Sunday, November 18, 2012

Return to Reality in Greece This Fall: Outages, Protests, Strikes, and Rage


After summer vacation ended, we were welcomed back to reality with a cutoff in water to our area, news that pharmacists and doctors had once again stopped accepting our insurance since the government wasn’t paying them, and a New York Times headline encouragingly screaming, “U.S. Companies Brace for an Exit From the Euro by Greece.” Even before the summer’s roaring hum of cicadas gave way to the more familiar, softer chirps of crickets, and then the occasional chirp and flutter of migratory birds, both the autumn rains and the strikes and protests began. In the first major storm of the season, a sudden violent downpour of raindrops as big as hail changed the streets to rivers. In the past few months, we’ve lost electricity during storms or high winds, and during electric company strikes--usually when it’s dark, so we need to have candles, flashlights, and batteries on hand. At least (so far) we haven’t had to wait more than an hour for electricity to return, unlike a friend in a nearby community, or so many victims of Hurricane Sandy in the U. S.

We joined other parents for the priest’s blessing on the first day of school in September, asking whether the academic year would begin with classes or a teachers’ strike. The teachers did teach that week, but our school was missing some books as well as a music teacher and an English teacher. We’re also missing many stores, which have gone out of business. We’ve heard that engineers can’t collect money due for renovations, salary cuts have jeopardized mortgage payments, most Greeks can’t afford dental care any more, and unpaid bills to drug companies continue to jeopardize the supply of medicine in the country. In addition to the hordes of Greeks and immigrants who have already left the country, some heading to the Arab states or Germany, more Albanian laborers, Greek dentists, and Greek professors have been fleeing.

It’s a good thing this has been a warm autumn so far, because many people can’t afford heating oil, and someone stole the oil from our elementary school, crashing a truck  through a padlocked chain and a gate! The parents’ association used funds intended to improve the school grounds to replace the oil, and we just hope there’s enough for adequate heat through the winter. A quarter of the heating oil supply companies in Greece have gone out of business in the last month, and more are sure to follow, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather and a tax increase that drastically raises the price of oil. I put on layers, turn on the dehumidifiers, and delay turning on the heat at home, since D and the kids don’t feel cold yet. I hope we’ll be able to keep the dehumidifiers running to avoid the dampness that mildewed many of the clothes in my closets our first winter here. For some reason, the troika has demanded increases in electric bills to go along with tax hikes and salary, benefit, and pension cuts. I suppose the state might be subsidizing electricity costs, but how the troika expects poorer and poorer Greeks to afford 40% more for electricity, as some will apparently be charged, I don’t know.

High prices really do accompany ever lower wages here: according to the Greek daily Kathemerini, Europe’s statistical agency announced in early October that “Greece remains one of the most expensive countries in the eurozone in terms of consumer prices,” especially for dairy products, which are “31.5 percent higher than the eurozone average,” with bread, cereals, furniture, and electronics also well above average. Kathemerini reports that the Development Ministry blames our high prices on high transportation costs and high taxes combined with a continuing demand for the food staples (Despite recession, Greece still among priciest countries in EU). I shop at three different supermarkets, looking for the sales and best values at each: milk here, toilet paper there. I order books, lotion and decaff tea from Amazon, where they’re much cheaper than in Greece.

We remain among the most fortunate (although not the wealthiest) in Greece, since D still has his job (albeit with a constantly shrinking salary), and we still—at the moment, more or less—have health insurance, even if it no longer covers doctor visits when we are actually ill (but only those appointments that may be available in a month or two). We are lucky that most of the medications we need are affordable, and that family doctors and pediatricians tend to charge only 20 to 30 euros per visit in our area. We need to economize, of course, but so far we can afford the necessities. Compared with Athenians dependent on public transportation that often doesn’t run due to strikes, we have suffered relatively minor inconvenience when school is canceled with one day’s notice, D can’t get to his office because a small group of students has decided to occupy the university, we can’t shop on certain days, or we have to pay for medications and doctor visits that are supposed to be covered by our insurance.


