The Greek referendum dilemma


'Cut the Debt. IMF go home' Athens 2015. Denis Bocquet under a Creative Commons Licence

On Sunday I posted a comment on Facebook saying, half-jokingly, that it is about time we (the Greeks) pulled out of the euro and defaulted on our debt, so that German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally bears some of the costs. I didn’t say this lightly, for many reasons: not least because I knew that a lot of my friends and family would find such a statement appalling.

The developments in Greece move faster than my own evolving opinions, as the recently-elected Syriza coalition-government has now announced a referendum for, or against, the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB), long and notoriously known as the ‘Troika’. This vote will be presented by many as a referendum on reverting to the old drachma currency or staying with the euro, which is of course a false dilemma.

The question isn’t ‘euro or drachma?’ but ‘democracy or not?’ If a return to the drachma is the price demanded in order to save democracy, then I know which way I would vote.

As background, I am a European, of Greek descent, born in Germany to people who in the past would have described themselves as ‘reformist-lefties’. As such, I have always been supportive of the European project and the inevitable calls for the modernization (or what the Troika calls today ‘reforms’) of the Greek economy and, ultimately, society.

By now most readers are probably familiar with the general story of Greece having gone bankrupt in all but name in early 2010, the consequent transformation of German and French bank debt exposure into Greek public tax liabilities, and the ongoing saga of Greece being on a liquidity-drip ever since. The drip was of course conditional, as it came from the Troika, which demanded painful reforms such as cutting state welfare programmes, demolishing labour laws and selling off, at knock-down prices, electricity companies, airports, ports, islands, beaches – anything that is worth a penny in Greece.

The Troika demands even included such absurdities as changing the opening hours of pharmacies and designating 5-day-old milk as fresh. That is when Syriza came in. And what they proposed was what Greece ultimately needs to recover: a return to growth on the one hand and the expansion of the tax base and taxable activities on the other. No matter what the ‘European’ faction is claiming today, none of that had ever been on the agenda.

Whether Syriza has any hope of altering the tragic turn of events has always been a thorny question, but what is certain is that elections cannot change the electorate. Regardless of the strong opinions ‘for the euro’, the programmes presented by Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis were much more credible than any ‘indignant European’ would ever dare to admit. Even conservative writers such as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph, who wrote that the ‘Greek debt crisis is the Iraq War of finance’, has admitted that. The working papers Syriza presented were consistently dismissed by the neoclassical dogmatists despite the fact that major figures and mainstream economists – from Paul Krugman and James K Galbraith to George Soros, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the IMF’s own chief economist Olivier Blanchard – agree with them .

I never dreamed that I would suggest that ‘we pull out of the euro’. But I also never dreamed that we would get to a point where currency matters more than democracy, the economy and, above all, society.

The latest demands presented by the Troika were invariably designed to finish off the Greek economy. The demands relating to the pharmaceuticals and the taxation of the shipping industry were more about large European transnationals breaking into these markets than propping up the economy.

No matter what the ‘euro supporters say, there is also a widespread suspicion that the Troika wanted to humiliate Greece and make an example of it. The talk will of course be that Tsipras and his government are cowards who cannot make a decision against the will of the people who voted them in. The wise ‘Europeans’ will point out that Tsipras made promises it would have been impossible to keep: an end to austerity, for example, and no further reductions of pensions or another VAT rise. This belief is firmly based on the current orthodoxy that the neo-classical policies dictated by unelected technocrats somewhere between Brussels and Frankfurt are somehow God-given and the only ones applicable.

The Greek ‘Europeans’ will insist that the capitulation of the democratic institutions to the markets is somehow the most European of all virtues. They will point to the queues at the cash points as proof, as if it was not to be expected all along, following the latest demands by the Three and the consequent Greek response. The Greek Europeans will also, in a very Greek way, insist that Greece is a special case, a bizarre form of exceptionalism based on negatives that sees Greece as an unusually profligate and corrupt state. But this is exceptionalism nonetheless, and it misses the point of how Greece is being made an example for the rest of Europe.

