Greece May Be in a Financial Mess,
But Greeks Are Resilient and Decent

By M.P. PRABHAKARAN




  


  
  
  
  









Syntgma Square, in front of the Parliament building in Athens, Greece. Protest rallies in the Greek capital are usually held in this square.



Eight-Day Classic Greece.” That’s how the Pennsylvania-based company characterized the tour. And classic Greece was the main motivation for my joining the 30-member group from the U.S. that went on the tour.
One of these days, I will be writing about the monuments and sites that represent classic Greece, which I visited during the eight-day tour in June. This piece, however, is about the Greece of today, and about the very ordinary Greeks who made my tour a memorable experience.
The Greece of today is in a financial mess. But the Greeks are a resilient people. In spite of the economic woes brought upon them by the stupid policies followed by their leaders, they have remained basically decent and honest. After all, they are the descendants of those who gave the world the gifts of democracy and the Olympics. They know the importance of being fair and of playing by the rule in the conduct of their day-to-day life.
Today’s Greece is problem-ridden. A clue to what we could be witnessing in the following days came from our tour guide on day we landed in Athens, the Greek capital. We landed on June 12, 2013. The guide ended her orientation talk with a warning that it was not a good day to go around the city on our own. According to the tour schedule, after the orientation talk, we were free to do whatever we liked the rest of the day. But anything untoward could happen that day, the guide said, because various labor unions were planning some protest demonstrations in the city.
The warning made many in the tour group stay put in the hotel. I told a lady who was sitting next to me during the orientation talk that protest demonstrations wouldn’t intimidate a person born and brought up in the southern Indian state of Kerala. “I grew up watching them almost every day,” I told her, a nurse practitioner from Philadelphia. “I even participated in some of them. I can’t wait to see what is going on outside. Would you like to join me?”
She happily grabbed the offer. We walked toward Syntagma Square, about five minutes from the hotel where we were staying. The square, in front of the Parliament building, is one of the places in Athens where protest rallies are usually held. Lately, such have been frequent in Greek cities. People have been taking to the streets every time their government imposed a new set of austerity measures on them. The austerity measures are linked to the financial mess mentioned above. How did both come about?
For several years, the Greek government had been irresponsible in spending and not serious about generating revenue. Tax evasion had almost become a norm. Government employees were given huge holiday bonuses, making them in effect recipients of 14 months’ salary for 12 months’ work. Powerful labor unions have made it almost impossible to get rid of superfluous and incompetent employees. Many of them got their jobs through political favors, jobs-for-votes schemes or pure nepotism. As of 2009, Greece’s civil service had 970,000 employees, accounting for a third of the country’s work force. In a country of 11 million, that is a jarringly disproportionate number.

On the Brink of Bankruptcy

The net result of all this was that, by early 2010, Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy. The national debt of 300 billion euros ($394 billion) was about to exceed the gross domestic product by 20 percent.
Greece being part of the European Union, and also of the euro zone, its economic collapse would be disastrous to both, and also to the world economy. In fact, in late April, 2010, when such a collapse was seen as a possibility, its impact was felt half the world away: on Wall Street, Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 338 points, causing a loss of about $3,000 in the investment portfolio of an average U.S. investor.
The Greek government was forced to seek outside help. The European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund came to its rescue. They came up with a bailout package worth 110 billion euros (U.S. $146 billion). The loan was to be given in three installments, over a three-year period.
Of course, the aid package came with strict conditions attached to it. To receive each installment, the Greek government had to convince the troika of lenders that it had put in place the set of austerity measures stipulated by them. The measures involved cutting the country’s budget deficit to 3 percent of the GDP by 2014; cutting salaries of public-sector workers, including lawmakers; eliminating 150,000 civil service positions; increasing taxes; drastically reducing public spending; and so on.
According to many economists, especially those belonging to the Keynesian school, adopting stringent austerity measures when the economy is in recession is a short-sighted policy. But the Greek government had to do it to quality for the loan, which alone would keep the country’s economy afloat. As the then-finance minister George Papaconstantinou said soon after signing the bailout agreement, on May 1, 2010, the choice was between "destruction" of the country and saving it.
No sooner had the government announced the first set of austerity measures than the public rose in revolt against them. The May Day celebrations of 2010 were marred by clashes between demonstrators and police and by destruction of public property.
Unlike in previous protests, in which people’s ire was directed also at the country’s bloated bureaucracy, the protests we were warned about on the day of our arrival was, in a way, in solidarity with a section of government employees. Effective 11 p.m. the day before, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had ordered the closing of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation. By closing the state-owned television and radio broadcasting outfit, known as ERT, he was hoping to eliminate 2,900 government jobs.

