I read an unsettling, insightful article on the Greek crisis in the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, written by the Greek crime novelist, Petros Markaris. Entitled In Athen gehen die Lichter aus (The Lights Are Going Out in Athens) the article appeared on December 1, 2011 in issue 49. For me the text depicted the social and economic malaise of the country in such a striking way that I wanted to share it with my friends. I couldn’t find an English translation of the piece, so I translated it myself. This is not an authorized translation, but Mr. Markaris was kind enough not to object to my uploading it on the blog. I forgot to ask him if the title was meant to recall the remark Sir Edward Grey was said to have made on the eve of the First World War: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”. In any event the wartime tenor of the reference certainly seems to fit.
Petros Markaris’ “The Lights Are Going Out in Athens”, translated from the German:
Alongside Parliament, with its seven political parties, we have another, parallel system in Greece, one with four parties: the four blocs into which our society has splintered in the wake of 18 months of financial crisis. The continued worsening of the crisis and the struggle for everyday survival has not brought these groups closer. On the contrary, they have become more and more estranged from one another. Coalitions are being formed between these factions but trench warfare has set in as well.
First, there’s the “Profiteers’ Party”. It comprises the businesses that benefited from the patronage system of the last thirty years, in particular construction firms. They had their heyday in the run up to the Olympic Games of 2004, when the State lavished them with lucrative construction contracts.
But the members of the Profiteers’ Party also include the businesses that supply state agencies with goods, for example, firms that provide medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies to public hospitals. Greeks are only now beginning to understand the extent to which money was squandered. Until recently the hospitals themselves were responsible for the purchase of pharmaceutical supplies and medical equipment. The Ministry of Health has now centralized the purchase of pharmaceuticals online; given previous expenditures, it made 9,937,480€ available. It now turns out that the drugs cost only 616,505€, or just 6.2% of the previous amount!
Without the new austerity measures it would have been business as usual. It was these profiteers, the construction firms and procurement agents, who cultivated a smoothly functioning alliance with the political party and ministers who were in power at any particular time. Everyone in the state apparatus knew about these interlocking interests and the costs they had for the general public, but no one said anything. Not only because the parties pocketed massive donations but also because the corrupt business sectors financed the MPs’ election campaigns and secured well-paying jobs for members of their families.
One could also call the Profiteers’ Party the “Tax Dodgers’ Party”, because they all—still—evade taxes, most notably self-employed, well-paid professionals such as doctors and lawyers. When a Greek walks in the doctor’s office, the physician tells him, “The visit costs 80€, but if you want a receipt, it will cost 110€.” Most patients thus do without the receipt and save 30€. Good relations with the respective ruling party means that state agencies tolerate the system and quietly look the other way.
The bloc of destitute citizens, on the other hand, keeps growing. Many cannot even scrape together the money to pay their share of the cost of their prescriptions. So what do they do? They turn to the aid organization “Doctors of the World”, which dispenses certain medicines for free. The two clinics that “Doctors of the World” maintain in Athens were actually intended for destitute immigrants who paddle over from Africa in dinghies. Now a growing number of Greeks are asking for help. On some days there are up to a thousand people standing in line at the “Doctors of the World”, including diabetics who can no longer afford their insulin.
The misery of the immigrants has spread to the Greeks. Six months ago, when I opened my balcony door and looked down on the street, I would see refugees picking through the garbage bins to find something to eat. In the past few weeks there are more and more Greeks as well. They don’t want their hardship to show, so they make their rounds of the dumpsters in the early morning hours, when only a handful of people are on the streets.
The Profiteers and Tax Dodgers have no such cares, of course. They have hardly felt the crisis. Even before the crisis broke out they had transferred their money to bank accounts abroad. In the last 18 months roughly six billion Euros have been lost to Greek banks while banks abroad, in particular Swiss banks, are rubbing their hands with glee.
It is also the Profiteers who, in perfect understanding with the left-wing parties in Parliament, are advocating for a return to the drachma. They are betting that their wealth will increase several fold and they’ll be able to quietly go about buying up a sizable number of state assets. Quite aside from the question of Euro or drachma, the Greek state is obliged to privatize a considerable part of its property.
The third fateful coalition is the one between the Greek government and the farmers, who are also members of the Profiteers’ Party. Ever since Greece joined the European Economic Community (ECC) in 1981 every government has bewailed the lot of the “poor Greek farmers” who deserved a better life. The farmers have long secured for themselves this better life thanks to the agricultural subsidies of the European Union.
