By Jason Iliou
The line from the famous 1998 rock song by the Manic Street Preachers defines a country’s entire generation. My generation. I belong to the thousands of young Greeks who were fortunate enough to flee their home country in time to escape the political and financial chaos that haunts it and drags it down today. But “wherever I go Greece hurts me” as Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis once said. The state the country is in now is a result of years of bad decisions, but it’s not only a political fault. Partly, we are responsible for knowingly digging our own graves. Yet is there room for concrete changes in Greek society, or is the wound too deep to heal?
The fear of a potential “domino effect”, a scenario in which all European countries with severe financial problems would collapse one by one if Greece were to declare bankruptcy, does not seem to have affected most Europeans. The majority of them are still oblivious to how the Greeks are coping with the austerity measures, and whether these measures are supporting the growth of the Greek economy. While the European Union is on the brink of collapse, instead of questioning the system, other European countries, still unaffected by the crisis, limit themselves to stereotyping the Greeks.
-“If the Euro fails, it’s your fault.”
-“Which Island should I buy when your country defaults?”
-“Don’t trust a Greek, he’ll steal your money.”
-“What your country needs is another Junta,” and the list goes on.
Unfortunately, this intended societal detachment from political and financial affairs is currently taking its toll in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even members of the European Union that are fairing well financially. Europeans have grown to care more about gossip and lifestyle news than what decisions are being taken inside the parliament. Sadly, in the aftermath of the second Greek bailout package agreement of 130 billion Euro – which amongst other measures, demands a 22% reduction in minimum wages, a 15% cut in supplementary pensions, as well as 150,000 civil service layoffs by 2015 – the Greeks are still plagued by this very negligence towards political affairs. They have been voting for the same two parties for more than 30 years. The 22-year-long dynasty of the PASOK socialist party and the seven-year-long reign of New Democracy, the centre-right political party, constitute a devious bipartisanship, which has so far dominated the Greek political arena. Two parties are responsible for creating this gaping hole in the country’s economy, with the people’s unconditional support.
These habits have followed the country since the famous Metapolitefsi – the era after the military Junta in 1974. Political corruption and poor political decisions became a widespread phenomenon. During their rule, PASOK and New Democracy created a fiscal economy with very few elements that supported genuine growth. “When the recession knocked on our door, it added to the crisis Greece was already facing. For years, the governments were investing on a fictional economy, instead of a real economy,” said Makis Kavouriaris, an experienced Greek economist and former lecturer at the University of Paris VIII, Saint-Dennis. “Agricultural products like olive oil, feta cheese, fruits and wine had very low export rates compared to what we could have achieved considering our country’s geographical and climate advantages. Instead, all the European subsidies that were intended to boost our real economy were used for all the wrong reasons,” he added.
But before the banking crisis, the majority of Greeks did not care about corrupted politicians, or wrong decisions. In a way, we even supported this corruption by voting blindly in every election. It had infiltrated most parts of the society, and it was fine as long as it got things done. It was the glorification of capitalism, and we were waving the banner of individualism as high as we could. We were on autopilot for approximately three decades. We knew things were bad, worse than bad, but we were apathetic. A medical equivalent of aneurysm. This blood-filled deadly bubble that you have inside you, have been living with it for years, you see it growing, but you don’t take it out, even when you know it’s removable. You just wait for it to pop. And it did.
The scenes that followed portrayed Greece’s three-year-long nightmare. The lingering sense of misery that you feel and witness when you enter Athens is horrifying. Smiling is now a commodity that only a few well privileged possess. Most people walk the streets with no real intent. It seems as if those three years were enough to break the morale, the hopes and the dreams of an entire nation. The city bears no similarity to the city that hosted the Olympics in 2004. Syntagma Square is filled with protesters every second day, black Molotov stains overshadow the monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament, while anti-authoritarian graffiti writings decorate the walls of nearby neo-classical buildings and historic hotels. Crime rates have increased by 111% in one year, police patrols have become less effective, people have vanished from the streets and shops are closing down daily. The toxic smell of teargas from a recent protest depicts a prolonged abominable atmosphere that loiters in the city centre and reveals the general anxiety and grief that most Athenians have been forced to live by.
“This is not our debt to pay” is the outcry that represents the citizens who see their income slashed year by year. According to the Greek Anti-Poverty Network, over 21% of Greeks live in poverty, while unconfirmed government sources talk of a potential rise to 25%. At the same time, Eurostat, the European Commission’s main statistical provider, claims that more than 27% of the country’s population is at risk of facing poverty or social exclusion.
