Friday, April 3, 2015

Hope Falls in the Greek Spring: Austerity, Generosity, Brutality, and Wildflower Escapes

The Fall of Greece? Any Spring Ahead?

During the past month or so, the worldwide popularity of SYRIZA seems to have dropped, although the government remains popular here, and many Greeks are still hopeful. If last month was a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, this month felt to me like a long ride down—into what, remains to be seen. More and more Greeks nervously withdrew any savings they had left in banks, the Greek credit rating fell even further, rumors proliferated about when the Greek government would run out of money, whether capital controls would be imposed, and if and how Greece might leave the Eurozone, default, and/or start using a different currency. Like much of Europe, I was puzzled by the SYRIZA government’s relative inaction, especially in relation to the agreement with the institutions on February 20; why were we waiting so long for the clear proposals discussed way back in February? A friend who’s sympathetic with SYRIZA plausibly suggests it’s a matter of the SYRIZA government’s inexperience. On the other hand, many of us are also puzzled by highly experienced European officials’ refusal to provide the type of financial help they gave the previous Greek government, even after SYRIZA agreed to reforms and budgetary restraints. And many of us are frustrated by foreign leaders’ continuing efforts to control Greece in return for bailouts that benefited European banks rather than Greek people.

Depending on where you look or whom you ask, Greece could run out of money April 9 or April 20 if the institutions (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) don’t approve dispersal of more aid. Depending on where you look or whom you ask, Greece could be having constructive discussions with the institutions, determined to remain on good terms with Europe as part of the Eurozone, promising to repay all debts; or Greece could be wasting time, on the verge of a major default and an exit from the Eurozone. Around the middle of the month, I first noticed the term “Grexident” used in the news instead of “Grexit.” Whether or not I just missed it before, the new word seems to emphasize that many were beginning to view the possibility of an accidental Greek exit from the Eurozone as increasingly likely. At the same time, the Greek and German governments were engaged in a war of words and economics, with the Greeks asking for war reparations the Germans claim to have settled long ago, the Germans claiming the Greeks are not serious about making reforms or working with the institutions, and both Greeks and Germans claiming the others have insulted them.

Formerly known as the troika, the institutions seem intent on putting as much pressure on Greece as possible now that the country is desperate for money. The Greek Parliament defiantly passed one bill to help the needy, even though they were told they shouldn’t do that. Mark Weisbrot argues that “blackmail is actually an understatement of what the troika is doing to Greece. It has become increasingly clear that it is trying to harm the Greek economy in order to increase pressure on the new Greek government to agree to its demands” after the so-called “bailout,” in which “most Greeks have been not bailed out but thrown overboard, having lost more than 25 percent of their national income since 2008.” Weisbrot claims that European officials are doing this “to show who is boss” and states that “by destabilizing the economy and discouraging investment and consumption” their actions will “almost certainly slow Greece’s recovery and [probably] undermine support for the government,” which he says they aim to do. However, “European officials’ actions could inadvertently force Greece out of the euro — a dangerous strategy for all concerned. They should stop undermining the economic recovery that Greece will need if it is to achieve fiscal sustainability” (Destroying the Greek economy in order to save it). I agree.

Greece needs an economic recovery even more than many realize. Princeton and Harvard trained economist Stelios Markianos points out that “per capita consumption [in Greece] dropped between 2009 and 2013 … by 31.5% adjusted for inflation”—not just 25%, which refers to the GDP--on the basis of Eurostat approved published data. And for Markianos, the solution is not tax collection, since he does not consider tax evasion the country’s major problem (although many would like to see the wealthiest tax evaders, especially, make a fair contribution to the Greek state budget). In a work in progress, Markianos compares state revenues in Greece and Germany, which were about equal at around 47% of GDP in 2013; in Greece before 2009, they were approximately 38% of GDP, and thus comparable with Spain’s and Portugal’s. So, Markianos argues, if Greece wasn’t collecting enough taxes before 2009, neither were Spain and Portugal; if Greece wasn’t collecting enough in 2013, neither was Germany. Greeks pay more taxes than Spaniards and Portuguese and as much as Germans, compared to their economies.

