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

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

Welcome acknowledgment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the expulsion of minorities from Turkey is very interesting in terms of the “self-criticism” that it suggests with regard to an issue that has had a terrible cost for the people involved and for Turkey itself over the past century. It looks like welcome acknowledgment of a situation that Turkey has always tried to ignore – that former citizens lost their homes and livelihoods while Turkey lost the wealth of experience and cosmopolitan atmosphere that it once had.

But it is difficult for anyone outside Turkey to understand precisely why Erdogan made such comments and whether they will lead to anything as regards those ethnic groups and their survivors within and outside Turkey. Because all too often we have seen Erdogan making comments that come across as if he was the leader of an opposition party and not the prime minister. So it is very likely that his criticism of the authoritarian decisions of the past is aimed at scoring points in the endless struggle taking place between the Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military/foreign policy establishment. For example, for years Greeks have watched in vain for a solution that will allow the Orthodox seminary on Halki to function, in the knowledge that a breakthrough there would help Greek-Turkish relations but would also set a precedent regarding institutions of higher education that would benefit the AKP. Even though Erdogan had appeared supportive of a solution, we have not seen one.

Either way, Erdogan’s comments regarding the minorities are very welcome because they reflect a more nuanced understanding of history and the need for a society that will be more tolerant of all the various groups within it. It is like the country’s preparation toward European Union accession: Everyone, especially Erdogan and his party, knows that meeting the political and social criteria set by the EU will be to the benefit of all of Turkey’s peoples – except for those shadowy parts of the state mechanism that are opposed to a more open state and who hold back progress on all fronts. And yet little progress is made. So even if Erdogan’s latest statements are nothing more than a salvo in the much larger conflict, at least they have been fired in the right direction.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 26 May, 2009

Could Alexander govern us?

And so the Greeks have voted that Alexander the Great is the “Greatest Greek” of all time, beating the philosophers, doctors, artists and politicians who created the unique Greek miracle which remains the world’s touchstone for achievement. The result was hardly a surprise, as Alexander was indeed Great: He reached the ends of the known world through military conquest, creating a huge empire which made a gift of the Greek tongue and culture to countless ethnic groups, which could then communicate with each other and exchange ideas, religions and products. Alexander changed the world and (this is what concerns us mainly), he made it “more Greek;” he made the past more familiar to us. For the citizens of a small country in a world of growing uncertainty, it is natural that we should seek to identify with Alexander’s triumphs, as if, in this way, we can impose ourselves on others, conquer fear, strike a blow against anyone who underestimates us, who to tries to usurp any of our achievements.

We miss Alexander, but what would we do if he suddenly appeared before us, ready to rule? We’d try to kill him, to run away, or – most likely – to strip him of the qualities that made him Great. (You see, Alexander’s great, but so is the democratic system that the other Greeks – whom he beat in the competition – bequeathed to humanity. And we would not like to lose our right to misgovern ourselves.)

Alexander – just as in his own time – would divide us between those who would like to follow him and those who insist on their state’s independence. Also, he would oblige us to be in a state of continual warfare – which might be okay if the fighting were aimed at conquering a perennial foe, but Alexander had no intention of stopping: He was forced to turn back only when his exhausted army finally rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River in India as they contemplated yet another meaningless battle against a superior foe.

But because Alexander was a hero of his time, when military conquest or defeat determined whether one lived or died, where a king might believe that he was the son of a god and therefore need not abide by the laws of men nor institutions, it is pointless trying to judge him by today’s criteria. That is how great leaders have always been – Alexander was just more successful than all the others, because he managed to leave a positive impression on many of the regions that he conquered, as we see from the survival of his name in many cities and narratives of distant nations.

So let’s not judge Alexander by today’s standards. Let’s compare ourselves with him instead, so that we might be judged. First of all, in Greece today, Alexander would not be so fortunate as to attain power as a headstrong 20-year-old (unless he were the son of a king, which, he was). In Greece today, mediocrity and selfishness rule – and it takes many years for a capable young person to have all good qualities knocked out of him and acquire the necessary networks among political, economic and academic interests that will allow him to climb the ladder of power. He would need to be at least 40 before he achieved this. And then he would find himself confronting the many systemic problems that we all know and which are maintained by the interests that will have supported him in his rise. As a graduate of our narrow-minded education system (because it is one thing to be tutored by Aristotle and another to study at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki), a hostage to interest groups and to the corruption that feeds off political apathy and maintains it, he would cut no Gordian knots. He’d just keep talking about “change” and “reform,” not daring to do anything that would endanger his support, as he’d play for time. He would allow the country to sink, as long as he could remain in power. (Suffering along with his soldiers when they lack food and water would be taken as a sign of dangerous, unforgivable weakness.) And if today’s Alexander were to embrace foreign nations and their customs, this too would meet with disapproval from his cohorts and a large part of his nation, which feels comfortable only when flattered by claims of its purported superiority to all things foreign. (This bigotry is far removed from the anger and dismay that Alexander’s tough Macedonian generals felt when they saw him luxuriating in Persian dress and being overwhelmed by delusions of grandeur.)