The question I would like to ask the Greek ‘euro supporters’ is whether they believe that a continuation of the same recessionary policies as hitherto will somehow lift the Greek economy. What kind of generation is ours if it is justified to pass on to future generations levels of debt that amount to slavery?

In Greece, people used to murmur that ‘all we need is another junta’. Today this slogan has morphed into ‘in Europe with the euro at all costs’, as if Greece can somehow modernize by the external forces imposed by the ECB, the EC and the IMF. All attempts at an enforced modernization of Greece have failed because they were enforced. If Greece cannot perform within the eurozone, or Greeks cannot take more austerity-induced pain and Berlin cannot consider writing off some of the Greek debt, then something else has to happen.

We all know that the current ‘European’ policies have only made matters worse for Greeks. The people of Syriza know this and are trying a different tack. They were elected to do so and the referendum they have just announced is consistent with the basic principle of democracy: that the people should decide on matters that are going to affect the future course of their lives and the society in which they live. It is for this reason, if not any other, that we should give them our wholehearted support. For democracy.

This is an edited version of a longer article which appeared on the author's blog .

What the murder of Pavlos Fyssas means for Greece

Fire in Athens

Could Greece be heading for a civil war? Eric Vernier under a Creative Commons Licence

When the police arrived in Keratsini, Athens, towards midnight on 18 September, they found ‘two people engaged in fighting’. One of them would later be identified as Pavlos Fyssas, the latest victim of the ‘new’ Greek fascists. Newspapers reported that when the police arrived there were over 20 neo-Nazis at the scene, so well-armed with sticks and clubs that the police felt they couldn’t intervene. One young policewoman, however, produced her gun and arrested Yiorgos Roupakias, the man who butchered Pavlos Fyssas.

The people who committed this crime are not random hooligans. They roam the streets in motorcades, carrying clubs, sticks, knives and butterfly machetes. They sport black uniforms, designed to show rank, complete with black helmets and gloves and insignia. Many of them wear bulletproof vests (the same make as those worn by police officers, since a prominent member of the group [1] also supplies the police). They are members of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi group that has an increasing stranglehold on Greece, and particularly Athens.

That the thugs were in Keratsini is no accident. Keratsini, along with Perama, Drapetsona, Amfiali, Nikea and Aghios Paneteleimonas , is a so-called ‘red borough’, the heartland of dockers and shipyard workers; they always voted Communist. The fascists have methodically established themselves in those neighbourhoods. Members of the militia were brought in from all corners of Greece, organizing food hand-outs, ‘policing’ the streets on motorbikes, attacking the dispossessed, immigrants and the desitute . Sadly, they managed to get 10 per cent of the vote in these deprived areas before they felt secure enough to show what they were really up to. On 12 June 2012 they savaged six Egyptian fishers, smashing the jaw and nose of one of them; in an attack soon after they took out a man’s eye. The attacks follow the same pattern, perpetrated by motorized groups who, if not tolerated by the police, at least seem to operate beyond their control. The fact that in certain areas of Athens and other metropolitan centres one in two members of the police force is a supporter of the group does nothing to calm fears.

Following Fyssas’ assassination, a doctor from Nikea’s general hospital said on TV that ‘[for] three years we [have been] shouting about the increasing number of racist attack victims we have to deal with’. According to some, however, Golden Dawn’s activities aren’t purely ideological but also quite practical, perhaps aimed at taking control of Keratsini’s wharf.

Pavlos Fyssas’ father is a member of the Metal Workers Union. Pavlos himself did various jobs but was mainly an MC (a rapper), going by the name of Killah P. Many of his songs spoke against the fascists. He was known in the area for being a ‘Red’ and someone who stood up against the Golden Dawn bullies.