Markianos also compares the size of the informal economy (the untaxed part of the economy) relative to GDP in several European countries up to 2009; Greece does come out ahead in this, with Spain’s informal economy at 22.2% of GDP and Greece’s at 26.5%. However, looking at the size of the GDP and the population, “the actual per capita annual amount of tax evasion was in 2012 higher in Germany and France than in Greece at 4,621 euros, 4,057 euros, and 4,001 euros respectively!” On the other hand, Spain, Portugal, and Germany provide more state services than Greece, so Greece’s problem is not undercollection of taxes, but inefficient overspending. Markianos argues, then, that the Greek state needs to cut costs and corruption and introduce reforms that make it more efficient, rather than focusing on collecting more taxes. And the proof for that, he argues, is that “the focus on additional revenues implemented rigorously over the last five years has proved to result in one of the most profound depressions in history, excluding times of war.”

That’s not to say people shouldn’t pay the taxes they owe—at least when they can afford them, after paying for food, clothing, electricity, water, and rent. I’ve understood for some time that new taxation and austerity measures had not been applied fairly in Greece, but I was still shocked by the details of a “Study [that] finds Greek crisis policies created huge inequalities.” It shows that “the tax burden on lower-income Greek households skyrocketed by 337.7 percent compared to just 9 percent for high-income groups” between 2008 and 2012! How could that make sense? Lower income people who were just getting by were expected to come up with more than three times as much money to pay increased taxes, while those who had more than enough just made a slightly larger payment?! Astonishing stupidity and injustice! As Markianos argues, “this regressive fiscal policy has further deepened the depression, as low income persons tend to consume more domestically.”

On top of that, average public sector pay cuts were just 8%, while private sector pay cuts were 19% from 2009-2013 (not adjusting further for the 0 wage unemployed), the former part of a mere 7.5% reduction in government spending. (And even that 7.5% was keenly felt, as public health care coverage dropped drastically, so it was not the wisest sort of reduction—and SYRIZA is now trying to restore universal health care, since Greece spends less on health care than the rest of the EU [Greece scraps hospital visit fee, to hire health workers].) More than 72% of the “fiscal adjustments” came from increased taxation—mostly of the poor. How could that make sense, with the Greek bureaucracy world-famous for being bloated? Part of the problem seems to be that if more public servants were laid off, poverty would seem likely to increase in this land of more than 25% unemployment. But at the root of it all is the excessive patronage politics that led to a great deal of unnecessary hiring in the first place.

And now the Greek state clearly can’t afford to pay so many people. But this is no longer just the fault of patronage politics; it’s also because “Germany and other euro-zone states are effectively bailing out their own banks, thereby rewarding poor lending decisions and speculation,” as a very good overview of the recent history of the Greek crisis in the New Yorker puts it, and as many others have said before. “Close to ninety per cent of the [bailout] money returns directly to the original creditors, or goes to recapitalize Greek banks; most of the funds don’t even touch the Greek government’s hands,” let alone help the Greek people (What Austerity Looks Like Inside Greece).

Last Thursday, there was a severe dust storm here in northwestern Crete, with strong winds bringing dirt from Africa that blocked our view of the mountains we generally see clearly, and the horizon line between the sea and the sky replaced with something like a fuzzy fog bank. The skies are now clear, but the future of Greece is not.

Four Gestures of Varying Significance

Meanwhile, a two-year-old video of Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis giving the finger to Germany before he entered politics surfaced to great fanfare last month, along with a photo spread for a Paris publication that seems to portray Varoufakis and his wife living in luxury. The question of whether or not Varoufakis gave Germany the finger years ago—and what it means if he did or didn’t--has attracted an astonishing amount of attention. However, the real questions here are whether everyone can afford enough nutritious food, adequate medical care, and housing, whether they can earn enough money to pay their bills, and whether the government will manage to pay civil servants’ salaries and pensions this month. Eating fresh spinach and fresh turkey eggs from friends—that’s real. Fingergate? Varoufake? That’s part of a ridiculous media circus.