The subsidies were indiscriminately and haphazardly given out to the farmers, without any care taken to ensure that the grants in any way corresponded to actual production. Farmers buried their produce, declared false figures and collected the money. On top of that, the Greek Agricultural Bank gave them generous loans that have still not been paid back. The farmers’ friends in the ruling parties nonetheless could not be pressured into acting. They needed the agricultural vote. The Greek Agricultural Bank is now bankrupt, but the farmers drive around the villages in their Cherokee Jeeps.
The second of the four parties which Greece has come to comprise could be called the “Party of the Righteous”. I prefer calling them the “Martyrs’ Party”. This is the party of the owners of small- and middle-sized enterprises and the people who work for them, and freelancers such as taxi drivers and repairmen. They disprove the image many Europeans have of easygoing Greeks who shy away from work. Although the Martyrs’ Party is the largest of the extra-parliamentary blocs, it is too weak to forge coalitions, which is why it is exploited from all sides. The Martyrs have been the hardest hit by the crisis, hence the name.
The hardest blow for the small- and medium-sized enterprises has been the recession. One is met with the bleak sight of empty shops all over Athens, even in the more upscale shopping districts such as Patission Street. Patission, as the Athenians call it, is the oldest of the three long streets that run through the center of Athens and a boulevard of the middle class. I know the street very well, since I live nearby. Patission was always dimly lit, but that didn’t matter, because the shop windows shone so brightly. In these days the street is pitch dark; every second shop has closed down. The few shops that have survived eke out a living with special sales.
Aiolou Street in the city center, a traditional lower-income shopping street, looks even more desolate. There are still some shops open but they’re empty. No customers. Aiolou Streethas become a pedestrian walkway without pedestrians. “How much longer can I hold out?” asks the owner of a small shop for men’s clothing where I’ve bought a pair of socks. “Days go by before a single customer wanders in.” At the same time you think twice before entering a shop because once you’re in, the owner or a shop-clerk will besiege you with how bad things are. The woman with the men’s clothing shop couldn’t hold out: as I was walking along Aiolou Street yesterday, I noticed that her shop, too, had closed.
A friend of my sister’s works in a small construction business that builds single-family homes. The owner has let off the entire personnel, except for her. Who builds a house these days, when there are houses everywhere for sale that no one buys? My sister’s friend hasn’t been paid for seven months but still she’s lucky. She still has a job.
The worst part for the members of the Martyrs’ Party is despondency. They’ve lost all hope. For them, the crisis holds no perspective for a better future. When you talk with them you get the feeling that they’re just waiting for the end. When a broad part of the population can no longer summon up any confidence in the future, life becomes very depressing. Many apartment buildings in which lower- and middle-income people live no longer turn on the heat. The families don’t have money for the heating oil, or they prefer to save it for something else.
I rarely drive. I have a taxi driver who takes me to the airport and picks me up from the airport. His name is Thodoros. He’s unmarried and lives alone. “What do you think of Lucas Papademos?“ he asked me last week when he picked me up from the airport. I told him I thought Papademos was the right choice to lead the government, because he’s a smart, decent person who is highly respected in both Greece and the European Union. “Yeah well, he’s not going to be bringing me any fares,” my driver answered in resignation. “That would be expecting a bit too much, no”? I replied. “Look,” Thodoros said, “I pay 350€ a week to rent this cab. I work seven days a week, and it’s sometimes not enough even for the rent. Whether Papademos is Prime Minister or somebody else is, my business is shot all the same.”
Greeks used to take taxis a lot because they’re so cheap. You can get to practically anywhere in downtown Athens for 3.20€. A longer ride doesn’t cost more than 6€. Half a year ago you would have waited in vain for an empty taxi at lunchtime. Now everywhere you see long lines of taxis waiting for a fare, not just at midday but in the evenings and on weekends, too.
But things get worse. The recession is not the only source of the Martyrs’ distress. Though their business has gone to ruin, they’ve had to pay up three times: first with the income tax, then with another extra tax on income and finally with a solidarity surtax. Next year they’ll have to pay the solidarity surtax twice. The value added tax was raised twice in the past year.
While tax evaders pay very little if any of these surtaxes and solidarity contributions, simply because they don’t file an income tax return or when they do, conceal the larger part of their income, honest citizens are being squeezed dry.
