Athens Plus (plus one)

It is a happy coincidence that our newspaper’s first anniversary is a tiny footnote in the great event that is the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum. We knew, about a year ago, that the museum would be opening and that this would be a great addition to our city. What we did not know when we published our first edition was that this would be a year in which the whole world, too, would change. The economic crisis – the worst since 1930 – hit every country and every economy. Greece, with its own serious problems, was no exception. So Athens Plus took its first steps at a time when the ground was shaking.

For Greece, even more interesting times were to follow. In December, Athens and other major cities provided the stage for a dramatic new production of our frequent ritual of street violence. This time, the spark was a police officer’s shooting and killing of a teenager in Exarchia, a district of central Athens long given over to self-proclaimed anarchists and a meeting place for would-be revolutionaries. The cause was serious enough, but the response was a combination of inexplicable rage among protesting youths and inconceivable incompetence on the part of the government – which ordered police to keep out of the way of the protesters. For several days, protesters burned, vandalized and looted at will, creating a climate of insecurity that the government paid for dearly several months later in European parliamentary elections on June 7. By that time, another festering problem – that of illegal immigrants left to their own devices in central Athens – along with December’s breakdown of law and order, directed votes to the extreme right-wing LAOS party. Greece’s political scene now features an injured New Democracy party with a one-seat majority in Parliament; PASOK won the European Parliament poll but with fewer votes than in past elections (which would not be sufficient for a parliamentary majority in national elections); the leftist parties also lost votes; only the extreme right populists showed gains.

The country now finds itself in a deadlock. The economy, education sector, health and social security systems are desperately in need of reforms. But the government, even when it was stronger, showed no great desire to confront any group of organized voters. Now it is burdened by its razor thin majority, its poor showing in the European Parliament poll and by a series of scandals (the Vatopedi Monastery landswap that harmed state interests, the incompetence over the Siemens bribery investigation, former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis’s alleged bribe-taking). So we can expect even less desire for change.

The worsening debt and lack of competitiveness in the economy, along with all the social and political problems, can only get worse if they are not tackled head on. We are in for a rough time – which makes newspapers even more necessary. Let’s hope this time next year things will be better for all. Meanwhile, see you next Friday.

Milestones & Footnotes in AthensPlus, 19 June, 2009

The Acropolis is more than the Parthenon

As the Acropolis and its monuments declare to the world, nothing makes a grander statement than a grand building. Thucydides, in his unforgettable chronicle of the decline and fall of Athens, noted that in the future people would look on the ruins of his city and consider it greater than it was, while the ruins of its great rival, Sparta, would make the Peloponnesian city appear less mighty than it was. Athens’s fortunes have waxed and waned at the foot of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years and the rocky hill and its monuments have reflected this. Free people celebrating their triumph over foreign invaders built the Parthenon and its temples on the smoldering ruins that a Persian army had left behind after a debate on whether it would be best to preserve the ruins as eternal condemnation of the desecration or to push aside the past and build for the present – and posterity.

The outcome of that argument was decisive in shaping our civilization – and in creating a heritage for Greeks through the ages. The Greeks did many great things in philosophy, medicine and the arts but nothing concentrated their achievements more than the buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis. The polemics over the Parthenon and its sculptures – especially those in the British Museum for the past 200 years – often overshadow the fact that the Parthenon may be the grandest but is not the only building on the Acropolis. The “Sacred Rock” as Greeks call it, has a history dating long before the Golden Age of Pericles, when the ruins that we now see were built. And the naturally fortified hill that allowed prehistoric tribes to settle in this once-fertile plain has a long tale to tell. The saga of the missing Marbles is a chapter in that long story, one that will end when they return to join those in the New Acropolis Museum. For now, the missing Marbles tell the story of the Parthenon during the long night of the Ottoman occupation, when the Greeks were unable to protect their treasures from destruction and theft. The shattered shell of the Parthenon underlines the vulnerability of a nation caught in endless war. The ongoing preservation works tell the story of mistakes in past preservation projects and the effects of modern Athens’s chronic air pollution.

