Tag Archives: Giorgos Papaconstantinou

Under the big top

Soon after being propelled to international fame for publishing the Lagarde list and facing prosecution for it, journalist Costas Vaxevanis wrote in an opinion piece that “democracy is like a bicycle.” As Greek MPs debated the merits of which politician to probe in connection with the handling of the depositors list for 14 hours on Thursday, democracy began to look more like a unicycle, ridden by a giant clown.

There have been many jaw-dropping moments in Parliament since this crisis began. For instance, who can forget becoming part of a parallel universe as the world waited for George Papandreou to receive a vote of confidence in late 2011 just so he could resign a few days later? Votes on midterm fiscal plans, bailout packages and new austerity measures – Greece has seen it all over the past few years. But none of those moments could match the sheer futile hysteria of Thursday’s debate.

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Battle-hardened Venizelos faces defining moment

It’s a feature of politics at its Machiavellian best that even the worst of enemies can end up relying on each other for survival. So it was on Thursday, when Prime Minister George Papandreou called on his one-time bitter rival Evangelos Venizelos to take on the mammoth task of steering Greece through the economic crisis. Venizelos has craved influence and attention for years but as Greece’s finance minister at this particular juncture, he may find that getting what he wished for wasn’t worth the wait.

The Thessaloniki MP and former defense minister should be aware of the dangers of being thrust into the spotlight when the timing is not quite right. His recent political career has been defined by a moment of political opportunism that went badly wrong. Following a disastrous showing for PASOK in the general election on September 16, 2007, Venizelos attempted to usurp Papandreou as the party’s leader. Even before the final results were in, he headed to Zappeio Hall in central Athens, where the PASOK chief had minutes earlier conceded defeat, to announce he was launching a leadership challenge.

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Rating the rating agencies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“If we really want to rub their faces in it, then the only way is to increase revenues and for every Greek to pay the taxes they are supposed to. If that happens, then we won’t need Moody’s or anybody else.” In his own inimitable style, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos’s blew open in Parliament on Friday an issue of public debate while displaying all the subtlety of a bulldozer trying to open a safe.

Although he was more forthright than others, the veteran PASOK politician was expressing an opinion that reflected the mood of many voters and MPs. His comments came just a few days after Moody’s, one of the three credit rating agencies that have been observing the Greek economy with the intensity a menacing stalker, downgraded Greece’s debt — already at junk status — by three notches, to B1 from Ba1 and suggested Athens would not be able to repay its debt without some form of restructuring. Moody’s also downgraded six Greek banks in the same week.

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Independence Day

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Every year, Greece celebrates its independence on March 25. It marks the date when the revolution against Ottoman rule began in 1821. This March 25, though, the proposition of Greece standing on its own will not seem so attractive. Should the European Union leaders’ summit on March 24-25 end in disappointment — as many expect it to — debt-stricken Greece will be left dangerously isolated.

Prime Minister George Papandreou has spent the last few weeks furiously trying to cultivate contacts with his European counterparts — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy — in the hope they might be able to sway opinions ahead of the March 25 summit and a meeting of leaders from eurozone countries on Friday, March 11.

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The dust of time

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

The weathermen said the dust that covered Athens last weekend came from the Sahara Desert. Don’t believe them. The air was thick and unpleasant but not because of Saharan sand – the choking, claustrophobic atmosphere was caused by the particles that spewed into the air when time finally caught up with Greece.

This dust was a filthy amalgam of the cobwebs blown out of the corridors of power by the wind of pragmatism, the mould spores sent flying as an antiquated public sector collided head-on with the 21st century, and the tiny particles of wasted potential and lost hope released into the atmosphere as inertia was dislodged by ruthless economic reality.

Breathing in this dusty air was both terrifying and edifying: Something unknown entered our system but something that reeked of decay left it. This was Greece’s moment of apocalypse, when it became clear to its government and its people just how far down they had slipped and how long a distance they need to cover.

Emerging through this thick dust, like Lawrence of Arabia on his sleepless camel ride through the Sinai Peninsula, is the man whose destiny it is to lead the country at this vital hour. How ironic that the party leader who wanted to increase public spending, is now the prime minister who has the task of slashing it like a sword-wielding Arab.

Although fate has played a cruel trick on George Papandreou, he seems to be warming to the task. Following a few months of disbelief and apprehension, his government appears to be getting to grips with the size of the mission, if not necessarily striking on a coherent strategy to accomplish it.

Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou is set to announce more austerity measures as it becomes evident that the dire state of the country’s finances will not be solved by snipping civil servants’ pay and tweaking some taxes. If PASOK does announce more measures, the implications will be greater than just economic. If the government chooses the additional measures rather than letting the European Union impose them, it could be the first sign that Greece – a country not so much living in denial as languishing in its amniotic fluid – is facing up to the future.

It could also be the first, liberating step toward economic recovery. For the first time in recent history, a Greek government will take painful but necessary action without sweetening the pill, without bowing to the ghosts of the past, without fearing the forces of inertia and with little regard for the political cost that its decisions carry. It would be a small but significant move toward putting the country on a new footing – one where Greeks expect their government to make policy, not grant favors.

As the EU and the International Monetary Fund wait in the wings, ready to be called on should they need to assist Greece, it’s becoming ever clearer that the next few months and years are not just about reducing the public deficit or debt – they are an opportunity to initiate a change of mentality.

Some of the measures themselves will prompt a different mindset. For instance, making people collect receipts to qualify for their tax-free allowance might have a reasonable impact on tax evasion but it will have an immeasurable effect on changing people’s attitudes to collecting proof of payment. Those who were once embarrassed to ask for a receipt will soon do it by habit — abiding by the law, rather than breaking it will become the norm.