A more significant gesture was notable at the Greek Independence Day parade in Chania on March 25, where I was struck by the large number of traditional Greek dancing groups passing by in ornate, colorful costumes that contrasted with the dark blue and white of the parading schoolchildren and with the well-matched, serious precision of the military marchers. I was pleased to note that the general public was no longer forced to make a many-block-long detour in order to avoid approaching government officials who had watched the parade from a place of guarded honor during last October’s Ohi Day parade. Although finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was among the dignitaries this time—a newsworthy event, since he doesn’t live in or come from Crete--the SYRIZA government had decreed that there would be no separation between the people and the officials, and we were allowed to pass by in a more civilized manner, aside from some mild pushing on crowded sidewalks.

Some Germans have joined many Greeks in asking Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government to make an even more important gesture. Discussions about German war reparations for Nazi atrocities during WWII have gained particular prominence now, inspiring renewed debate about whether Greece deserves them, or whether past treaties have already settled the issue. Some argue that Greece was not a party to the agreements that declared the reparations issue settled and claim that was not something that could be decided for this country; others assert that Germany won’t re-open the can of worms of general reparations but might at least consider repaying the forced loan from Greece to the Nazis—or at the very least make a symbolic payment as a gesture of goodwill (see, e.g., Pressure mounts on Merkel over Greek war reparations calls).

A German couple recently went to the mayor of Nafplio, chosen because it was “the first capitol of Greece in the 19th century,” and paid him what they had calculated to be one German’s share of what Germany owes Greece in WWII reparations. (With one retired and the other not working full-time, they couldn’t afford to pay for two.) They were trying to “make up for their government’s attitude” (German couple pay Greece £630 'war reparations'). While two people can hardly make up for a government’s attitude, action, or inaction, I find that a moving individual gesture. If more would make that kind of cross-cultural effort to atone for great wrongs, and fewer would focus on the media circus around a single obscene, but essentially harmless, gesture, perhaps compassionate intercultural relations between individuals would have a greater chance of improving international relations, lessening the harmful effects of the political posturing that creates so much trouble.

Unrealistic idealism? Maybe, maybe not. Too little too late? Perhaps. Politicians  need to get their acts together? Absolutely. But I think such ordinary people’s efforts  are worthwhile. I was also inspired by an article about Erwin Schrumpf, an Austrian who survived the Norman Atlantic ferry fire in December. Both before and after that tragedy, he has been collecting medicines and medical supplies to donate to underfunded Greek hospitals and medical centers, making a noteworthy difference in many people’s lives (Narrow escape from Norman Atlantic fails to dampen one Austrian's support for Greece; see also their web site, although it's not in English). If only I could do something like that! But I’ve already exhausted my family, friends, and friends’ friends with requests to support one fundraiser to help an uninsured, unemployed father of five who has been ill (Help pay Nikolaos’s hospital bills and support his children). My Greek neighbors and friends can and do donate food and clothing for the neediest people here, so that seems to be the most realistic kind of charitable activity for ordinary people within this country. Elsewhere, I’d encourage more people to be as generous as possible to those in need. Of course, private charity is not a solution to the problems facing Greece or any other part of the world, but it can temporarily alleviate a small fraction of the worst suffering.

A Brutal Attack on an Anti-Racist Doctor

At a pizza party to celebrate the strong performance of the children from our school who participated in the Panhellenic Kung Fu Championship, I walked in on a shocked discussion of the brutal beating of a doctor who is well known and loved in Chania for his efforts to help alleviate suffering. In the evening on Greek Independence Day, there was a performance by Yar Aman, a music group of Greeks and migrants, who sang Turkish and Greek songs together in the Old Port of Chania. Afterwards, one of the musicians, a migrant, was verbally attacked by a group of young men. Later, a calm, kind doctor, Dimitris Makreas, who is respected for supporting migrants and caring for those in need, was standing next to the man who had been insulted when some other people shouted at the young men to stop bothering the migrant and go away.