The new museum highlights the missing Marbles’ absence by stressing where they would have been if they were here. This finger-pointing, too, is part of the story. But, as every visitor will see, the Acropolis hosts not only the Parthenon but also the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, while many of its treasures are a lot older than the sculptures of the Classical era. The new museum will show the development of Greek sculpture by juxtaposing copies of the absent pieces with treasures from other buildings and other eras on the Acropolis. The generous exhibition space will also allow a new appraisal of many overlooked masterpieces that were in storage or cramped into the tight corners of the old museum.

The rock of the Acropolis is the touchstone of Greece’s fortunes. The New Acropolis Museum, built after a delay of decades, is a declaration by the people of this land that they honor their past not by crying over lost glory but by protecting it, displaying it in the best possible way, and by creating a new public space that will change the way the city, its people and their visitors interact with the Acropolis and its treasures. And the best way to get the missing sculptures back is to embarrass those who hold them by showing them up as unwitting players in a story that is so much bigger than them.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 19 June 2009

Voters rejected politicians, not politics

The chattering class is obsessing over the unprecedented stayaway in the European Elections of last Sunday, with dire predictions of an alienated population drawing away from politics and leaving the field of government open to various dark forces. Others shrug their shoulders and comment that just as Greek living standards have risen to approximately the EU average, so Sunday’s turnout of 53.63 percent was close to (but still better than) the EU average of 42.94 percent. The cynics have a point: perhaps it is not such a bad thing when politics are not at the center of everyone’s life, perhaps this shows that Greece is moving away from the highly-charged, politically-divisive years that both preceded and followed the military dictatorship of 1967-74.
This could be a valid argument in another country where politics might actually have something to do with formulating policy and governing, where the news media are intent on presenting problems and demanding solutions. In Greece, though, the art of politics is no longer about proposing solutions. The debate is all about who is “better,” who is “more just,” who “cares more” about the little guy – without presenting any specifics. Journalists play along for a number of reasons: they believe that being in communion with politicians means that they are part of the political process, irrespective of its content; neither the politicians nor the journalists really need to know anything about the difficult subjects with which the government must grapple, so no one is held to account for being inadequate; those who pull strings from behind the scenes are able to indulge in their multi-party conniving without politicians or journalists showing them up – indeed, a significant number of politicians and journalists are in the pocket of big interests.
As we wrote in Athens Plus last week, the chief concerns of all European citizens, and especially Greeks, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections were unemployment, declining growth, the loss of purchasing power and the precarious situation regarding their pensions. Not only did the Greek campaign fail to deal with any of these issues (or, indeed, with European matters in general) but it also ignored pressing issues that had arisen in the meantime, such as the breakdown of law and order in parts of Athens due to state inaction on the issue of illegal immigration. This left the field open for Giorgos Karatzaferis’s extreme rightwing LAOS party to pretend that it had a policy and so come out of these elections with the greatest gains – when all the other established parties lost a significant number of voters.
So why would citizens vote? A poll conducted by Kapa Research found that 74.4 percent of those who stayed away did so because of “the lack of proposals to solve the problems that the country faces.” Among New Democracy voters who stayed away, 59.3 percent said they did so in protest at the country’s politicians as a whole, while for PASOK the corresponding figure was 55.3 percent.
The question that we now face is whether politicians and journalists have conspired to turn citizens away from politics because they are serving the interests of some conspiracy – or simply because they are useless.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 12 June, 2009

Sinking in the status quo

Nothing highlights the shortsightedness of those who govern Greece more than the disaster of our pension system. It reads like the script of a horror movie: workers and employers pay exorbitant health and pension dues, which, along with huge state subsidies, are so badly mismanaged that Greeks have pathetic state health and education systems; this forces them to pay out of their pockets for medical treatment and tuition. When half the money paid in salaries does not go into workers’ pockets (but into social security dues and taxes), then much less goes into investments and consumption – two of the driving forces of employment.

Not only are workers and their employers being bilked for substandard services, draining funds from the private sector, but the system also places endless demands on the state through subsidized services and the payment of deficits run up by security funds and hospitals. This adds to the country’s debt burden and draws an increasing amount of money away from infrastructure, social services and other foundations of a modern society.

