After the rage, the resignation: Greeks confront the dawn of an austere new era
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Tuesday 21 February 2012
Greeks feel angry and resentful but also resigned as they wait for the rescue package that will determine their future to be agreed in Brussels. Their sense of resignation comes from the knowledge that Greece's influence on the final shape of the bailout is limited. Street protests have died away for now because they are seen as ineffectual, and trade unionists and newly impoverished middle-class protesters have been frightened by the violence and burnings accompanying the latest big demonstrations. People are also influenced by the government's insistence that Greece has no alternative but to agree to the eurozone's harsh terms.
Greeks want to stay in the single currency bloc but are sceptical about austerity measures that have sent the economy into a tailspin. This does not mean, as yet, that they want a default and a return to the drachma. An opinion poll shows that 73 per cent of Greeks want to stay in the eurozone, but 49 per cent doubt if Greece will be there in two years' time.
Reorganisation will, at least initially, mean disorganisation. An example of this came with efforts to repair the 200 or more traffic lights broken in central Athens during the riots. To save money, responsibility for maintaining traffic lights had just been transferred from the interior ministry to the Athens municipality. But nobody had got round to transferring skilled personnel and specialised equipment. There was an initial delay while this was hurriedly carried out.
Workers hastily dispatched from the ministry set to work to repair the lights, but stopped promptly at 5pm in the evening, pointing out that overtime had been abolished as a cost-cutting measure. Work was again delayed while a deal was done on how to pay the engineers.
Greeks are upset that they should be pilloried internationally as layabouts when many of them have to have two or three jobs at low wages to make ends meet. Many workers have not been paid for months. There is also simmering social tension: some 30 per cent of people are estimated to be living below the poverty line, but they know that in richer parts of Athens it is still difficult to get a restaurant table. The social safety net is grossly inadequate. Bankrupt shop owners and unemployed computer-repair technicians join down-and-outs and immigrants in queues for free food.
Many of Greece's problems stem from not raising taxes to pay for state expenditure and relying on borrowing, but special interest groups will fight hard for their deals. For instance, Greek doctors notoriously over-prescribe expensive drugs paid for by the state or insurance companies. The government wants to save €1bn here. But already the GPs, a powerful lobby, are running advertisements claiming the reforms will prevent patients getting essential medicines.
Long-established party patronage systems, whereby votes are traded for jobs, will be difficult to dismantle. In addition, people do not want to pay more taxes to a state that does so little for them. Greeks are chastened by accusations of endemic corruption, but note cynically that eurozone leaders speak little of the rampant bribery accompanying vastly expensive arms exports to Greece from France and Germany.
Greek society is not very malleable. The super-rich ship owners conduct almost all their business outside the country and pay no taxes. Otherwise, Greece is a land of small shopkeepers, small business owners and state employees who are numerous but ill-paid. It is doubtful how far this will change.
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