A short time later, according to quotations from Dimitris in a newspaper article, he and his wife were walking down Daskalogianni Street, not far from the Old Port, when he saw one of the young men from the earlier group talking on the phone, looking at Dimitris, and saying “Yes, yes, he is.” Three men were approaching Dimitris and his wife when the one who had been talking on the phone came up behind Dimitris and, without warning—as a video clip from a store’s security camera shows--began to hit him on the back of the head with a heavy wooden handle. A moment later, Dimitris said, three others began kicking and punching him, continuing after he fell down, until an elderly couple began shouting. Even then, when Dimitris managed to get up, a man punched him in the face, throwing him back down and hitting his head on the asphalt, leaving him numb and in pain throughout his body. He was taken to the hospital and treated for a fracture in the front of his skull, a brain hematoma, and bruises on his head. He has been released from the hospital and is recovering from his injuries.

I have heard that at least one witness identified one of the attackers as a member of the fascist group Golden Dawn, and many believe that Dimitris was the victim of an organized assault by a gang of about ten men. Dimitris is especially shocked because some of the young men he identified as his attackers in police photos are residents of Akrotiri, Chania, where he has worked in a community clinic for years, possibly treating some of his attackers’ family members. So far, three men have been arrested for this attack.

Many were surprised that several of the early news reports focused more on damage done to Golden Dawn offices and a store after a spontaneous march to protest this attack, rather than on the serious injury to a human being, while he remained hospitalized. Fortunately, additional coverage provided more attention to the doctor and the brutal attack he suffered. Since the attack, many people have gathered in front of the court house, in a central square in Chania, in the streets of Chania, at various organizations’ meeting places, and in Kounoupidiana, Akrotiri, in support of Dimitris and his migrant friend and in protests against racist violence.

Many feel the attack should have been defined as severe bodily injury or even attempted murder, since several perpetrators repeatedly struck one unarmed person, sometimes with a weapon, and, according to a video, without any provocation. Reporter George Konstas wrote (as translated by Google), “the neurosurgeon Anthony Krasoudakis stressed that apart from the external wounds (on the face, around the head) the most important [problems] ‘are internal bleeding, lesions in the brain and a fractured skull. These blows could cause death. We have seen people killed even with much less severe blows.’”

The timing of the attack shortly after the racist insults, the apparent organization of a gang of ten attackers and accomplices by phone, and the availability of a getaway car—or three cars and one motorbike--have been discussed at length by those who feel that there was a racist motivation for this attack, but the doctor’s lawyers claim this has not been adequately investigated by the police or the judiciary. The lawyers, according to news reports, say witnesses were not pursued, and videos from nearby shops were not entered as evidence. Many local organizations, politicians, and individuals have condemned the attack and called for a complete investigation and full prosecution of everyone involved (Κατακραυγήαπό φορείς και συγκέντρωση διαμαρτυρίας για την απρόκλητη επίθεση σε γιατρό). Now that a good, kind, generous Greek doctor has been attacked, we really don’t know who will be next.

Yesterday, a verdict was announced in the trial of three men: one innocent, two guilty of grievous bodily harm, one of the guilty men also guilty of possession and use of a weapon, with sentences of four years, in one case, and four years ten months, in the other. Both sentences have been suspended until trial in the Court of Appeals, with bail set at 5,000 euros each. All of the attackers are free now, and many of those alleged to have been involved in organizing the attack were not even tried in court, although the prosecutor said the participation of others would be investigated (Χανιά: Ένοχοι οι 2 από τους 3 για τη φασιστική επίθεσηστον Δ. Μακρέα (ενημέρωση) and Ένοχοι δίχως αναστολή για την επίθεση στο γιατρό Δημήτρη Μακρέα).

