Tag Archives: Thessaloniki

Walking free or striding to jail?

Papageorgopoulos_390_2802They called him the “flying doctor” due to his sprinting exploits in the 1970s and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras referred to him in the past as an “honest man,” but on Wednesday the only place ex-Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was striding to was Diavata Prison, where he is reportedly sharing a cell with nine rather dishonest men.

Papageorgopoulos and two ex-municipal employees were given life sentences for embezzling some 18 million euros from City Hall between 1999 and 2010, when the New Democracy politician served two terms as Thessaloniki mayor. Papageorgopoulos draped an overcoat over his arms as he left for prison to hide his handcuffs from photographers but it’s difficult to imagine what part of his reputation the 65-year-old thought he was protecting after being convicted of systematically plundering taxpayers’ money for over a decade. Nevertheless, Papageorgopoulos denies any wrongdoing and says he will appeal the decision.

While there is undoubtedly a personal story in all this (the tale of how a man who once competed for medals on the track ended up competing for space in a prison exercise yard), Papageorgopoulos’s spectacular fall carries two significant and wider implications for Greece.

Continue reading

From Zorro to zero

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When then Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis dressed up as Zorro a few years ago and rode through the northern port city on a trusty steed to celebrate carnival season he thought he was sitting pretty, but he was just setting himself up for a big fall.

Psomiadis’s turn as the masked hero was in keeping with his ceaseless attempts to appeal to public opinion’s lowest common denominator while putting himself on the highest pedestal. Now the governor of Central Macedonia, the 63-year-old is in danger of being toppled after a failed appeal against a suspended prison sentence. Psomiadis’s career could come to an end at a time when his particular breed of politician seems to be threatened with extinction.
Continue reading

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

Painting by numbers

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

Thessaloniki – Legend has it that Thessaloniki’s White Tower got its name after a prisoner held within its walls whitewashed the 27-meter tall structure so he could receive his ticket to freedom. For Prime Minister George Papandreou, who failed to impress in the northern city last weekend with a flat economic policy speech and an unconvincing display at a marathon news conference, there was no such hope of liberation from the shackles that bind his government.

On Sunday, whether it was the locals lounging in the cafes at Aristotelous Square, the protesting firefighters marching toward the Thessaloniki International Fair, or the police officers –as ever looking like bored guests at a relative’s wedding – guarding the Makedonia Palace Hotel where the Cabinet had decamped to for the weekend, nobody seemed particularly bothered by what Papandreou had to say.

His appearance simply confirmed what Greeks already knew: tough situation, tough choices, and tough times ahead. But almost a year after PASOK came to power and some six months after it agreed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on a strict plan to tackle its debt crisis, people were entitled to hear something more substantial about where the country will go from here, something to give them hope that a course has been plotted through this economic maelstrom.

Papandreou’s only real note of optimism was in a section of his speech dedicated to Greek entrepreneurs and businesses excelling internationally – proof, the prime minister suggested, that the desire and ability to succeed is strong. Yet, even this attempt to lift the mood rang slightly hollow: one of the companies Papandreou mentioned was a start-up that created iSteam, an iPhone application downloaded by more than 3 million users, but on Tuesday a young entrepreneur involved in the project revealed the firm had been founded in the UK because of the excessive red tape in Greece.

The fact these creative minds were put off by the business environment here says more about Greek reality than the thousands of words in Papandreou’s speech. In fact, there was no indication in what the prime minister said that his government has plans to create a more conducive atmosphere for business, nor an acknowledgment that the terms of the EU-IMF agreement are stifling economic activity. If structural reform, civil service pay cuts, pension reductions, higher taxes and the slashing of public spending are all ingredients of the nasty, but necessary, medicine that Greece has to take, then there has been no move by the government to concoct a potion to combat the ugly side-effects such as negative growth, unemployment, dwindling consumer spending, poor business sentiment and inflation.

