Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Greece wounds me....

We had the mother of all storms in Athens on Monday: torrential rain, continuous thunder and lightening and yet, the streets of Athens filled with demonstrators clutching their umbrellas protesting against the new series of austerity measures.

So we were very surprised to see people coming out in Syntagma Square the next day for yet another protest.

The centre was closed yet again as people came from all over Athens

The situation in Greece is grim. Fear and despair is what most people feel. Unemployment has risen to 20% and this does not take into account people who are not registered for work. Youth unemployment has rocketed to astronomical levels and has reached 43%  - those who are employed work for pittance wages, the so-called 500 euro generation, and cannot make ends meet. Most of them are forced to live with their parents who also have to partially support them.

The social security system is crippled while hospitals and schools are chronically underfunded. Medicines are in short supply, even basics like aspirin. Public sector workers have seen a 15% cut in their wages while pensions have been slashed as well: pensions above 1,100 have been cut by 20% while pensioners below the age of 55 have seen a cut of 40%. At the same time, electricity bills have gone up by 1/4, while the price of heating oil (the main way Greek homes are heated) has doubled.

The new austerity measures, which are being discussed at the moment, will propose a cut of private sector workers'  pay, lowering the minimum wage, and further cuts in pensions.

The number of the homeless has increased by 25% since 2009 and people now talk of the 'new homeless' - middle class, educated people who up until a while ago had jobs and homes. Municipal soup kitchens are operating all over the place with people saying that they have not seen the like since the German occupation of the country when Greece literally starved. Farmers are driving into towns and offloading potatoes and other vegetables so that people have something to eat.

(photograph, courtesy of the BBC)

What we have noticed this time is how visible the homeless have become in the streets of Athens: they are everywhere, huddled under blankets with their few possessions around them.

The austerity measures have hit the the majority of the population with disastrous consequences for many. The suicide rate in Greece - once the lowest - is now the highest in Europe. So, have things changed? The answer is no, as the Greek debt is larger than it was last year while people are seeing their wages and pensions slashed, have new totally unfair property taxes imposed on them and many have lost their jobs.

One of the conditions imposed by the Troika is a rationalisation of the Greek Civil Service. The Greek Civil Service is of Kafka-esque proportions. There are almost one million public service employees, in a country of 11,319 million, who have a job for life. Every new government that is elected appoints its own people so the monster keeps on growing. What I have been told by people who are employed in the public sector is that with every new government the employees who support the non-elected party are ostracised and all the work is carried out by the people supporting the elected party: in other words, this is a form of bullying so that if you do not support the elected party you are given a small office all on your own and no work to do.

What is a definite fact is the experience of Greek people who have any dealing with the public agencies: after waiting in queues - for hours sometimes - they are 'serviced'  by people who cannot be bothered to talk to them let alone get the job done, who are unspeakably rude and if you want even the smallest, simplest job done, you are sent from office to office, with duplicates and triplicates where bored and rude employees sign, countersign, stamp, counterstamp papers and who keep sending you on and on....

So, the Greek public service needs dragging into the 21st century and needs to be rationalised. Any rationalisation would obviously have to made with people's livelihoods in mind - one of the proposals to reduce the public sector (one of the Troika's previous demands) was to only employ 1 new person for every 15 who retired. Has this happened? I saw in the paper the other day that in the last year another 20,000 people have been added to the already large number of public servants.

So, why does the Greek State not have any money? A big part of this is tax evasion. It has been estimated that 15  billion euros a year are lost through tax evasion. The vanguard in this crime is the medical profession - most medical provision in Greece is private and most of it is carried out in the black market where doctors do not give receipts: some of the doctors in the Kolonaki district, the Harley Street of Athens, declare an income of 10,000 euros a year.  What is even more obscene is the demand of doctors in public hospitals for a fakelaki, a small envelope stuffed with cash, which they demand before performing an operation - they cite their 'measly' salaries as an excuse for this extortion. Only last week the case of a woman with suspected cancer was reported in the Greek newspapers: she was asked to give a fakelaki to both the surgeon and the anaesthetist who were going to carry out the operation. She explained that she had no money. The next day she found out that her operation had been 'postponed'; to this day she has been given no date as to when this will happen. When she does get a date she will probably be asked for a fakelaki again, and so and so on....

Given the state of the economy the obvious solution would have been for the Greek State to do something about tax dodging. Not only is this not happening, but article 99 does not give enough powers to enforce tax collection, such as allowing the seizing of assets or allowing the scrutiny of bank accounts.

Greek TV screens have been full of businessmen in handcuffs being led to police stations - the message that is being given is that the State has started to tackle tax dodging. It is all a show. Previous naming and shaming campaigns in the past months were forgotten soon after. In the last few weeks 112 tax dodgers have been arrested owing over 334 million euros. Most of them were released within days having 'promised' that they will repay their debts. Those who have made some payments towards their tax debts in the past have only paid 20% of what is owed. Crime pays for the rich in Greece.

Political analysts in Greece believe that this naming and shaming of tax evaders is just a propaganda campaign to calm the anger of ordinary Greeks who are facing crippling austerity measures by suggesting 'we're all in this together' and even the rich are suffering, and to prepare the way for major changes in protective labour law, and even more cuts in living standards. Can Greek people take any more cuts? The answer is a definitive no. There is really not much more that can be done to an already seriously impoverished people, and economic 'solutions' which are simply increasing the debt burden and driving the economy into an increasing downward spiral.

So, what does the future hold for Greece? I do not know and I cannot see a way out. I know what needs to happen: restructuring of the public sector, dealing with tax avoidance and a restructuring of the economic and social fabric of the country which takes its people into account. The ailing, incapable, inefficient, selfish, corrupt and diseased Greek State is not able to do this, nor are any of the present political leaders. The future looks grim.

In the 1940s the Greek poet Seferis wrote: "Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me". Unfortunately this holds even more true today.


  1. Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,
    curtains of mountains, archipelagos, naked granite.
    They call the one ship that sails AG ONIA.

  2. I am interested in getting in touch with someone living in greece to do an interview for my blog about agriculture and the barter markets that are springing up. I am a montessori teacher who dabbles in horticulture. If you know someone who might be interested and speaks english, as I unfortunately do not speak greek, please e-mail me at

    1. Dear TexasBelle,
      Unfortunately, I cannot think of anyone who might be able to help you. I don't know anyone involved in horticulture, and I had never heard about the barter markets - an interesting idea. If you manage to find out, I would be very interested to know what you have learned.