As if this were not bad enough, a rapidly aging population multiplies the effects of the collapsing social security system. Fewer and fewer people enter the labor force, which means that not only will they have to pay intolerable amounts in dues and taxes, but these payments will not be enough to cover the pensions and medical needs of people who are already in retirement. As time passes, it appears increasingly unlikely that younger people will be able to expect pensions and other benefits when they reach retirement age. In 2050, close to 60 percent of the population will be over 65. Who will do the work? With the drain on public coffers, it is extremely difficult for the state to provide the tax breaks, subsidies, and so on, that could encourage families to have more than one or two children.

The social security system is also grossly unfair. Most workers and pensioners are covered by the Social Security Foundation (IKA), by far the largest state fund among scores of minnows. People on IKA pay high dues but receive the lowest benefits. They are also excluded from the system of one-off retirement packages – which can come to 200,000 euros, in addition to a pension. These inequalities are unjust not only to those being shortchanged now but also undermine the whole system for future pensioners.

Given these factors, one would expect that the whole nation would be mobilizing to solve the problem. But any government’s attempt to reform the social security system is met with a universal uproar. Trade unions, opposition parties (even dissidents in the ruling party), workers, professional associations, anarchists, and so on, unite in rare agreement that nothing must be done to disturb the status quo. Virulent protests greet any attempt to consolidate and decrease the large and grossly inefficient number of funds, to increase the retirement age or to raise dues. Everyone agrees that the government should just keep footing the bill. The truth is that feckless politicians and institutional mismanagement – not the size of workers’ contributions nor their retirement age – are mostly to blame for the system’s woes. But with minimal effort going into reforming the system, none of the problems are solved.

The fear of protests has kept this government’s reform effort at a minimum. It appears it has learned the lesson of Costas Simitis’s PASOK government which froze and abandoned all effort to govern when party dissidents and unionists derailed an effort at serious social security reform in 2001. The pension system is still standing because of changes instituted by a highly unpopular New Democracy government in the early ’90s. At that time, thousands of protesters were in the streets every day. Now every opponent of change wants to maintain the status quo that arose from that reform. The irony is nice – but that won’t help save pension funds nor keep the state from going bankrupt. Then, which status quo will everyone want to protect?

Editorial in Athens Plus, 12 June, 2009

Shortsighted navel gazers

In all the noise of the past few weeks, the one thing that no one discussed was Greece’s future in the European Union. The two major parties treated the elections for European Parliament as a referendum on the government’s popularity, a clash over scandals, as a practice run for national elections. For the smaller parties, it was all about whether they would strengthen their standing on the local political scene.

Voters were forced to make their decisions on the basis of domestic politics, not according to whether the candidates would be able to contribute to Europe and also serve Greek interests in Strasbourg and Brussels. The main concern of voters appeared to be the need to protest against the government – but without strengthening the opposition PASOK party much. As polls had predicted, the smaller parties gained at the expense of the larger ones, with the exception of the leftist Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), whose leadership alienated many voters with its sudden euroskepticism.

So, instead of a vote based on a positive appraisal of candidates and European policies, many voters were forced to think negatively. One train of thought was: “If I vote for PASOK, it might come out so strong that it will return to its old arrogance and, pressing for elections, will make the country ungovernable.” Others who had voted for New Democracy now wanted to punish it for its inertia and the scandals. Others picked smaller parties, while others who intended to vote for small parties decided their vote would go to waste and so voted for larger ones. And, of course, an unprecedented number of voters chose to stay away. The system short-circuited.

The irony is that many of the new members in the European Parliament are most capable of serving Europe and Greece. And, with a stronger European Parliament if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, their role will be most valuable. But it is difficult to expect that our parties will support them, blind as they are to everything but the narrow political scene of Athens.

