Petros Markaris’ “The Lights Are Going Out in Athens”

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


36 responses to ‘Petros Markaris’ “The Lights Are Going Out in Athens”

  1. I’m from New Zealand, have been living in Europe for the last four years. While NZ currently does not have the crippling debt of Greece or most of Europe, it is well on its way to it. I see the same type of corruption in politicians and the Cronies who line up outside the doors of parliament seeking favours in return for campaign contributions, in New Zealand as has been described here.

    Politicians that won’t do the right thing and stop spending money the country doesn’t have. Instead they bribe the electorate with promises of free this and that. Students enjoying interest free loans that they’ll never pay off. Bloated education institutions and healthcare that cost much more than it should because of the endless flow of cash from the Government to scared to turn off the money tap as they’ll loose the next election.

    Whats happening in Greece, I believe, will happen in many other countries, we are all so much the same really. The peoples of most countries want the same things, a comfortable life, the opportunity to get out what you put in, the chance to launch your children off in their own lives better off than the previous generation. Like the Greeks we’ve all been seduced by the dream of equality and rights for this and that. This utopia is impossible, its time that we realised that politicians can never deliver utopia. I hope that out of the turmoil we’ll all choose to shrink governments, allow them to focus on proving security and protection from criminals and warmonger nations. Then leave people to get on with doing things for themselves without legislation that stifles people while creating expectations that we are entitled to things we cannot afford.

    Capitalism does not exist any more, any where, yet we blame it for the current crises. Yet had we had capitalism, the people of Greece would be free of the debt burden by now. Of course there would be hard times and poverty but free of the burden of debt a light would exist at the end of the tunnel.

    The lender and borrow share the same responsibility, when the wheels come, off both must take the fall. It would insure that the same thing wont happen again. Lenders would be much more cautious.

    There is no easy way out. NZ has not learned this lesson yet either, as a result in my life time we will get the same lesson twice! NZ almost collapsed in the eighties and went a decade or more through difficult times, with a long recession, crippling interest rates. When at last it looked like the country was moving in the right direction the politicians reverted back to the same old trick. Spend and spend and spend on everything they thought would deliver a vote. (In my mind spending taxes to get a vote is corruption) In 2005, days before the election the incumbent government thought it would loose the election so they bribed the electorate with welfare for all. It looked affordable at the time, but as usual the numbers were not accurate. Now with the global down turn these policy’s are unaffordable the country is borrowing around NZD$ 300 million a WEEK, debt has gone to north of 30% of GDP in about 3 years and still growing. So we will fall victim again to the strangulation of debt, it will take a bit more time but we’ll get there.

    So for Greece, you’ll soon not be alone in your hardship there are many countries that will follow. There is hardly a politician on earth that is facing the facts. You cannot fix a problem of spending more than you earn with debt. Nor can you print you way out. Like a machine the economic machine can not deliver more than what goes in, if you want more out you must put more in, if you put more in, it must mean less some where else. Even a master banker cannot avoid the rules of the economic machine.


  2. I can see many similarities,( although less severe), between the situation in Britain and in Greece. We have similar broad coalitions of interests and a corrupt, metropolitan political class which is largely interchangeable regardless of party. Corruption in state institutions and local government is not so blatant but it is certainly widespread and growing. Having been in private business all my working life, I can honestly say that I did not notice this until the Eighties – although some must have existed.

    Recent research leads me to believe that its growth started here with reorganisations of government, parliament and other institutions in the Seventies – some of it as a result of the slow poison of EU membership and some of it from the general moral decline of the age. They came together and fed on each other.

    We have the same sort of financiers and plutocrats, the same bone-headed, privileged, public service trade unions and the same sort of self-serving politicians. What we don’t have – thank God – is the euro currency, shackled to a one-size-fits-all exchange and interest rate. Otherwise, I think our situation would be worse than that of Greece, if we did.

    There is also the same feeling of helplessness amongst increasingly demoralised people who are beginning to realise that the politicians they elect are little better than marionettes with their strings pulled from Brussels, Frankfurt and elsewhere in the interest of people other than ourselves. . “What can you do?” they ask as they shrug their shoulders and walk away.


