Tag Archives: Greece economic statistics

Greece, land of pain and joy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are rare moments when a thread of togetherness winds its way through a country to lift its everyday burdens. Sometimes, these moments are born from political, sporting or other types of victories. But victories tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in people. It’s usually moments of grief or sadness that stoke the purest of emotions, creating a fleeting sense of community before it’s sucked into the morass of daily stresses and strains.

Greece experienced such a moment last Sunday when the death of singer-songwriter and musician Nikos Papazoglou was announced. He was an unassuming man who made rare public appearances and dodged the media spotlight. The reaction to his death was a reflection of people’s love for his pure and passionate music, but it was also a sign of respect for Papazoglou the human being: as an artist he shunned commercialism and stayed true to his values and as a man he remained humble and generous despite his fame.

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Out of the darkness

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a short audio clip played almost on a daily basis on Skai radio’s political satire program, Ellinofrenia. It’s of Prime Minister George Papandreou saying: “Viva Chile, viva Grecia.” Presumably, it was recorded when Papandreou, then head of the opposition, visited Vina del Mar in Chile last March for a meeting of Socialist leaders. The clip is played randomly during the irreverent show. Its effect is to make Papandreou seem a dreamy globetrotter with an appetite to pursue international contacts rather than solve Greece’s problems. But since the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine last week, those four words have taken on a new life and their abstractness has been replaced by an urgent relevance.

Watching Luis Urzua, the last miner to be winched to safety, sing the Chilean anthem as he stood next to President Sebastian Pinera and the team of rescuers in the early hours of Thursday morning, the parallels between Chile and Greece seemed as crisp and clear as the night air in the Atacama Desert. The Chilean anthem has a line, which seems prescient in the case of the miners who spent 70 days in an underground shelter fearing for their lives: “Either the tomb will be of the free / Or the refuge against oppression.” In this respect, it is very similar to Greece’s national anthem, Dionysios Solomos’s “Hymn to Liberty,” which is also dedicated to the ideal of freedom and contains the lines: “From the graves of our slain / Shall thy valor prevail.”

Freedom is such a highly valued concept in Greece and Chile because they wear the scars of oppression — from outside forces but also from within: Both countries have experienced damaging military dictatorships in their recent histories. But even in 2010, there are still struggles for freedom in Chile and Greece. In the Latin American country, despite the economic prosperity and political stability it has enjoyed over the past two decades, some of its people still feel the tug of history’s shackles. Despite the fact that Chile produces more than a quarter of the world’s copper and that prices for the metal are at a two-year high, bringing the country almost 4 billion euros a month in export revenues, some miners are still not truly free from the exploitation of firms taking deadly risks for profits.

In Greece, freedom has been compromised in different ways. As a result of its irresponsibility in the past, Greece’s economic sovereignty is largely in the hands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund rather than the country’s elected government. While the foreign overseers plot a course for economic recovery, Greece is trying to free itself of the stale ideologies, practices and hangups of the past that held it captive.

It’s in this effort to save itself that the rescue of the Chilean miners provides Greece with food for thought. Speaking of the mesmerizing effort to pull the miners to safety, Chilean writer Isabel Allende said it had been an “odyssey of solidarity,” just as Prime Minister George Papandreou had said Greece was embarking on a “new odyssey” when he announced in April that Athens was turning to its eurozone partners and the IMF for financial assistance. Solidarity, however, has been in short supply in Greece, as opposition parties, unions and even aloof members of government continue to play the same tired roles to which the Greek people have become accustomed over the last three decade. Even at this most crucial hour, there is only the flimsiest of consensus on the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. For instance, the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, have been able to agree on few strands of economic policy, such as the opening of closed professions and the overhaul of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), which is losing 1 billion euros a year. It is hardly as if they have become brothers in arms.

One of the greatest lessons of the San Jose rescue is that when suspicion and anger — as the miners were justified in feeling after being sent into a patently unsafe mine — and scepticism and doubt — as Chile’s government and the rescuers would have felt in launching a seemingly futile rescue mission — are set aside, wonderful things can happen. “It is proof that when men unite in favor of life, when they offer their knowledge and effort to the service of life, life responds with more life,” wrote Chilean novelist Hernan Rivera Letelier in Spanish daily El Pais. But for life, or at least a life worth living, to have a chance of existing, people have to put their faith in each other. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said shift foreman Urzua in his first post-rescue interview.

