Tag Archives: Athens

All hail the taxi: In defense of Athenian cabbies

The back seat of an Athens taxi has never been my favorite part of the city. In our weekly newspaper, Athens Plus, which sadly closed down last December, we ran a small block of text, a disclaimer if you like, about Athenian cabs, also known by some urbanites as the “Yellow Peril.”

Part of it read: “Athenian cabbies are an eclectic bunch of individuals. From the uncouth chain-smoker to the tourist-friendly chatterbox, the whole gamut can be found inside the yellow taxis that splutter around the city.”

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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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Democracy’s last laugh

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Ahead of the May general elections in the UK, Liberal Democrat leader — and soon-to-be British deputy prime minister – Nick Clegg said the UK faced Greek-style “economic, political and social disruption” if the new government could not “find a way to persuade people” to accept drastic public spending cuts. He made a lot of people laugh then. Last week, a large group of students took over the complex housing the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, to protest the sharp rise in university tuition fees triggered by the cuts Clegg had spoken about. Nobody’s laughing now.

Greece is acutely familiar with student protests and arguments about the cost of tertiary education but there are several elements to the British youngsters’ action that should make Greeks sit up and think.

About 50,000 students took to London’s streets last Wednesday to protest the Conservative-Liberal government’s decision to raise the ceiling on annual university fees from about 3,000 pounds (3,500 euros) a year to 9,000 pounds (10,600 euros). Students were enraged first of all by the enormity of the rise – to put things into perspective, graduates in the late 1990s didn’t have to pay a penny for tuition. Just over a decade later, they face the prospect of leaving university with debts of almost 30,000 pounds (35,000) euros. The British government’s scheme to allow graduates to pay this through an extra tax that will be levied once they find permanent employment is little comfort to today’s teenagers and 20-somethings: Given the current economic conditions, the prospects of finding such a job are diminishing rapidly. The coalition government’s public spending cuts will lead to almost 500,000 civil servants losing their jobs over the next few years and the situation in the private sector is not encouraging either.

In Greece, the prospect of discussing any kind of financial contribution by university and technical college (TEI) students toward their fees was impossible at the best of times, let alone now that the education budget is being slashed. Here, however, the argument is dominated by sanctimonious academics and bloody-minded student groups who refuse to accept that scant funding is just one of many problems afflicting Greek institutions, none of which made the list of the world’s top 200 universities published by The Times last week. The British students’ fight seems more inspiring compared to the entrenchment of those who hold tertiary education hostage in Greece, as it’s about competing for a better future rather than refusing to let go of a mediocre past.

The British complain, for instance, that they’re being asked to pay three times as much for their education at a time when the state, which last year provided 8 billion pounds (9.4 billion euros) of funding for universities, is slashing its investment in the sector. In other words, they’ll have to pay more for an inferior product. So, it’s difficult for young people to accept they have to do their bit for fiscal discipline. “There is an appetite for financial rigor, so long as it reinforces recognizable moral principles,” claims Charles Moore of the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, but there doesn’t seem to be anything very moral or principled about putting tertiary education – one of the main arteries pumping new blood to the heart of the economy – beyond the reach of the less wealthy.

It can only be galling for students struggling to put themselves through university to hear Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, claim: “We’re all in this together” when they talk about their drastic cuts. The students ask: How can Cameron, Osborne or any of the 22 of 29 cabinet ministers who are millionaires feel any solidarity with those who have to deal with the impact of their austerity measures? Echoing the feeling of complete detachment between politicians and the public that has become familiar in Greece, British daily The Independent wrote in its editorial of the student protest: “The fury on display seemed to contain other strands, such as a sense of ‘them and us,’ and the conviction that direct action was the only way to convey the desired message to those in power.”

Despite the siege of Conservative Pary headquarters, the main target of the students’ anger was Clegg, who had warned of a fierce reaction to unfair cuts but seemed incapable of heeding his own advice. Students were enraged by the Lib Dem leader, because he made tuition fees one of the top issues in his election campaign. He promised he would “implacably oppose” any attempt to increase the cost of studying but his supposed principled stand buckled soon after the students helped put him in office. Last week’s protest was the just the beginning of an effort to remind Clegg and his colleagues of elected officials’ obligations. “This was the first step in holding politicians to account and using the democratic powers in our control in order to win our case,” said Aaron Porter, the head of the National Union of Students (NUS).