  3. I can say only:

    Die Griechen sind nicht Opfer einer Naturkatastrophe geworden, kein Vulkanausbruch, kein Erdbeben und kein Tsunami haben den griechischen Archipel verwüstet. Die Griechen haben sich mit vollem Bewußtsein in dieses Fiasko hineingewirtschaftet; sie sind der Autor ihrer eigenen Tragödie, deren Auswirkungen jetzt auch andere – z.B. Deutschland – auszubaden haben.

    Sokrates, Platon und Aristoteles würden angesichts der ehrlosen Schandtaten ihrer nachgeborenen Landsleute erschrecken und vor tiefer Scham erröten.

    Der Soziologe Heinz Bude nennt die griechische Gesellschaft einen „staatsbürokratisch organisierten Massenklientelismus“. Der ZEIT-Journalist Josef Joffe schreibt über Griechenland, es sei „ein üppiger Sozialstaat mit verharzter Privilegienwirtschaft“. Ein Artikel im Focus bezeichnet Griechenland als ein Land mit einem „klientelistisch verwahrlosten politischen System“.
    Alle drei metaphorischen Formulierungen treffen die griechische Gesellschaft im Mark.

    Ich fühle keine Solidarität mit den Griechen.

    Hamburg – Bangkok – Duesseldorf


  4. Thanks very much for this quality translation,

    My only comment is that the writer seems to blame PASOK perhaps a little too much for Greece’s problems. New Democracy has been in power often enough since the 1970’s to conduct reform – e.g between 2004 & 2009.

    It also seems to me that PASOK and ND are not political parties as most of us would understand them – but two fiefdoms, the Papandreou and Karamanlis, not unlike the Barzarni and Talebani in not so far away Iraqi Kurdestan.


    • You’re right that both politcal parties share the blame for the corruption, but at least the right wing Nea Demokratia kept public schools, health care (national health), transportation, utilities, pensions, cost of living, and other essentials of a free society running. They did not destroy them to gain votes as did PASOK. In the guise of “socialism”, PASOK alowed students to “occupy” schools during test time(as one example) to totally ruin their effectiveness so that they would gain more votes. They also scammed pension funds and stopped paying for national health medicines because they siphoned the money to the Cayman Islands.

      Andreas Papandreou was sent back into Greece after the fall of the dictatorship as the “New Lenin” to totally destabilize the country. It was too independendent and was a thorn in their side for their Middle East agenda and for Cyprus. He had been an Economics proffessor at Berkley for God’s sake. Do you really think that he would have been allowed to work in the West at such a high position if he was truly anti-establishment as he professed when he returned to Greece in 1974.

      The final nail in the coffin was the Euro — it is not working for the poorer countries such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Although I am surprised at Italy which can be totally self sufficient if they wanted too — but I suppose the industrial North wags the tail of the rural South. Greece was self suffiecient also before, but now everything is imported — especially immigrants to do the jobs that Greeks used to do. Drugs have also flowed in due to the Euro.That is the progress of having hard currency.They should all return to their own currency and regain their national sovereignty like Argentina and Russia did. Turkey fortunately was not allowed into the Euro and now it is the “China of the Middle East” — factories are pouring in because of it’s cheap labor and it’s also cheaper to have a holiday there.


  5. PPS

    It was the simplicity and hospitality that was Greece that kept us here for so long, aedalos, not the infrastructure that was missing. We have the Euro and infrastructure now, but we also have homelessness, heroine, and hell. Give me no infrastructure if all the above is what you call progress!


  6. PS

    Britain and Turkey did not have to leave the Intenational Banking system when they retained their own currency. They trade their currency freely and tourists or anyone who does business there has to buy it at the going rate when they arrive. Greece will not be expelled from the International Community, aedalos, if it returns to the Drachma, it will only rid itself of a crushing debt that a few “thieves” here and abroad have saddled her with. A debt that the majority of the people had no hand in — just because one pays a bribe instead of much higher taxes and that bribe goes to the coffers of some political family or party, does not place the blame on the “payee” — it puts the blame on the system that fed those politicians. The money is gone — gone to the Bahamas. The kickbacks politicians and businessmen got for the Olympics, The Rion-AntRion Bridge, etc, etc, is gone — gone to the Cayman Islands. If all this money had been in Drachmas, it would not have affected the European and International banking system because no one abroad would have wanted tons of worhtless paper. Although that paper money would still retain its value in Greece where it belongs.


