By Nikos Konstantaras
From The Observer, Sunday 6 November 2011
Angry and ashamed, we Greeks need to see a just solution to our ills
Everyone knows how we got into this mess. Our politicians must make sure their reforms reflect this fairly.
No Greek will forget the image of our defeated prime minister standing alone before a gaggle of reporters outside the G20 conference hall in the Cannes night. The German chancellor and French president had just taken turns telling the world that Greece was a step away from being ejected from the eurozone. In the remake of Cinderella, the grim-faced sisters had won.
Two years after his election and the revelation of the depth of Greece’s debt, two years after introducing painful reforms that successive governments had avoided, George Papandreou had made the fatally mistimed blunder of thinking he should ask his people how much more pain they were prepared to take (thereby shaking confidence in the EU’s efforts to prevent the Greek contagion). Here, besides the collapse of the fairy tale that being part of the EU is an endless ball, was the essence of Greece’s modern tragedy. Papandreou, in his moment of despair, represented both good intentions undone by personal failings, and the insular political elite whose weaknesses brought Greece to the terrifying brink of bankruptcy and isolation.
For two years, we Greeks have been wondering what happened to us. How did our country go from being the richest and strongest in the Balkans – the only one that, decades before others, was a member of both Nato and the European Union – to a desperate loan junkie, dependent on increasingly impatient partners and creditors? Just a few years earlier, in 2004, Athens had hosted an excellent Olympic Games. We managed to get organised in time to present the world with a successful combination of aesthetic moderation and technical achievement that was a faint, but true, echo of the classical era which, since its brief flash in the 5th century BC, has been the standard by which every Greek has been judged – and found wanting.
The country was developing at a rapid pace, with major infrastructure projects and good telecommunications. And Greece was proud of having been a part of Europe’s great unification project since 1981. With the adoption of the euro, the Greeks felt that at last they had become integrated with the rest of Europe. And then everything came crashing down, as if at an unknown but predetermined hour, not only did Cinderella lose her coach and horses, her fine gown and both her crystal party shoes, but at the door she was handed the bill for everything – with interest. The Greeks are clever people. We know what happened. For generations, politicians and the people have colluded to feed at the public trough. The one thing that held it all in check (our spending but also our country’s development and modernisation) was Greece’s unyielding poverty.
The lack of farm land, the open invitation of the sea and the hide-outs in endless mountains cultivated a spirit of adventure and impatience. When things got too tough, people would seek their fortune abroad – as emigrants or fugitives. This was not conducive to creating a culture of tolerance, moderation and compromise. After the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey nearly 90 years ago, the overwhelming majority in the country was Greek and its religion Orthodox. This resulted in Greeks not really knowing or caring how other people think. In this very closed culture, the politicians were feudal lords who were responsible for the wellbeing of their supporters. Jobs and benefits were exchanged for votes. Political parties lived and died in a “winner take all” mentality, still one of Greece’s greatest plagues. In such a climate, when only loyalty matters, greed, laziness, corruption and hypocrisy are nourished rather than punished. Inefficiency and waste become the norm.
Membership of the European Union brought the longest period of peace and prosperity this little country has known. The euro put an end to eternal problems such as a weak currency, inflation and high interest rates. It is telling that, at the personal level, Greeks are less in debt than many other people – including Britons and Americans. It is our state which, in the hands of a political class that is still living in the past, went hurtling towards today’s death spiral.
With EU funds and easy loans, the public sector kept growing way beyond its usefulness; salaries and benefits increased beyond productivity. Even worse, Greece made a habit of paying the interest on loans by borrowing more capital. Everyone in politics, business and the media – and all interested citizens – knew that this was happening and that it was untenable. But it is in human nature to think that bubbles do not burst – until they do. It’s like a bank: everyone thinks that it’s fine, or at least capable of surviving, as long as nothing rocks the boat. Then, when there’s a run on it, everyone wonders how it was allowed to operate for so long.
We know that it will take many years of austerity, major social and economic reforms and a radical new mentality to get the country on the right course. People are angry and frightened – because they followed false leaders; because they see a future of deprivation; because they know that they will pay for far more than they consumed. This is natural and those designing and implementing the reforms should – at last – wake up to the fact that the key to changing Greece is to introduce a sense of justice: that those who have the most should pay the most; that crimes should not go unpunished; that hard work and honesty should be rewarded. This is simple – and yet still unattainable. No wonder people are angry; no wonder every small group that likes to throw molotov cocktails at the police is tolerated, to the astonishment of foreign observers.
But perhaps the greatest sorrow and anger these days arises from the destruction of our reputations, from the way in which some governments and many news media have presented the support to Greece not as a necessary evil that will help shore up the euro and, incidentally, help Greece, but rather as if the Greeks are picking their pockets. Greeks everywhere – whether at home, travelling or second- and third-generation immigrants in new lands – are ashamed of what has befallen Greece and embarrassed by the damage to their reputations. Our only hope is that, even at this late hour, our politicians may see their duty to their nation and our partners and join forces to implement all the reforms that the country needs – until new leaders emerge.
This crisis has reminded us of two great things. One is the eternal wisdom of “know thyself”, the cornerstone of ancient Greek thinking, and the need to see ourselves as others see us. The other is that though this country has never had wealth, it has always had talented people. We will think of ways to work our way out of this mess.
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