That the assassin was also a local who worked at the same fishing wharf is the ironic part of the tragedy. According to a close friend, Yiorgos Roupakias worked, as a sideline, as a caterer in the Golden Dawn offices – as did his wife and daughter – for what they call ‘pocket money’ in Greece (‘zero hours contracts’ in Britain). He was active in food hand-outs to ‘ethnic Greeks’ and also took part in other ‘activities’ for the organization, the nature of which we can only guess at.

Roupakias claims that he is only casually connected to Golden Dawn and that the attack was in self-defence. This photo from his own Facebook page [2] says otherwise (the Zorba-looking guy is a top ‘official’ in Golden Dawn).

Keratsini, Perama and Drapetsona are a microcosm that the battered Athenian middle class don’t want to know anything about. People who live in these districts are trapped – they have no electricity, no heating, no health services and no jobs, and the scared, silent majority want nothing to do with them.

The ruling class carries on as if nothing is happening. Theodore Pagalos, the Sorbonne graduate grandson of a ruthless Greek dictator and constant cabinet member of the ‘socialist party’, had the audacity to say that Greeks are ‘all in it together’. Stavros Psycharis, the proprietor of the largest Greek media conglomerate, said a couple of weeks ago that the electorate of the leftwing Syriza, the second-largest party in Greece, and the Nazis, are one: they are two sides of the same extremist coin. For the élite, diminishing in number but expanding in wealth, it is important to force down our throats that not following them means that we are fomenting our own demise.

The nature of the game is that everyone who opposes the austerity measures, for whatever reason, is considered an extremist. In this situation, people who oppose the violence and killing and the gradual breakdown of society are marginalized. The (literally) silent majority are sleep-walking towards disaster: it could be civil war if the marginalized Left takes the bait and starts carrying guns.

[1] Elias Panagyotaros the intimidating 20-stone gorilla of an MP runs a shop called Phalanx, adorned until recently with images of the imprisoned former dictator Papadopoulos. The shop supplies military weapons and combat equipment and he counts the police among his clients.

[2] The page was up until 19 September; sadly someone has since disabled it.

A longer version of this article first appeared on Petros Diveris’s blog.

Greece’s public broadcaster: another death foretold

tv by the side of the road
ERT is a victim of a ‘special executive order’ allowing ministers to shut down public sector organizations
Therealdigitalkiwi, under a CC License

Apparently the writing was on the wall. On 11 June 2013 the Greek coalition government filed a ‘special executive order’ allowing ministers to shut down public sector organizations at will, as a matter of urgency.

Greece is increasingly governed by such orders, which effectively bypass parliament as they require only the President’s signature and have immediate effect 1. These orders still need to be ratified, preferably in 40 days, but often it takes up to three months. In the case of order A139, three months is plenty of time to wind down an organization, sack its employees and transfer its assets elsewhere. When the order was filed, many people already knew that its first, if not intended, victim would be the Greek public broadcaster, ERT, with over 60 years of history.

Greece is currently governed by a tripartite coalition led by Antonis Samaras of New Democracy (the right wing), Eleftherios Venizelos of PASOK (the remnants of the ‘socialist’ party) and Fotis Kouvelis of DIMAR (one of the many spinoffs of the ‘reformative left’). This ‘mini-troika’ is in place to guarantee that the demands of the big Troika (A committee of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) will be enforced on Greece and transformed into law and sell-offs. They are necessary because only a coalition of the three can keep Syriza, the opposition party which vehemently opposes Troika's demands, out of government.

New Democracy’s view on ERT was predictable. The businessman Samaras instinctively disliked ERT as a public broadcaster. The views of the other two are slightly less clear. In the current wave of cuts, fire sale of state assets, wage and pension reductions, it was clear that the 2,500 plus employees of ERT would have to accept reform, reductions, even department closures. But the two parties are adamant that they do not agree with the order, nor will they ratify it in three months, when a new, smaller broadcaster will already be in place (and the audience gone).

