Greece: At Austerity’s End?
The glory of Greek philosophy and poetry is as distant a dream as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, but the elections in Greece prove that popular representation may still be able to counter unprecedented austerity measures and help avoid a failed state within Europe, if it’s not too late, writes Boštjan Videmšek from Athens.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012. 9:00 am. 77-year-old, Dimitris Christoulas, yells in the middle of Syntagma Square – the emotional centre of the Greek protests against the government’s ineptitude to deal with the crisis. The old man screams towards the parliament, denouncing the fact that his debt will now have to be paid off by his children and grandchildren. Then he leans against a tree and shoots himself in the head.
5,000 calls to Athens suicide hotline in 2011, double the 2010 figure. 25% increase in homelessness over the past 3 years (April 5, 2012, BBC)
This desperate Greek pensioner carries heavy symbolism. His suicide evokes the spirit of the Czech patriot Jan Palach, 21, who on January 16, 1969, set himself on fire in protest of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, which is also strongly evocative of the self-immolation of Mohammed al-Bouazizi, the Tunisian grocer who triggered off the Arab protests.
“We are the first victim of the financial world war. He had been occupied by the European markets and international financial institutions who are out to dismantle what is left of the welfare state and turn us all into slaves. What you can see today is only the beginning of a major upheaval. They are not only taking away our way of life, they are robbing us of our dignity.” said 60-year-old businessman named Yannis Michalopoulos inside his furniture shop beneath the Acropolis, one hour after … suicide.
Mr. Michalopoulos went on off on a diatribe about the demise of civilization, the lack of hope for the younger generations, and the suffering of both legal and illegal immigrants. In his opinion, the crisis has gone on for far too long to still be called a crisis. Big business was consistently and very successfully enacting the “shock doctrine” only it no longer needed to confine itself to exporting it to places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Chile.
Welcome to the Third World
Greece is being transformed into a classical third-world country. In March 2012, the unemployment among the young reached fifty percent. The welfare state is vanishing at a shocking pace. In the last months, the European monetary institutions made the Greek politicians cut pensions by 200 euros on average. The minimum monthly wage fell from 800 to 568 euros. Some 15,000 public-sector employees are bound to lose their jobs in 2012. The state is shrinking on every level – the health and education sectors are the ones taking the most beating.
The private sector is even worse. No one is paying attention to the dutiful bleatings of the once-powerful unions anymore. Owners and managers have embraced the crisis as a tailor-made alibi to cut all sorts of costs. The streets of Athens are filled with beggars and the new homeless. A year ago, many were living in suburban comfort. Now, Greece is turning into a German protectorate and a guinea pig for the ‘modern economy’, a doctrine stitched from the worst parts of U.S. neo-liberalism and Chinese capital-communism.
A third of the unemployed among the young have a university degree. In Greece, only those with health insurance can get the social assistance – and since most of the young have only held temporary jobs without benefits, welfare checks are a lavish dream. No wonder the especially gifted are leaving the country – much like under the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Once the cradle of democracy, now 85 percent of the Greek students abroad have no plans to return to their homeland.
Even unemployment offices are being shut down. This is not because – like the governmental institutions – they have run out of money, but rather because they simply have nothing to offer job-seekers, not even good advice.
The same goes for humanitarian organizations. George Protopapas, the head of the NGO called SOS Children’s Villages which aims to help abandoned children, claims that humanitarian organizations are now providing as much as a half of the social services that should be provided by the state. Then again, most of these organizations are also about the shut down due to looming bankruptcy.
The same also goes for about half of all Greek privately-owned companies, so it is little wonder that tax revenues are dropping dramatically and countless workers are being fired. All of the above makes an incipient social bomb which is bound to go off.
Greece is still one of the biggest European importer of weapons. According to the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) from Stockholm, Greece has been the EU’s number one importer of weapons between 2007 and 2011. It has also, coincidentally, been the German military industry’s best customer. Last year, in spite of the crisis, the Greek government bought 13% of Germany’s and 10% of France’s entire weapon exports in 2011.
Not surprisingly, the streets of Athens are seeing the intensification of police violence. The ones getting the worst repression are refugees and immigrants. In an increasingly xenophobic Greece, both are demonstrably worse off than elsewhere in the European Union. In Greece, most are worse off than back home, where they were not targeted by organized extremist gangs.
Many of these gangs operate within the framework of the Golden Dawn movement, which entered the parliament with 21 seats during general elections on May 6 with almost 7% of the vote. The members of the movement have been known to greet each other with the Nazi salute. Their emblem is also reminiscent in part of the German swastika.