In Greece, the truth is a rare commodity at the moment. From deficit figures that keep changing to the cagey talk of ministers and the unfeasible promises of opposition politicians, nobody speaks honestly. The failure of our democracy was evident last week right in front of its greatest symbol, the Acropolis. Culture Ministry contract workers protested the non-renewal of their contracts in the hope that this government, like others before it, would cave in and ignore the law limiting such agreements to two years. The government, on the other hand, dodged a face-to-face meeting with the protesters because it had not paid some of them for 20 months.

The rescue is also evidence that for society to function, all its agents need to work together. State mining company, Codelco, led the effort to save the 33 miners, who had been working for a private firm, but it relied on help from other countries and private-sector funding. It was on the basis of this sound structure that the emotional support network for the miners, made up of families, friends, doctors and psychologists was built. “What we have recovered here… is our self-confidence as a nation, and sense of community, of Roman ‘communitas,’ of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbors, our friends, our most efficient [political] representatives,” explained Chilean writer Jaime Collyer. In Greece, the individualism that came with the economic prosperity of recent decades stands as one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Those who for so many years have evaded tax, landed themselves comfortable public sector jobs, enjoyed the privileges of closed professions, lived off state subsidies or simply disregarded the laws of their state are not going to trade this bliss of isolation for the give-and-take of a functioning community very easily. The decision this week of many bar and restaurant owners to flout the recent ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces because they feel it harms their business is evidence of how deeply mired Greece is in the “me first, me only” way of thinking.

The successful rescue of the miners, though, is a reminder of the reward of overcoming fear, selfishness and lack of vision. “We aren’t the same as we were before the collapse on August 5,” said Pinera. “Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world.” Unlike the burst of media interest in the Chilean miners’ plight, Greece has been the subject of prolonged media exposure this year. There were roughly 60 journalists for each miner at the San Jose mine and at times Athens has felt a bit like that with the international media probing every aspect of Greece’s misfortune. It has been uncomfortable but, as Chile has shown, there is no bigger news in the world than a catastrophe being turned into a triumph. “For the moment, Chile has received a reputational windfall,” wrote Mary Dejevsky in UK newspaper The Independent. “It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.” A trickle of positive comments about Greece’s economic reforms has already begun but it can’t compare to the cathartic effect that a deluge of praise would have if the country completes the metamorphosis from pariah to shining example.

Chile experienced a moment of salvation when the miners were lifted safely from the depths of the Atacama Desert. “It started as a tragedy but ended as a blessing,” said Pinera. As a result, the South American country can now look to the future with more hope and its spirits lifted: Viva Chile. For Greece, redemption still seems to be at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It’s now clear that grabbing a lifeline will not be enough — the country needs togetherness and belief to haul itself into the light. Only then will it be in a position to turn to the world and shout: “Viva Grecia.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 22, 2010.

Barbarism at the gates

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Politicians often say things during election campaigns that they later regret. Looking back on his first year as prime minister, George Papandreou must be wondering what possessed him ahead of last year’s October 4 poll to utter – with excruciating regularity – the words: “The money is there.” Unless, of course, by “there” he meant in the back pockets of pensioners, civil servants, motorists and most middle and working class families that are now footing the bill for Greece’s economic rescue effort.

The money was never there and everybody, including PASOK, knew it. This didn’t stop Germany’s Werkstatt Deutschland organization from awarding Papandreou the Quadriga Prize for “Power of Veracity” on Sunday. The award, named after the sculpture of a horse-drawn chariot that sits atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, was in recognition of Papandreou revealing the truth about the state of Greece’s public finances, which seems a bit like giving a lollipop to a child who admits its part in smashing a vase but only after discovering there was nowhere to hide the broken pieces.

Nevertheless, the trip to Berlin may have given Papandreou an opportunity to contemplate one of the other regrettable statements he made before last October’s election. “Socialism or barbarism,” the PASOK leader had said, echoing Marxist activist Rosa Luxemburg, a late resident of the German capital who believed adopting Socialism was the only escape from an unjust existence. Papandreou spoke in a slightly different context, arguing that the global financial crisis was proof that the capitalist model was unsustainable and that a center-left structure, with more emphasis on regulation and the state, should replace it.