The NUS has indicated it will adopt a so-called “decapitation” strategy, which will see students target the constituencies of Clegg and other Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the next elections with the aim of unseating them. It’s in their embracing of the potency of democracy and their determination to invert the pyramid, so the real power lies with those who cast the ballots, not those who amass them, that the British students demand Greeks’ attention. Greek voters got a taste last Sunday of what it feels like to no longer accept politicking, when independent candidates Giorgos Kaminis and Yiannis Boutaris were elected mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, respectively. Although they were endorsed by PASOK, the ruling party’s support was so feeble it actually helped both men appear true lone riders promising a different set of values rather than members of the traditional political herd who are bound by commitments to the party.

The British students, aided by the verve of youth, have reacted to betrayal in an instant. For Greek voters, disorientated and disenfranchised by blind party allegiances and years of broken promises, the process has been much slower. Yet the victories of Kaminis and Boutaris are signs that a new way of thinking can emerge: one that dispenses with the constraints of the past and the fear of the unknown and which imbues voters with the belief that they have the power to punish the layabouts, the liars and the crooks. So, the British students and the Greek people face the same challenge: to find a way of soaking up this moment of enlightment and harnessing the power of democracy. If they manage it, they could have the last laugh.

 

The bell tolls

Whereas the first round of local elections made losers of PASOK, New Democracy and the other parties that had tried to turn the municipal and regional votes into a battleground for national politics and the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate in particular, the second round has produced a couple of clear winners.

The independent candidacies of Giorgos Kaminis in Athens and Yiannis Boutaris in Thessaloniki have been a breath of fresh air in these polls, which the representatives of the longstanding political system have tried to drag into the gutter, and their victories provide hope that a wind of change is now gathering in Greece.

Their candidacies are significant because they are both figures that have risen out of real life rather than the smoky backrooms of the tightknit political club that has come to dominate, and choke, Greece over the last few decades. Although PASOK and Democratic Left supported both Kaminis and Boutaris, their backing did not dominate or colour their campaigns.

In fact, in PASOK’s case it was so weak, the Socialists can certainly claim no credit for the victory of either man. In fact, this very loose association with PASOK, and thereby the political establishment that people have come to despise, probably did both men a great deal of good.

Their election is also a victory for all those that chose to ignore the wall of noise created by the parliamentary parties about austerity measures, the IMF, the memorandum and so on. It is a victory for citizens that thought deeply about the problems of their neighbourhoods and decided to support people who wanted to improve their cities rather than enhance a party’s standing on the national stage.

Finally, the victories of Boutaris and Kaminis provide hope for those that believe Greece’s future lies in a rejection of its confrontational, self-obsessed and unproductive past. They give further credence to the belief that the way forward for the country must be for those who want a fairer, progressive and productive society to reclaim this land.

Given these notable victories and the incredibly low turnout of about 47 percent, PASOK and New Democracy would do well to refrain from claiming moral victories. It is for them that the bell tolls tonight and, like Greece, if they don’t change quickly they will be soon be wallowing in irrelevance.

Nick Malkoutzis

Integration for the nation

 

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There are several reasons why the local elections on Sunday, November 7, will be no ordinary day at the polls. But amid all the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome may lead to general elections, a historic aspect of Sunday’s vote has been overlooked.

For the first time in the country’s history, non-European Union citizens who are long-term or permanent residents in Greece can vote and stand as candidates in local elections. Some 13,000 non-EU residents will join another 15,000 from EU countries at the ballot box, according to the Interior Ministry. This is substantially lower than the figure of 250,000 possible new additions to the electoral register given by the ministry earlier this year, when the government passed a new citizenship law. Apart from being a landmark moment because it allowed second-generation immigrants to claim Greek citizenship, the law also took the logical step of allowing people who have invested in this land, not only in financial terms, to have a say in how their local authorities are run.

The law was opposed by center-right New Democracy and the right-wing nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). ND leader Antonis Samaras, who had not yet decided to focus all his powers on opposing the EU-IMF memorandum to win votes, launched a polemic against PASOK for undermining Greek identity and subverting the great nation-state. LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, whose knickers are so often in a twist it’s a wonder he’s not propelled around Athens like a giant spinning top, claimed the inclusion of foreigners on the electoral roll would lead to the result of any vote being “adulterated.”

