Greece: views on the crisis

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The World

ATHENS, Greece — The cover of Golden Opportunity, a magazine featuring classifieds, summed up the Greek zeitgeist perfectly: alongside an advertisement for discounted one-euro pizza was another one for handguns, rifles and machine-guns.

The waves of the financial meltdown have battered Greece for months, but locals expect its real effects to only start showing in the fall, when the first of two additional salaries paid to public sector employees as annual bonuses is withheld.

Central Athens already throbs with daily marches. In immigrant ghettos, knife- and club-wielding gangs of Greek anarchists and far right wingers duke it out over politics and whether immigrants should have the right to live in a country under collapse. Meanwhile, Somali or Kurdish mafia gangs fight over their dominance of the streets or the lucrative heroin and prostitution trade.

The next step, many Greeks fear, is weaponization. Urban guerrilla groups have multiplied and bomb explosions are now a common occurrence — one attack nearly killed a minister in June.

With Greece’s social cohesion at its frailest in decades, this is not just an economic crisis. It is one of values, too.

GlobalPost asked seven very different Greeks their views on where their country is headed.

Nicolas Vernicos, president of the Greek chapter of the International Chamber of Commerce and a shipping magnate.

Nicolas Vernicos. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

I’m the fourth generation of a seafaring family from the island of Sifnos. My great grandfather moved to Constantinople in 1850 and started transporting goods and passengers across Istanbul’s Bosporus Channel, from Europe to Asia. We’re the only bourgeois family whose males have been jailed consistently over four generations for fighting for democracy. Our family tradition is to stay in this country and always fight for better days, especially during the hard times.

I was in jail during the dictatorship of the Colonels in the early 1970s for being an anti-junta activist. My father was a minister in the post-dictatorship national unity government. After the dictatorship, I visited a Palestinian training camp in Lebanon along with my brother who was a deputy in the Greek socialist youth.

I work in Pireas port’s Akti Miaouli, a strip of banks and commercial real estate that is the Wall Street of shipping. Greek businessmen invest in their country and they’re upset because successive Greek governments are afraid to encourage entrepreneurship and allow small, minority unions controlled by the Communist Party to claim that all entrepreneurs are thieves. Businessmen are the most honest people on planet Earth — we are the only group to openly say we are in the business of profit and are not, like politicians, merchants of ideas.

There’s tremendous frustration and anger in Greece today, especially among young people between 15 to 30. I attended the May 5 demonstrations, the day when three people were burned alive in a bank. Just like some people get a rush when they go to a casino, my heart beats when tear-gas canisters are going off.

On Facebook, I came across groups of people chatting about breaking storefronts. I invited them to exchange ideas over coffee. They told me that “we inhabit different worlds and have nothing in common.”

“I want to be educated by you,” I replied.

They have no hope in the current system and their only hope is in shattering everything and starting anew. Women are much more revolutionary. They’re the leaders. There were more women than men giving orders to break shops in the December 2008 riots (that erupted over the shooting by a police officer of a 15-year-old student).

When 16 and 17 year olds who had no intention to riot hear female voices covered by hoods or bandanas shouting “Motherfucker, break the storefronts,” they can’t help but pick up a stone and hurl it. I try to re-educate them by asking them if they want their country to become like Albania, a closed, isolated society.

For the first time we have a team managing Greece that doesn’t care about political gain, they just want to do the best for their country. They really don’t care about being re-elected. The problem is that we’re sailing in uncharted waters. It’s all happening for the first time and they’re not experienced captains.

Like most children of politicians, [Prime Minister George] Papandreou knows better than all of us the weaknesses of his father [former socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou] and wants to be different. However bad politicians may be, people flee back to them at a time of crisis. My generation restored democracy to Greece. It is up to this generation to restore the rule of law.

Anonymous, Cameroonian living in Greece since the 1970s.

Cameroonian migrant. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

Greeks are ridden by the kind of complexes that weak peoples have. Because they have constantly received invaders in their history, they’re constantly on the defensive. It’s the only country that makes a national celebration out of saying “No” [to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italian army during World War II].

The Greeks won’t change their attitude but the Franks of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] expect them to change behavior. They think they can achieve this because, this time, the Westerner is footing the bill. But for the Greeks it’s losing face. However embarrassed they feel about all the money they squandered, they still feel humiliated now that they are being treated disrespectfully.

Greeks are superficial. They wear their university degrees like earrings. For them, it’s more comme il faut than substance. Now they’ll become more racist but this doesn’t have to do so much with the fact that they’re Greek as with that there’ll be less to share around. Afthonia [Greek for plenty] has less to do with plenty itself as with the lack of spite [in Greek, fthonos means spite, the 'a' negates it].