However, 12 months on, his dreams of 21st century Socialism have vanished into the same vortex that is consuming the billions of euros Greeks are paying to prevent their country from going bankrupt. In the meantime, the threat of barbarism has become very real.

Some of the measures taken over the last 12 months were undoubtedly necessary and long overdue but the manner in which they are being applied and the IMF/EU market-driven philosophy that underpins them is brutal. While all eyes are trained on safeguarding financial capital, little attention is being paid to the negative effect on social capital.

The recent liberalization of the road haulage sector set a dangerous precedent. Apart from the truck owners themselves, most people would argue that time had run out on the closed-profession privileges the truckers enjoyed for so many years. Yet, it’s unsettling that the forced end to their lengthy strikes – first with a civil mobilization order in the summer and then with legislation threatening truckers with jail sentences in September – should be met with such satisfaction within the government and among some of the public. After all, this was a failure of democracy and had a distinct totalitarian element to it. PASOK backtracked on its promises to the truckers, one of the many groups that have been pampered by successive governments, and then portrayed them as being unreasonable and obstructing progress. Unable to engage in debate and then formulate policy – functions of the democratic systems we uphold and the governments we vote for – PASOK rammed the liberalization through Parliament and down the throats of the truckers. The government’s heavy-handedness throughout the dispute does not bode well for the future.

Greece’s experience is being replicated in other European countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Britain, where citizens are being presented with a fait accompli. Their governments, regardless of political hue, are telling them that austerity measures must be adopted without question. In doing so, elected politicians are not only perverting the very system that put them in power, they’re also sowing the seeds of deep discontent as people grow increasingly aggrieved with the impact of the austerity measures and the lack of alternatives.

The United Nations work agency, the International Labor Organization (ILO), warned last Friday that the global employment market, where 22 million new jobs are needed, would not recover from the crisis until 2015 and that this would only fuel social unrest. “Fairness must be the compass guiding us out of the crisis,” said ILO director general Juan Somavia. “People can understand and accept difficult choices if they perceive that all share in the burden of pain. Governments should not have to choose between the demands of financial markets and the needs of their citizens. Financial and social stability must come together. Otherwise, not only the global economy but also social cohesion will be at risk.”

While scenarios of popular revolution are pure fiction as far as Greece is concerned, the country is no stranger to social unrest. The longer that measures which impact on people’s viability are passed one after the other, with no discussion or effort to present a vision for a better future, the more resentment will fester and the threat of a backlash will grow.

The possible breakdown of social cohesion creates the conditions for another, even darker, reaction to austerity. While understandable to some extent, the glee some citizens and commentators expressed at the abrupt way the government dealt with the truckers is a tell-tale sign that, given the current circumstances, a larger proportion of the population than usual thinks the use of force – psychological or physical – is acceptable. The danger is that the longer the government depends on this tactic, the more people will become accustomed to it and start believing it’s a perfectly legitimate way to run a country and get things done. In Greece, where society has been fragmented for many years thanks to each group pursuing its narrow interests, the flourishing of this mind-set will lead to even graver polarization.

Hungary, which was discovered in 2006 to have been fiddling its economic figures and had until this year been applying the austerity measures prescribed as part of the rescue deal it signed with the IMF, offers a salutary tale for Greece. Earlier this year, the extreme right-wing Jobbik party won 850,000 votes in the parliamentary elections on the back of a campaign that targeted the Roma but also played up the failures of the traditional guardians of power in Hungary, the conservative Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). “The main factor behind Jobbik’s rise has been its ability to make political hay out of popular demand for extremist policies,” writes Peter Kreko for the Political Capital think tank in Budapest. “The primary driver behind extremist sentiment is a decline in public morale: Many Hungarians feel they can no longer trust the political elite or their governing institutions. The other fact is a rise in prejudice, especially toward foreigners.”

So, as Greece takes stock a year on from when Papandreou made his foolhardy election campaign pronouncements, it can draw some timely conclusions from its own and others’ experiences. It’s clear that the money is not there, nor is Socialism. As for barbarism? It’s creeping through the gates.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 8, 2010.

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.