As we’ll discover on Monday morning, neither of these nightmare scenarios will emerge to shatter our blissful Greek reality. Actually, the participation in Sunday’s elections of several thousand foreigners who call Greece home, at a time when those born here seem to be as divided as ever, is a giant step toward making the country feel like a normal, well-adjusted European state. In fact, given German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comments about multiculturalism having “utterly failed” in her country, Greece can be proud that at least on one level it has found a way for different nationalities and cultures to work together.

Beneath the luster of Sunday’s elections, though, there lies much more work and introspection for Greece. From the troubled streets of central Athens to the labor-intensive farms of the Peloponnese, it’s clear that harmonious co-existence between locals and foreigners is still a long way off. In this sense, the debate going on in Germany is extremely relevant to Greece. After all, immigrants have a strong presence in both countries — in Germany almost 7 million of the 82 million (8.5 percent) inhabitants are migrants, in Greece the figure stands at about 1 million out of 11 million (9 percent).

For some, Merkel’s comments were a clumsy, populist appeal to the right wing of her flagging conservative CDU party, a senior partner in Germany’s coalition government. Others saw it as a timely intervention after years of half-measures aimed at integrating Germany’s migrants, especially some 4 million Muslims mostly from Turkey.

Thankfully, Merkel cleared up what she meant on Wednesday, November 3. “For decades, the approach was that integration was not something that needed to be addressed, that people would live side-by-side and that it would sort itself out on its own,” she said at a so-called integration summit in Berlin. “This turned out to be false. What in fact is needed is a political effort and an effort by society as a whole to make integration happen.”

The clarification is vital because it nips in the bud attempts by skeptics, including those in Greece, to seize Merkel’s critique of multiculturalism as a sign that immigration is failing. Merkel is clearly not saying that and, as Jan Fleischhauer, an editor at German weekly magazine Der Spiegel writes, the thought of living in a society that barricades itself from the outside world is ridiculous. “The idea that a country is a better place if its people keep to themselves as much as possible is a strangely claustrophobic notion — even in the happiest of families, it’s nice to see a new face now and then,” he says. “Influx from outside invigorates a society and serves as an excellent tonic against the stagnation that tends to plague sedentary cultures.”

In Greece’s case, legal immigration has brought with it a vital contribution to social security funds at a time when the system is running on fumes as well as providing able bodies at a low cost in a range of sectors, such as farming and construction. Also, the proliferation of languages that can be heard, customs that can be observed and cultures that can be discovered in Greece’s major cities has helped at least the younger generation realize, in a way the Internet and TV never could, that it lives in an interconnected world with common themes and challenges.

Illegal immigration, however, has posed a set of more uncomfortable questions. It’s among the illegal immigrants in Greece that one can find the kind of problems that concern Merkel about some of Germany’s second-generation migrants – the inability to speak the language and find regular jobs, for instance. Merkel’s government will commit some 400 million euros by 2014 to help the children of immigrants improve their German. There will also be programs to increase the number of migrants working in the public sector.

Consciously or not, Merkel has hit on an easily forgotten truth: Ultimately, integration is not about whether you can eat bratwurst or souvlaki like the locals, or whether you like to read Goethe or Kazantzakis, or even what religion you practice. It’s about being able to participate in a society that you respect and which respects you. What immigrants need most from their host countries are the tools and opportunities to find jobs and build their own futures. If they have those, they have life. And when you have life you can become part of something, you can integrate.

“People who dare to try their luck in a foreign country are by their nature especially resourceful and driven,” writes Fleischhauer. “Turning such people into beggars is no easy feat, yet we’ve managed to do precisely that.”
This is something for Greece to consider as it becomes a magnet for undocumented migrants trying to reach other EU countries at the same time that thousands of jobs are being shed every month. The creation of a structure to assess the country’s needs and the skills and capabilities of those that cross through its borders is more urgent than ever. But, amid the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of the independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome of Sunday’s polls may lead to general elections, it’s just another important issue that’s been overlooked.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 5, 2010.