  7. Aedalos — good points! But what you said with these words requires re-examination:

    “These are two wonderful examples of the perils of default, each suffering terribly with the consequences. Why do you think that all the financial experts refuse to see Greece leaving the Euro as an option? Because they are stupid? Because they are plotting and want to keep Greece in the Eurozone to get cheap olive oil? For sure leaving the Euro would ensure that Greece would become cheap, very cheap, but with a correspondingly low standard of living and the impossibility for Greece to remain a functioning part of the international banking system,”

    Why should Greece remain a part of the “international Banking System” — to lose more of it’s soveirgnty, land, businesses, and dignity? What Venizelos gained for us, the Papandreou Clan sold for a few shekles in their coffers! Look at Turkey — it fortunately was not allowed in the euro (or should I say Urine-o because it pisses on the poorer countries) and it has become the China of the Middle East. Factories have flocked there because of it’s cheap currency and it is a Holiday Paradise because of the low cost of the Lira.

    The financial experts do not want to see Greece leave the Euro because they will lose money — they do not care what happens to the people of Greece. All this infrastructure you talk about has gone into the pockets of their businessmen-come politcal cronies in Greece and abroad. Ths is the sad reality of the Euro — that those who stole in Greece are one and the same with their counterparts in Europe — they will never be arrested because they could name names. At least with the Drachma coruuption affected only Greece — now it affects the rest of the world.


  8. Greeks have always united in the past when there was an external threat – from the 300 Spartans to the Evzones during WWII. This economic threat is both internal and external – rich politicians and their businessmen cronies have drained the country dry of any available funds and they could care less what happens to Greece. Their money is in offshore accounts and they will retire to their properties in London, Switzerland, or the States if the country collapses. They are like the Tsiflikades (landed gentry) in 1821 who hoped the revolution would fail as they believed the Turks offered them more security than the revolutionaries. INTERNAL THREAT FULLY REALIZED.

    The European Banks and the IMF want to tax the life out of what is left of Greece instead of taking their businessmen cronies in Athens to court and jailing them until they come up with the money in those offshore accounts. They do not care that some of the best doctors like Papanikolao and architects like Doxiades had come out of the Greek school system that was totally gutted by PASOK for political expedience. They do not care that Greece is the cradle of Democracy, Philosophy, Mathematics, and on and on. They do not care that Greece was the first Allied victory against the Axis in WWII. They want their money from the people of Greece who are struggling to find jobs, pay rent, and live off a dwindling retirement. EXTERNAL THREAT PARTIALLY REALIZED.

    Greeks around the world, as well as concerned Europeans and Americans, need to unite and realize that the majority of the population works hard and has always done so. They should help Greece form an interim government of concerned honest intellectuals, and not the same old political machine that has drowned Greece in foreign debt. Just a few years ago, Germans admired the Greeks for their hard work in their country as “Guest Workers” and now they are disgusted by the debt that a few privileged “Thieves” have landed on Greece. Just a few years ago, most of the world viewed Greece as the land of “hospitality” when it came to enjoying their few weeks holiday.

    Greece needs to return to its own currency so, after total default like Russia and Argentina, it can print what it needs to pay off future debts – as do countries like the States and Britain. Illegal immigrants will immediately leave as they will not have “hard currency” to send home. Major drug dealers will stop targeting Greece as they too will not relish the thought of being paid in Drachmas for their “hard work” importing drugs. Dismantling what has worked in this proud country for hundreds of years is not the answer. Bankers, politicians, and businessmen stole Europe’s money along with their counterparts abroad.

