Tag Archives: Giorgos Kaminis

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


Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

As far as walks to work go, it was pretty inspiring: exiting the train station to see the Acropolis in the predawn darkness, like a faint chalk outline on a blackboard, before heading along the cobbled street that runs past the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in 431 BC.

After that early morning blast of history, arriving at the headquarters of Athens International Radio (AIR) 104.4 FM at the old gasworks in Gazi often felt like an anti-climax. But I came across much that was inspiring during the year I spent at AIR, where a small and determined team countered limited resources and bureaucratic obstacles with humor and hard work to produce programs that were at times as rough as a lump of quartz but often as refined as the quartz movement of a quality timepiece.

AIR was established by the City of Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics to provide visitors with information and entertainment in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its success gave it a lease on life beyond the confines of the Games and a steady stream of languages were added to the programming schedule, reaching a total of 16, from Urdu to Tagalog, this year. No longer just a point of reference for tourists, the station had become a vital source of news for the patchwork of foreigners for whom Athens is home, not just a stop on their vacation. AIR was also the local broadcaster for Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, China Radio International and the BBC World Service – the best that world radio has to offer.

But all this stopped on September 16 when a prosecutor unexpectedly shut down AIR’s transmitter. Two weeks on, the station is still only available via the Internet as the legal wrangle continues. It remains unclear what prompted the prosecutor’s action but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that AIR was only granted a temporary license in 2004, which it continued to use to broadcast over the next six years.

It may seem perfectly natural that a station without a proper license should be shut down but things are not that straightforward in the world of Greek radio. The first commercial radio licenses were issued in the late 1980s and over the next decade governments handed out permits with complete abandon, creating such bedlam on the airwaves that you needed the dexterity of a safe cracker to tune your dial to the station of your choice. In 1999, the then PASOK government, and its Media Minister Dimitris Reppas (now the transport minister), decided it would corral the rapidly rising number of stations by refusing to issue any more licenses. But the stations that already had permits were allowed to continue broadcasting until the creation of an evaluation procedure to decide whether they could remain on air. Eleven years later, that procedure still does not exist.

In fact, there have been only two attempts to place any kind of limitations on broadcasters. The first was in the runup to Athens International Airport opening in March 2001, when authorities wanted to keep the airwaves free from interference. Stations in Attica were issued with licenses that would have to be renewed every four years. Since then, no review has taken place and the radio stations are operating with the same licenses. The previous New Democracy government drew up a so-called “frequency map” detailing which frequencies could be used. Its initiative was passed into law but the legislation has never been applied.

The end result of this sorry tale is that Greece now has more than 900 commercial, municipal, church and student radio stations operating in a quasi-legal status. That’s an inordinate number for a country of some 11 million people: in the UK, which has a population roughly six times as large, there is less than half that number of stations. Athens has twice as many commercial stations (41), as London. Even the Hania Prefecture on Crete, home to about 150,000 people, has more stations (30) than London. The island of Chios, with just over 50,000 permanent residents, has a little way to go to catch up: it has just 17 stations – one for every 3,000 residents.

Rather than an example of Greece’s refreshing liberty and polyphony, these ridiculous numbers hide something more sinister. The failure since the late 1980s to regulate this industry is a symptom of Greece’s patron-client relationship. Governments did not want to close down stations or refuse licenses for fear of losing influential friends, while radio served as a useful pulpit for politicians to spread their word. Then, there is the issue raised this week by Athens mayoral candidate Giorgos Kaminis, who accused Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis of employing big-name journalists at the city’s municipal radio station, Athina 984, in order to guarantee their acquiescence. Kaklamanis denies this is the case but if it’s not happening in Athens, then it surely is in other parts of the country, where municipal stations are an easy way to put family and friends on the local government payroll.

So, in the midst of this feeding frenzy, AIR – a station that is run on a shoestring budget and has maintained a dignified independence on national and local political issues – seems like an unworthy scapegoat. With the city’s population becoming more diverse and when there are already so many stations that do little else but play Lady Gaga’s latest hit seven times a day, surely we can find room for a station that updates myriad nationalities about events. At a time when racial disunity and ethnic disharmony are increasing threats in the Greek capital, there must be a place on the city’s airwaves for a station that is both in the community and of the community.

In the UK, authorities realized at the start of the last decade that strict licensing laws meant some communities felt their voices were not being heard. The response was the Community Radio licensing system, under which applicants must demonstrate that their proposed nonprofit station will meet the needs of a specific, underserved section of the population. The area in which the stations can broadcast is limited and they are not allowed to raise more than 50 percent of their operating costs from one source, nor can they compete for advertising with commercial stations.

The scheme has proved a successful way of empowering communities and filling the void that the national broadcaster, the BBC, and commercial stations could not. It’s time that Greece looked at a similar scheme as part of a wider effort to regulate its airwaves, especially if it means that stations like AIR are allowed to provide their listeners with a vital public service and even occasional moments of inspiration.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 1, 2010.