Omonia Square lies a kilometer away from key tourist attractions and turns into a savage theater of survival at night. The narrow streets are filled with junkies in their final stages – half-naked walking corpses shooting their doses into their necks or thighs. Stray dogs and prostitutes stroll among them, some of the latter are clearly underage. Homeless beggars sleep in front of the 50 cent shops peddling pathetic merchandise.
As many as 25 immigrants live in a single decrepit apartments. Many dwellings are up for sale, but no one is buying. The walls are covered with posters declaring the supremacy of the white race and exhorting the Greek population to reclaim their land. Next to them: propaganda of the Greek communist party (KKE), which never really distanced itself from the Soviet school of socialism and whose younger members can often be seen wearing Stalin T-shirts.
»This is a furious fight for survival. The police are chasing immigrants. The neo-nazis are beating them up. The situation is deteriorating. The financial crisis is the best conditions for the flourishing of extremist movements inspired by all kinds of fascism. Immigrants are guilty of everything. They have to prove their innocence, but they have no rights. Here in Athens, I’m seeing images that I only got to see in warzones« said Dr. Nikitas Kanakis, head of the Greek branch of the Doctors of the World, who was based in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Protests that Change Nothing
The peaceful and dignified protest commemorating the 77-year-old suicide started in near perfect silence, but quickly deteriorated into what is now a typical scene in the streets of Athens.
Members of special police units, taunting protesters with insolence and impunity, were hit by stones and sporadic Molotov cocktails. The wind brought a cloud of tear-gas that had been fired by the policemen in front of the Greek parliament before the demonstration had even begun. People of all ages and social standings were crying, sneezing and cursing.
The demonstrations in front of the parliament have been going on for almost four years and nothing has changed. Less and less people turn up for the protests. Hundreds of thousands are forced to devote their energies to the most basic survival.
“It’s getting worse every day. They’re slowly wearing us down. We have no other option than to stay on the streets and keep fighting for our rights. At this stage, we really don’t have that much to lose. We’ve become a German colony and a prisoner of the international monetary institutions. Our country is being run by foreign banks. Even our prime minister is a banker,” said Bill Papadoupoluos, a protester from the medical staff employed in the private sector.
Bill is working as a nurse at a private clinic, but he had not been paid for the last five months. Many of his colleagues are doing even worse. Some of them had not received their salaries for up to thirteen months:
“This strike was organized to force our employers into renewing the contract with our union. Most employers have made a cartel pact with EU blessing to turn us into wage-slaves. They took away our traveling expenses and lunch compensations. They have cut all salaries to the minimum wage, but that doesn’t really matter since they stopped paying us! Our savings are gone. Our parents help us. We cannot hold out for much longer.”
When the medical staff went on strike, so did the archeologists. Greece has almost completely stopped its excavations and has essentially cut ties with its glorious past. In front of the Greek national bank, a crowd of exhausted pensioners protests. They repeated that a fellow pensioner had committed suicide in their name, but many claimed it was murder committed by the politicians and various monetary predators. One of the messages left by the mourners on the now ominous tree in the middle of the Syntagma Square reads: “This wasn’t suicide. This was murder!”
“In the space of two years,” was the estimation of Alexis Cipra: “after a painful cycle of failure of the stabilization programs, we have been led to the point where our country is so looted that it is facing complete bankruptcy. In practice, this means lost lives, no dignity and no future.”
Cipra, 38, is the president of the SYRZIA party – a coalition of left-leaning political movements. A young politician is convinced that on the pretext of the debt crisis, a brutal experiment is being conducted. In his opinion, ‘big capital’ and the key EU institutions are testing a society’s capacity to function without salaries, without social justice, without public wealth.
“If this experiment is successful, they will try to force this project onto the whole of Europe. But they can already see the Greek people are not going to keep their cool for much longer. The parties that consented to this project are sinking. Society is in turmoil. The plan is to strip Greece of all its productive resources and public wealth. The plan is for the ‘indigenous’ people to start working for miserable wages and without any laws to protect them,” explained Cipra.
He had no doubts about the crisis’ origins: “It is definitely a plan cooked up by the international capital, but it has been wholeheartedly embraced by our national capitalists as well. Luckily, it looks like they failed. The crisis of a country which is responsible for 2% of the Eurozone’s GDP is now threatening to topple the entire European edifice. Big business’ greed has exceeded all limits and has actually taken on auto-destructive dimensions. The people realized this very fast, but it seems that the capitalists will be the last to get it. The only hope is the resistance that comes from society. Either markets or people will prevail.”
The leader of Greek leftists claims that jumping out of the eurozone is not the solution. First of all, that would only benefit those who have already accumulated wealth. Also, by doing this, the Greek people would puss away and transform themselves into enemies of people who are today their allies. Cipra claims that “we need to overturn the balance of power, to put an end to the neo-liberal dogma and open a new road for a democratic and welfare-minded Europe.”