    Tax authorities in Greece have always been corrupt and have always made bribes cheaper than paying your actual taxes. What would anyone do in such a situation – pay the bribe or much more in taxes? Although that has to stop and needs restructuring, it will not take care of this immediate crisis as the money has already evaporated into thin air – and furthering unemployment and business closure through taxation and austerity is no solution. Although Greeks abroad in the US and Australia are disgusted at the greed and corruption that has been going on, they should help persuade governments to facilitate a return to the Drachma which would see an immediate exodus of illegal immigrants, drug dealers, and corrupt officials and businessmen from Greece. The majority of Greeks did not ask for these cancerous elements to be added to their once proud society. They were brought about by the modern day Tsiflikades: politicians, businessmen, and the Euro.


    • Gianni, while I recognise that you may be earnest in your beliefs, I find your long comment above to be exactly the kind of endless rhetoric that one hears in Greece all these years that is the main reason why reform is so difficult. You make a lot of the usual mistakes in your analysis of the Greeks, for instance:

      1. “Greeks have always united in the past when there was an external threat … “, sorry, Greeks through history are always at war with anyone they can find whether it’s their neighbour, the next area of town, town against town, region against region and with all their neighbouring countries. You mention one of the extremely rare events when some hitherto warring Greeks came together to fight a common foe but the rule is the opposite. This characteristic continues today in the inability of a coalition government to come to grips with the obvious problems and make some common decisions.

      2. “rich politicians and their businessmen cronies …” – the usual slogan of the protesters outside parliament blaming someone else for their plight. The truth is that these politicians and businessmen are just ordinary Greeks and if you plucked ANY of the protesters out of the middle of their demonstrations and made them either a politician or a rich businessman then in one year you would not be able to tell them from the others as they would behave in the same way. The local culture ensures this (as it does in any country) and makes change so difficult.

      3. “European Banks and the IMF want to tax the life out of what is left of Greece …” – Oh yes, the mainstay of Greek complaints – “It is all the fault of the foreigners.”. I have been hearing this for all the 35 years that I have spent in Greece. In the ’70s it was the CIA and the KGB plotting to cause grief to Greece. But you can find any foreign group being blamed if you listen to enough of these stories. The fact is that Greece has created totally incompetent institutions that fail to manage the country due to Greeks simply not resisting the cancer of patronage, “meson” in Greek, that undermines any institution. “their businessmen cronies in Athens …”??? It is the Greeks who protect their cronies and crooks through the totally ineffective judiciary, riddled with corruption, cronyism and patronage. How dare you blame the IMF for this? Why even bother looking abroad for a possible source of some of the problems when there are such clear and obvious causes within Greece?

      4. “Greece … cradle of Democracy, Philosophy, Mathematics, … ” – yes, it is certainly amazing that this small country in the sun, two and a half thousand years ago created a culture which is today the basis of all European culture and whose architecture, sculpture and theatre are still the benchmarks of the arts today. And this explains how Karamanlis was able to play on the huge emotional sympathy that exists in Europe towards Greece in the ’70s to get this small, underdeveloped Balkan country into the EEC. The EEC/EU has since contributed huge sums into trying to advance the level of infrastructure and development in Greece up towards its European peers in spite of the enormous inefficiency and corruption by Greeks in the absorption of these funds, even failing to get hold of the money being offered due to incompetence of the institutional structures of the country.

      5. “Greece needs to return to its own currency … ” – so you like the examples of Argentina and Russia, do you? These are two wonderful examples of the perils of default, each suffering terribly with the consequences. Why do you think that all the financial experts refuse to see Greece leaving the Euro as an option? Because they are stupid? Because they are plotting and want to keep Greece in the Eurozone to get cheap olive oil? For sure leaving the Euro would ensure that Greece would become cheap, very cheap, but with a correspondingly low standard of living and the impossibility for Greece to remain a functioning part of the international banking system, but then you probably think that that is a good idea, in your confusion.

      Greece stands to make huge gains during this current process of restructuring at the expense of the richer EU countries but it is going to be really painful. This year may see the worst but that is not completely sure. The trouble is that the reorganisation of the ministries and other institutions to enable them to function properly is so difficult. Many need to be reorganised from scratch (the so-called “Big Bang”) but you can be sure that this will be resisted by all parties from the existing employees, the unions, the political parties and the “special interests”. How can you clean up the judiciary or the tax authorities when they threaten to strike because of anti-corruption measures. They have no shame.