With or without the help of the EU or the IMF, the economic battle will eventually be won but Greece’s future won’t depend just on that. It will be decided by the outcome of the psychological war – the fight to conquer the hearts and minds of the Greeks, where collecting receipts, paying tax and rediscovering the necessity of living within certain means will be vital.

It appears there’s a much more positive attitude to some of these measures than many would have expected. A number of opinion polls have shown support for the core of the government’s policies running at 60 to 70 percent. It’s worrying that this level of consensus should not be mirrored on the country’s political scene: After briefly providing PASOK with limp backing, New Democracy and its new leader Antonis Samaras have chosen to revert to the traditional role of Greek opposition parties, which is to lambaste, negate and obfuscate first and ask questions later.

Tempers between the two parties have been raised further by PASOK’s decision to table a proposal in Parliament this week for MPs to investigate how economic statistics were compiled between 2004 and 2009 – the period that ND was in power. The conservatives have hit back by saying any probe should go back to the early 80s, when PASOK was first elected to government.

It has often been said that Greeks get the politicians they deserve but it seems the current crisis has generated a maturity among the country’s citizens that is not reflected in the people that lead them. On PASOK’s part, going back over ND’s five years in power is irrelevant and a waste of time. There is only one question that needs to be answered and that is why a conservative government estimated in the spring of 2009 that the deficit for that year would be 3.7 percent of GDP and by the fall, the socialist government had revised the figure to 12.7 percent. If the country is to regain any credibility or trust within the EU, then it must answer this question. ND’s suggestion of delving back into the 1980s is ridiculous. All we’ll find there is ancient history and Greece has enough of that already.

If Papandreou is to truly make his mark by presiding over a change of mindset in this country, then he must push for a different mentality within Greek politics. The inertia that holds the system hostage will not allow this change to happen naturally, as it appears to be happening among normal citizens.

Papandreou has to be the instigator. Like T.E. Lawrence, he has to throw caution to the wind and maybe ponder one of the British army officer’s most famous quotes: “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.”

For Greece, the dreaming is over. It’s up to Papandreou now to shake those around him from their slumber and get them to rub the dust of time from their eyes.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 26, 2010.

Sovereign territory

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“Sovereignty is rather like virginity: You either have it or you don’t,” a wise man told me some years ago. If this is the case, then, in an age when sexual morals are more lax, it seems fitting that there are only few, if any, states that can truly claim to be sovereign.

For the last few decades, a number of transnational factors — capital, migration, environmental degradation, communication, technology and even terrorism — have chipped away at states’ sovereignty. Rather than a case of “wham bam thank you ma’am,” it’s been a series of long, complicated dates that have led to the same, inevitable outcome.

Of course, there are still moments when sovereignty can be lost in a flash — for example, when Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive last Friday transferred operations at the airport in Port-au-Prince to the USA to speed up the earthquake relief effort. The scale of the disaster that hit the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation meant that Bellerive had little choice than to put his faith in the Americans. Nevertheless, handing control of your country’s airport and air space to another state is a landmark moment when one assesses the withering sovereignty of nations.

Greece is inextricably linked to Haiti, as the island state was the first to recognize the Hellenic Republic as an independent country in 1822. But over the past few days, the two countries have had something else in common: Greece also saw its sovereignty vanish, albeit under less horrific circumstances.

While preparing its Stability and Growth Program, which was officially presented to eurozone members on Monday, Greece essentially gave up control of its economy, and therefore its sovereignty. The measures that Athens intends to adopt as part of the four-year economic recovery plan were written here but they were dictated from other European capitals, even though the onus is on Greece to solve the problem on its own. “It would be wrong to presume or let Greece presume that the other countries could solve its problems,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of eurozone finance ministers or Eurogroup.

The death stare that Juncker fixed on Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou during Monday’s eurozone meeting was both humiliating and frightening. It was confirmation that Juncker, a career politician who has been at the heart of EU developments for many years, intends to watch the Greek government like a hawk. But he won’t be satisfied with just monitoring Athens’s movements. He’s already shown he’ll test the limits of Greek sovereignty. It was Juncker, rather than Papaconstantinou, who last week got in touch with International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn to discuss whether Greece could use some financial help. “We think IMF assistance to Greece would not be opportune or welcome,” said Juncker after the chat.

“It’s nice of him to let us know,” the Greek minister might have thought. Well, he’d better get used to it because Juncker won a fresh 30-month mandate as the Eurogroup chief on Monday and the 55-year-old is the kind of technocrat who believes Europe’s strength lies in closer integration, a concept that allows little prospect for EU member states to make decisions independently. In a letter circulated to the eurozone finance ministers this week, the Luxembourger said he wants the Eurogroup “to pursue broader economic surveillance” of its 16 members. Greece’s recklessness and untrustworthiness means other countries could soon suffer the ignominy of outside interference in their economies.

Getting its figures right, cutting costs and generating revenues were never Greece’s strengths — but even so, relying on its European friends to prescribe a way out of this mess seems a high price to pay. It’s difficult to know what’s more galling: the fact that Greece’s ministers are being hauled before Juncker and similar EU officials like errant schoolboys or that it’s now been confirmed in black and white, in page after page of reports, that Greeks are truly incapable of exercising their sovereignty.

If we are to take anything positive from this sobering experience it’s the hope that our European partners have a better idea of what to do than we ever did but, more importantly, that we now have a chance to regain trust and rebuild confidence. Although there are many trials and tribulations that come with a loss of sovereignty or virginity, a loss of dignity will always be more painful. But, unlike virginity and possibly sovereignty, dignity can be restored.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on January 22, 2010.