According to Kathemerini, environmentalists claim that the government is now allowing a great deal of environmental harm in the name of budget cutbacks, economic growth, and increased income through fines (e.g. for illegally built or altered properties, whose owners can pay fines now, and then avoid legal trouble for 30 years, regardless of environmental impact). This includes a decrease in the fire brigade’s budget of “up to 45 percent,” decreasing the ability to combat many of Greece’s summer fires, as well as a reduction in the fines for the illegal logging that has increased as heating oil prices have skyrocketed beyond the means of Greeks with slashed incomes (In debt-hit Greece, much-craved development is no longer green). The Council of Europe has judged two changes to Greek labor laws to be illegal violations of workers’ rights because one doesn’t provide workers with adequate notice before firing, and a decrease in the minimum wage for those under 25 leaves them liable to fall below the poverty line. Unfortunately, this is a non-binding decision, but it does draw attention to the fact that the troika is encouraging the Greek government to impose measures that are inconsistent with the European Social Charter, as well as common sense and concern for environmental and human welfare.

Kathemerini reports that Greece is making progress in reducing its deficit in spite of the continuing recession here, yet a recent AP headline proclaimed, “Greece considered more risky to invest than Syria.” Austerity measures certainly don’t seem to be helping anyone in this country, given that Greece has the highest level of unemployment in Europe for people aged 15-24 (58%) and the second highest level of general unemployment, at 25.4% in August. In an editorial on the occasion of the loudly protested German chancellor’s visit to Athens in mid October, the New York Times argued, “[t]hree years of spending cuts imposed largely at her insistence have reduced Greece’s gross domestic product by a staggering 25 percent and wrecked its mainstream political parties. ...Severe spending and public service cuts have failed to significantly reduce budget deficits or lower Greece’s debt burden as a percentage of its fast shrinking G.D.P. Economic contraction has taken a huge bite out of tax revenues and forced much of the labor force into involuntary idleness. A country that is not working cannot pay off its debts and cannot offer much hope for the future” (Ms. Merkel Goes to Athens). 

In an October editorial, the New York Times insisted that “[t]he lesson that should be learned from Greece is that its fiscal mess has been made far worse by severe budget cuts,” referring to “New data from the European Union” which shows “that countries that have most ruthlessly cut their budgets — Greece, especially — have seen their overall debt loads increase as a share of the economy.” They continue, “[t]he data provide objective support for what has been clear to just about everyone…. [D]eep government budget cuts at a time of economic weakness are counterproductive, complicating, if not ruining, the chances for economic growth.” They point out that even the IMF has agreed “that budget cutbacks are much more damaging to economies recovering from recession than has been previously believed” (The Austerity Trap). Hear, hear!  Won’t the troika listen? Apparently not; they’ve insisted on budget cuts and tax hikes until the Greek coalition government (just barely!) passed “a budget that goes even against the recent rhetoric of the IMF that heavily frontloaded fiscal consolidations have a damaging effect on economic activity and hamper any efforts of recovery” (The 2013 Greek budget: submitting it was the easy part).


‘Tis the season of flies and strikes. Greece has had nationwide, across-the board strikes September 26, October 17-18, and November 6-7, plus a pan-European strike November 14, with many more strikes by members of various professions and unions in between. In September, municipal service workers struck to protest planned cuts likely to result in closures of day-care centers for children and the elderly as well as free medical clinics and food donations. These municipal workers—who struck again in October--include garbage collectors, which leads to considerable pile-ups around overflowing dumpsters. Athens city nursery staff members staged a sit-in to protest layoffs of 65% of their staff. Power company workers engaged in rolling strikes, which meant unpredictable electricity outages. When teachers strike, there’s no school, often with little or no notice, and working parents need to scramble to arrange childcare. Overall, this fall, teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, postal workers, public transport workers, journalists, ferry workers, air traffic controllers, shopkeepers, bakers, kiosk owners, union members, bank employees, lawyers, tax and customs officers, government employees, ambulance drivers, professors, museum guards, and members of the military—almost everyone except parents and grandparents--struck to protest the past and proposed salary, benefit, and pension cuts and tax hikes. The strikes are most frustrating to the countless civilians who are repeatedly inconvenienced by them, as the Powers That Be are not, but the same is even more true of the measures that prompt the strikes. As American economist Paul Krugman (a Nobel Laureate) wrote this September, “[m]uch commentary suggests that the citizens of Spain and Greece are just delaying the inevitable, protesting against sacrifices that must, in fact, be made. But the truth is that the protesters are right. More austerity serves no useful purpose; the truly irrational players here are the allegedly serious politicians and officials demanding ever more pain” (Europe's Austerity Madness). 