      In my mind 2012 is a crucial year for Greece which will decide the future for several generations. Either Greece will succeed in utilising the help, assistance and money being offered and re-boot its structure and institutions or else it will, though dithering and worse, fail to take the decisions necessary and exhaust the patience and finance of its partners and therefore fall into default, the Drachma and perpetual incompetence. It’s their choice and you might wonder what the difficulty is. Well I’ll tell you, it’s the same local culture that can produce your previous comment.


  9. The question is not “what is the problem?” We know all this. We are living it.

    The question is “How do we stop it happening again?”

    Time to stop the talk and start doing.


  10. Thank you for a very clear educational article. I had no real understanding of the Greek system and the dynamics causing the country’s pain. The similarities to what America is facing is staggering. Colliusion of Interests with the country’s wealth depleted & citizens demoralized. What selfish egomanical greed has led a nation into… Poverty & Despair.


  11. I came to Greece in 1971 from Iowa. I was then 30 years old with my husband and 3 children who attended the American Community Schools in Halandri. Have never regretted staying and living in Greece all these years. When PASOK took over in 1981, I knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. My father (born in Finikounta) went to the States in 1912, use to say that socialism was just opening the door to communism. You hit the nail on the head in your ending editorial, that the fathers of the polytechnion will feel the wrath from their children. In the 50’s and 60’s unskilled people left Greece for the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany – today educated young people are leaving Greece. My heart aches to see middle class Greeks going through the garbage bins (Yes, I have seen it too and not only in the early morning hours). The poor are use to their ways that they’ve been imprisoned for so many years. The word “civil servant” should be classified as a swear word. The political classifications you describe are true in everyway, but I was wondering why you did not embark on classifying the “church of Greece” who also has extreme wealth and feeds hundreds of Greeks everyday with fava and chick peas. Certainly there is some corrosion there too. I am a Greek Orthodox through and through, but I can’t help feel that the church and state have both played their roles, first of all with the clergy being “civil servants”. I don’t believe I’ll see Greece on the way to recovery in my lifetime. I arrived in Greece, when the Junta (the colonels) were in power, but let me tell you, there are many people now saying they were better off then, their homes were not robbed 3-5 times in one year, there was respect for policemen and the military and above all safety in our homes – not so any more.

    Thanks again for your article. I couldn’t have said it any better.

    Respectfully yours, Patricia Vernon (Panayiota Venieri)


    • Sure: things were far better when the junta were in power. Whoever didn’t agree with them was put in prison, tortured or just killed off. That’s a great way to make sure ‘there was respect for policemen and military’. I wonder if people really long for those days or are they longing for better days that only exists in their imagination? Greek was a very poor and backward country then but people didn’t know any better.

      Great article by Markaris. Thanks.


  12. Thanks for the excellent translation. This is a very good article in terms of the pain and suffering being experienced in Greece today. As always, financial crises are felt by the poor and those who lose their jobs; everyone else keeps a low profile and waits for things to turn. However it is the extraordinary incompetence of all Greek institutions, due to many things as mentioned in this article, that make fixing the Greek finances so difficult this time. With incompetent judiciary, Government ministries, departments and agencies, all riddled with disinterest and resistance to change, how can you begin. Look at the new ‘technocrat’ government. All parties are represented and every action attempted by the new Prime minister is thwarted because there is no common good denominator. Some of them would rather see Greece fail totally than concede a point to their political opponents. It’s a true Greek tragedy.

    And two points for previous comments: first, the greatly discussed tax on properties leading to pseudo-unfinished buildings is just urban legend. It does not exist – but it sounds plausible and is endlessly passed on. Secondly the comment about a return to the Ottoman rule is another oft-repeated anti-Turkish remark. You have surely heard of a large, labyrinthine and inefficient bureaucracy being known as “Byzantine”, haven’t you? The Greeks could do it fine without any Turkish influence, and the tradition continues today.

    I’m English and have been living and working in Greece for 35 years.


  13. Great article, extremely factual, a splash of humor showing a solid understanding of the Greek reality. Without doubt the story can unfold and encompass the Greek country side to the north to the west and to the south of Athens and onto the islands of Aegean and Ionian seas and Crete. And that could add salt and pepper to the metropolitan taste.If the X generation could write an end to the story it could make a blockbuster Bollywood movie in many Indian dialects. If the story surprises with future eruptions of new material maybe then a Turkish soap opera translated also in Arabic, and who knows, translated into English it might even make it to Hollywood.


