Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Divided Greek Voters Avoid Instant Doom, but Assaulted Immigrants Do Not: Business as Usual Means Some Hope, and More Fear

Divided Greek Voters Avoid Instant Doom

"Mommy!  Nothing is happening!" called my daughter.  She wasn't talking about the situation in Greece.  But last week's election results didn't differ drastically from those of the May 6 elections.  This will probably mean the usual political squabbling with few systemic improvements, the usual worsening economic situation (layoffs, salary cuts, tax increases, no growth), and the usual lack of hope--unless the European Powers That Be allow some of the changes to Chancellor Merkel's favored austerity package which the new coalition government will request from the Troika (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund).  There doesn't seem to be clear agreement about what will happen with all of that just yet.  

The large hand-made white banner at a nearby traffic circle still reads "MEMORANDUM = CATASTROPHE" (referring to the memorandum of understanding, the bailout package for Greece).  This appears to be a common opinion in Greece, in spite of the slightly larger number of votes received by the old-guard conservative centrist party in favor of the bailout, New Democracy, vs. the newer Coalition of the Radical Left that's against it, SYRIZA.  At least we don't seem likely to lose the euro or descend into all-out chaos at the moment, given the bonus in parliamentary seats awarded to the party with the most votes (according to Greek law), plus the conservatives' possibly fragile coalition with the socialists in PASOK and another small, more recently established leftist group, the Democratic Left.  Unlike last month, Antonis Samaras of New Democracy did manage to "form a government" last week with the coalition and a substantial majority in parliament, lending some degree of stability to the country for the moment.  However, Alexis Tsipras (also called "Chipras" in the U. S.) of SYRIZA promises to remain in an oppositional position.  I expect this to mean fierce protests--including numerous strikes--against any proposed layoffs, salary or benefit cuts, or tax increases required by the Troika as a condition of economic aid for Greece.  The future of the euro and of Greece remain unclear, with everyone here (and many elsewhere!) looking to Chancellor Merkel and her European and IMF colleagues for some relief from excessive, anti-growth austerity measures. 

Political parties continue their efforts to avoid blame for what may happen here:  SYRIZA refused to join the governing coalition, and PASOK and the Democratic Left decided not to recommend their most prominent politicians for cabinet positions.  Even the first proposed finance minister, Vassilis Rapanos, seemed to be hesitating, to his very core, about whether to accept such an undesirable job, as he entered the hospital due to an unidentified illness last weekend.  He ended up turning down the job before he had even started it, but the subsequent confusion subsided fairly quickly, as another respected economist accepted the position.  I sympathize with Mr. Rapanos; I would not want the job, either, even if I were qualified, and it must be difficult to regain one's health in the midst of such pressure and worry.  The situation has a similarly negative effect on many of us who are not asked to fix the problems of a country, a continent, or a world economy.  No, that's not all the Greek finance minister's job, and yes, many others' decisions are involved (especially those related to Spain, these days), but what happens here obviously affects the rest of it.  In his Economix blog for The New York Times, Floyd Norris contrasted the Socialists who won a parliamentary majority recently in France with the new Greek government: "One difference is that the victors in France will be able to govern."  On the other hand, even before the Greek coalition government had been formed, Mr. Norris suggested that "we know the policies it will pursue. They have been set in Brussels and Berlin" (Get the Speculators).  Well, we'll see if any of them can be revised. 

In an amusing little article in the online English language edition of one of Greece's leading dailies, Pantelis Boukalas suggested, "If a public opinion poll of every Greek were possible just minutes after the announcement that both the new prime minister and the finance minister were facing health problems, the most likely result would be: 30 percent would say it’s a bluff, 30 percent would say it was a conspiracy, 20 percent would say it was all for show, 18 percent would believe it to be a setup and 2 percent wouldn’t respond" (A smorgasbord of theories).  In other words, Greeks are cynical, and they have little faith in their new government.  On the other hand, the American Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has repeatedly provided useful correctives to blame-the-lazy-corrupt-Greeks arguments, for example in last week's discussion in his New York Times Op Ed column (Greece as Victim).  Krugman acknowledges the faults of many Greeks, and of the Greek government and its current politico-economic system, but he argues that these faults are no worse than those of Floridians, Texans, Mississippians, Swedes, or (get this!) Germans, in certain ways.  Yet Krugman writes parenthetically in his latest column, "[f]orget about Greece, which is pretty much a lost cause; Spain is where the fate of Europe will be decided" (The Great Abdication).  Unfortunately, not all of us can forget about Greece, important as the fate of Spain now is to the world economy.  We live here. 

