Greece has a right to face austerity on its own terms
Aside from blaming politicians and bankers, Greeks are angry at Germany for making them a scapegoat for a larger crisis
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 November 2011 16.45 GMT
For days now, Greeks have been indoors glued to their television sets, following the political “thriller” (as the channels like to call it) unfolding on the cliff edge of the country’s threatened ejection from the eurozone. In case Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy hadn’t put it plainly enough when they called George Papandreou on the carpet in Cannes, EU commissioner, Olli Rehn, issued his ultimatum on Sunday: Greece had 24 hours to form a unity government or be plucked like a festering thorn from Europe’s side. As the tortuous negotiations between the leaders of the two main parties wore on, yet another deadline appeared: the moment when the markets would open in Tokyo. The unity government was duly announced, but the wrangling continues: it still has neither a leader nor a cabinet.
Set up in such conditions, what legitimacy can Greece’s new “transitional” administration have? Its authority will derive, essentially, from fear: the fear of bankruptcy, of a return to the drachma (which some 70% of Greeks oppose), of being thrown out of Europe and the “developed” world. It is the government of “there is no alternative”, of absolute submission to the EU and the banks and to the politics of austerity. In order to secure the sixth tranche of Greece’s loan and yet another bailout package, Greece must commit to implementing the European summit agreement of October 26, with further deep austerity measures which have yet to be made public, monitored by a permanent presence of the troika in Athens. The date of the promised election, which was yesterday forecast for February, now seems to be receding into the future conditional.
The worst thing is that realism at this moment suggests no better option: when the gun is at your temple, you need a good hostage negotiator to get you out of it. The two rumoured front runners for the post of Greek prime minister, should either of them choose to accept the poisoned chalice, are both troika insiders with a personal historical knowledge of Greece’s finances. Loukas Papademos was vice president of the European Central Bank from 2002 to 2010 and governor of the Bank of Greece when the country entered the euro on doubtful statistics; he is also a Harvard economist and a fluent German speaker, a man the Europeans might trust if they trust any Greek. Panagiotis Roumeliotis is Greece’s man at the IMF and was Greece’s economics minister in the 1980s, when the first EU grants were falling like manna from heaven.
Since last summer, demonstrators in Athens have been chanting outside parliament for the government to fall. Asked what they want instead, the answer varies from “a government of experts without politicians” to “elections now” to “the people will find a way”. I doubt that a bankers’ protectorate, put in place to extend the disastrous austerity programme, is what they had in mind; I also doubt that it will challenge the power of Greece’s corrupt oligarchies, which must be broken if the country is ever to recover.
The crisis in Greece now goes far deeper than economics or politics. It has seeped into every aspect of people’s lives, into their dreams and nightmares and their closest relationships. A man I met two weeks ago in an Athens soup kitchen hides from his grown-up daughter the fact that he’s lost his business and is living on charity. Gold exporters buy up heirlooms and wedding rings. The streetscape changes every day: shops close, graffiti blooms, the homeless pick through rubbish in once affluent neighbourhoods. The constant hum of threats and rumours is amplified by the media; the nightly news has become a form of mental torture. Nobody trusts the state, not even the police who are supposed to enforce its laws. A respectable middle-aged lady, a sales clerk in a shoe shop just off Syntagma, says she has had her doors and windows smashed repeatedly. By whom? “By the government.” Why? “To terrorise us, so that we accept these measures.”
Anger erupts in seconds, always there under the skin: the phrase you hear all the time is “they should all be hanged”. Greek politicians – all of them – are first in the line of fire, for their lies and corruption, for the money they’ve siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts. After that it’s the Europeans, the Germans especially, who have made Greece the scapegoat for the larger crisis and slandered all Greeks as lazy tax-evading scroungers, when German industry has thrived on its peripheral markets and German companies have paid billions in bribes for fat Greek contracts. On the island of Evia, in the countryside where the crisis supposedly hasn’t hit, a woman I’ve known for 20 years and never heard raise her voice shouted at me furiously: “Tell them the Greeks work hard. We work from morning till night. And we don’t want any more saviours. Only God can save Greece. How can these measures save us when they’re destroying us, when we’re starting to go hungry?”
The arrival of the new prime minister, whoever he might be, has been billed inside and outside Greece as a kind of second coming. But almost no one in Greece expects now to be saved. Whatever happens today, or tomorrow, or next week, no resurrection looms: only more years of austerity and graft and social breakdown. It would be good to go through it, at least, with some sense of autonomy and self-determination.