The queues formed outside the Athens municipal centers used for feeding those who cannot support themselves and their families become longer day-by-day. “Before the crisis, food, shelter, clothing, medicine and anything else provided was enough for the people in need. But for the past two years, the municipality’s budget has been reduced, while the demand has gone up,” said Eleni Portaliou, a councilor for the Municipality of Athens, head of “Open City” – a powerful leftist community program aimed to support the citizens of Athens – and current runner for city mayor.
Every action that the municipality takes seems to be insufficient, while food supplies and spaces for shelter run out before everyone has been served. “Students started fainting at school because their families could not feed them. Thankfully, after putting a lot of pressure on the mayor’s office, they took the initiative to launch a limited program of providing food for students”, added Ms Portaliou.
The grim reality sheds light on another group of people, which cannot be measured or counted. The homeless or “the expendables”, as Ms Portaliou called them in a recent article. Wherever you walk around Athens you see them either curled up in a corner, or looking for food in rubbish bins. It is a phenomenon that existed before the crisis, but as soon the country collapsed it blew out of proportion. “These people are a very special category. They don’t talk. They are in a state of great despair. They are a growing part of the society that is destined to die. The municipality on the other hand, instead of creating more shelters, is closing them down due to budget cuts. They don’t want them to be there, they wish they’d just disappear,” she concluded.
But the austerity measures implemented by the government and conceived by the European Union and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in order for the second bailout package to be approved are deepening the blade in a society that is wounded and barely breathing. The forced layoff of 15,000 civil servants by the end of 2012, as well as the widespread meltdown the private sector is facing, have rocketed the unemployment to over 20% (Eurostat). Approaching like a hurricane sweeping up everything in its path, the recession has led to a further shut down of approximately 70,000 small businesses in 2011, while nine out of 10 business owners saw a 43% reduction in sales in the first months of 2012, according to ESEE, the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce.
Harry, a 32-year-old Athenian, who was peacefully protesting with his daughter said: “This is not a political issue anymore. This is a societal issue that concerns all of us. Unintentionally I have to be here. I cannot sit idle on my couch anymore. I feel it is my duty.”
‘’I believe all social benefits are being abolished, all wages are reduced, while everything we buy becomes much more expensive compared to the rest of Europe,” said another protester, Panos, a 60-year-old Engineer, who had camped outside the Parliament for several hours after the law for the second bailout agreement had passed with 190 votes. “Although I do not belong to the majority that has suffered tremendously from the austerity measures, I don’t believe our society can take it anymore. We need elections,” he added.
And there is a great truth in this. The society has suffered ‘soto voce’ through this devastating process. Ever since the crisis in 2009, a lot has changed in the Greek political arena. The government asked for foreign support to pay its debt, the first austerity measures were applied, a temporary coalition was formed, and the second bailout package agreement was reached, along with new, harsher measures for the society. Yet the people have not been given the right to vote or to have a say on their country’s future despite the fact that they’ve been demanding it persistently. After four years of outstanding political and societal changes, social uproar, cracked skulls, and some of Athens’ historic buildings burned down, democracy seems like a forbidden word for the country that invented it.
But, Lucas Papademos’ coalition government is expiring soon, overshadowed by a 3rd memorandum for Greece, expected to be implemented around June. The long-awaited national elections are at the gates, scheduled for possibly the 6th of May. Yet the polls show that the Greeks are divided over the issue of remaining in the E.U. under such terms, an idea that both PASOK and New Democracy strongly oppose, despite numerous cases of political cannibalism within the two parties due to ideological differences caused by the increased European influence in the country and the measures introduced. Papandreou’s poor performance has cost him the PASOK leadership, which has now passed to Evangelos Venizelos. The former Finance Minister of PASOK and the coalition are now facing an uphill struggle to restore the party’s prestige, which shouldered most of the blame for the country’s economic situation. According to polls, New Democracy is the current frontrunner for the elections, but with little chances of forming a majoritarian government, and is most likely to be forced to cooperate with PASOK once more. Notably, the smaller leftist, communist and far-right parties have risen in popularity and are expected to play a significant role in the upcoming elections.