All that Papandreou proposed in Thessaloniki was a reduction in tax on reinvested profits and the fast-tracking of foreign investment programs. Both are welcome moves but collectively they fall short of what’s required. It’s hardly the formula to dislodge Greece from 83rd place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which was published last week. Ranked last in the EU and nestled uncomfortably between El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, it will take more than a few common sense measures to thrust Greece onward and upward.

There has been no convincing attempt by PASOK to discover the missing link between structural reforms and the measures needed to stimulate the economy. Instead, Greece faces the prospect of slipping into a vicious circle where a lack of growth would prompt a steady stream of fresh austerity measures to make up for revenue shortfalls. In this scenario, Greece’s fiscal position would steadily worsen and, like a dog chasing its tail, the government would be sniffing out funds just to service its debt and for nothing else. Ultimately, Greece’s credibility on the international financial markets would disintegrate and the whole purpose of entering the EU-IMF fiscal agreement would be defeated.

Trying to get the balance right between fiscal adjustment and growth is an unenviable task and the only saving grace for Papandreou and his government is that they’re not the only ones who don’t have convincing solutions. The opposition parties, for instance, have been heavy on the criticism of the belt-tightening but light on counter-proposals. Foreign experts, meanwhile, are offering suggestions that Greece cannot contemplate politically, such as debt restructuring, default or exit from the eurozone.

The UK is facing a watered-down version of Greece’s problem and critics there have begun challenging the Coalition Government’s drastic deficit reduction strategy. Recently, Ed Balls, a longtime economic advisor to former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, warned in a speech at the Bloomberg financial news service that Osborne’s hefty spending cuts would send Britain into double-dip recession and cause long-term damage. He singled out Greece as an example not to follow, arguing that the spending cuts are undeliverable and that a lack of growth will eventually lead to the markets losing confidence.

“The Greek crisis may have started with concerns over the government’s ability to service its debt but it is now a more fundamental question about whether its economy can grow and its society can remain stable,” said Balls. However he has few useful proposals for Greece. Balls suggests less stringent cuts, spread out over a longer period of time – a luxury not available to Papandreou’s government – and support for a series of programs aimed at boosting employment.

It’s hardly a groundbreaking idea but some kind of apprentice scheme for high school graduates, whereby firms are given financial incentives to take on teenagers would at least be a place for PASOK to start. Papandreou had once been in favor of allowing firms to be excused from paying social security contributions for young hires for a certain period. He might want to reconsider this idea, even though it would be anathema to the left wing of his party, as it would put spending money in the pockets of thousands of teenagers while helping emerging businesses limit their costs. But bolder ideas will be needed. Perhaps the government needs to put the billions spent on feeding, training, housing and transporting Greek youths who have no interest in doing their military service to better use. Why not offer them the opportunity to do community work and spend a fraction of the money on paying them a small wage instead?

However, all this is minor tinkering when major interventions are needed; interventions that will help drive Greek companies forward, that will boost the tourism sector, that will support innovation and that will strip away the bureaucracy which limits entrepreneurship. Greece has been a global economic test case this year and if it manages to find a way to balance drastic fiscal adjustment with economic revival new ground will be broken. Making this happen within the current constraints is an order of massive proportions but that’s what the prisoner must have felt like when, bucket and paintbrush in hand, he stared up at the White Tower. Nevertheless, the job got done and the chains were broken. Maybe there is a positive message to take from Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 17, 2010.

On the road

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a line of graffiti on a bridge on the Thessaloniki ring road that reads: “New Democracy, Kazantzidis, Christ.” Are they the words of a slightly unhinged conservative supporter or an inspired triptych to lead Greece into better days?

Maybe they’re meant to galvanize Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis ahead of his crucial speech at the Thessloniki International Fair on Saturday. If he remembers what New Democracy was meant to stand for when it came to power in 2004, combines it with the stoicism of Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, who sang of pain and hardship, and then seeks some divine intervention, Karamanlis may have a chance of halting his government’s seemingly inevitable slide into obscurity.