Latest Austerity Measures

Getting rid of broadcast employees was part of the latest austerity plan attached to the next loan installment, which is $11.4 billion. To convince the lenders that it was serious about the austerity plan, the Greek Parliament had passed a law, in April this year, to eliminate 15,000 civil service jobs by the end of 2014. The shutting down of ERT was done in pursuance of that law.
As soon as the shutdown was ordered, 3,000 people, including ERT employees, gathered outside the broadcaster’s headquarters and vowed to stage a sit-in until the government rescinded the order.*
My newly-acquired friend and I were happy to hear that the day’s protests would be confined to the premises of ERT, far away from where we were. We continued wandering around areas adjacent to Syntagma Square. A teeny-weeny jewelry store caught my friend’s attention. She told me that she was an impulsive shopper. We ambled into the store. While my friend checked out various items, we engaged the store owner, a young man in his early twenties, in an interesting conversation.
The store was family-owned, he said. It was started by his grandfather before he was born. All the items in the store were handmade, by members of his family. He would soon be inheriting the family business, he said. He was sorry for his friends who finished the four-year college with him this summer. “They don’t have a job,” he added, “and the prospect of finding one is bleak. The unemployment rate among those who are fresh out of colleges and schools is 60 percent. In the country as a whole, the unemployment rate is 27 percent.”
By then, my friend had decided to buy a pair of earrings. She asked the price and also the tax. The tax was 23 percent. When the man handed her the receipt, she pointed out that he had forgotten to add the tax.
“Oh, that’s included in the price,” he said. “We call it value-added tax.”
We were impressed by the man’s honesty and talked about it as we came out of the store. We both are frequent travelers. Ripping off tourists is a norm in most countries, even countries that are not going through the kind of hardship that Greece is. We both have been victims of such rip-offs. Naturally, we were touched by the decency and honesty displayed by the young man.
I noticed that honesty and decency in many more Greeks during my interactions with them in the following days of the tour. I also noted that, no matter what the hardship, they have not lost their sense of community and are committed to helping one another. That quality was more noticeable in Greek villages, which were hit harder than cities by the government-imposed, Troika-mandated austerity plan. One day, the entire tour group had the good fortune to benefit from that noble quality of Greek villagers.

Lunch at a Farmer’s House

In many villages, public schools have become the casualties of the austerity plan that calls for drastic cuts in government spending. Some schools are kept open through contributions made by local communities. One day, when it came time for lunch, our tour guide made a surprise announcement. She told us that the day’s lunch would be a gift to us from the tour company, Gate 1 Travel. It was the company’s way of supporting a village community that had fallen on hard times, she said. The offer sounded sweeter when she said that the lunch would be prepared by a local farmer’s family and that we would be having it at the farmer’s house. The lunch money the company paid would go to the community as a whole. The company picked this particular village because, in a fire in 2007, it lost 36 of its houses; and this particular farmer, because, in the same fire, he lost several head of his sheep.
The name of the village is Kuchohera, which our guide told us meant the injured hand. The host family’s contribution came in the form of the manual labor of the man of the house, his wife and his two children. The wife proved to be an excellent cook and her husband an excellent cheese-maker. The cheese we had was made out of the milk from his own sheep. Their two sons didn’t speak a word of English. But the meticulous way in which they took care of our little-little needs touched our hearts more than a thousand words would.
I have taken a lot of tours conducted by Gate 1. A few of them did disappoint me. But the hospitality and lunch I enjoyed at the home of a farmer in Kuchohera village in Greece has more than made up all the disappointments I had in the past. Thank you, Gate 1.
The Greek government and the troika of international lenders, especially the IMF which is the chief architect of the austerity plan that is partly responsible for the hardships ordinary Greeks are experiencing now, can learn a lesson or two from the resilience, ingenuity and compassion of village communities in Greece.
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*To get slightly ahead of our story, in less than a month, ERT was back on the air. Apart from ERT employees’ sit-in, it took intervention by the country’s highest court for the government to rescind its earlier decision.

(Published in July 2013)