Private-sector employees and the unemployed also belong to the Martyrs. There are only a few employees left whose salaries or wages are regularly paid. Most get their money in small instalments, with a delay of several months. They live in great need and in even greater fear that their employer may close down at any moment.
Since consumption no longer fuels growth and loans have dried up, many small businesses are going under. They disappear, leaving behind their debts. My brother-in-law, a wholesaler for children’s clothing, sadly told me he encountered three such cases in the last week alone. He is in despair.
You see long lines of the unemployed waiting at the Unemployment Office for their monthly payment order with which the Bank will remit their unemployment benefits. But they can’t be sure the payment will be made at the beginning of the month. Sometimes they need to wait longer for their 416.50€. The number of the unemployed is increasing day by day, and the Labor Ministry is running out of money.
Because the state apparatus, above all the tax authorities, has collapsed, someone in the Finance Ministry came up with the brilliant idea to collect taxes through the electricity bills. If you fail to pay your taxes, your electricity is turned off. I’ve seen pictures on Greek television of old persons standing in line at the cashier’s desk of the public electricity company to pay the first installment of the tax. I wanted to cry. “The first installment is 250€”, a man in his 60s told the camera. “My pension is 400€ a month. How am I supposed to live out the rest of the month with the 150€ that’s left?” It made me think back to the 60s when I came to Greece. I was met with one of the strangest sights you can imagine: one-story houses in middle-class or working-class neighborhoods with concrete roofs sprouting iron rods. The rods looked ugly but they were a kind of promise: the dream of a second story. The dream of a place on the upper floor for the son or daughter to live. These poor folk had stinted and saved for this all their life. Now they are being made to pay up. In its sham prosperity, a bankrupt political system with its vile system of patronage has destroyed the dignity of ordinary people.
Yet another party is the “Moloch Party”. It recruits its members from the Greek bureaucracy and state enterprises. The party falls into two blocs. The first group is made up of civil servants and officials who work in public agencies and state enterprises. The second are the trade unionists. The Party of the Moloch is the extra-parliamentary arm of every ruling party and the guarantor of the clientele system, because the great majority of its members are party members and party officials.
The system has long history, reaching back to the 1950s, the time after the civil war, when the Nationalists, the victors of the civil war, staffed the entire state apparatus with fellow combatants and adherents of the cause—a reward for their loyalty to nationalist ideals.
Then in 1981, shortly after Greece’s entry into the EEC, the socialist PASOK party assumed power for the first time, the party that was to raise this practice to a principle. At first the arguments sounded halfway reasonable and found broad acceptance in the population. PASOK argued that after so many years of right-wing dominance the state bureaucracy was hostile to liberal forces, and PASOK could not govern without placing their own people in key positions in the state administration. Except that they didn’t stop at the key positions. Soon the entire state apparatus was in the hands of PASOK party members and their cliques. One of every two party members was rewarded with a position in the public sector.
Every government since has tied itself to these interest groups, right into the first months of the crisis. There was always enough money thanks to subsidies from the European Common Union and later from the EU. When there wasn’t enough money, the holes were plugged with loans. But most of the party members in the public sector never did any work or did only the absolute minimum. A friend of mine, who has a job as an engineer in a state agency, had this to relate: a year ago a new colleague arrived in her department. On his very first day he said to them, “Colleagues, I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten everything I learned at university.” From that day on he never worked a single day, and none of his superiors ever did a thing about it.
But the Party of Moloch is split. One part would be more at home in the Martyrs’ Party: the civil servants who weren’t channeled into the public sector via the party but had to take a test to get the job. They are the only public employees who work hard; they sometimes even do the jobs of two or three other colleagues, because they’ve been saddled with the work of party members. They are victims of the system. The other part of the Moloch Party cultivates an old-boy’s network not only with the ruling party but also with the Profiteers’ Party. This large three-party coalition has ruled and tyrannized the country for thirty years.
The widespread plague of tax evasion that has ruined the state’s finances would not have been possible with the collusion of the Tax Offices. Corrupt officials, however, were generously rewarded for their readiness to collaborate with tax evaders.
Public sector workers bewail the fact that their salaries have been cut by about 30%. But this hasn’t affected everyone in the same way. The victims of the system have indeed lost a third of their real income. But the Profiteers’ coalition partners receive an income on the side that isn’t reported. They make up for what they lose on their official income from their undeclared income.