In Greece, Business as Usual Means Some Hope, and More Fear

I was brushing my teeth last Friday night when I heard a roar of cheers erupt outside the bathroom window.  There was no one outside the bathroom, nor in the garden or the neighbors' gardens.  What I heard was cheers for the Greek national soccer team's first goal in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals game against the German team--cheers that must have been heard around the country.  During the second goal, I was picking chewing gum off my son's blanket.  I didn't hear cheers that time; still down by two goals late in the game, Greece no longer had much hope of beating Germany.  I don't care much about sports, but I considered that loss--likely as it was--a pity, given how badly Greeks needed something to cheer them up.  That wasn't just a soccer game; it was a missed chance for a desperately needed catharsis.

Around mid afternoon on Saturday, downtown Chania was hot, quiet, and calm.  (Our city's name is also spelled, and more properly pronounced by non-Greeks, "Hania," or hahn-YAH.)  With stores closed for the weekend by 3:00, as usual, even most of the immigrants we often see in a central playground and park must have found their way either to beaches or out of the country.  A few solitary men were sleeping on benches, a few families with children shared the playground, and one family with unusually dark skin for Crete was feeding leaves to a baby goat in one of the park's animal cages and sitting on the shaded grass to eat.  There was hardly more activity in the Old Port, the city's major tourist attraction, with its picturesque lighthouse, marina, and Venetian arsenal and shipyards, plus narrow cobblestoned alleys full of restaurants, cafes, tourist shops, hotels, and homes.  A waiter at one of the better restaurants said business had been slow.  Tourism was fine in May, but there were many cancellations in June due to political and economic confusion and fears; he hopes for improvement in July.  He probably saw more action after dark on Saturday night, when the cooled-off port area came to life, as people who'd escaped to beaches during the day filled the open-air bars and restaurants.  Competition for our parking space was keen and antagonistic as D and I left at the ridiculously early hour of 11:00 p.m. to relieve our babysitter.  The packed outdoor restaurant where we'd joined friends for a rare (for us) night out showed no signs of an economic crisis, although the older Greek woman sitting next to me pitied me for living in Greece when it's at its worst.  Her husband had been offered a job in Dubai two years ago, and she wished he'd taken it, but they hadn't known, then, that things would get so bad in Greece.  The woman across from me, just married, cheerful, and friendly, said she didn't think things could get any worse here, so she tries to hope things will get better.
As we wonder what will happen to this country and everyone in it, people carry on with daily life:  they go to work if they still have jobs, or care for homes and kids; they drive children to activities, swim in the sea, meet with friends, cook meals, eat, clean up, do laundry, hang it on their balconies to dry (since few have dryers), fill up tanks with gas  that's actually a few cents cheaper than a few weeks ago, shop at the still well stocked grocery stores to take advantage of many buy-one-get-one-free offers.  Life continues as usual for most of us.


Assaults of Immigrants in Greece, and a New Anti-Racist Initiative

"Business as usual" in recent months has been awful for many immigrants of color, who, in addition to suffering from difficulty finding work, shelter, food, and clothing, have faced an increased danger of racist attacks.  Members or supporters of the neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, ultra-conservative "Golden Dawn" party, which has risen in popularity as racist and ethnocentric groups so often do in hard times, have allegedly been involved in violent attacks on Pakistani, Tunisian, and Bangladeshi immigrants, among others, in the Athens area and elsewhere.  Just this past week, unidentified groups of attackers seriously injured Egyptian and Algerian immigrants who were sleeping outside right here in Chania.  A Greek friend who helps out at a soup kitchen where these immigrants often ate joined other concerned citizens there in a new, spontaneous Anti-Fascist Initiative to try to fight this tide of hate in our city.  A migrant support center here has also called for a united fight against racist violence, and the Seventh Anti-Racist Festival is underway this week in the neighborhood of the attacks, with the support of members of SYRIZA and other leftist groups.  My friend and others in the new Initiative drafted an informative flyer which they distributed to 800 Greek residents in the Nea Hora neighborhood where the attacks occurred, going door to door on Monday to discuss the plight of impoverished immigrants. 

