Theft of Olympic treasures piles on misery for Greeks


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The Independent Online

In a further blow to Greek confidence, two armed and masked robbers broke into a museum at Olympia in southern Greece yesterday, the site of the ancient Olympics, and stole dozens of treasures.

Police set up roadblocks but failed to locate the thieves, who are believed to have taken some 60 gold, bronze and clay artefacts.

It is at the Olympia Archaeological Museum, considered one of the best museums in Greece, that the Olympic flame will be lit on 10 May and the torch will then go to the London Olympics. Following the robbery early yesterday, the Minister of Culture, Pavlos Geroulanos, offered his resignation, but this has still to be accepted by the Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos.

The theft, coming just before Greece is to cede much of its independence and ability to determine it own future in return for a eurozone rescue package, underscores a sense among many Greeks that their country is imploding. Greece is expecting eurozone finance ministers finally to agree a €130bn bailout on Monday, enabling it to avoid a chaotic default on its debts.

The ease with which two men in ski masks could rob one of the country's premier museums reinforces a belief that the state is dysfunctional. The theft comes less than two months after thieves made off with pictures by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the National Gallery in Athens.

"Art and archaeological treasures were always poorly guarded here," said one archaeologist, who did not want to be named, "but now the guards are so badly paid that they do not make much of an effort to protect anything."

Greeks feel acutely vulnerable as they suffer a decline in their standard of living unprecedented inside the EU. "It is a sign of disintegration," says Tassos Teloglu, one of Greece's top investigative reporters, adding that he does not expect a social explosion "but there are already signs of disorderly collapse".

The signing of what is in effect a €230bn rescue package – €130bn in fresh loans and a €100bn write-down in private debt – will relieve the pressure on Greece for the moment. "Neither the Greeks nor the eurozone leaders could afford a disorderly default," says Vagelis Agapitos, a financial consultant in Athens. He is optimistic that Greece will pull through if there are radical cuts to the state sector, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost.

The eurozone money does not go to the Greek government, but to its creditors. The Greek state will have to live off its own revenues and not rely on borrowings, making it impossible to maintain its standard of living.

The deal with the eurozone may for the moment calm anxieties in Athens, but the lack of a legitimate and stable government still undercuts confidence. The coalition government of Mr Papademos was effectively imposed by eurozone leaders last November but is weak. German leaders have said they would like the government to postpone the election that is expected in about 10 weeks and in which no party is likely to win a majority.

Simos Kedikoglu, an MP for the conservative New Democracy party, says there must be a poll. He says: "People feel they were tricked in the last election. Greeks must be able to express themselves or they will explode."

He adds that Greeks want contradictory things: "Polls show that 90 per cent don't want the austerity measures, but 80 per cent want Greece to remain inside the European Union." An election is scarcely likely to resolve the contradiction.