Almost no one has anything good to say about the situation here. Even one of the three leaders of the governing coalition insists, “The troika’s demands are not structural reforms. They are aimed at razing Greek society, fueling the recession and increasing unemployment,” [governing coalition junior partner, Democratic Left leader Fotis] Kouvelis said. He added that the troika’s insistence on tough changes to labor laws “surpass the ability of Greeks to cope” (Coalition partners lash out at troika). If a member of the government has this view, no wonder a union leader claims that lawmakers voting for the latest austerity measures “will have committed the biggest ever political and social crime against the country and the people,” threatening to “destroy the country." Ironically, Jean Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, not only claims that “Greece had no choice but to continue painful cuts in its bloated public sector”—which may be true, if Greece is to remain in the eurozone—but also oddly states that his “impression is that the reforms which are (being) undertaken in Greece are increasingly better understood by the Greek citizens." Indeed, they are, but he doesn’t seem to realize that this is how they’re being understood: "”They've taken everything we have - our money, our jobs, our lives - and they won't stop until they've finished us off to satisfy the Europeans,’ said Popi Alexaki, 40, a former nurse in a dentist's office who lost her job in August. ’They make me sick. Enough, enough, enough!’” (Greece to vote on austerity, protests intensify). 

Even the prime minister admitted that the latest salary and pension cuts were “unfair,” but he portrayed the parliamentary votes as a choice between leaving the eurozone or staying in it. Kathemerini columnist Costas Iordanidis suggests that the civil unrest here may end up being even worse than a default and an exit from the eurozone, but he believes this could be avoided if these really are the last cuts to salaries, pensions, and benefits, as the Prime Minister claims—like his two predecessors, who proved incorrect (Primitive politics). At least 70,000 people protested outside Parliament before last week’s vote on the austerity measures. That may not sound like so many, but for the size of the country—almost 28 times smaller than the U. S.—it’s pretty much: almost the equivalent of a 2 million person march on Washington.

Austerity is not the answer, however much the troika seems to think it is. I don’t pretend to have a good solution, but I know a start would be increased efficiency, decreased waste, less corruption, the collection of taxes due from the wealthy, and, importantly, more fairness and compassion. Austerity does not only mean suffering due to lost wages, pensions, jobs, health insurance, buying power, and the inconvenience of endless strikes; it also means hopelessness and despair—which have led to a record number of suicides in Greece--and misplaced anger and fear. The victims of this anger are often immigrants, especially those with dark skin. Their detractors and attackers often come from or support one of the extremist parties which the troika’s policies have pushed Greeks to support as never before: the nationalist, neo-fascist party Golden Dawn. 

