Spies like us

There is something quaint in our passionate sensitivity to personal privacy, which comes across as a mixture of uncompromising democratic sensibilities and an inexplicable guilt complex. The queasiness over allowing Google’s Street View cameras to roam among us fits neatly into this paradigm: We don’t want strangers following us about in our daily lives, just as we don’t want any satellite images of our homes and property to be made available to government agencies and other prying eyes. In the first case, it is completely natural to want to keep our movements private, even though our culture prizes few things as highly as knowing someone else’s business and in bragging about what we do. So how many secrets can we have? In the second case, the only way that forestry and town-planning agencies can keep check on illegal building is through aerial or satellite photos. Making these available easily and at no cost will only cause trouble for the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who keep pushing back the boundaries of their property and the law. So the sooner these are brought into action the better.

It is easy to explain a sense of unease at prying eyes because, throughout their modern history, Greeks were under the thumb of an authoritarian right-wing establishment, with the police running networks of spies ranging from apartment block doormen to journalists to bureaucrats and politicians. The military dictatorship of 1967-74, with its jailings, torture and forced internal exile for thousands of left-wing activists and others was the apotheosis of this system and, with its collapse, its death rattle. Since 1974, Greeks have guarded their privacy with missionary zeal. Leftist, extreme left-wing parties and anarchist groups see themselves as sleepless guardians against the return of any semblance of authoritarianism. These groups are at the forefront of smashing surveillance cameras in public spaces, including those dedicated to traffic control.

The theory is fine: Cameras – and those behind them – have no business prying on our private lives. In practice, though, the blanket opposition to cameras in public places results in our throwing away one of the principal weapons available for the public’s safety. Closed-circuit television systems may not be able to prevent a suicide terrorist attack in a public place, but they are definitely a help in containing normal crime in places where it is impossible to have a permanent police presence, such as on every platform of every subway station and desolate parking lots. In every major city, including Athens, CCTV systems help to maintain security across a wide subway network.

If we can accept security cameras in our metro system, why can’t we accept them in our streets? Is it because until now we have not been plagued by the kind of violent crime that other cities have had to deal with? If we were to try out electronic surveillance systems in the depressed parts of the city center that have now been abandoned to street criminals, and the measure helped increase safety, would people change their minds? Would putting such a lid on crime be worse than allowing neo-fascist groups to exploit public fears at the presence of illegal immigrants?

These questions need to be answered. Greece spent 250 million euros on electronic surveillance equipment in preparation for the 2004 Olympics, which the state privacy watchdog then pulled the plug on. It is incomprehensible that the government, state agencies and political and civic organizations cannot come to a modus vivendi regarding the best possible compromise between privacy and security. Citizens, too, must be consulted in the debate between the need to safeguard privacy and the need to maintain security on our streets and stop the tradition of land-grabbing in the countryside. Cameras are valuable weapons, as long as they are used correctly.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009

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A sinister turn in our immigration problems

In the last few weeks, Athens took a serious fall down the slippery slope of xenophobia and intolerance. Not that it was unexpected: For over a year, anyone who cared about the capital city and its center – as well as anyone who cared about the fate of illegal immigrants – warned that abandoning migrants to their own devices would lead to trouble. And so, last Saturday, members of the extreme right-wing Chryssi Avgi group (Golden Dawn) gathered to hurl abuse and objects at migrants squatting in the former appeals court building on Socratous Street, a block away from Omonia Square. Chryssi Avgi has been around a lot longer than the immigrants and its members need no excuse for vile and violent outbursts. But the immigration problem has become so serious that we run the risk of Chryssi Avgi’s message of hatred gaining a foothold in the mainstream.

Of course racists are not the only vocal citizens. At the same time that Chryssi Avgi was demanding the expulsion of migrants, extreme left-wing and migrant support groups were staging a counter-demonstration – with the police keeping the two sides away from each other. But it is hardly comforting that the “antidote” to the skinheads should be streetfighting gangs from the other end of the political spectrum. We have repeatedly seen what happens when a state is so weakened and its extremists so self-confident that left and right are locked in civil war. The almost daily shootings and occasional massacres in Turkey in the 1970s – as a variety of leftist and rightist groupings fought each other – is a chilling reminder of how easily things can spin out of control.
Greece has been a member of the European Union for nearly 30 years now and runs no danger of collapsing into civil war – but the economic crisis and growing number of desperate migrants will push society to the brink. Some places are already affected worse than others; the most acutely affected part of Greece is the center of the capital, especially around Omonia Square and in the nearby working-class district of Aghios Panteleimonas. There are many factors which have contributed to this state of affairs, but the government must shoulder the greatest blame for having allowed the problem of illegal immigration to fester.