Essentially, they’ve accepted defeat. They’ll spend less, turn to religion more because what’s happening is huge; it’s on the scale of an earthquake.

Mata Fafouti, 41, psychiatrist who left Greece six years ago.

Mata Fafouti. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

I left Greece to work in England several years before the crisis but, even then, I felt great uncertainty about my professional future because of the lack of meritocracy.

If, as a young doctor, you wanted to end up working in your specialization, in return you got poor pay and appalling work conditions. Many doctors lived off unemployment benefits. I was in a cul de sac because I knew that I either had to enter this corrupt system or go unemployed.

I feel much better for having left Greece. Both in the U.K. and France there’s a meritocracy and if you work hard and offer to society, then you’re treated accordingly. In Greece they make you feel foreign, much more so than I was made to feel in London.

There was a crisis in values that was becoming more obvious. We’d already started being racist and believed that we were a chosen people. We lived in the bubble of plastic money and fake luxuries without making a single investment in our future or our society.

Now our best option is to make an investment in the future. Otherwise there’ll be uncontrollable social explosions. We’ve lost the means to express ourselves, our horizons are narrower and this will give birth to a blind violence. It’s very likely that this blind fury will express itself in more violence directed towards immigrants and a far worse daily reality. Those who have education and are the country’s future are abandoning it. So who will stay behind? Thieves and robbers?

Mihalis Halidonidis, taxi driver.

Mihalis Halidonidis. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

We taxi drivers are the people that work the most but get paid the least. The public sector is truly lazy. But those working in the private sector are not. My wife works as a nurse at a clinic. Three women deliver 22 babies a day. I work 12 hours a day driving this taxi. We Greeks are not lazy people.

I used to make up to 1,800 euros a month last year, when people were still going out, but now the streets are dead at night and I’m down to 800 a month. My wife went from 1,200 euros to 900 and is on a short-term contract that may not get renewed.

Things will get bad, real bad. Athens will become a machine of a city, grounding up its people into meat. People will eat each other up. The robberies will begin. Those immigrants who can leave will and those who remain will be criminals itching for the confrontation to start. I already know people who own a rifle and keep it in their house.

But ultimately, this crisis will be good because we Greeks had become deracinated. If we can drown some of our politicians, then we should do it. People are complaining not because their bread is being taken but because of the ridiculous levels of government corruption.

[Prime Minister George] Papandreou is not so much a Keynesianist as influenced by the IMF and surrounded by neoliberalists. We should have taken the money the Chinese and Russians offered to loan us at 3 percent, but Papandreou came under pressure from the West to accept its terms.

Nikos Papandreou, novelist and brother of the Greek prime minister.

Nikos Papandreou. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

What was the alternative to going to the IMF? Not being able to pay salaries as of July 1 and have chaos?

[Prime Minister] George [Papandreou]’s approach is to make all the tough changes in the first year and then absorb the political cost. The Greek media doesn’t help because they don’t challenge the popular impression that this is the fault of just the 300 members of parliament sitting in the debating chamber and not of the whole of society. And the foreign media show a riot in a corner of Athens that lasts for an hour and suddenly the headline is “Athens In Flames!”

The IMF coming in was a huge shock. Not that people didn’t have a sense that the country’s indebted, but nobody was doing anything about it. Of the 320 billion euros of debt, 100 billion was run up in the past five years [of center-right government]. There was a huge party, we thought we’d wake up and there’d be a janitor there to clear up. Now we’ve woken up and realized that we’re the janitors!

The previous government hired up to 100,000 people. We need to bring people back into the political process regardless of their political affiliation. So we just put 5,000 civil service positions on the internet and started hiring people based on the best [curriculum vitae], something unique in Greek history.

What’s going to happen is a shift at how people look at themselves. In the States, if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. In Greece, you’re a "kakomoiris" [a poor, helpless guy]. And if you win, you must have stepped on someone; you’re a crook. The good part of this is that it protects the weakest portion of society. The bad aspect is you’re never weaned off and there’s no stigma if you don’t enter the workplace till you’re 30.

I think George’s days are endless. He doesn’t sleep much. The first six months were exhausting. Thankfully he’s in good physical condition. He says, “I may be a one-term prime minister. So be it. But I need to do the best for the country and take the political cost.” Here’s someone who’s not fluffing it, he’s taking it on the face. Maybe in 10 years the Greek people will recognize what he did.

Constantinos Antonopoulos, CEO of INTRALOT, a firm specializing in automated gambling games.