Kathemerini reports, “[s]ince the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn won seats in parliament in the June election, there has been a sharp rise in racist attacks in the immigrant quarters of Athens.” For example, two Pakistani immigrants were stabbed after an anti-racist rally in a western suburb of Athens on September 22; two others were seriously injured by a mob in western Greece in October. That same month, “a young Iraqi was stabbed to death by five bikers.” Yet Golden Dawn continues to gain adherents by giving out free food to needy Greeks, organizing Greek-only blood donations, and accompanying the elderly to the bank if they fear thieves, efficiently providing protection and services like a new era of godfathers who replace a failed state apparatus. Many Greeks even support Golden Dawn’s alleged destruction of immigrants’ street market stalls, although the neo-fascists have also been accused of usurping authority when they demand to see immigrants’ papers. “[S]ome observers say that the group's members have benefited from judicial inertia and a suspiciously soft-handed response by police, who usually fail to arrest Golden Dawn members even when under direct attack by them” (Two Pakistani men stabbed near Athens demo). I will have a great deal more to say about the neo-fascist threat to Greece, the lack of an effective immigration and asylum policy here, and the situation of impoverished immigrants in the face of racism and xenophobia, in another blog entry, because that’s a whole story unto itself. For a useful overview of the reasons for the rise in popularity of the Golden Dawn party, you could, for now, see the New York Times article “Right-Wing Extremists' Popularity Rising Rapidly in Greece.” With the troika pushing the government to impose painful changes on a long suffering population, people desperate for hope, answers, and action increasingly support a neo-Nazi movement on the one hand and leftist extremists on the other. The situation in Greece has been compared to that of the Weimar Republic in post World-War I Germany, which supported Hitler’s rise to power. Yet Europeans do not seem adequately concerned about avoiding a similar epoch.

Even so, the European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! Although I understand that there are many reasons for this decision, I’m one of many who view this award with deep cynicism, almost to the extent that it seems ironic. The European Union includes many members of the troika that forced harsh austerity measures on Greece, bringing down one government and shifting the balance of power toward extremist groups. The current coalition is a centrist sum of moderate leftists and conservatives, but the leading opposition party is more radically left, and the extremist neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn now ranks third in the polls, even as its members and supporters allegedly attack, threaten, and terrorize dark-skinned immigrants and their defenders. The more the troika insists on the severe salary, benefit, and pension cuts, as well as firings of civil servants, on top of tax increases and rising prices, the more the troika—leaders of the EU—push Greeks toward extremism that often erupts in violent protests and attacks. How can the European Union then deserve a peace prize? From here, the reasoning looks terrifyingly murky.


With so many people unhappy with government policies, will the government reform? Perhaps, but first—censorship I’d sooner have expected in the days of the Greek dictatorship (1967-74). One of the Greek government’s most inexplicably foolish moves lately was the swift arrest and prosecution of an investigative journalist and editor who published a list which he claimed included the names of 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, a list said to be the one that Christine Lagarde passed over to the Greek government in 2010 for investigation of possible tax evasion. Although the newspaper’s editor wrote that inclusion on the list did not mean a person broke the law, the journalist was arrested and brought to trial for alleged violation of privacy laws in what must be record time for Greece, while the various past and present government officials who should be pursuing tax evaders tried to talk their way out of wrongdoing. This is particularly astonishing for two reasons. One is that it encourages both the Greek public and the international community to censure the Greek government for censoring the news and punishing the messenger—twice: two popular, highly respected public television journalists were fired after they criticized the public order minister and mentioned evidence to support allegations that police had tortured anti-fascist protesters. Another reason the journalist’s trial is shocking: some have claimed that if the government could claim what it’s owed in unpaid taxes, it would not have to impose the austerity measures that are tearing the country apart! Yet the government’s record of collecting unpaid taxes, and its apparent effort to do so, are dismal.

No wonder the result is “outrage at the swift pursuit of journalists in comparison to the sluggish crackdown on suspected tax evaders”—and, of course, a strike to go with that outrage, since we’re in Greece (State TV journalists strike over suspension of two presenters). The Athens Bar Association found the editor’s speedy arrest and trial surprising, especially “when against former ministers, who were by law responsible for utilizing the list and nevertheless 'lost' it, there [have] so far been no legal or other proceedings of any kind.” The lawyers went so far as to accuse “the authorities of ‘protecting powerful social, economic and political elements,’ saying that ‘such choices transmit the message to society as a whole that the democratic institutions of Greece, or what is left of them, are operating exclusively for the protection of the authority system itself, at the expense of constitutional legitimacy and the rights of the Greek people’" (Athens Bar expresses 'surprise' at editor's arrest). 

