any marketing expert will tell you, people’s perception of a product, or in this case a country, is built up over time and is based on various factors. And the truth is that the recent trajectory of Greece’s image, except for a few shining moments, has been downward.

“For many years, Greece has been seen as a country that was attempting to stand alongside other European countries, sometimes more successfully than others,” Cleopatra Veloutsou, the head of the Marketing Research Unit at the Athens Institute of Education and Research and a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow told Athens Plus. “Some events, such as the 2004 Olympics, helped improve the country’s reputation. However, this improvement cannot last if there is no consistent signalling over a long time.”

This failure to consistently convince people is really what has undermined Greece’s image. It’s easy, and understandable, to take offense at the cover of Germany’s Focus magazine showing Aphrodite making a rude gesture and at other damning reports about Greece but responding to them does not address the issue. It’s a reaction to the symptom, not to the root cause; it’s a paracetamol when what we need is a panacea. To find that remedy, we have to look far beyond our bulging debt and deficit.

While the economic crisis may have put Greece in the spotlight, there are many other countries – countries that are much more mature and organized than our own – currently struggling with their identity and core values. The International Herald Tribune’s columnist John Vinocur recently underlined how Germany and France – Europe’s pillars – are both beset by social problems such as poverty, violence, crumbling social security and general discord. “In the background of Europe’s current afflictions – the headline malady of its suddenly shaky common currency or the sputtering of its notional economic recovery – there’s a painful subtext,” he wrote.

“It is the notion that in France and Germany, uniquely European pride, values and self-esteem are quivering as well. The core of the idea is that the economic crisis has exposed or emphasized existing areas where neither the language nor the creed that says general well-being, solidarity and generosity come first and continue to fully apply.”

There may be some comfort in seeing others also grappling with serious concerns but the significant aspect of Vinocur’s observation for Greece is that countries are defined by what happens at their core, which outsiders rarely see, not at its outer edges, which are visible to everyone. For too long, Greeks have failed to look inward to discover more about who they are, instead defining themselves in comparison to the others around them and enjoying being cooler than the French, more generous than the Germans, more hospitable than the British, more cultured than the Americans and so on. Ironically, this obsession with being different to the others and not conforming to their way of doing things is what has landed Greece in the current mess.

It’s clear now that making efforts to improve how other perceive us will only be a short-term fix and, like the reserves of goodwill built up thanks to the successful hosting of the Athens Olympics, they will soon be blown away to reveal little substance underneath. “Greece should consider how it could try to send consistently positive messages to the audiences of interest to try to improve its somewhat poor reputation,” said Veloutsou. “It is hard work, since even positive pieces of information are taken as a weak indication of potential improvement, rather than a confirmation of being reputable.”

There is only one way to do this and that’s to tap into the huge resources of determination and energy that see Greeks succeed in spite of the system, rather than fail because of it: the soccer and basketball players that can become European champions when the country’s facilities are non-existent; the academics that shine at foreign universities although our own have reached a dead-end; the mathematicians that excel even though our governments cannot add up; the civil servants on low wages, who perform their duties without protest; and the citizens who have no qualms about paying their taxes when others offer only excuses.

Greece now belongs to these people. Incompetent, self-serving politicians pretended for years to run the country while swindlers and egotists ran it into the ground — but Greece is still functioning because of this quiet, faithful majority. These are the people now have to make their voices heard, shaming into silence those who have wreaked untold damage.

The government is again turning to this trusted band of brothers and sisters to dig the country out of a hole by earning less but paying more. The question is not whether they will answer this call – they will, as they always have – but what Greece will do for them in return.

If their spirit and dedication is allowed to set the standard, then we can dispel the image of Greeks as loafers and cheats by holding them up as the true representation this country. Instead of billboards about living your myth in Greece, we can present these people to the world: “Hi, I’m Manolis and I pay my taxes,” “Hi, I’m Maria and I have a building permit for my house,” or “Hi, I’m Yiannis and I refuse to pay bribes.” We can allow them to transform people’s perceptions. Only then can today’s painful death become tomorrow’s wonderful rebirth.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 5, 2010.