Constantinos Antonopoulos. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

A few years ago, I was under a lot of pressure to buy these exotic toxic products that I didn’t get. If someone with a mathematical background like myself couldn’t understand them, I was thinking that something was wrong. But at the time everyone called me conservative and not a good businessman because I wasn’t leveraging the company enough. I was being advised to take debt to the company and give value to my shareholders. Why should I do that, I thought? The next day they would all sell and leave.

And that’s what was happening on a grander scale in Greece: we were living by borrowing money. We followed the western style of growth by leveraging the country, the companies and the people but without producing as much as the others. And this in a society where our parents’ generation considered getting a loan shameful.

If the U.S. wants to take that model, that’s fine, because they have their own currency and can devalue. But we can’t pull it off.

If we take Greece as an enterprise and examine its balance sheet, sales are less than expenses and there’s a big debt. But if I could bring an American CEO, of the type who like to save companies, and task him with turning the country around, he would love his job because there’s a lot he could do.

You don’t need a million people in the public sector. And Greece is not like Portugal where most of the money’s on the table: it has a gray economy that makes up 40 percent of its real economy and incredible unexploited assets. Legalize the gray economy and you have a larger GDP and greater tax income. Everyone here is a freelancer who tax evades — not just electricians and plumbers but also doctors and lawyers.

This country has signed a contract with the IMF and the EU that we will deliver something within three years. We did this once before, signing a contract with an independent international body called the IOC [International Olympic Committee] in order to deliver a large project [the Athens 2004 Olympics] against regular, quarterly inspections, complete with yellow and red cards.

This "company," Greece, achieved a similar situation six years ago. We passed a special law that allowed investments to be run efficiently without involving searches for antiquities and other this-and-that. So now we need to run another Olympic Games. What we need is people from the private sector to run things.

Say we accomplish 100 projects successfully, the psychology of the entire investment community will turn. Greece is the most beautiful empty land; bureaucracy has turned it into Jurassic Park! Imagine having those Four Seasons resorts in our islands for which permits were never granted! The crisis has changed the people’s mentality and everything that was untouchable before can now be done because the people are panicking.

The paradox is that they’re telling us that a society cannot live without a banking system. Yet it’s that same banking system that’s attacking our economy! Nobody is shorting Greece for Greece’s sake. They’re attacking the euro to drive it lower. Even in Brussels, no one is admitting it but they all want a weak euro.

They pretend the reason for the drop is the wealthy northerners bailing out the weak south but $1.50 to the euro is also bad for exports. Don’t forget that Greece is holding just $8 billion of CDS loans — that’s peanuts!

Giannis Giokas, 31, is one of the youngest members of parliament and represents the Communist Party. The son of schoolteachers, he donates his salary to the Communist Party. Greece has the most vigorous Communist Party in Europe. It holds 22 out of 300 seats in parliament.

Giannis Giokas. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

We in the Communist Party of Greece believe that people are not responsible for this deficit and debt. The crisis is an opportunity in order to move faster on implementing tough measures that hit workers and are being put in place in Portugal and Spain too.

Greece is caught in a struggle between two great powers and rival economic systems — the spending model of the U.S. and the thrift-based system of Germany. Our country is in the crossroads between the Middle East the Balkans and North Africa and where the contradictions between multinational companies and big capitalist countries come through.

In the past two years, billions were given from state budgets to support banks and other big monopolies through direct support or tax breaks. The 22 million euros given by the previous government to banks could have gone to education, salaries and pensions. We don’t agree with the idea that the banks are too big to fail, especially when they are still making millions in profits.

The idea that somehow it’ll be in the favor of the people if we return to growth and development is another illusion. Between 2002 and 2008, Greece had a high development rate that was above the eurozone average. But that time coincided with the greatest attack on social, educational and labor rights.

It’s time to discuss another way of development that’ll serve people’s needs and not the capitalist class. We call it a people’s economy, where the means of production will be under social and not private ownership — and the economy will be centrally planned because crisis is inevitable in an economy characterized by anarchy.

The Communist Party is fighting for the disengagement of our country from the EU and organizations like NATO because we don’t think that its engagement is in the favor of the Greek people. Any recovery under present conditions will be weak and will prepare a more acute future crisis. Wars, famines and other crises will continue and become even more pronounced in the future.

If this crisis has shown something, it is the historical limits of this system as described by Marx and Lenin. The big question is, what will it be replaced by? Will it be a more adjusted form of capitalism?

It’s a tradition here in Greece to adopt the worst measures during the summer because people are in a holiday mood. But when September comes and they have to buy things for their children to go to school, they will realize how bad the situation is.

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