Comment in Kathimerini and Kathimerini English Edition, 8 June 2009

Obama’s diplomacy

For the second time in two months, Barack Obama stood up before the Muslim world and declared his intention to improve relations between the United States and the followers of Islam. In his speech in Cairo on Thursday, the American president persisted with his message that relations can be based on “common interests and common respect.” He used the very same words in Turkey, on his first foreign trip as president, on April 6. Two such speeches, two visits to Muslim countries – all in the space of two months – underline the personal risk that Obama is taking.
His actions are not the flights of fancy of an inspired fool: The US president is intelligent, talented and daring. As leader of a superpower, he also knows that some battles are not won by arms. His country faces challenges on many fronts – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and wherever Muslim fanatics might dream of a new September 11. He knows that his predecessor’s head-on collision with the world of Islam brought nothing but pain and tears to both sides. Obama’s aim is to gain time so that the United States can disengage from Iraq, beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, isolate them in Pakistan, curb Iran’s nuclear program and deprive extremists everywhere of popular support. Diplomacy is war by other means.
Obama’s display of good will is necessary to extricate America from the quagmire. However, it is complicated by the fact that he has to reach both the skeptical public in Arab and Muslim countries, which is waiting to see results after the declarations, and autocratic governments that need US backing. And though Obama appears to be expressing a tougher US line toward Israel, few believe that the Palestinian issue will soon stop being the touchstone for relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition (and Kathimerini), 6 June, 2009

Breaking point

Just when it appears that things cannot get worse they do. We were all so absorbed by witnessing the country’s quickening slide into the deep hole of debt, and the collapse of productivity, that we barely paid any attention to the long-simmering Siemens bribery scandal. Now it has come back to test the very limits of our political and judicial system.
Both the New Democracy government and the opposition PASOK party were content to let the judiciary drag its feet after German authorities discovered in late 2006 that industrial giant Siemens had operated a huge international network of slush funds and had paid bribes to officials in Greece in order to secure contracts. Amid interminable inquiries and sloppy correspondence with German officials, the Greek authorities marked time while Germany investigated, tried and sentenced the German protagonists of the scandal. The claims that officials of both major Greek parties (at least) had received bribes was the probable reason for this judicial inertia. But, to everyone’s consternation, Siemens HQ had hired an American legal firm to investigate all the parameters of the scandal. And so, the small group of people at the center – both among former Siemens Hellas officials and those on the side of the Greek state and political apparatus – ran a serious danger of being exposed.
And yet, everything appeared to be going according to the Greek way of handling scandals: first, saturation coverage – enough to sow confusion so that no one knows what the story is all about; second, the cultivation of a sense that “everyone does it,” meaning no one is accountable; the judiciary lets the issue drag on for so long that the public (aided by the very fickle news media) forgets what it is all about; time runs out, the case is filed away; everyone goes back to business as usual.
But then the protagonists did what a good Greek protagonist should never do: they blinked. Michalis Christoforakos, the former head of Siemens Hellas made a run for it, turning up in Germany instead of keeping the date he had with the prosecutor on Monday. Then, on Friday, it turned out that another former executive, Christos Karavelas, had also fled the country. It was immediately revealed that the Uruguayan authorities had tipped off the Greeks that Karavelas had transferred millions of dollars there for the purchase of a luxury home. Suddenly the drab routine of a cover-up had been broken.
That’s when things went haywire. The investigating judge suddenly ordered the arrest of two other defendants (one a former Siemens executive the other a former senior official of OTE telecom), just hours after both were given an extension of several days to prepare their testimony. The two claim that their arrest and the judge’s procedures are irregular and that they will refer the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, the investigating magistrate jailed the wife and eldest daughter of the fugitive Karavelas and ordered the two youngest to put up bail of one million euros each – which they are unlikely to do as their accounts have been frozen.
The issue has reached a point of hysteria in the political clash ahead of Sunday’s elections: PASOK blames ND for allegedly abetting the suspects, whereas the government accuses PASOK of involvement in the bribe-taking. This political ugliness is predictable. What is most frightening is that the judiciary, in its zeal to make up for its past lapses, is riding roughshod over the concept of due process, undermining the rights of every Greek.

Milestones&Footnotes, Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009

The personal and the European

Elections are a time when the individual participates in the evolution of the national. For us in Europe, the elections on Sunday are an opportunity to take part in the development of the European Union. These are the seventh elections for the European Parliament, a body that has become gradually more powerful and more representative of the people who now count themselves members of the European Union. If the Lisbon Treaty is adopted in the next couple of years, after overcoming the obstacle of the Irish “no” vote, then the European Parliament will be stronger than ever – the Parliament whose members we will elect on Sunday.