  14. I don’t know about the translation but the article describes exactly what has been going on for years in Greece. It is the truth that few people would like to admit and many of those are the individuals who have shipped their funds out of the country. People are literally hungry and desperate but politicians are blind to see reality so busy holding on to their lucrative positions. On the other hand, there is a small group of Greeks who have fled to the country to try their luck. Small supermarkets springing up that sell only Greek made products. Young teenagers who are feeling the crunch and have come to terms with the need to change their perspective. There will be change in Greece, not by the present generation nor the older generation … change of attitude will come with the very young who are being brought up in austerity and will learn to repsect and create once again.


  15. Long winded appraisal of one man’s opinion of the ‘Greek’ crisis – I guess it is partly factual with the references to the endemic corruption and selfish survival behaviour of many, but it does not pay enough attention to the genuine Greek nature and warmth still to be found among the many poorer people of the country – Athens with it’s deep & divisive cosmopolitan culture is not a typical example of the Greek way and manner that I knew in my time there – the last few New Years eves in Syntagma Square I counted less than a dozen true Greeks, and was most uncomfortably surrounded by thousands of celebrating Asian and Africans – these are normally the poor plague of Athens day and night plying the goods that are cheap imports (warehouses full in Piraeus Street), controlled by lawless and corrupt Greek & Albanian gangsters as are the young beggers that stare wide eyed for pity or to sell a wilted rose – Athens has long lost it’s appeal for the tourist, (that started with the localised Athenian avarice at the Olympics), as have some of the islands with the ‘all inclusive’ holidays promising a taste of true Greek experience but instead serving up fat poor quality tasteless Gyros and Souvlaki, rough Raki/Tsipouro and barrel end Retsina and ignoring the finer quality that Greece has to offer – the tourists themselves hold a large share of the blame for this decay – a slow death for the true indigenous warm Greeks with their family Tavernas and genuine hospitality – Greece was in crisis before the Euro debt issues, short sighted political greed and strong corrupt unions have destroyed what was a beautiful country. It will survive, there is a will and a strong sense of identity and pride to do so, get out into the country and away from the sadly declining, stagnant melting pot of Athens – after surviving many centuries of occupation in it’s history Greece now seems to be at the mercy of it’s own certain selfish kind, to the detriment of the genuine Greek, Philhellenism and Philhellenists.


  16. The rods sticking out of the homes were left so the property was deemed unfinished and no taxes were owing….at least that is what I have been told.


  17. This really an excellent article, which sums up the situation quite brilliantly. I would just correct one thing, which regularly drives me nuts: the so-called “hundreds of bilions” of Greek money in Swiss banks. Which is something I can definitely talk about, since I am Swiss of Greek origin and in charge of Greek accounts in Swiss banks!

    Historically, Greeks have always had money in Swiss banks. I manage accounts which have been in the same bank for 4 generations! This is money that was made and kept outside of Greece, most of the time. Then there is the Pasok generation money: back in the 70’s and 80’s, people got subsidies to build factories, hotels, etc.. and about half of time came to Switzerland….very easy. they just produced inflated invoices and kept the difference. This money, in most cases, has been repatriated to Greece over the years, or used to finance the next generations’ studies.

    Then came the New Democracy years, the Olympics: more money came out of Greece. Except this time, the money went mostly to London. Because, believe it or not, one of the most difficult places to open an account and deposit money of dubious provenance has become Switzerland, for the last 15 years or so.

    In the last years Greeks have been depositing money in Swiss banks not so much for tax evasion purposes, but, quite simply, because they do not trust Greek banks and the Greek Government anymore. And really, I think the last year and a half has vindicated them.

    BUT, and this should not come as a surprise, for the last few months the tide has actually REVERSED. There is more money going BACK to Greece than coming out. For obvious reasons, the government only talks about the outgoing funds, but totally fails to mention the incoming ones! Plus, a lot of money is simply returning discreetly, in cash.

