Greece Is On (the) Edge—But Is It on the Edge of a Precipice or a Bridge to a Brighter Future?
The sunny, halcyon days of temperatures in the 70s here in Crete the week before the January 25 Greek national election could not last—and they were halcyon in meteorological terms only, since Greece and a good part of Europe were nervous about the coming election and its potential consequences. While the sun shone, I gathered anemones and buttercups, admired little daisies and bizarre Mediterranean spurge plants, passed cats and dogs drowsing in the warm sun as bedding aired on windowsills and balconies, and sympathized with all the Greeks who would vote for SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, because they believed the pre-election claims that at long last hope was coming, that a “powerful SYRIZA means an autonomous Greece. It means an end to national humiliation. It means an end to the catastrophic memorandums” in which Greece traded severe austerity measures for bailout loans and ended up with its own version of the Great Depression (Tsipras urges extra support for majority in House).
Election day was stormy in our part of Crete, windy and rainy—although we did see a perfect rainbow. Which part of that weather symbolizes Greece’s future? After last weekend’s national election, Greece is in the spotlight and on the edge again—but the edge of what? The edge of a beneficial anti-austerity movement in Europe, with more assistance for ordinary low-income people and fewer advantages for the ruling elite? The edge of slight changes to appease expectant voters with hope for a brighter future in the Eurozone? Or the edge of the abyss of a Grexit, the unhinging of the European Union, and a wildly disruptive return to the drachma? Whatever is coming, the uncertainty leaves European financial markets in turmoil, investment and savings in Greece way down, and ordinary citizens going about their business pretty much as usual, heading to school or work, shopping, running errands, hoping for the best, and wondering what will happen next. They figure it’s out of their hands now that the Greek elections are over.
Nikos Konstandaras, editor of Greece’s conservative centrist daily Kathemerini, wrote the day after the election, “Naturally, many voters opted for utopia” when they voted for SYRIZA, with its promises to undo much of the austerity imposed in Greece over the last several years without leaving the Eurozone; but now SYRIZA and its leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, must face reality and see what it can really do (SYRIZA's win will test institutions). As I said, I can understand voters’ embrace of SYRIZA’s message of hope for a better future, after decades of the same old corruption, cronyism, and nepotism under elite political families and unprosecuted wealthy, well-connected tax evaders.
Former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s conservative centrist New Democracy party (Nea Dimokratia) had promised to tell the truth and guarantee the future, trying to instill fear in the hearts of potential SYRIZA voters—fear of the unknown, fear of a return to recession, fear of a return to the drachma (After an Anxiety-Filled Campaign, Greek Voters Consider a Turn to the Left). They succeeded in making a lot of us nervous. But since New Democracy’s truths had been largely depressing in recent years, and ordinary Greeks don’t actually see tangible evidence of the publicized economic improvement after five years of austerity-induced depression (both financial and, for many, psychological), SYRIZA’s offer of hope prevailed. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderate young River party (To Potami) stood for, so it lost third place (among about 20 parties--see some of the ballots below) to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party (Chrysi Avgi), even though Golden Dawn’s leaders were campaigning from jail. A few other parties made it into parliament, but many were surprised by SYRIZA’s decision to form a coalition (since it was two seats shy of a majority in the 300-seat parliament) with the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks party.
This decision concerns me, since The Guardian characterizes SYRIZA’s new coalition partner, “the rightwing party Independent Greeks (known by its Greek acronym Anel),” as “notable for its xenophobia, antisemitism and homophobia” (Greece’s new anti-austerity government set on collision course with Brussels)—and others see it that way, too (see, e.g., Kotzias, Dugin and the EU). The two parties agree only on their rejection of the debt agreement with the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), leaving many nervous about what this will mean for negotiations with European leaders and even wondering if the coalition can actually work together. I am surprised that liberals have said so little about allegedly discriminatory aspects of Anel, but perhaps the assumption is that SYRIZA, the major player here, will not allow them to create problems along these lines. I’m waiting to see what will be done for immigrants, among others.
I’m glad Anel did not prevent the appointment of Greece’s first (ever) cabinet minister with a disability, Minister for Health and Social Security Panagiotis Kouroumplis, who is blind—and I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more about that historic appointment in the news. I’m delighted by this appointment, because it must be incredibly difficult to be disabled in Greece, where sidewalks are full of motorcycles, trees, cars, café tables, and holes; cars and motorcycles are liable to hit pedestrians even when the latter cross the street with their own green light; restaurant and café restrooms tend to be down the stairs, in the basement; and there are far too few ramps for wheelchairs (or strollers). And that’s just what I’ve noticed as a sighted, able-bodied person walking around with babies in strollers and older women with mobility problems. At last, people who are disabled will have a truly understanding voice at a high level in the Greek government! For this I congratulate SYRIZA.