Going into the elections, a recent Eurobarometer survey across the EU found that citizens’ main concerns, which they wanted the campaign to focus on, were: unemployment (57 percent), economic growth (52 percent), inflation and purchasing power (40 percent), the future of pensions (32 percent), followed by crime, the safety of energy supplies, the fight against climate change, immigration, terrorism, food safety and agriculture. At the bottom of the list were: the euro (13 percent), the preservation of the European social model, the powers and competences of European institutions and, last of all, European values and identity (10 percent).

It is natural that people should worry about their finances and their pensions, as these will determine the quality of their lives. What is intriguing is that issues related to a common European experience or identity are right at the bottom of the list. This suggests either that people feel that the European project is doing fine without their thinking about it, or that they have more important things to worry about.

The primary concerns of individuals (unemployment, economic development, pensions, and so on) are issues that concern each country as well as the European Union as a whole. Members of the eurozone are sheltered from the worst storms of the global economy by their participation in the single currency, but they are also constrained by the rules that are aimed at keeping the euro strong. Decisions taken at the national and EU level will determine the welfare of each economy, and this will determine the wellbeing of citizens in each country.

So, at a time of global recession, and with national governments looking increasingly incapable of solving major issues on their own, and with the European Parliament set to wield greater power, it is obvious that these elections matter. And yet each country seems to be experiencing them solely as a referendum on the government or the main political parties, to the benefit of smaller – often extremist – groupings. This is a natural reaction against political elites who seem incapable of meeting the challenges of the times. But anger is no less damaging for being justified, and this suggests that perhaps it is time to uncouple European politics from the constraints of national politics.

As things stand, national parties ally themselves with pan-European parties according to their “ideology” – the center right European People’s Party, the Socialists, the Liberal Democrats, and so on.  But many ostensibly like-minded parties vary greatly among themselves from country to country and make uncomfortable bedfellows in Strasbourg. Looking at the candidates on the Greek party ballots, it is striking that some of them have more in common with people on rival ballots than in their own party. Yet the candidates and voters are constrained by the party of which they are members or for which they vote. If candidates could form their own ballots as representatives of EU-wide parties, perhaps voters would have a choice of sending to Strasbourg people whose primary focus is the future of their country within Europe, rather than sending representatives of political parties that see the European Parliament elections only as a way to push for power on the domestic stage.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009

Democracy at a crossroad

In the last few weeks in Britain, members of parliament have been subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse in public and in the press. Some have even been threatened. Many voters say that they will vote for small parties in this week’s Euro-election, so as to punish the larger ones.

All of this stems from revelations that some members of parliament had been overly-inventive or cavalier in the amounts they charged the taxpayer for second-home expenses, with items ranging from the ludicrous (a floating duck house) to the fraudulent (charging for the interest on a mortgage that had been paid off).

Such is the rage, that some are talking about a revolution. Michael Martin became the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced to resign – and at least another 10 MPs say they are abandoning politics. In a panic, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron are talking about making radical changes to the political system. The British politicians are indeed responsible for provoking the public, but it is obvious that such rage must have deeper roots.

As our societies (and the individuals within them) confront a mounting number of problems, citizens’ anger grows and their demands for solutions become increasingly pressing. Because these solutions cannot be painless, this creates further tension, with outbreaks of rage over political decisions or over the behavior of a certain segment of society – whether it be CEOs, as we saw a few months ago, or MPs now. This is probably what is fueling the mass hysteria in Britain today and perhaps also suggests that today’s democracies are at an impasse: When members of parliament and governments lose the people’s confidence, who will solve the problems?

In Greece it is clear that our politicians are at a loss about how to deal with the great problems that have accumulated over the past years.