Trade unionists form a sub-group within the Moloch Party. I often read in German newspapers about general strikes and demonstrations in Greece. When I’m on a book tour in Germany, everyone asks me: why do the Greeks go out on strike so often?
The only general strike that Greece experienced in recent years took place a few weeks ago, when Parliament was passing the new austerity package. In the demonstrations that followed—there are no strikes in Greece without demonstrations, even the tiniest strike doesn’t come off without some kind of rally—more than 140,000 people gathered in front of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square. It was the largest demonstration in years. Even the shopkeepers closed their stores, not because they were afraid of rioting—which often happens—but because they went out on strike as well.
None of the strikes in the past were general strikes; the trade unions just called them that. They were strikes of the over-privileged employees in the public sector. Private-sector employees went to work, as they do every day.
The truth is that the Greek trade unions have no influence over private-sector workers. Their power in the public sector, however, is almost absolute. They can call and enforce a strike whenever they want to. They mobilize about 10,000 demonstrators on average, all of them public-sector employees.
The power of the trade unions has its own history. Andreas Papandreou, the founder of PASOK and its first Prime Minister, ruled the country like a monarch. But like every monarch, he, too, needed a “nobility” to stabilize his power. There were the court nobles, Cabinet members and party bosses who were in close contact with the monarch. Then came the city nobles: the trade unionists and party functionaries in the state bureaucracy and state enterprises. The rural nobles were composed of the officials who dispensed the European Union’s subsidies to the farmers.
All the democratic institutions more or less functioned, but it took just a word from the monarch and a noble could fall into disfavor and lose his position. Conversely, the monarch’s favor endowed the party official or trade unionist with absolute power.
The coalition with the party apparatus greatly enhanced the power of the unions in the public sector. This power is linked to numerous privileges. Nothing happens in the state enterprises without the consent of the unions. Managers in these enterprises don’t dare oppose the unionists. They are afraid of getting into trouble with the relevant ministers and the party apparatus. When conflict breaks out between the union and the management, the minister often steps in and management winds up with the short end of the stick.
The strikes in public agencies and state enterprises, and the demonstrations that are sometimes held on a weekly basis, like the famous Leipzig Monday Demonstrations, are just a last desperate attempt to preserve their privileges or at least save what can be saved.
The Martyrs’ Party bears the consequences. When there’s a demonstration, the center of Athens is often closed off to traffic and the shops close up in fear of rioting. When mass transit workers strike, which happens all the time, the downtown area is empty. Businesses lose the few customers that still can buy something. When the busses and trains are on strike, people must bike or walk to get to work, which can often take an hour or two. But they can’t afford to stay at home; the Martyrs are afraid of losing their jobs.
If you understand how one side is looking out for its own interests at the expense of the other, you can see how little solidarity there is in Greek society. It is the weak who are paying the price of the unions’ battle with the government and its austerity measures.
The fourth and last party in Greek society is the one I’m most worried about: the “Party of the Hopeless”, the young Greeks who sit at their computers all day, desperately searching the Internet for a job—somewhere in the world. They’re not guest-workers like their grandparents, who left Macedonia and Thrace in the 60s and moved to Germany in search of a job. These young people have a college degree, some even a Ph.D. But they head straight from the studies into the ranks of the unemployed.
I was born in Istanbul and grew up in Athens, where I’ve been living for many years. With my daughter it’s the other way around. She is a native Athenian and now lives in Istanbul. You might call it the repatriation of the second generation. And my daughter isn’t the only one. A stream of young people migrated to Istanbul last year. They show up at the Ecumenical Patriarchate looking for a job and help in finding a place to live. Youth unemployment has overcome our age-old animosity toward Turkey.
Whether it’s recession or the austerity packages, a haircut or reforms, the crisis will claim at the best the fate of two generations, in a worse case scenario, three generations. Young people are the ones who have lost the most today. We are the ones who will have lost the most tomorrow, because the most dynamic forces in our country will be gone.
The only ones who still come to Greece are people who are even worse off than we are. I buy my newspapers every day at the same corner kiosk. The owner is Albanian. “Just look,” he said to me the day before yesterday when I was picking up my paper. He pointed to an African man not far from us who was poking around in a dumpster. “They should send them all back.”