My Brief Escape into a Wildflower Wonderland

Many do not feel that either the investigation and prosecution of Dimitris Makreas’s attackers, or the case of Greece as a whole, has been handled justly. Many worry about the resumption of racist attacks in Chania after Golden Dawn leaders were released from their pre-trial custody, and many worry about the persistence of unemployment and economic problems throughout Greece. My personal consolation is outdoors, where the 45 species of wildflowers I counted on just one walk in and beyond my neighborhood led me to lose track of time and exercise as well as politics, economics, and racist brutality. Of course, that’s only possible because I am privileged enough to feel fairly confident that my family and I will have enough food, clothing, safety, health care, and housing, whatever happens—although I am adequately aware that I could be wrong about this to worry about our future as well as that of others.

Getting back into walking in the mild, sunny days of the first week of March after a series of viruses struck me in February, I was astonished to see how many wildflowers had sprung up while I wasn’t looking. I’ve seen some since December, but March was the height of their season, and many different flowers came into bloom over the course of the month. (The 45 species I counted one day were not all the same as the 42 I counted another day, and I saw even more different kinds other days.) I am addicted to wildflowers: taking photos and gathering some of the most plentiful blossoms, I lose track of the time and fail to attain the aerobic benefits of a brisk walk. I promise myself not to pick or photograph them some days, since I have enough photos and bouquets, but then I break down and decide we could use a few fresh flowers, or another one of the neighbors might like a bouquet….

There is a profusion of yellow, including Bermuda buttercups, dandelion-like blooms, trees with ball-like yellow blossoms hanging like miniature ornaments, Jerusalem sage, and sharp bushes of spiny broom. White and yellow crown daisies are thriving by the roadside, mingled with upside-down blue violet blossoms with fuzzy stems. A few brilliant red poppies shiver in the breezes, even when it’s warm; various lavender and purple flowers are also abundant. Bee orchids or their relatives are still blooming as various other tiny pink and white orchids appear between pink crepe-paper like Cretan rock roses, white cistus, wild mignonette, and lacy white tordylium. My wildflower habit is hardest to kick this time of year, so I just keep pausing in admiration and hope to get more exercise when the flowers have faded in the heat of the Greek sun.

My rose-colored glasses were shattered when I discovered that the prime  wildflower habitat among olive groves nearby was partly destroyed by a bulldozer’s attack on large patches of ground, probably to gather pruned olive branches, and then by aggressive mowing. The site is ideal for wildflowers since it is kept free of the hardier herbs and shrubs, but hazardous for them since the olive farmer thinks they need to be removed for the sake of his trees—probably, according to the horticulturalist and agronomist I asked, an erroneous belief. A friend and I tried to rescue some of the flowers in danger of immediate destruction—or at least photograph some and save others for temporary enjoyment since they were about to be pulverized. We hope that since none of us except the bulldozer pulls up the roots, the flowers’ offspring will return next year—as they did this year and last—although this is the first year I’ve seen the ground bulldozed down to bare mud (a bad idea in this region of occasionally very heavy rain).

We tried to convince the elderly Cretan farmer mowing around the olive trees to spare some of the possibly rare orchids just starting to bloom toward the end of last month, pointing out a lovely cluster that wasn’t too close to the trees and hence, we argued, wouldn’t hurt them. He nodded, smiled, and took a break from cutting while we were there. But after we’d left, we saw a bulldozer heading for that olive grove. Returning another day, I saw that the farmer had not left us any orchids. But at least he didn’t bulldoze their roots: he just mowed them all down. Nor did cruel thugs destroy the roots of the anti-racist movement in Chania; in fact, in beating down one of its strongest supporters, they united much of the community in support of equality for all. And on the first day of April, schoolchildren in Chania watched a play in which a Greek father overcomes his mean ethnocentrism so his family can befriend some immigrants. We may escape from harsh reality temporarily, but it doesn’t go away while we’re looking at pretty flowers. There is hope, though, if we can educate our children to be anti-racist, compassionate, responsible human beings.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the two friends who commented on drafts of parts of this blog posting. Thanks also to the individuals, including journalists, who provided me with information and photos related to the attack on Dr. Dimitris Makreas, and especially to George Konstas and Chaniotika Nea for the photos of the doctor and of people demonstrating outside the court house. (The other photos--including one of a gathering in front of the Agora in Chania--are mine, as usual.)

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