Our small political scene and the citizens’ keen interest in politics result in a climate of familiarity between voters and their representatives. We know our MPs, we evaluate them instantly and we have expectations of them. But, as the English say, familiarity breeds contempt: While voters believe that their representatives can do anything (if they choose to), they just as easily believe that politicians are all crooked or incompetent. We have seen enough scandals and cover-ups to understand why there is a general feeling that they’re all “on the take.” This charge is obviously an exaggeration. But it is also extremely dangerous: On the one hand, it creates a climate in which anyone who is not corrupt feels isolated (and perhaps foolish) and may at some point give in to temptation, while on the other, a pervasive sense of rot keeps away from public service people who might have had something to offer. Politics are then left to the mediocrities or those with a certain “charisma” (with all the dangers that this entails).

Our societies are facing massive problems at every level – from climate change to the consequences of the global economic crisis. Tensions are rising within borders, but also in relations between countries as competition for resources intensifies and protectionism returns. The challenges demand steady hands. But, at the same time, our politicians – whether able or incompetent, selfless or selfish – are continually exposed to the judgment, the mockery and the rage of citizens. In the old days, before mass communications and the Internet, politicians were at a great distance from the electorate and did not have to justify their every act or omission. Today voters are part of the endless news cycle: They know everything about their representatives and demand everything of them. They do not accept decisions or behavior that they do not like. But because there is no other option for society than to have a government, the choices are limited: We can come to terms with the system that we have now, with politicians and voters working toward a new modus vivendi; our political scene may dissolve into a Babel of warring, incompatible groupuscules, making government impossible; we may return to more autocratic forms of government; or countries may relinquish part of their sovereignty to larger, regional organizations which will make decisions that local politicians dare not.

Faced with these options, it is clear that the best way forward is to fix the current system. But first our politicians will have to win the trust of their people – and the people, will have to cut them some slack. Democracy will either get better or we will all be worse off.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 1 June, 2009

A template for violence

The images were familiar and yet imbued with a new sense of dread: masked youths were rampaging through the center of Athens, overturning cars, smashing store fronts and clashing with police. This is something we see frequently, whenever self-styled anarchists attach themselves to a demonstration; during the uprising of last December this had become a daily sight. On this occasion, though, the protagonists of this particular outburst of violence were not members of the pampered self-declared fringe of our society but the real outcasts: Muslim youths. This time it was as if an old ritual to which we have all become accustomed had been taken over by new players, who invested the roles with new violence and new urgency.

The protest last Friday was sparked by allegations that a police officer had damaged part of a Quran belonging to a Syrian immigrant during a routine search. Dozens of cars and motorcycles (75, reports said) were damaged, a dozen storefronts were broken and 46 immigrants were arrested. The violence shocked leaders of the Muslim community in Athens, who have watched impotently as the government and state ignore them and repeatedly renege on promises to build a mosque and establish a Muslim cemetery. Now, as in all revolts, angry youths are pushing aside their more cautious and conciliatory elders, aching for a confrontation to express their rage.

What many feared during the events of December is now becoming part of our reality. Immigrants who saw the burning and looting of Athens by the disenchanted Greek youths got the message that this was how anger is expressed in Greece: by rampaging through the city and causing mayhem. They also saw that no one was hurt and no one was arrested, despite the extensive damage done to public and private property. So, when the time came for them to express their own rage, they donned masks, tore up sidewalks, destroyed property and clashed with police. Violence had now come full circle: Greek youths like to see themselves as heroes of an intifada, but now they were relegated to bystander status as the people who are indeed disenfranchised and have real reasons to vent anger had taken over the streets of Athens. They took over the ritual of the natives.

This time, however, everyone realizes that the theatricals have become menacingly real. Motorcycle police rushed to the scene of destruction on one Athens street, jumping off their bikes and grabbing at violent demonstrators. We had seen no such eagerness to confront violence perpetrated by Greek protesters. The Muslims’ protests could turn deadly serious, with international repercussions if the Quran issue is not resolved amicably. But, at the same time, the government’s lack of focus on the problems of immigrants in rundown parts of Athens has led to a rise in xenophobia and right-wing vigilantism. Police in the Aghiou Meletiou district do not know how to handle the rising tension between residents and immigrants. The only point of reference people appear to have is the template for violent confrontation. No one seems to know how to defuse the tension – once again, the problem is left to society and the police to resolve. Every day that passes without a specific policy makes a dangerous situation explosive as acts by each side stoke anger and reaction in the other.

Milestones& Footnotes, Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009