However, both Greeks and observers around the world are wondering if SYRIZA’s New Deal can work for Greece. The New York Times even hosted a “Room for Debate” discussion of the Greek situation, in which C. J. Polychroniou asserted that “the bulk of Syriza’s economic program for addressing the catastrophic crisis in Greece, which has evolved into a humanitarian crisis, is inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, though on a smaller scale.” Why not? Greece has been enduring its own Great Depression; it needs a New Deal to reverse the “brain drain in Greece” Aristides N. Hatzis calls “a national emergency,” and to give the unemployed and underemployed a chance, if this country is to have any hope of prosperity.
But exactly what kind of deal can Greece work out? One issue that comes up a lot now is the rather blurry line between “reform” and “austerity.” SYRIZA rejects the austerity that has left over a quarter of the population (and at least half of youths) unemployed, cut per capita health care spending by a quarter (Greek health cuts a matter of life and death on Samos), imposed excessive taxes on the working and middle classes, closed thousands of businesses, and drastically reduced wages, benefits, pensions, and purchasing power. Rightly so, many agree. But that doesn’t mean SYRIZA should, or does, reject reform. Or was some of that painful “austerity” also necessary “reform”? Paul Krugman reminds us that Greeks have already reformed a lot: public spending is 20% lower than in 2010 (Ending Greece’s Nightmare). Yet, as the New York Times recognizes in an editorial sympathetic to Greece and its new government, there’s still a great deal of room for more reform in tax collection and fighting “corruption, nepotism and cronyism in government” (Greece’s Agonized Cry to Europe)—which SYRIZA vows to do. Relatively few people here seem likely to support more of the careless, across-the-board cuts made in haste and without regard for consequences that we’ve seen far too often in recent years. The question now is how much more reform—or even how much maintenance of recent reform--is possible while protecting the rights of workers and impoverished people, and how much help for those people can be provided in a country in as much debt as Greece. How much, and what, reform is productive? How much, and what, reform is destructive? How much, and what, reform is necessary? That’s a puzzle that will be at the heart of many debates over Greece’s future. I hope the new government will come up with wise, logical, workable solutions.
SYRIZA would like to get some money from Germany to help pay for assistance to the millions of needy people here. So would many Greeks who know the history of Nazi atrocities in Greece and elsewhere during World War II and are well aware of Greece’s never-repaid forced “loan” to the Nazis during that period. I’ve read somewhere that treaties have settled all of that already, but even if that is true, few people here can understand how Germans whose WWII debts were forgiven can refuse to forgive any Greek debts when doing so would, according to many mainstream economists, actually benefit the European economy and the very concept of a European Union (e.g. Greece's Crazy Leftists Have a Good Idea). Of course, everyone is aware of the fear of contagion: if Greece gets better terms, others will want them, too. But there’s also the fear of contagion if Greece defaults on its debt and leaves the Eurozone. The whole continent could become unhinged. Tricky politics here. Europe and the world need extremely skilled, well-considered, compassionate, and tactful diplomacy during the upcoming negotiations, since reputations and political gains and losses are at stake as well as (let the politicians remember!) the futures of countries, economies, and millions of human beings.
I’ve been troubled by many readers’ comments on recent news articles, in which ordinary Greeks are often held accountable for corrupt politicians’ and misguided bankers’ and economists’ mistakes, and Greeks are called lazy. It’s true that a large number of Greeks voted those politicians into power and stood by while a corrupt system continued to operate over the decades, many of them benefiting from it in some way. But they often felt they had little choice. That’s become especially apparent in recent elections, when so many Greeks have said they didn’t want to vote for anyone who was running for office. Controlled by oligarchs and based on patronage, the entire system seemed so overwhelmingly impenetrable to change, and so difficult to navigate with complete honesty, that most people didn’t know what to do.
This isn’t the place for a long philosophical consideration of how much responsibility citizens bear for governmental and systemic corruption in a democracy, or how much historical factors such as domination by foreign powers can warp a national mindset. (Certainly the answer to these questions would not be “none” or “not at all,” but I think the conclusion must also relate to how effectively those citizens are educated in ethics, logic, economics, and civics as well as history.) There are lazy Greeks as well as lazy Americans, Germans, Mexicans, and human beings in general, but there are many hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, talented, creative Greeks, too (see, e.g., Who works the longest hours in Europe?). I hope SYRIZA will manage to dismantle the system of corruption and mismanagement and replace it with enough logical organization and planning that Greeks’ talents and intelligence can have free reign to flourish. Can SYRIZA do that?