“Haven’t you forgotten that the Greeks used to call you a filthy Albanian twenty years ago?” I asked him angrily. “Yeah, but that’s over now. My kids go to Greek schools, they speak fluent Greek, you can’t tell them apart any more from the Greek kids,” he said. “Many of us have become Greek citizens. But now I have a problem. Do I emigrate to Albania as a Greek or an Albanian?”
“You want to go back?”
“Well, the kiosk is going alright but it’s not enough for two families. My son is married and without a job. His wife is Greek and she doesn’t want to go to Albania. So I’ll go back with my life and leave the kiosk to my son. If I go back as an Albanian my friends will laugh at me. Because I wanted a better life in Greece ans now I’m coming back flat broke. In their eyes I’m a loser. But if I go back as a Greek, they won’t make fun of me. They’ll say, “You Greeks always looked down on us. We had to wait months for a Greek visa and were treated like crap. And now you’re looking for work in poor Albania.” The kiosk owner isn’t the only one who wants to go back to Albania. Many Albanian families have already left Greece.
In the school parade on October 28th the students of a middle school in Athens showed up up wearing a black bandana tied around their neck. You need to know that October 28th is a national holiday in Greece. It commemorates the Greek victory over the Italian fascists when Mussolini’s forces invaded Greece in 1940.
There was an outcry when the incident with the black bandanas became known. “An affront to the national holiday,” journalists wrote. but the alleged perpetrators were just school kids from Agios Panteleimon, one of the most run down neighborhoods in the city of Athens. Agios Panteleimon has one of the highest jobless rates in Attika.
To get their high school diploma, students in Greece take classes at a so-called prep school, otherwise they have no chance of getting into a university. This is also true for the kids in the middle school in Agios Panteleimon. But many of them have parents who are without a job and can no longer pay the prep school fees. “We didn’t want to cause trouble at the parade. We just wanted to show our protest against the future that’s waiting for us,” said one of the students who were involved.
But there’s the other side of the coin. I was sitting one evening last week in my publisher’s café as a woman in her 40s approached and asked if she could sit down with me. She wanted to talk with me about my crime novel, Expiring Loans, which is also about the Greek people straining under the weight of the financial crisis. At the end my visitor told me “I teach in a middle school in one of the northern suburbs of Athens. Every day I reproach myself for how badly we’ve raised these children.”
“What do you mean,” I asked her.
“I watch these kids every day during the break. They only things they talk about are cars and Armani jeans and Gucci t-shirts. They have no idea of the crisis and what’s awaiting them. They come to school pampered by their parents and then we spoil them more.”
Two schools, two kinds of people – this is Greece. One lives in the poorer neighborhoods, the other in the affluent ones. You see how different these young people are already. The parents in the wealthy suburbs give their children a car when they manage to graduate high school. They can’t bear the thought of their offspring taking the bus to university as normal students do.
A journalist who was at a state unemployment office gathering material for a story was talking to a young man. “Swear you won’t use my name,” he said to her. “My mother doesn’t know I’m here and out of work.”
I was waiting at a bus stop earlier this week. An elderly man pointed to the now-familiar line of taxis. “No one takes taxis any more,” he said. “And there are fewer traffic jams these days. People just drive their cars less, because gas costs too much.”
“ Yes, these are hard times,” I answered.
“You think?” he replied. “I grew up in the 40s, a time of great poverty. You know, I went to school barefoot because I had only I one pair of shoes and couldn’t wear them out.”
Quite true, but the post-1981 generation grew up not in a time of true poverty but in a time of false prosperity, and they panic when they think about giving it up. They know as little about poverty as they do about the desert. The young people of today are the children of a generation that was shaped by the so-called Polytechnic uprising in November 1973, when students went on a protest strike against the military dictatorship that was then bloodily suppressed.
The Polytechnic generation has destroyed this country. They wanted to build a new Greece with the jargon of the left and failed. The ones with any integrity have withdrawn to take care of themselves. The others have gone into politics or gotten themselves a lucrative job doing business in the patronage system or landed a well-paying position in the state bureaucracy.
In the beginning of the 80s this leftist jargon was crucial if you wanted to get into politics under the banner of PASOK or land a position in the state bureaucracy. Anyone without a good grasp of the jargon was part of the old, reactionary system. In the meantime some of these people have become filthy rich. But they still use the same leftist jargon. But it’s become a masquerade.
They were yesterday’s winners. Their children are among today’s losers. And tomorrow the fathers will come to feel their children’s wrath.
Image: The former Athens Gas Works, author’s photograph