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

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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

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

Karaghioz, a very Greek hero

The recent death of Evgenios Spatharis, a master of Greece’s shadow theater named after its anti-hero Karaghioz, marks the end of a long cultural tradition. Spatharis was himself the son of a legendary karaghioz-player, Sotiris Spatharis, and, in his lifetime saw his loudmouthed, avaricious everyman move from the central stage of popular culture to a museum piece. Where once whole neighborhoods or villages would gather in a central square or vacant lot, the children seated on the dirt in front of the portable stage made up of light, painted wood and a sheet, Spatharis in his later years entertained societies that invited him to perform and he produced television shows. He also devoted himself to a museum on the shadow theater that he set up in the suburb of Maroussi.
Spatharis was not the last of the karaghioz-players as there are still some old hands putting on shows and some younger players have tried their hand at the art. But he was certainly the best known of the generation which had tried to survive the transition from the cultural mainstream to being a relic of a bygone era.
Spatharis himself had no illusions about his audience. “People who have not been barefoot and hungry cannot play Karaghioz and they can’t understand him,” he told me in an interview in 1991. We spoke as he was preparing his small stage for an afternoon performance for a women’s society in Kefalari’s plush Pentelikon Hotel. Spatharis was neither surprised nor bitter at his profession’s decline, he just noted that times had changed. And he changed with them.
Before the spread of cinemas, and the golden age of Greek popular movies in the 1960s, karaghioz players and, on the odd occasion, traveling theater troupes provided the only theater that most Greeks would ever see. The player would stand behind the white sheet with a bright lamp, maneuvering a cast of up to 10 characters as the handmade figures cut out of transparent, painted leather appeared in full color on the sheet. The player would put on all the distinctive voices of the stock characters himself while having them speak and fight, run and jump – all at the end of the sticks that he held – as the story progressed. Karaghioz, the protagonist of just about every scene, was easily distinguished by his humped back and a very long arm, which he would use in his tireless efforts to steal or beat up others. Invariably he would get his ass kicked for overreaching. (It says something about the Greek character that its popular hero would be a small-time conniver who received lusty beatings from his enemies – Greeks and Turks – before being bailed out by someone else). The catharsis in these playlets was not the result of fear and pity that one encounters in the ancient Greek tragedies, it was more the result of a good laugh at the expense of a likeable and indestructible rascal.
The plays would be rough-and-tumble affairs set around a classic theme such as Karaghioz’s attempt to steal something, to hide from someone, to seduce the Turkish grandee’s daughter. There were also grand “historical” tales, such as “Alexander the Great’s defeat of the damned serpent” and patriotic episodes from the war of liberation against the Ottoman Turks.
“The karaghioz player would always have his ear pricked to hear the audience’s reactions, and he would improvise accordingly,” Spatharis explained. The player was in intimate contact with his audience, and would milk a situation for laughs or pathos accordingly. In the same way, the karaghioz players moved with their times. One successful play, at the time of the Apollo lunar landings, concerned Karaghioz’s trip to the moon. When they lost their monopoly to movies and could not get crowds to attend performances in empty lots, they turned to radio, to vinyl records and, when the time came, to television. But, as Spatharis noted, the rise in living standards and the plethora of other means of entertainment had made karaghioz something of a curiosity.
Today, fewer and fewer people remember karaghioz performances in the open. Schoolchildren might still be treated to the occasional karaghioz performance by well-meaning adults, and they might even be entertained – but they are far more comfortable with the Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. This does not mean that modern popular culture is to blame for the demise of the shadow theater, because karaghioz was the very personification of popular culture. It is more a reflection on the way that Greece has changed and on the fact that much that gave our nation its particular color is being lost. Karaghioz came to us via Turkey during the Ottoman occupation, his roots lost in the mist of time in the shadow theater of the Far East. It is tragic that we should attend the funeral of a hero who was born centuries – if not millennia – before us but whose death we were all witness to. Unless… Unless the Internet and video games inspire some young Greeks to grab the hand at the end of Karaghioz’s long arm and make the leap into the present. And, from there, into the future…