Although I’ve only heard a few people I know personally praise SYRIZA in my presence, I can’t help but be impressed by their goals of helping working and impoverished people, attacking corruption, cronyism, and nepotism, cutting unemployment, and restoring reduced pensions. I can’t help seeing how “Syriza’s victory is a milestone for Europe” since it is “the first anti-austerity party to take power in a eurozone country and to shatter the two-party establishment that has dominated Greek politics for four decades” (Greece Chooses Anti-Austerity Party in Major Shift). I just hope SYRIZA can find ways to make a lot of the positive changes they aim for without making Greece’s political and financial situation worse. I share many people’s doubts about whether the government is adequately unified, experienced, knowledgeable, skillful, and tactful to manage the situation in Greece and in Europe. But I am glad I’m not a politician or economist, and I’d hate to be responsible for this country right now, or in the coming weeks and months. Actually, I can’t imagine why anyone would want that job, but I hope those who have it do it well.
The Impressive, Productive Talent of Greeks
Back in late December and early January, Syntagma Square, home of the Greek Parliament, was nicely cleaned up, swept out, and bedecked for the holidays, with the protesting Syrian refugees removed from view, as I mentioned in my last blog post. However, in some of the dark alleys a few blocks behind Syntagma, graffiti caught my attention outside shops closed for a holiday break. There, it was just the scribbled graffiti that makes an area look slummy and neglected. On the other hand, talented artists had clearly been at work on the striking paintings near the Theater Under the Bridge in Neo Faliro, Pireaus (next to Athens), and underneath the Peace and Friendship Stadium across the highway from it. Skillfully rendered paintings of faces and a mask elevate and dignify those spaces, in stark contrast with the city of Pireaus’s neglect of the parks outside the nearby train station and stadium, where foot-high, wild-looking grass was being watered between rainy days in the rainy season, garbage lined sidewalks, and some (Roma?) people had set up a camp. It seemed clear to me that several painters’ voluntary labor had produced more public good than the wasteful, disorganized city and state. If only Greeks’ talents could be better used to improve the country as a whole!
I witnessed another wonderful example of Greeks’ voluntary use of their talents in Chania, Crete in mid January at an amazing free performance of an adaptation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Local students (aged 9 to 16) had been working on this musical for two years, and their hard work and ability was beautifully showcased in impressive singing whose quality far exceeded the solos and harmonization we managed in our public high school musicals in Pennsylvania decades ago (although we did better with acting, lighting, and sets, and we only worked on each musical for a few months, instead of two years). I don’t know if those kids realize how well they sang—Greeks singing in English, no less. Their director is a well-traveled music professor in his 80s who decided to undertake this probably unprecedented, certainly unpaid project in Greece, where the only musical most people have heard of is Annie. Since Greeks don’t tend to encourage boys to participate in such things, only a few boys were involved, and girls sang most of the boys’ and men’s parts—no doubt transposed by the director to soprano and alto, with lovely choral harmonization. I don’t know why he chose this musical when there were so few boys available, but perhaps he’d already settled on it before the auditions. Musically and socially, it worked beautifully as high-quality family entertainment for an enthusiastic crowd in a packed auditorium. Yes, many Greeks have striking talent, ability, drive, and motivation. Come on, politicians, let them develop that and use it well!
How to Pay for Emergency Surgery, Rent, Utilities, and Groceries?
I’ve also been struck by the drive, motivation, and work ethic of an Albanian immigrant here in Crete whom I’ve known for years. But in spite of working long hours, she and her husband barely manage to pay their family’s bills and buy food and clothes for their children. And they have no luck. Soon after my friend’s brother Nikolaos came to visit her from Albania, he began to suffer sudden, disabling pain in his abdomen that required emergency treatment in the local hospital. Although he had no health insurance to cover his expenses, he was operated on for a duodenal perforation, a life-threatening complication of an ulcer in the small intestine. Fortunately, while still very weak, he has been improving. His sister had to guarantee that his hospital bills would be paid, although she has no money to pay them. Nikolaos, unable to find work in poverty-stricken Albania, does not even have enough money to buy food and clothes for his five children (ages 4 ½ to 16). Yet he will not be allowed to return to Greece for the additional tests and treatment he requires unless his current hospital bills are paid soon. And his sister does not think he can get the treatment he needs in Albania.
Could you help this family by donating even one dollar (or euro)? The current bills for surgery and eleven days in the General Hospital of Chania in Crete, Greece add up to over 1,780 euros (about 2,009 dollars), and we don’t know how much more may be required later—or how soon Nikolaos will be able to work to buy the food his children need. Medical care costs less here in Greece than in many other countries, but the bills still seem astronomical to this family who can barely get by, however hard they work. (I’ve known my friend for years, and I don’t know a harder worker!) Hospital officials tell Nikolaos’s sister that they’ll come looking for her if she doesn’t pay, so she has requested salary advances to cover the first bill. But how is she supposed to pay her rent and bills and buy food for her children if she gives all her salary advances to the hospital? This family has no leeway for emergencies, and no collateral for a bank loan. There’s no safety net to catch her or her children here. Please help if you can by making a donation at this site. Every bit can help, and it’s easy to do.