28 June, 2011
Greece has ground to a halt. Flights in and out of Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport have been cancelled, ferries are at their moorings in Pireaus – the lifelines to the islands cut.
From the Ionian to Alexandroupoli, from Thessaloniki to Kythera and Kastelorizo – the Hellenic Republic is closed for business.
Meanwhile, the Greek parliament has begun its debate on the swathe of new austerity measures that must become law if Greece is to receive further vital bailout funds. Those not on strike go about their business as best they can. As they did, I spoke to Australians of Greek descent who live and work in Greece, and whose lives and livelihoods depend upon how the current crisis unfolds.
Rosalyn Geranikolas from Perth has been in Greece for 32 years. The owner of four hotels in Rhodes and Kastelorizo, Geranikolas says visitor numbers have thankfully remained unaffected by the crisis.
“The economic situation has affected us in the sense that there’s no credit available anymore – you have to pay 50 per cent when you order, and the balance before you receive the goods. If another government comes in, I think there’s not much else they could do; we’re in too far. It’s up to the people to pull their socks up.”
Would you consider leaving Greece? “No, definitely not; a soldier never leaves his place of battle! I believe the Greek people have realised it’s up to us now. The austerity measures are hard, but it’s something we all have to do. The worse thing we could do is pack up and leave.”
Barbara Samantouros, from Brisbane, is the finance manager of AGREK, an agricultural products company in Chalkida.
“People are very pessimistic at the moment. They feel they can’t take on this extra burden and I think the government could have found other ways spread out the pain,” says Samantouros, who has lived in Greece for 25 years.
“They could have done more to repatriate funds that have gone out of the country. Something’s got to be implemented, but everything’s being done at the last moment. It hasn’t been well thought-out.”
As for her own company’s prospects, and the agricultural industry as a whole, she’s more upbeat.
“People are looking at the agri sector in a very optimistic light. The future for Greece depends on tourism, shipping and agriculture.”
Have you considered leaving? “I’ve thought about it,” but it’s not to our advantage at the moment; we’re trying to do our bit for Greece. We believe there’s a future here.”
Con Kehagias has run his graphic design company in Thessaloniki for 15 years. Originally from Coburg, Victoria, Kehagias left for Greece as a 13 year-old.
“I don’t agree with what the government are doing. The politicians don’t care about the people; they’re putting so much pressure on, and the people are going to suffocate. The EU and IMF are economic assassins, they’re not helping Greece at all.”
Kehagias’ radical interpretation of the issues – the motivations of the various forces at work in the crisis are worryingly common. Like many who have strong opinions, he supports anti-government protests but admits job cuts, such as those that will affect Greece’s public service, are overdue.
“That has to happen,” says the designer, who is now seriously exploring the idea of migrating back to Australia. “I’m married and have a little boy who is four years-old. Here the education system is awful. I see how I grew up in Australia and I make the comparison. I want to come back. Here wages are going to go down; people won’t have what’s necessary for living. No one smiles anymore.”
Wednesday 29 June, 9.00 am, Syntagma Square:
Members of the Greek parliament run the gauntlet of protestors wishing to obstruct the day’s debate – before the fateful vote to endorse the government’s new 28 billion euro austerity plan. As the day goes on, clashes between the riot police defending the parliament and masked stone-throwing activists grow ever more violent.
Sotiris Stregas, a sales rep for a dental products company has lived in Athens since 1990.
“It’s a ‘Catch 22’ situation. We don’t want these things imposed on us, but if things aren’t imposed, then we’ll never ever see a brighter day. People don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” says Melbourne-born Stregas, who is married and has two teenage daughters.
Though accepting of the need for an imposed solution, the urbane salesman, who was brought up in Sydney, doesn’t believe that the medicine Papandreou is prescribing is the answer.
“I don’t believe they should be increasing taxes; I think that’s counter-productive. Businesses are closing, so the pool from which you can get tax is decreasing.”
Stregas will stay in Greece largely because of his wife’s wishes not to migrate. He believes elections are just around the corner and that going to the polls will offer new possibilities to resolve the deteriorating situation.