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009

Math delusion

Easter is over, but the government is still tottering under the burden of a cross formed by the scandals that it must handle, the economy’s death spiral and the fact that it has a one-seat majority in Parliament. But even as the nation – both audience and protagonist in this sad act – is consumed by the spectacle, the dark clouds gathering above its head are a far more serious threat than Costas Karamanlis’s Calvary.
The clouds come in the form of numbers – merciless economic data from which there can be no escape, where faith in resurrection will not suffice. The country is in very serious trouble. On Wednesday alone, a host of economic figures showed how deep a hole we have dug ourselves into. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical service, confirmed that Greece’s 2008 budget deficit was 5 percent, way above the government’s figure of 3.7 percent – which was already above the eurozone’s 3-percent excessive deficit threshold. Also, the International Monetary Fund announced that it expects Greece’s gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by 0.2 percent this year and a further 0.6 percent in 2010; unemployment is expected to rise from 7.6 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2009, to 10.5 percent 2010 – which means 143,000 more people unemployed. At the same time, the Bank of Greece announced that receipts from tourism in the first two months of the year were down 20.2 percent from the previous year. These are the most official figures we have had so far, with tourism sector officials estimating that visits and revenues may drop between 10 and 20 percent this year. Also, receipts from shipping fell by 25 percent in January-February. As tourism accounts for about 18 percent of GDP and employs one in five workers, we can imagine what a 10-20 percent drop means. At the same time, the government’s loan-servicing expenditures rocketed from 33.1 million euros last year to 527.2 million in January and February.
As a measure of how big these figures are, the government’s desperate one-off extra tax levied on people earning more than 60,000 euros annually and the freeze on civil service salaries is expected to net under 300 million euros. So the question is very simple: With our deficits and debt greater than expected, with our loan requirements and expenses growing, with fewer people in our work force and with fewer revenues from tourism, shipping and taxes, how on earth are we going to meet our financial obligations as a country?
This is not a philosophical question; it’s a matter of simple math. Thinking that we can carry on as we have so far – with strikes shutting down our ancient sites and museums, with youths burning the city center as a rite of passage, with various closed-shop professions feeding off  the efforts of others – will only drive tourists away and lead to a brain drain, cutting our productivity and revenues even further. Thinking that we can just ride out this storm is a mass delusion of national proportions.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009