A serious policy would have allowed long-term migrants to be absorbed into Greek society while keeping control over new arrivals through registration and the provision of food and lodging until they either received asylum, were absorbed into the work force through a need for labor or were deported. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have been abandoned to their own devices in a society woefully unequipped to deal with them. The fact that hardworking, law-abiding migrants have been denied rights creates a gray area ideal for new arrivals and people prone to crime into which they can slip. In limbo, migrants fall victim to exploitation by unscrupulous Greeks and fellow migrants – from slumlords to ethnic gangsters.

The old appeals court building (the former Ambassador Hotel) was already a monument to squalor during its years as a court. Its abandonment is a metaphor of the collapse of the capital’s center – to the detriment of the area and its citizens (Greeks and immigrants).

It is now obvious to all that ignoring the problem will not make it to go away. In the past, the lack of a future in Greece forced migrants to keep moving westward. Now that the future in other EU countries no longer looks any rosier, many have been forced to stay here. The government is scrambling to forge a policy and is appealing to its EU partners for help. But, in addition to trying to stop migrants at sea or at the border, it is imperative that a comprehensive policy be adopted to deal with those who are now part of us, to provide asylum to those who need it and to arrange the safe return to their home country for those who have no future here. The problem is too dangerous for further excuses to do nothing.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 15 May 2009

Chickens and eggs

There is sorry irony in the fact that Amnesty International accuses the Greek police of human rights violations and the use of excessive force against demonstrators and detainees, at a time when the state appears incapable of enforcing law and order anywhere. The sad thing is that Amnesty International is not exaggerating: Police and coast guard officers are often brutal when dealing with people who have fallen into their hands, whether they be violent demonstrators, crime suspects, passers-by or terrified illegal immigrants. The irony is that these strong-arm tactics do nothing to frighten the hooded youths who occupy university premises with impunity and rampage through Athens and Thessaloniki’s shopping districts at will; they do nothing to stop the rise in robberies and other forms of organized crime, which keep boring deeper into our daily lives and deepest fears.
Perhaps it is only to be expected that when officers are incapable of performing the task for which they were ostensibly hired and trained, they will take out their frustration on whoever falls into their clutches. Or is perhaps that the lack of discipline that makes officers brutal is also the reason for their incompetence? What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
But why should we be so hard on our police when all they do is reflect a much broader problem in society. Whether they be politicians, judges, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists, policemen, waiters or plumbers, too many of us do not do the jobs that we have undertaken – always expecting someone else to do better than us to set things right. We are experiencing system failure, where confusion of laws and responsibilities, incompetence at the personal and institutional level, a lack of accountability and the total absence of a vision for the future conspire to break the nation down into warring tribes with no purpose but to impose their will on everyone else.
We can see the steps that brought us to the slippery slope. But, gliding effortlessly in our decline, we can only guess where all this will stop. Which individuals, armed only with personal integrity and moral duty to society, will take it upon themselves to stand against the willful destruction, to try create a beachhead of civility on what has become an enemy shore?
Last weekend, the rector and other academic leaders of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University declared that the youths (including “hooded ones”) occupying university premises had a deadline of “Monday or Tuesday” to leave. On Saturday, in broad daylight, the youths rampaged through the city’s heart before returning unimpeded to their “asylum.” On Tuesday, at a much-anticipated debate that was expected to end the sit-in or lead to police being summoned to the campus, jeering protesters threw an egg at the rector. The meeting ended with university authorities pathetically promising to consider the protesters’ demands. The egg flew, the rector ran. But would the egg have flown if the hoodlums were not already sure that the chicken would fly?