From the early hours of the morning, a long line of tired and humiliated people are winding towards Sappho Street, where the Doctors of the World organization is handing out parcels of food and medicine. Both a majority of Greeks and immigrants are waiting for their meals while policemen in bullet-proof vests are pacing up and down the street. There is something profoundly wrong with this picture.
In March 2012, the German philosopher Hans Magnus Enzensberger said that in Europe, only anorexic girls are going hungry. Enzensberger’s arrogance not only neglected the hundreds of thousands of immigrants; he also forgot about the sort of lines that can be witnessed on Sappho Street. In the Greek capital, there are at least a dozen such public kitchens.
One out of eleven residents of Athens now goes to these soup kitchens. In 2011, most of those standing in such lines were immigrants. Today, the data provided by the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) shows that at least 70 percent of those queuing are Greeks. No wonder a wall near the city center bears the slogan: “Do not underestimate hunger!”
The kitchens are ill-equipped to keep up with the growing needs of people who recently crossed the poverty line. The same goes for the so-called ‘solidarity clinics’, where kind-hearted doctors offer free services and care for the poor without insurance. A staggering one-third of Greece is living under the official poverty threshold. According to countless predictions, one out of every two Greek families will be poor in about a year.
Greece’s unemployment rate was recorded in January 2012 at 21.7%, compared to 14.7% in January 2011, which makes their increase over the year the largest in the EU27. Source: Eurostat
Does your country have a chance? Author and poet Anastassis Vistonisitis, one of Greece’s most reputable writers, replied: “well, we used to have tremendous growth and countless foreign investors. We were the stars, the center of the world. Money used to be so very cheap. We bought cars and apartments. We launched new companies. No one saved their money. It was such great fun. Happy days, right? We got the Euro, the Olympic games – we grew so fast. And then the hammer fell down. Overnight.”
“At first, we couldn’t believe it. Then we gradually began to sober up. The first wave of cuts went into effect, then the second and the third. The international financial institutions backed us into a corner. When the first representatives of the International Monetary Fund arrived to Athens, I knew we were in deep shit. Wherever those guys go, they bring only penury and destruction. The Greeks are a proud people. Our history is a succession of ups and downs. That’s what makes me optimistic.”
I first met Vistonitis in June 2004, two months before the beginning of the Olympic Games. He was the head of the task force charged with drafting the proposal for the Greek candidacy. Those were modern Greece’s most heady days. The renowned Spanish architect Santiago Caltrava grinned while overseeing the finishing touches on the new futuristic Olympic stadium. The Greek economy was growing by six to seven percent per year. Unemployment was at a record low. Commerce was booming. And the Greek national football team won the European Championship. Athens was a starburst of joy, living their ancient myths.
Greece is now rotting while being kept technically alive. “We are not the only ones to blame for the situation we are now facing. Almost the entire world is in debt. We are far from being the worst case, so I find it a great injustice that we are the only ones paying the price. A number of other European countries are sure to follow. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, even France. When those major players start taking hits as well, all of Europe will be shaken to its foundations.”
“Our politicians have been blindly following Brussels and Berlin. Europe should be grateful to us for accepting its rules, instead of humiliating and insulting us! We could have called China for help. The Chinese wouldn’t hesitate for a minute! Forging an alliance with China is our great strategic weapon that we can use at any time,” explained Vistonitis, who feels that the entire Western world is in crisis.
Government Deficit: -9.1% of GDP or – €19.565 billion
Greece’s Government Debt: 165.3% of GDP or €355.617 billion
Government Revenue: 40.9% of GDP
Government Expenditure: 50.1% of GDP
All figures are accurate as of the end 2011. Source: Eurostat
“It simply can’t go on this way. We’ll all be forced to make some sacrifices, and that is how it should be, but the European elites want to turn us into slaves working for two hundred euros. They want to turn us into Bulgaria or Romania. We are a Mediterranean country which has always been fairly self-sufficient. We have plenty of food, water and sea. Now, through our Cyprus connection, we have plenty of natural gas as well.”
Thus spoke Vistonitis the writer in Monastiraki Square in the heart of Athens. His country, he said, was being demolished, and its people were highly strung-out. “If they keep pushing us toward poverty and despair, then we’ll take the matter into our own hands. We will see if that means getting out of the European Union and the eurozone. But I get the strong feeling that the people will no longer stand for being extorted in this manner. If Europe decides we are to perish, it is sure to perish along with us.”
Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Slovenian newspaper DELO and editor-at-large at Revolve Magazine.