The current situation in Greece as I see it. A cracking noise...

(Updates at the bottom)
I imagine many of the people willing to travel to Greece this summer (and there are many out there from what I’m reading!) may be a bit apprehensive about the political situation in the country, and how it might affect their vacation. I’ll try to describe the situation “on the ground” for you, from the perspective of a native. To be clear, I don’t foresee anything so big that should make you want to change your vacation plans. However, for those of us living here, things are not exactly “business as usual”...

One can almost hear, or sense, a “cracking” noise throughout the country, as the old system of cronyism, corruption and reckless spending is slowly – not without a fight – coming down. What will come out of this is not yet known. Perhaps a re-institution of the old guards and mentalities that have brought the country to its current mess, with new faces but old excuses; perhaps not. For the moment, you can still see the powerful groups that have had a dominant grip on Greek society, politics and finances, trying to cling to their privileges and get as many concessions as possible out of the government for anything that they are asked to give up. These include powerful trade unions of the wider public sector (not so much government employees as employees of state-run companies), private-sector enterprises (from very large to very small) that make a profit through their affiliation with the state, professional guilds (such as lawyers) who don’t want to have anything to do with competition and have set up barriers to entry to several professions, etc. I myself am a victim of this last situation as I am not allowed to practice the profession(s) that I would have liked to and for which I was trained, since I don’t belong in the “right” professional guild. And of course there’s a good number of people who do not necessarily belong to the above categories but have been indoctrinated into believing that the old way of doing things was the “right” way.

Or perhaps, something new will come out of this, but will it be for the better? For the past two weeks, massive sit-in demonstrations are taking place at Syntagma Square, center Athens, and other Greek towns. These were initially organized by independent leaning bloggers, Facebook users, etc. For the most part they are impressively peaceful, with the exception of a couple of ugly incidents, propagated by extremists (of the far right and far left) some of whom also make uninhibited use of violent rhetoric and/or try to take control of the situation and maneuver the crowd their way. There is also some covert fascist rhetoric by some in the crowd (making obscene gestures against the Parliament and “the 300” MPs is a favorite pastime of theirs). However, the majority of people going there (even though they call themselves “the enraged / angry / frustrated”) seem to be peaceful and trying to just talk with each other, listen to each other and realize what’s going on. Some have referred to this, non-ironically, as “group-therapy” as people –all of a sudden– try to grasp what has happened to the country.

Elsewhere, bankrupt newspapers and media channels are staying in operation for the sole purpose of trying to blackmail their way into some final deal with the State.

Members of the Parliament (MPs) and those around them have failed to set an example and continue to act in a provocative way, still in a “business as usual” mindset. Naturally, this tends to anger people even more and whatever trust there was left between politicians and their electorate seems to have “cracked” under the weight of the recent austerity cuts, coupled with parliamentarian excesses. For example, MPs are exempt from prosecution, even for accusations under penal law and/or concerning their private businesses! For example, they have only cut their salaries by the same percentage that lower paid pensioners and civil servants’ salaries have been cut. So, if a poor pensioner gets paid 700€ a month their pension was cut by 10%. MPs who get paid around 15,000€ per month also got a 10% cut in their salary! (Oops, my mistake! MPs do not get a “salary” for their “service”. They just get a “compensation”!)

Justices, who are occasionally full of pompous rhetoric about the separation of powers (it doesn’t truly, fully exist in Greece…) were, in recent years, quick to adjust their salaries (oops again! – “compensations”) upwards, to match those of MPs …so that their institutional role is not diminished! Here you get a “crack” not having to do with the separation of powers but a “crack” in people’s trust to the current form of government, in all its manifestations.

The “government” (i.e. administration) on the other hand, has lied to get elected, claiming that there was money available (but, I’ll dare say, some of those who believed them probably wanted to be lied to…) and has now found itself between a rock and a hard place: Trying to appease our international creditors and come to a deal with them on one hand and trying to sell the whole package to their electorate on the other. Their preferred solution? Taxing everyone to death!

But there’s also a “cracking” in the streets of Athens and other towns as well. A great number of illegal immigrants have found themselves essentially trapped in Greece, partly thanks to EU legislation. They cannot go to other EU countries – or they are shipped back to Greece if they get arrested in another EU country. They cannot or don’t want to go back to their country of origin while several among them are candidates for political asylum (e.g. Iranians), but the Greek State has failed to acknowledge them and grant them political asylum to the extent that it should. So many of them just lay around, unemployed – at least legally – wondering in Athens and creating a scene of middle-eastern ghetto in several neighborhoods, esp. near the center of Athens. Some of them resort to illegal trade, laying their counterfeit goods all over the pavements and taking up public space while others simply resort to crime. The lackluster reaction of the police results in rising feelings and actions of xenophobia and racism.