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009

Tigers and whipping boys

It gets a bit tedious, this continual carping in the European media about Greece’s problematic economy. Not a week goes by without some smart Alec somewhere giving vent to his rancor in an analysis regarding Greek profligacy. We keep getting lumped together with Ireland because of our deficits and the expensive money that we have to keep borrowing because international lenders are leaning on us as if we were the last suckers in a world that has suddenly gone cynical. Guys, we didn’t steal, we just borrowed. Expensively.
It’s grossly unfair to keep being lumped with the Euroskeptical Irish because – regardless of our personal admiration for them as a nation and as talented, artistic individuals – we are not in the same league: they are facing a hangover after having enjoyed a boom. From the bottom of the heap, Ireland jumped to the top through such daring innovations in their economy that they became the envy of the world. So much so that in more optimistic times we in Greece would hold conferences at which our prime minister and top aides would hold forth about how they would perform a miracle and turn our country into the Balkan equivalent of the Celtic tiger. Perhaps in their minds the Balkan equivalent meant going directly bust without wasting time on the boom part, without undercutting our competitors by abolishing corporate taxes and by creating an efficient economy with a trouble-free labor climate. Now the Irish are paying the price for old-fashioned, ancient Greek hubris: they thought that they were too good to fail, that their property prices would just keep rising. The tiger’s stripes now look like cuts and scratches.
No, we in Greece cannot be blamed for having taken anyone else’s business – we simply borrowed money in order to hide our weaknesses. But how weak are we? We have assimilated the lessons of boom and bust, knowing that history moves in cycles, great and small, important and trivial. Our history features leaders ranging from Leonidas, Pericles and Alexander the Great to the dismal constellation around the rusting hulks of today’s political dynasties. We know, through a great collective unconscious, that it’s not the boom nor the bust that matters, but the “getting by” on a daily basis – the cutting of corners, the hiding of taxes, the borrowing as if there is no tomorrow, the “let sleeping dogs lie, don’t rock the boat, this is how things have always been” approach. The country’s problems are too big and deep-rooted, our lives too short, Fortune too capricious for anyone to presume to try and sort out the mess. So let’s muddle on, with each forming his own sphere of influence at the others’ expense. At least we know that if salvation is to come from anywhere, it will be from workers in the private sector. They earn less than their counterparts in other parts of Europe, pay higher consumer prices, have worse health, education and welfare benefits, and yet they keep the country on its feet.
Being among those who have seen the country’s future mortgaged by crooks and useless politicians, our shouts drowned by the silence of futility, we can only wonder what it takes for a victim to rise up in anger – like a tiger.

Milestones & Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009

Power to the people

The issue of renewable energy in Greece has run into the same set of obstacles that prevent the country from solving old problems and from preparing for the challenges of the future: intractable bureaucracy, government indifference and public suspicion. Greece, with its abundant sun, wind and water power, could be a leader in the use of clean, renewable energy. Instead, it is the most heavily dependant on oil and gas imports of all EU member states. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most decisive one is that people at the grassroots level have not understood the benefits of harnessing their country’s innate energy-producing capabilities for their personal gain.

This indifference does not come cheap. Last Tuesday, the Public Power Corporation announced that despite two tariff hikes and a 13.2 percent increase in sales to 5.82 billion euros in 2008, the company showed a loss of 305.9 million euros last year. This is the result of 53 percent of revenues going toward paying for fuel imports, for energy purchases and for CO2 emissions trading. The country’s biggest company is dependant on oil and gas imports – with their great price fluctuations – or on locally mined lignite, whose use forces PPC to make hugely expensive payments. As PPC President and Managing Director Takis Athanassopoulos noted, if it weren’t for the fuel and energy import prices and the CO2 emissions, the company would have shown a 400-million-euro profit. In addition, PPC shares dropped 7 percent over the past six months and has seen its long-term credit rating drop. None of this is good for taxpayers, who will be called on to foot the bill sooner or later.

And if consumers are unable to see the benefits of the country’s freeing itself from the grip of imported and domestic “fossil fuels,” one would expect government – at the national but also at the local level – to be making every effort to promote the use of renewable energy sources. So far, however, Greece is a long way off from its target of meeting 18 percent of its total energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. The target figure implies that 35 percent of electricity production will come from renewable sources. This figure now stands at 10 percent, most of which is from hydroelectric projects and not from new sources.

A major reason for the slow adoption of renewable sources is the paper chase that investors must embark on to get permits from state departments which are either ignorant or at odds with each other. Then there is the corruption that slips in whenever such confusion of laws and responsibilities stands in the way of investments. Billions of euros in investments planned by local and foreign investors remain untapped, thanks to bureaucracy, lack of interest and corruption.

The government must simplify procedures for investments and educate a public that likes to profess its environmental sensitivities but would rather live with current problems than commit itself to solutions. The production of energy through renewable sources will pick up only when municipal and provincial authorities realize that they can improve their finances and provide for their citizens by taking an active interest in producing energy at the local level. This will lead to wiser waste management (through the use of biomass as fuel, for example), an increase in local government revenues through the production of energy that will go into the national grid, and citizens’ understanding that they have a direct, personal stake in energy production through renewable sources. Only if people understand the direct benefits to their pockets and their quality of life, will they force the change that too few people seem interested in seeing.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009