    If you take into account that a big portion of the funds held in Swiss banks are these people’s savings, their “money under the mattress”…that most of them are businessmen facing the worse crisis ever…it should be obvious to anyone with a little bit of sense that right now most of the Greeks who have money in Switzerland need it in Greece. When your business is just not making money anymore, when you need to pay salaries, rents, mortgages…you take money where it is, and that very often means a Swiss Bank account.

    Except for a few exceptions, Greek money had always been used in Greece, even if it was deposited elsewhere. A good example was the 2000 boom in the stock exchange. I always found it quite funny to hear the Greek media saying how “foreign investors” had bought this or that share, when I knew perfectly well that behind the Swiss bank buying, there was a Greek client!

    Which brings me to my last point: as of this day, there are NO “great fortunes” in Greece. With the possible exception of a couple of well-known shipowners, there are simply no “filthy rich” Greek. Based on what I see everyday, there is…or rather was…a middle-class, who prudently held some money outside of Greece.

    So the Greek government, is, once again, trying to pull the wool over the people’s eyes by making them dream of untold riches held in wicked Swiss banks! All in all, the Greek money deposited in Swiss banks amounts roughly to 27 billion euro. A large percentage of this has already been taxed in Greece. Some of it has been here for several generations. Some of it is the “working capital” of shipowners, money in action…

    But the sums are nowhere near what the government pretends: and taxing them will only be a drop in the ocean of Greece’s financial needs…

    A bon entendeur…


  18. It’s an honest analysis of the Greek mess which is supported by facts that can be found in Greek media regularly. Indeed, Greece seems to have gone full circle and revive the corrrupt feudal system of the Ottoman empire, only the official names and the jargon has changed. But the exploitation of the working class by a group of politically powerful and privileged people is very much the same. It’s only that Greek journalists don’t dare to present the totally screwed up system in all its infamy. The brave ones expose single points of failure, but still won’t go so far as to connect the dots, like Markaris did. Aparently, the “independence” of journalists is rather limited, and questioning the very foundations of the system is a NoNo that can cost folks their job. The accepted behaviour for Greek media is to blame everything on foreign scapegoats. And sadly, political activists of the left wing can’t bring themselves to oppose the main pillars of the in-name-only “socialist” system, either. Despite all the private complains about lazy and corrupt officials, nobody calls the public sector unions to task. They are the holy cows of Greece. Under these conditions, I’m afraid the situation has to become worse before a critical mass of people finally demolishes this rotten system and starts anew, from the bottom up.

    Justz one small correction to the article: “The rods looked ugly but they were a kind of promise: the dream of a second story.” Well, I guess many people really have such a dream, but the MAIN reason for all the aparently unfinished constructions is that homeowners don’t have to pay taxes for UNFINISHED homes! That’s why there are so many fully functional houses in Greece that look as if the owner didn’t have the money to finsih the work. That’s a fact you can find in countless Greek media reports, not really a secret. Just another detail showing how widespread tax evasion is, and to what limit people go to avoid contributing to the state. On the one hand, of course it”s understandable that Greeks don’t want to suppport this failed system. But on the other hand, this shows it’s not good enough to reform the state, the mindset of the people has to change, too, or any improvements will be doomed because of the lack of money. So, a revival of the Greek nation will probably take a generation or two. It’s the very core that is rotten, after decades of people adjusting to this corrupt state of affairs. Don’t expect any miracles.


    • Awesome comments Gray on a great report by Mr. Markaris. You spoke in a way that most Greeks will not: All the truth and nothing but the truth.


    • Mr Markaris has written a bold and excellent artickle, I congradulate him. I believe in order to change the system the artickle by Markaris and your opinion should be tought in every school in the country. The children must be educated how corrucpt and unjust the system is in order for their generation fix it.


    • Sorry, Gnome, but that’s a poor comment full of surmises lacking substance.

      I find the article quite insightful, regardless of the author’s alleged wealth. It does shed some light on the truth.


    • This is prehaps the best article that i have come across regarding the greek crisis.From the 80’s onwards anyone who knows anything about Greece saw it coming.The German Press has a lot to answer for but in this case they have gotten it right


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