Indiscriminate racist attacks against immigrants have taken place these last weeks, by racist gangs. Add a good number of drug addicts in the mix, also wondering around Athens center asking “for change”, or simply buying and selling drugs and you have the complete picture of a city in a big time crisis.

The government and the municipality of Athens have recently announced a number of measures to tackle this situation but it is yet unknown what, if any, results these measures will have.

So, it is no wonder that most tourists avoid Athens and stay here just for a couple of nights.

Having said all that, the “good thing” is that most of these things happen away from the main tourist sites, except for the area around the National Archeological Museum which is in a state of mess.

The city however remains quite lively, (many) people still go out to cafés and restaurants, day and night, and most neighborhoods are still safe to walk around, day or night. But it’s not the Athens (or Greece) we used to know and still remember, some 20 years ago, where people would routinely leave their balcony doors open at night during the summer (for the cool breeze to come in), houses did not have “safety doors” and a single woman could walk alone at night at every single part of the town without even thinking about the concept of “fear”.

But there’s a positive “cracking” as well, having to do with attitudes. More and more Greeks – especially younger ones – have come to realize that trying to get a job in the public sector (which almost always comes with tenure) is no longer a promising life-choice, if it ever was. So, at least those who have some short of capital (through family savings, inheritance or a combination of both) are gradually working to find alternative ways of sustaining themselves, like starting a business [Greek banks are extremely reluctant to finance new businesses if you can’t put up some kind of real estate as collateral and venture capital firms are still in nascent form]. Many are going back to their fathers’ villages, trying to cultivate the land, focusing on new, promising farming products like organic ones, or others with high-added value and with an appeal to international markets, instead of focusing on EU subsidies and state handouts, like the older generation of farmers did. My guess is that, barring a complete collapse of the country, ten years from now Greek agricultural products will be a driving force of the Greek economy, will have earned a name in the international market and will be very highly sought after. Many independent producers are already starting to bear the fruit of their labor and are gradually making a name for themselves. A few others, younger ones, are trying their luck with software applications and the like. So, I’ll end this on a positive note. If the Greek State gets finally modernized and run in a semi-efficient way, there is hope after all, besides all the current mess, troubles and gloomy looks you’ll see in the streets of Athens.

Update 2011-06-30: I see many people are visiting the blog through this post, probably worried about the safety situation in Athens. We just went out tonight, to the Monastiraki area, and throngs of people, Greeks and tourists, were out enjoying themselves. As a rule of thumb, violent events / demonstrations almost always happen around Syntagma Sq. and the few neighboring streets (Stadiou / Panepistimiou / Filellinon). So, if you feel uneasy about finding yourselves near a demonstration (quite understandable) just avoid this central area when such an event is planned there. Your hotel should notify you on that. Elsewhere in the city -or the rest of Greece even more- you might not even know what's happening in Athens city center. 
Update 2011-07-07: Arjuna Ardagh's article in the Huffington Post totally confirms my assurances above.
Update 2011-11-02: More on the situation in Greece in a couple of pictures

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  1. Bravo...you have a pulse on what's going on in Greece at the moment. I'm sharing this.

  2. This is spot on. I have to go to Syntagma today, Yesterday, people were saying the blood will spill today as the peaceful "enraged" crowds make a human chain around Parliament and the Unions march in a nationwide strike. Most of the violence happens during these strikes. The situation is a tinderbox, however, waiting to explode. I can kind of relate to the 300 references, because the MPs show such egregious disregard for anything but their own skins.

  3. Thanks Peter and Diane,
    I hope I didn't have to post on political affairs but I would feel silly writing just about parks and restaurants and museums when the situation is such.

  4. P.S. I had to delete a comment by a casual reader who thought it was OK to leave insulting, racist (and ignorant) remarks. It's NOT OK.
    I don't mind about the ignorance (we are all ignorant about some things) but a minimum level of decency is required. Anyway, take it as a sign of caution to avoid initiating political discussions when traveling in a foreign country. People everywhere have their deeply held beliefs and more often than not they don't like to have them challenged. Especially by "foreigners" :) Now, it's time to go back to writing about the sights of Athens because there's a lot of ground to cover!

  5. I was in Athens on June 26-28 during the strike. I was lucky to be on the ferry back to Athens on Monday because the ferry services were shut down on Tuesday due to a dock/port worker strike.

    I was at Syntagma Square on Monday evening and it was peaceful -- a lot of people mulling around but nothing violent was going on. On Tuesday, I was walking around the north side of Syntagma near Monastiraki and saw a bunch of people racing away from the square, which was exploding with tear gas -- I learned later that some kids set fire to a McDonald's near the square. I merely step off to one of the side streets and 15 minutes later, it was calm again. People went back to their coffee and conversation.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your essay on the political/economic situation in Greece. As a visitor/tourist, I've only heard a little about what was going on.

  6. Thanks for dropping by Ming, and for your comments. Very good similar article by Thomas Friedman in the N.Y. Times today: http://nyti.ms/pNeNqF


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