Still, a large part of the population is weighing in on the possibility of Greece leaving the European Union, arguing that both memorandums introduced by the Troika so far, are deepening the crisis by targeting the middle and lower classes, instead of supporting and bolstering the Greek economy. New Democracy’s number two, and former Minister of the Interior, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, said: “I publicly criticize Mr Poul Thomsen (Deputy Director of IMF’s European Department) as a failed technocrat, whom the IMF should seriously consider laying off.” The sexagenarian MP, voted for the second memorandum, but is confident that the country will recover, only with the help of the E.U., as long as the measures are not aimed at the middle and lower classes of the society.
This question does not trouble only the Greeks, but also a lot of experts. World-renowned economist, Nouriel Roubini recently stated that Greece should default, exit the European Union and return to the Drachma. Opposed to this idea, Mr Kavouriaris said: “The people are terrorized by what they see in the media. Leaving the European Union would be disastrous for the country and throw it in a far worse depression. Having said that, these measures cannot possibly strengthen the Greek economy. On the contrary, they devalue the country’s advantages and they create a very cheap workforce. At this juncture, the politicians need to toughen up their negotiations with the lenders,” he added.
But so far, my generation is the one paying the piper from this mess. With one of the worse educational systems in Europe, Greek universities rank among the worse in the world in the Times Higher Education Guide, with the longest hours of attending and inadequate facilities. Another jaw-dropping figure by Eurostat ranks Greece’s youth unemployment the second highest in Europe with 46% in 2011, right below the also debt – stricken Spain (48%). The country’s financial and educational stalemate has forced around 40,000 Greek students – one of the highest ratios in the world in proportion with the country’s population – to migrate in search of a better future. According to a 2009 research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 34.7% (approximately 14,000) of these students study in the United Kingdom, while Greece is also the UK’s 4th highest student provider in Europe, below Ireland, Germany and France.
Twenty-one-year old Sophia Kakali, who has been working in a retail store in London for about a year, and will be applying for a business management course at a London university next year, said: “I came here after I had already made it to University of Macedonia with honors to study logistics, but the whole experience was utterly disappointing. Teachers would not come to lectures, everything looked disorganized, and I felt I deserved a lot more for the effort I had put in the national Greek exams.”
Blueprints for a better society.
A few months ago, I was in a cab, passing by Vassilissis Sofias, one of the most famous avenues in central Athens, a route that I take very often. By the traffic light, right behind the Hilton hotel, I noticed a man in his mid-sixties begging for money. I told the cab driver: “It’s sad that I’m in this cab sitting comfortably, while a man 40 years older than me is asking for help.”
-“This poor man has been here every single day for the past three or four years,” The cab driver replied.
I had never noticed him before. My mind was switched to an ideal world that refused to care about these people, until the changes that happened in the Greek society after the recession, rewired my brain into thinking differently. Ironic as it may sound, there is a great opportunity in this crisis. The Greek society, after years of supporting bad decisions and showing their rather individualistic side, can come out stronger and more united from the recession. And fortunately, there are already signs of change.
A few months ago, IMAKO, one of the largest media corporations in the country declared bankruptcy. Owner, media mogul and TV persona, Petros Kostopoulos, was mainly known for promoting an image of a laid back Greek, who lived the cosmopolitan life of Mykonos, through his various publications, radio programs and websites. Along with him, fashion designers, singers and entrepreneurs share the same fate for years of living the high life, benefiting from a false system, which had led the majority of Greeks in a state of ‘daydreaming’.
But evidently, the society has woken up, and examples of solidarity and humanity are becoming a common phenomenon within, and outside the country. The movement of the “Potato Revolution” is one of them. Greek farmers have found ingenious ways of saving money for themselves and their customers, by creating an organized network, where supermarkets and distributors are excluded. With the backing of the recent international movement “We are all Greeks now,” thousands expressed their support toward their fellow Greeks which, often, is all it takes to keep them going.
We still have a long way to go, and it will be decades before the country stands back on its feet. We’ve been hanging by a thread for a long time, and we’ve suffered from this crisis more than any other nation has. But looking back at the country’s history, Greeks have never tolerated any form of submission and chances are, they won’t do it this time either.
Author’s Bio: Jason is doing his BA in Journalism at the University of Westminster in London. His final year dissertation is on “Christian apocalypticism and how to profit from doomsday prophesies on the Internet. A study in the case of Harold Camping’s May 21st 2011 prophecy”. His interests lie mainly in the field of religion, politics, international security and conflict. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/Jasoniliou.