So we might miss a leader who made the Greeks known to the whole world and we might miss an age in which our nation dominated all others. But if we compare ourselves with Alexander the Great, we may justly argue that he was the greatest Greek of all time – except for our own.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 25 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

Quiet museums of the mind

Something is stirring in Athens’s relationship with its ancient past. The New Acropolis Museum will open its doors in a month, the National Archaeological Museum has been refurbished and now, due to the pressure of local residents and renewed interest from the Culture Ministry, the desolate ruins of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum will be added to the map of places worth visiting in the capital. All is not rosy, of course: Visitors to Athens still risk finding the crown jewel of Greek civilization, the Acropolis, closed because of a strike, while the National Archaeological Museum stands out like an island of a lost civilization in the decaying city center. Still, adding to Athens’s important archaeological sites is a triumph of a present that is all too often the scene of one defeat after another.

The Academy and Lyceum are, on the surface, empty lots with a few stone ruins and both are in highly developed parts of the capital. The Lyceum is more fortunate, so to speak, in being located in perhaps the most prestigious part of the capital, next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, in the open space between Rigillis Street on one side and the National Gallery and the Athens Hilton on the other. The site was intended for a new museum of contemporary art when archaeologists discovered (or, more likely, confirmed) that this was the location of Aristotle’s famous school of philosophy. From then on, the Lyceum appeared to be condemned to the fate of so many ancient sites: sealed to the public, abandoned to the elements. Now, according to the Culture Ministry’s plans, the grounds of the Lyceum will be joined to those of the Byzantine and Christian Museum and will be opened to the public.

The site of the Academy was identified in 1966, after which time the area was allowed to decay without hindrance. Residents are now trying to block a high-rise office block planned by Athens Prefecture. But today citizens have a much greater awareness of environmental and cultural concerns and they demand that business interests and their government contribute to the common good rather than make a bad situation worse.

Abandoning important sites is perhaps a sign of the embarrassment of archaeological riches that Athens possesses and a confession that perhaps these particular sites do not have something especially impressive to show in terms of ruins. Indeed, they are not much more than an outline of stones on the hard ground. But their importance has very little to do with their physical ruins and everything to do with what they symbolize: Plato taught in the Academy and Aristotle, his student, passed on his wisdom at the Lyceum. We know both philosophers through words – theirs and others’. Their names and the names of their institutions have come to us through the centuries, as foundation stones of western intellectual civilization. The world, and its languages, is full of academies and lyceums. Anyone who studies the history of civilization knows Plato and Aristotle, and their great teachers and students. Their greatest achievements – their eternal presence – is in the mind, in the world of ideas.

It really does not matter if the Academy and the Lyceum are not great monuments of stone, something to inspire awe on a par with the Parthenon. Their glory lies in their very simplicity, in the fact that they are the sites where sparks of thought, in an unprecedented intellectual ferment, set the world on fire. There can be no greater museum – in the mind and on the ground – than the quiet spaces that helped shape the concepts that govern how we think and how we see our world.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

Loopholes and nooses

In a little-noticed drama, played out in the wings of our political soap opera, publishers are struggling to renew a decades-old amendment that allows them to spend two percent of their turnover in whichever way they see fit. This means that they can pocket the money or use it to pay for expenses that do not have receipts (as when a correspondent is on assignment) or to make payments that they want no one to know about. Seeing as publishing is a legitimate business that has been around for a very long time it would seem rather unnecessary to open a black hole in a company’s books for “unorthodox” payments. Anyhow, the issue of how publishing works in this country needs much greater scrutiny than this short comment.
What is striking about the “two percent” issue, though, is the passion with which its supporters (namely those very few who benefit from it) are fighting to keep it. One would argue that two percent of turnover is not such a big deal, seeing as the other 98 percent is on the books with no great disturbance to operations. But that’s the point: the two percent works as a loophole, allowing all kinds of behavior that would not be tolerated if all dealings had to be above board. This is an instance in which one and one do not make two, but instead make anything that we want it to. For example, if you have a black bag in a bank, into which no one but its owner is allowed to peek, how do you know that what is in that bag is what he says it is? The two-percent loophole is, very simply, a trapdoor into a forbidden world.
And these loopholes are part of one of the greatest problems in Greece’s economy, politics and society. The so-called “parathyrakia” – “little windows” in laws and regulations – permit all kinds of favoritism and exploitation of the situation. Laws are passed or amended to favor specific groups or even individuals – laws are bent to give specific groups or individuals a free pass when they are caught breaking them. This is almost always done for the political expedience of the “lawmakers” who want to pander to their supporters or to buy the support of others. This is always done at the expense of society as a whole.
A prime example of this can be seen in our everyday travails on the roads. In an unashamed effort to curry favor with taxi drivers, the Transport Minister allowed them to raise their fares while also permitting them to use bus lanes outside Athens’s restricted center. In no time, all bus lanes, including those in the center, were choked with taxis. And, very soon after, with private cars. You see, once the bus lanes had been eviscerated, what was the point of anyone staying out of them?
These little loopholes accumulate to form the noose that strangles our society.

Milestones&Footnotes column in AthensPlus, 15 May 2009

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