Rather than simply assuring sometimes angry, unemployed, struggling Greeks that most immigrants are good people, friends and allies, while many Greeks blame them for an increase in crime, my friend and her colleagues provide more useful facts.  For example, they point out that the Dublin Regulation required that asylum seekers and refugees who entered the European Union, and then tried to move on to another EU country, be returned to the point at which they entered the EU.  While this seems to have been discontinued in relation to Greece due to the huge, unsupportable burden this imposed on this already struggling country at the edge of Europe, refugees who wish to proceed to another European country are not permitted to do so legally.  This works badly for both many immigrants, and Greece, since Greece is such an easy point of entry, both geographically, and in terms of its inability to enforce many immigration laws.  Many impoverished immigrants enter Greece via Turkey, coming from eastern Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East, leading to a higher concentration of impoverished individuals than this troubled country has the resources to employ and feed.  Numerous immigrants take jobs that Greeks don't want, cleaning, caring for elders, or doing road work and construction, working hard to provide services Greeks do want.  But many of the immigrants would also prefer to live in a more prosperous part of the EU, especially now that the Greek economy is in such bad shape--and the law prevents them from moving on.  It is still better here, some immigrants have told me (in more or less accented Greek than mine), than in Romania or Albania, where there are even fewer jobs, even lower pay.  But unemployment is up to 22% for the general population in Greece now.  And the Greek government, ill equipped to provide the help so many need, or even to ensure that hospitals have all the medications they require, has not managed the influx of immigrants effectively.

So the Anti-Racist Initiative and the other festival organizers in Chania are attempting to educate the Greek public about the immigrants' situation and humanity with videos, talks, and flyers.  Downtown Chania is full of posters and banners announcing the anti-racist festival, and I was cheered to see some anti-neo-Nazi graffiti.  There is now a Facebook page devoted to recording accounts of attacks on immigrants in Greece, so that trends may be analyzed and brutality can be publicized.  I was surprised to learn from my friend that many Greeks are not worried about racist attacks, but she also added that most do agree that the solution to problems related to immigration does not include beating up people who were trying to go somewhere else, or voting for those who assault immigrants, but rather requires that we put pressure on the government and the EU to create and act on sensible immigration policies.  I used to view Greece as a fairly safe, tolerant country with a low crime rate.  It's sad to see racist hate helping to change that. But it is encouraging to witness such a strong anti-racist response from the Greeks in my community who care about all human lives.


  1. What about the Greek old man whose house has been robbed 10 times from illegal immigrants (nobody asked to come! ) and the police arrived (if ever) after 3 hours?
    Was he a victim of "racist violence"?
    What about people at the centre of Athens, whose houses lost more than 50% of their value because the region became a ghetto of Pakistanis?
    What about the small shop owner, having to pay huge taxes, now also having to compete illegal Nigerian vendors paying no tax at all?
    What about job applicants who lost the seat in favor of "rosopontioi" who had lower qualifications because of "integration laws"- in fact, corrupt polititians wanted to buy the vote of "rosopontioi".
    As we say, "we were *forced* to become racists".
    Do not worry, what they call "racism" in Greece has rather social claims, rather that a skin colour thing like in the US.
    It is not a coicidence that Golden Dawn voters are either unemployed young people or employees working 10 hours each day for 400 € - insurance not included.

    1. Good questions. The elderly Greek man who was repeatedly robbed by immigrants was a victim of racist violence if he was robbed by immigrants who resented him because of his race, or if he was robbed because the immigrants were reacting in anger at racist violence against them or people like them. In any case, he was certainly a victim, and I know many older Greeks have suffered from the increase in crime in recent years. I know many have sought help from Golden Dawn, since the police and other public officials have not provided the services they need. I know this is a problem, and I have friends and relatives who are suffering from it, as well as from the serious loss of property value in certain parts of Athens. Don't all of us who live in Greece suffer from the dreadful increases in taxes and prices that seem to punish the honest lower- and middle-income workers most? Don't we all know about the corrupt hiring practices that reward people with connections, regardless of qualifications? Certainly it's no coincidence that Golden Dawn supporters are people who are really struggling to survive in today's economic climate. Yet no one is forced to become racist, however "racist" may be defined. No one needs to follow the paths to racism and fascism followed by far too many Germans in the early 20thC. I honestly don't know who has the right answers for Greece today, but I am sure that lashing out in hatred at other unfortunate sufferers who came to Greece in search of better lives for themselves and their families will never lead to progress. Racism and violence can only move Greece backwards, not forward.

  2. I think the key answer to all these questions that are plaguing the Greek people nowadays was mentioned above, by the author of the blog: "nobody forces us to become racists". Fortunately, this is one of the few things nowadays that we decide for ourselves out of several options that are laid out by our own belief-system.

    To the Greek old man whose house has been robbed 10 times from illegal immigrants; to the people at the centre of Athens, whose houses lost more than 50% of their value, to the small shop owner, the job applicants who lost the seat, I put to them one question: Who is to blame for their shortcomings? Who is to blame?

    Their answer, I believe, will separate the men from the racists."