The Greeks’ migrations

The history of the Greeks is an endless river that springs up from the depths of central Asia and acquires a homeland at the bottom of the Balkan peninsula, across the Aegean and in Asia Minor. From there, like blood pumped by a powerful heart, Greeks spread out across the world. The fate of their homeland – the prosperity or hardships of little Greece – always determined the emigration or return of its children. After they conquered the area we now know as Greece, the Greek tribes quickly expanded – either through the creation of colonies around the Mediterranean and Black seas or through war (such as the Trojan War and Alexander’s conquests), or through trade. The lack of arable land and shortage of other natural riches forced the Greeks to become seafarers, mercenaries and merchants. They learned the art of survival far from friends and family – they became the first cosmopolitans, the first global citizens.  As adventurers, they opened roads and created Greek settlements, large and small, everywhere – from the deserts of the ancient Middle East to the suburbs of Melbourne.
The past century saw great developments in the Greeks’ migrations, an epic that has still not found its poet. With the opening up of the “new world” of the Americas, Oceania and Africa, hundreds of thousands of Greeks left their villages in search of a better life. They took root far from their homeland, creating new hearths of Hellenism far from the familiar coasts of the seas near Greece. But the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the persecution of the Greeks of Turkey and Stalin’s deportation of Greeks from the Crimea and the Caucasus, pushed Greeks deep into central Asia again – but also resulted in more than a million coming to Greece. This new blood (rich with the experience, wealth and inventiveness that Greeks acquire when the live abroad), strengthened the anemic Greek state, which only found its current form after World War II. At the same time, hunger and the stifling horizons of post-war Greece pushed tens of thousand of young Greeks to leave for Australia, Germany, Belgium and other countries in search of hope and prosperity. Also, many students who studied abroad realized that only outside Greece could they fulfill their expectations, that only as emigrants would they be judged according to their merit and be paid according to their worth. With the billions of euros that flowed into Greece from the European Union, it was no longer poverty that forced the more restless, the more daring Greeks to seek their fate elsewhere. Now it was the lack of opportunity and the thirst for knowledge that inspired the descendants of ancient mariners to migrate.
In the past few years, things have changed once again. Instead of poor Greeks leaving, poor foreigners are coming to Greece while it is the Greeks with the education and means to do so who have been seeking their fortune elsewhere. The foreign immigrants gave new life to Greece’s countryside, propped up the social security funds and helped complete major construction projects.
Now the global economic crisis is laying bare all the problems of Greece. In addition to the dysfunctional  social, educational and political systems, our economic problems can no longer be hidden behind borrowed prosperity. The lack of competitiveness (for which Greek workers are the least to blame) and debt are undermining the future. The problems faced by other countries are leading to a drop in tourism: the money that we were used to waiting for will not be coming, we will have to seek it elsewhere.
The solution for Greeks has always been to look beyond their country’s limits. The Balkans, the Arab states, Russia and Turkey were always favored areas for trade and settlement. In these regions the Greek presence has withered or disappeared, but the past acts like a beachhead for the future. Greek communities in foreign lands – as well as isolated professors, students, contract workers, sailors and entrepreneurs – are like firm stepping stones in history’s river. They show that for those who dare, home is not just the hard and beautiful country of their birth or ancestry, but the Earth itself.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 13 April 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

Hoods and revelations

It should come as no surprise that as our country is buffeted by the waves of the international financial crisis, our “political and news media elite” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is consumed with passionate intensity over an effort to clamp down on the use of hoods by violent demonstrators. We have grown accustomed to internecine strife over irrelevant matters whenever there is a far more serious danger to deal with. Citizens have just been hit with a one-off tax and public sector wage freeze that is expected to net close to 500 million euros, global conditions are expected to slash tourism revenues by between 10 and 30 percent (which means a loss of 1.3-3.9 billion euros), the country will need to borrow close to 50 billion euros this year (at a cost about 3 percent higher than more creditworthy countries, meaning more billions down the drain), and the image that Greece projects to the world is that of anarchists rampaging through the streets and Culture Ministry employees blocking access to the Acropolis and other sites and museums.
If the anarchists and strikers cause a further drop in tourism and an increase in the cost of our borrowing, this will mean even more billions of euros lost. One would reasonably expect the country’s political and economic representatives to be poring over plans to increase productivity and competitiveness, with a special emphasis on attracting tourists through superior services (seeing as we can’t compete with cheaper countries outside the eurozone). Before we even begin to think about the structural reforms that no government has dared to implement, we might think it logical to prevent any further damage to our economy and to our country’s international image. Instead, the government’s belated effort to impose law and order has been overshadowed by a furious discussion over its decision to make the wearing of a hood an aggravating circumstance when this takes place in conjunction with the commission of a violent crime.
The debate reveals the superficiality of the government’s thinking, because it pits the authorities against a symbol of disaffected youth (whether violent or shy), and, like the war against long hair, bell bottoms or rock n’ roll, it is bound to fail. Nothing can conquer teenagers’ fashionable fetishes. The roots of crime are elsewhere, not in the criminals’ dress. And the opposition parties, for their part, seize on a secondary issue – that of the hood – so as not to be forced to take a stand against the rising tide of criminality – and the widespread tolerance of this – that is destroying the very foundations of our society. So who is wearing the hood?

Milestones&Footnotes in AthensPlus, 20 March, 2009