Unemployment, crime and poverty on the rise as darkness closes in on desperate Greeks

Patrick Cockburn
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:48

“They stole my gold cross that I usually wear round my neck,” says Father Christodoulos, the Greek Orthodox priest at St John the Baptist church in Athens. “I left it in front of the altar to go and have a cup of coffee and when I came back it was gone.”

The theft of his cross marked the moment in 2009 when Father Christodoulos began to notice how financial calamity was changing Greek society, the rise in poverty and unemployment leading to a rise in crime and violence in the working class district where he lives and works. “I used not to be scared to leave the door open,” he says, “but five months ago the warden of a church near here was stabbed trying to stop thieves and last Tuesday somebody destroyed the icons in my church.”

Greeks are seeing an unprecedented collapse in their standard of living. The official unemployment rate is 16.5 per cent, but the real number out of a job is believed to be much higher. Sitting in Father Christodoulos’s office is ‘Makis’ Prothremos Kastikidis, an unemployed shipyard worker who now helps organise the distribution of food by the church. Some 4,000 people lost their jobs when his yard closed three years ago and he says 90 per cent are still jobless. His own situation is becoming desperate. The electricity, water and gas in his apartment have been cut off for non-payment of bills, and, since he has no money, he has reconnected them illegally. “I still can’t pay the mortgage,” he says. “The future is very dark.”

For some in Athens the darkness is already closing in. Beside a park in the centre of Athens, Mary Pini, a journalist by profession, comes six days a week to organise the feeding of a thousand people. The distribution of food, managed and organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, the Anglican Church and the Nigerian community, started off at Easter 2009 as a temporary measure to feed out of work immigrants. Ms Pini says that at first she fed immigrants, homeless and drug addicts “but now 35 per cent of the people who come here are Greeks, and they are just the sort of people who might be your next door neighbour.”

There is no doubt that the people she is feeding are hungry. As they crowd around her snatching at loaves of bread she is taking out of cardboard box, Ms Pini shouts at them to get back in line. Others who have already received their ration sit in a nearby park and wolf down food from tin foil containers. “I think things will get a lot worse,” she says. “They’ve taxed Greeks too much and they can’t survive on the money they get.” Even before the crisis Greece was one of the poorest and most unequal of the Eurozone countries and safety nets for the poor are limited Ms Pini complains that “help, which the government should have provided, has been left to the NGOs and the church.”

Sitting close by was a woman who gives her name as Elena and spoke fluent English with a strong American accent. She said “I was brought up in New York and in Belgium and my father, who was Greek, later admitted it was the worst mistake in his life when he brought me back here as a young girl.” She has lived for the last 25 years in Greece and, until 2009, though she speaks French as well as Greek and English, had a job in a cake factory, but was laid off. She worked for a company giving out leaflets in the street advertising shops, but her employers kept on not paying her. She says “it is very difficult to get a job here and Greece is worst place in Europe to be unemployed.” Mary, her sick husband and their seven year daughter come to the feeding point to be sure of at least one meal a day. “They let my daughter sit in their office so she doesn’t see all the people grabbing for food,” she says. “People like us never saw any of the money the government borrowed.”

Greeks of every kind agree that the economic depression is getting worse and the government is incapable of providing solutions. George Tzogopoulos, an expert on the Greek media and public opinion at the Bodossakis Foundation think tank in Athens, says the message from the public is that “the politicians who led Greece into the crisis cannot save the country.”

He believes one of the problems is that the Greek media portrays the crisis as the fault of foreigners intent on dominating the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a favourite target. Conspiracy theories abound, explaining why Greece has been singled out for punishment. “If you look at the Greek media you would not think we were not responsible in any way for what happened,” he says. “It never portrays the crisis as an opportunity for Greece to change.”

Austerity measures insisted upon by the Troika – the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF – have been introduced, but not the structural reforms that are part of the same package. Greece is still a long way from cutting the size of its Byzantine state machine and forcing the wealthiest 20 per cent of Greeks to pay taxes.

Tassos Teloglou, one of Greece’s premier investigative journalists who works for Skai TV, doubts the capacity of the Greek state to reform itself. “We need intervention from outside,” he says, remarking that this is hardly unprecedented in Greek history since it was a foreign naval victory over the Ottomans at the battle of Navarino in 1827 which finally established Greek independence.

Mr Teloglou looks out the window of the coffee shop of the marina where we were meeting and gestures at luxury yachts and power-boats moored nearby. “Not one of these will have been registered for tax purposes,” he says. He produces from his jacket pocket a Finance Ministry list showing the disparity between the incomes declared by well-off Greeks for tax and their real incomes as revealed by their bank accounts. A hair dresser claimed to have made 35,000 euros in a year, but in fact had made 423,000 Euros. A gynaecologist making 1.3 million euros declared 877,000 euros. He says “this sort of information wouldn’t have been disclosed without pressure from the EU.”

Mr Teloglou is the journalist who first exposed widespread bribery by Siemens in Greece. He says some reforms have been introduced such as the appointment of well-qualified prosecutors in charge of pursuing financial crime. But he acknowledges the truth of the claim by a Greek academic in the US saying “in Greece only the weak and poor get punished.”

He sees Greece as being increasingly gripped by a domestic power struggle as the ability to take decisions flows abroad and traditional power-brokers lose their influence. He says “you cannot control a country if all the money comes from outside it.” Ship owners and other plutocrats formerly used their ownership of banks and media to control the country, but both these are in deep financial trouble. “Greek banks are zombie banks,” he says. “And you could buy the whole Greek media for 250 million euros.” He predicts these political convulsions may lead to an attempt to bring down the government and return Greece to the drachma. Just how this plays out will be determined decisions taken at the EU summit today. “Anything more than a 50 per cent “haircut” [for holders of Greek government debt] and the banks here will go down,” says Mr Teloglou.

Greek society as a whole is in a state of shock. Those who wielded power through money no longer have it in sufficient quantities. The EU has power over Greece, but is unclear how to use it. One woman said it was the first time since the Colonels seized power in Greece in 1967 that nobody in Athens talks about anything but politics. “We are in a war situation,” says Mr Teloglou, while Mr Tzogopoulos believes that “Greece is a country in dissolution.”

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