“This government is faltering. I believe the politicians from the main political parties cannot give us a solution. Whatever new government is formed cannot have any connection with governments over the last 20 years. I don’t want the same people to govern us again. The politicians who brought us here cannot give us a solution. I would prefer foreigners – Germans, Australians, or Greeks from overseas to come in and help out. It would probably be our best chance.”
Diana Athanasiou is an English language teacher in Epirus who has been in Greece since 1988. “I don’t think Papandreou has a choice; he’s like a puppet. Greece isn’t governed internally, it’s governed externally.
Athanasiou shares the widely-held view that all Greece’s problems have come from corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of government, and believes the old party system will never deliver an effective solution. “It’s as if the Greeks were asleep. It is changing. They’ve finally woken up and they are asking for the truth. Ministers are going unpunished. The people are furious that we have a debt that we didn’t create.”
Perhaps the most worrying statement this Melbourne-born schoolteacher has to share, is the effect on the young people she teaches. “Students don’t see the point in studying,” says Athanasiou, whose pupils range from Grade 2 through to graduates. Living in the rural town of Paramithia she feels a sense of protection from the situation.
“I haven’t really felt the crisis as yet, but if Greece goes bankrupt, then I’m not going to have any students because Greeks will not be able to afford any private education.”
Efstathios Paraskevopoulos is manager for South East Europe for a British on-demand video distribution company. Born in Adelaide, Stathis has been living and working in Greece on and off since 1969.
Does he feel there’s an alternative to the path being proposed by Papandreou? “There is not much we can do but let us be clear; Papandreou is not proposing any path; the Troika is proposing the path, and we are simply doing what they tell us.
“Is the Greek government capable of getting its books balanced? Not when you are running an ‘inherently’ corrupt system.” Stathis says he’s nervous. “We all are, because all is hanging on a thread. We are inherently an irresponsible nation – it is much easier to blame someone else and not take responsibility. We have always blamed someone else. Conspiracies, after all, are exciting.”
Is he tempted to leave? “The thought has passed my mind. If the country goes bankrupt it will obviously have a domino effect everywhere so I would think of getting out of Europe.”
Nick Geronimos is the Perth-born business entrepreneur who created Athens Backpackers and Studios, the popular Aussie-inspired tourist accommodation centre at the foot of the Acropolis. Geronimos pulls no punches in his analysis of the crisis.
“The reason why this country is in such a mess is because of the bloated public-sector. How can a country with a population of 10 million people, with four-five million employed, justify a public sector of over one million? It is nonsense; a residual of the Ottoman empire. These people have got jobs because they sold their votes to the political parties. And now they don’t want to lose their privileged position of copping a pension for life at full pay, when they retire at the age of 45. It’s a sad and sorry state to see the public servants and the ‘no-hopers’ in Syntagma Square. Blaming someone else for your own shortcomings is a traditional trait of the modern Greek.
“If you asked those public servants where there office was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you, because their pay goes into their bank account and they never go to work. Sort this out and you’ll sort out 50 per cent of the problem.”
Geronimos says the austerity measures have had little or no effect on his business, but that the regular strike actions have a hugely negative effect. The 48-hour strike this week will cost him 20,000 euros in cancelled reservations with tourists nervous about travelling to and within Greece. “I’m 100 per cent behind Papandreou. I think he’s done a great job to date. I feel for the people who will lose their jobs, but in Australia we went through this in the 1970s and 1980s. Mitsotakis said 30 years ago that we should pay this debt off, and they laughed at him and threw him out of power. Well… ‘hello?!! ”
Wednesday 29 June 4.00 pm, Syntagma Square
The Greek Parliament passes the vote to raise taxes to secure 14.09 billion euros over the next five years, and to make 14.32 billion euros worth of cuts in public spending. The vote is passed by 155 votes to 138. As news of the vote reaches protestors in Syntagma, fighting between the police and protestors intensifies; a post office in the same building as the finance ministry is set alight.
Greece’s path to recovery is once again shrouded in a pall of tear gas, bringing water to the eyes of protestors and onlookers alike; tears shed for a country torn and in pain.