For the premier to see this slogan, he would have to drive to Thessaloniki. Instead, he will fly here. It’s a shame, as a drive from Athens to Thessaloniki would have given the prime minister a chance to reflect on where his government has gone wrong in the 5.5 years it has been in power. If he’s to have any chance of staging a remarkable comeback at the next general election, then acknowledging his failings, and those of the people around him, is the minimum necessary.

A drive through Attica, for instance, would be an ideal opportunity to think about how issues such as immigration and waste management have been ignored and are now blighting Greece’s capital. Equally, the inability to protect the city’s dwindling greenery, allowing on its watch thousands of hectares of forest to be destroyed more than once is a blot on the conservatives’ record.

The apparent determination of Public Works Minister Giorgos Siouflias to concrete over much of Attica has strengthened people’s suspicions that the conservatives see the environment something to overcome rather than to protect. Souflias’s announcement this week of a project to build some 80 kilometers of new roads in Attica, just a week after 20,000 hectares of land in the Athens basin were burned to a cinder was crass and gave the impression of a government that’s unresponsive to events.

Heading north out of Attica and into Viotia, Karamanlis will able to ponder further evidence of Greece’s shocking environmental record. Despite countless court decisions, official investigations and prods from the European Union, the Asopos River remains contaminated with poisonous chemicals that seem to be leading to more cases of cancer in the area. Like previous governments, New Democracy has only paid lip service to the idea of cleaning up the river and punishing those that have polluted it.

AthensPlus_Karamanlis_ThessalonikiInstead, it has focused its efforts on a grand and costly scheme to divert the Acheloos River from western Greece to the farming plains of Thessaly, which Karamanlis would pass next on his journey north. It’s a project that only has the support of the farmers in central Greece, a part of the world that Souflias, the minister driving this scheme, hails from.

This government’s inability to reform in any way the country’s agricultural sector and instead, like PASOK did for so many years, to give in to one demand after another simply to buy time and votes is another heavy burden New Democracy must carry into the next elections. It’s something that Karamanlis would be able to think about while passing through the Vale of Tempe, where just this Monday livestock farmers closed the national road to make their demands known and, with alarming speed, have them met by an administration has shied away from necessary confrontation.

This stretch of road is also where in April 2003, 21 schoolchildren were killed in a coach crash. As he passes the small monument erected by the side of the road in their memory, the prime minister could reflect on the fact that were they alive, these children would now be headed for university. But the passing of watered-down education reforms and the lack of conviction to stand by any of the changes the conservatives had envisaged for secondary and tertiary education means that universities are still places of frustration and wasted talent as much as they are of teaching and learning.

And so, Karamanlis would arrive in Thessaloniki, where locals, like in many parts of Greece, will complain that the government has overlooked them when it comes to developing infrastructure and creating jobs. A glimpse of the construction of the northern city’s metro system after years of delays and false starts might raise Karamanlis’s spirits but his constituency is here, he will be aware that this alone will not transform Thessaloniki.

As he passes the picturesque headquarters of the local prefecture, the prime minister might reflect on the fact that his party’s most prominent representative in the northern city, the quick witted, media hungry but devoid of substance Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis, is the type of politician that New Democracy and Greece could do without. Karamanlis’s inability to attract more capable people into his government may be something that he will soon regret.

To reach Thessaloniki, Karamanlis would have traveled on an ever expanding network of national roads. He could perhaps reflect with some pride on the grand public works projects taking place the length of the country. Maybe this is evidence of the progressive Greece, the country that is resistant to economic downturns, impervious to naysayers and blessed with professionals that can get the job done. But then maybe he will reflect again and wonder whether, with the clock ticking on his government’s time in office, a series of construction projects overseen by Souflias is the legacy that New Democracy wants to leave behind.

Unless, the prime minister can come up with some new and convincing ideas very quickly, he will only have kilometer after kilometer of smooth asphalt to look upon as one of his government’s few achievements in more than half a decade of running this country.

Maybe he would be better off flying to Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on September 4, 2009.