Many fear both that the government’s choice transmits such a message, and that the message is correct. The journalist, who did not publish private account information, was acquitted (although the prosecutor is now appealing that decision, and there will be a retrial). Yet the outrage remains, and a scathing indictment by the New York Times editorial staff nicely sums it up: they claim, “[r]ecent studies have shown that the government may be losing nearly $40 billion a year from unpaid taxes. Recovering that money could allow Greece to meet its current budget targets without recourse to the additional spending cuts and tax increases now being debated” (and later, actually passed). “Mainstream Greek politicians have been shamefully quick to strip basic social services from the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. And they have been shamefully slow at probing possible tax evasion by the rich and well connected. Greece’s elected leaders need to pay more attention to investigating possible financial crimes and less to prosecuting journalists” (Greece Arrests the Messenger).


The situation looks bleak, with few rays of hope for the future of Greece. But some good ideas are circulating, and some noble Greeks are acting productively to improve the situation. Perhaps these are the European Union members who deserve the Nobel Prize. One useful idea, which the Health Ministry is considering, is to increase the tax on cigarettes in order to both decrease the number of smokers and raise money for the health care system. One useful policy change will stop forcing Greeks to stand in long lines at tax offices to pay their annual road taxes, instead enabling online payment or payment at banks or post offices along with police access to the database showing who’s paid and who hasn’t; this is expected to save 80 million euros per year. More importantly and impressively, some Greek doctors are organizing help for uninsured cancer patients who’d otherwise have no access to care since the troika has encouraged the Greek government to stop providing health insurance for the unemployed (Amid Cutbacks, Greek Doctors Offer Message to Poor: You Are Not Alone). And throughout Greece, ordinary citizens of various backgrounds have formed anti-fascist initiatives to correct misconceptions about immigrants and organize rallies to encourage anti-racist attitudes.

I can see why many Greeks are moving out of cities, and into the countryside. Even in our semi-rural/suburban neighborhood, with its empty lots and borders of olive groves and undeveloped land where goats graze, some of my neighbors grow a lot of their own produce in their gardens. Other neighbors keep hens that lay eggs, and I even saw some sheep in a pen next to one house. Goats wander along near the playground and basketball court, or graze in large enclosures, eating from the wild shrubs. I’ve mentioned that neighbors have given us zucchini, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemons, and olive oil (by the gallon!); we’ve also received bags of loquats, tangerines, and oranges, plus a few pomegranates. I see trees full of lemons, bitter oranges, figs, quince, olives, and even bananas in our neighborhood. The other day I also collected some grapes growing among wild shrubs, a fallen lemon, and an avocado that had plopped down onto the road with only minimal damage. Recent rains have invigorated the bougainvillea, hibiscus, and other brilliantly colored exotic flowers. This is the bright side of living in Greece today.

I am repeatedly awed by the skies of paradise, which are not the endlessly cloudless blue of summer in Greece, but the amazing cloud paintings of fall, patterns of white and gray puffs against clear blue, sometimes with the proverbial silver lining, or rosy and radiant illuminations of the most extraordinary sunsets filling the broad canvas of an open sky. The autumn skies distract me into taking walks and photos when I don’t intend to, forgetting the troubles of the country in which I live. I notice the otherwise elusive fall colors in Virginia creeper with its yellow, orange, and red next to dark blue berries. A favorite walk provides brief escapes: morning traffic sounds recede as stragglers make it to work and school, and they are replaced by the crunch of gravel and dirt underfoot, the distant bark of dogs, the crow of a rooster, chirps of birds. One luminous October morning after rain, dramatically backlit dewdrops clung to grey brown dried branches and yellow-green leaves and lavender blossoms on meandering rocky hills interrupted by ravines and gorges and rolling down to the sea. A mountain-like hill rose sharply beyond the bay and the arm of land surrounding it. Fishing boats dotted a sea that shimmered with reflections of puffy white clouds in the light of the warming sun. I noticed new pea sized red berries, twittering birds, buzzing flies, flying moths, and waves splashing on shore. The light brown and faded grey of last year’s dried herbs and shrubs, burnt by the hot, dry summer sun, were gradually being overcome by new green growth and lavender flowers as the humid, rainy season began. This is a season of new growth on Crete. We can’t hope for a Greek spring any time soon, but there are small signs of hope in the Greek autumn.

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