ERT, just like all Greek state agencies, was a listed company only in name. Its director and other executives were always appointed by the government. Consequently, recruitment was mostly based on party loyalty. The fact that ERT managed to produce high quality material, archive thousands of hours of traditional Greek music and broadcast some superb radio over the years is testimony to a permanent feature of modern Greece: that a few people work like dogs to feed the many and that these can perform miracles. Yet it is those few who are first in line to lose their jobs.

ERT, like everything in Greece, was governed by cronyism, and the papers are full of this. At the same time, Greeks are fed up with everything, including the TV license fee paid through their electricity bill 2 and, having now become cynical and almost anaesthetized to reality, many of them simply accept the closure as inevitable.

But, it is common knowledge that jobs in the public and semi-public sector are allocated using the 4-2-1 system, i.e. four jobs to New Democracy voters, two to PASOK and one to DIMAR. Is this not the same system that generated and promoted the kind of cronyism cited as the chief reason for the dismantling of the Greek public broadcaster?

The mini-troika is presiding over a destructive process, not a reformative one. The Greeks managed to sell their Lotto company to the sole bidder for almost €100 million ($133 million) less than they wanted; they passed the extraction rights to a gold mine in northern Greece, projected to generate €10 to€20 billion ($13 to $27 billion) profit, for the royal sum of €11 million ($14.7 million). They have managed to lock the main port in a contract with the Chinese that at first glance seems rather unfavourable to Greece. To top this all, the day before the special executive order was issued, Greece had just failed to sell off its public gas company to Gazprom, a sale which was projected to contribute almost half this year’s privatisation money. Yet, Samaras, just a few weeks ago, told the Chinese in Beijing that Greece’s is a ‘success story’. No it’s not.

So why now? And what does it mean? Is Samaras crazy, a bully, a moron, or just a calculating juggler? It is worth remembering that he temporarily left New Democracy some years ago to form a new right-wing party, ‘Political Spring’ (Politiki Anixi). That party was mainly about fomenting, and benefiting from, rising nationalism.

Samaras now feels powerful. He doesn’t appear to know – or perhaps care – that things are really bad. All he knows is that his ‘success story’ appears to be the dominant one in the local media 3. He has clearly sold the story that the gas deal fell through for reasons beyond and greater than Greece (i.e. the geopolitical chess game between EU-USA-Russia). In fact, he was naïve enough to ask the Troika to reduce the projected privatisation target by the amount of the deal lost, only to receive a resounding no. Not even the recent downgrade of the Greek stock exchange to that of an emerging economy has been able to ground him. I think the man is all of the above. Samaras will take the entire nation hostage to elections and finally materialise his childhood dream of being the only chief. Or will he?

What will the other two do? I am not sure. They are both insignificant. PASOK pretty much died the day Papandreou handed Greece over to the IMF and the European Commission. Each of the two parties would receive about 5 per cent of the vote, half that of the neo-Nazis, should elections be held right now. According to the last polls, Syriza is only 1.8 per cent behind New Democracy. The greatest mystery of all is what the exhausted and numb Greek voter will do should Samaras carry out his threat.

In all this ERT doesn’t matter. Not only does it not matter, but it is one less sober  – and to a degree impartial  – voice. The great danger, of course, in view of the fact that things increasingly don’t matter anymore in Greece, is that it will turn into a nation of nihilists. After all, it is one thing to say something needs to be done with ERT, but another thing altogether for a politician to shut down 60 years of history with an executive order, just because he wants to be ‘calife a la place du calife’.

This is an edited version of a post published on Petros Diveris’ website.

[1] They are quite popular for bypassing environmental law, pension reductions, selling off state property and so on.
[2] It means that every Greek paid license fees regardless of whether they watched ERT or not, or even had a television. In terms of communication tactics this is only slightly devious on Samaras’ behalf since the electricity bill has already been used as a means to collect extraordinary house property taxes, so any reduction in those extra fees will make a good impression on some (hopefully few) idiots. 
[3] It appears that the Greek prime minister doesn’t read the foreign press.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop