Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
On Wednesday, April 4, nine in the morning saw a 77-year-old man yelling in the middle of the teeming Syntagma square – the emotional centre of the Greek protests against the dictat(orship) imposed by the international monetary institutions. The old man was screaming at the hated parliament building, and his cries amounted to a seething denunciation of the fact that his debt will have to be repaid by his children and his grandchildren. After he’d said his peace he leaned against a tree, pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot himself in the head.
The suicide of this desperate Greek pensioner carries a heavy symbollic significance. It evokes the spirit of the Czech patriot Jan Pallach, 21, who – protesting the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia – set himself on fire on January 16, 1969. It is also strongly evocative of the self-immolation of Mouhammed al Bouazizi, the Tunisian grocer who triggered off the Arab spring.
»We are the first victim of the financial world war. He have been occupied by the European markets and international financial institutions who are out to dismantle what is left of the welfare state and turn us all into slaves. What you can see today is only the beginning of a major upheaval. They are not only taking away our way of life, they are robbing us of our dignity. The only question is who’s next.« I was told this by a 60-year-old businessman named Yannis Michalopoulos. I was speaking to him inside his furniture shop beneath the Acropolis, one hour after the tragic suicide in the Syntagma square.
Mr. Michalopoulos followed the quote with a lengthy monologue on the demise of civilisation, the utter lack of hope for the younger generations, the suffering of both legal and illegal immigrants, and the obviousness of the fact that all of this had been carefully planned. The crisis, he opined, has gone on for far too long to still be called a crisis. Big business was consistently and very succesfully enacting the shock doctrine, only it no longer needed to confine itself to exporting it to places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Chile.
Welcome to the Third World
Indeed, Greece is being transformed into a classical third-world country. In March, the unemployment among the young reached fifty percent. The welfare state is vanishing at a shocking pace. In the last few months, the European monetary institutions made the Greek politicians cut pensions by 200 euros on average. The minimum monthly wage fell from 800 to 568 euros. Some 15 000 public-sector employees are bound to lose their jobs this year alone. The state is being shrunk on every possible level, and health and education are the ones taking the most savage beating.
But then the private sector is even worse off. No one is even paying attention to the dutiful bleatings of the once-powerful unions anymore. The owners and the managers have embraced the crisis as a tailor-made alibi to cut all sorts of costs. The streets of Athens are filled with beggars and the newly homeless. A year ago, many of these have been living in suburban comfort. Now, literally overnight, they have been stripped of everything. Greece is turning into a German protectorate and a guinea pig for the ‘modern economy’, a nightmarish doctrine stiched from the worst parts of American neoliberalism and Chinese capitalo-communism.
A third of the unemployed among the young have a university degree. In Greece, only those with health insurance can get the social help – and since most of the young have only held temp jobs without benefits, the welfare checks are but a lavish dream. No wonder the especially gifted are leaving the country in droves – much like under the military dictatorship in the sixties and the seventies. You hardly need to be a genius to figure out what the future holds in store for the cradle of democracy: 85 percent of the young studying abroad have no plans to return to their homeland. In Greece, brain drain is a daily fact, and it is only going to get worse.
Even the unemployment offices are being shut down one by one. This is not so much because, like the governmental institutions, they’ve run out of money. It is because they simply have nothing to offer to job-seekers, not even good advice.
The same goes for the humanitarian organisations. George Protopapas, the head of the NGO called SOS Children’s Villages with the aim of helping abandoned children, claims that the humanitarian organisations are now providing as much as a half of the social services that should be provided by the state. Yet even most of the humanitarians are about to shut down. They, too, are all facing bankruptcy. At the moment, the same also goes for roughly a half of all Greek privately-owned companies, so it is little wonder that tax revenues are dropping dramatically and countless workers are being fired. All of the above makes for one hell of a social bomb, and sooner or later it is bound to go off. On the othe hand Greece is still one of the biggest European importer of the weapons. According to the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) from Stockholm, Greece has been the EU’s number one importer of weapons between 2007 and 2011. It has also – quite a coincidence! – been the German military industry’s best customer.
Last year, in spite of the crisis, the Greek government bought 13 percent of Germany’s and 10 percent of France’s entire weapon exports in 2011.
Understandably, the streets of Athens are seeing the intensification of police violence. The ones who are getting it the worst are the refugees and immigrants.
In the increasingly xenophobic Greece, they are demonstrably worse off than their peers anywhere else in the European Union. In Greece, most of them are actually worse off than back home, where they at least hadn’t been targeted by organised extremist gangs. Most of these are operating within the framework of the Golden Dawn movement, which will surely gained entry to the parliament during the general election.
The members of the movement greet each other with the Nazi salute, and the swastika is an easily discernible part of its emblem. Recently, the Greek authorities (under direct orders from Brussels and with European money) initiated the construction of thirty new so called detention centres, actually prisons. Their purpose is to house and as soon as possible ship back all the illegal imigrants, most of whom are currently jobless and prospectless and living on the increasingly dangerous streets of major cities.
The speed of the country’s decline is at its most visible in the centre of the Greek capital. Every day, Athens is more redolent of the crumbling Cairo or the apocalyptic vision of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.
The Omonia square, for example, which lies a mere kilometer away from some key tourist attractions, turns at night into a savage theatre of survival Some of what you can see is truly gruesome. The narrow streets are filled with junkies in their final stages – half-naked walking corpses shooting their doses into their necks or thighs. Stray dogs and prostitutes are strolling among them, some of the latter clearly being underage. Homeless beggars are sleeping in front of the 50 cent shops peddling the tawdriest imaginable merchandise. Police patrols are chasing immigrants, who have long become the majority in this forsaken part of the town. Shrieks of terror are now a workaday soundtrack here. As many as twenty-five immigrants are being crowded in a single ancient and decrepit apartment. Many dwellings have been up for sale for the past two years, but no one is buying. The walls are covered with posters declaring the supremacy of the white race and exhorting the Greek population to reclaim their land. Next to them, you can find the propaganda of the Greek comminust party (KKE), which never really distanced itself from the Soviet school of socialism and whose younger members can often be seen wearing Stalin T-shirts.
It is impossible to shake the impression that what you can see in Greece is the shape of things to come. A dire and savage future is hurtling at so many of us, the soft and privileged Europeans – it is coming at us as inexorably as that blue planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
»What we got here is a furious fight for survival. The police is chasing immigrants. The neo-nazis are keen to beat them up. The people who have come here hoping for a better life have arrived straight to hell. Most of the immigrants have got it worse here than they did at home. I can say that with confidence, since I’ve worked in several warzones. And the situation here in Greece will only deteriorate. We are living in ideal conditions for the flourishing of extremist movements. The neo-nazis are growing stronger every day. The financial crisis is the best possible nourishment for all kinds of fascism. The immigrants are the Jews of our time. They are guilty for everything. They look different, so they can be easily spotted and accused of anything. And then their job is to prove their innocence. They have no rights at all. Here in Athens I’m now seeing images that I only got to see in those warzones I mentioned earlier. No, there is no real hope that things will settle down. The authorities are building so-called detention centres. That reminds me of a whole different age,« said dr. Nikitas Kanakis, the head of the Greek branch of the Doctors of the World. Dr. Kanakis was stationed in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq – so he is clearly a man who knows what he’s talking about.
The Protests That Change Nothing
The peaceful and dignified protest commemorating the 77-year-old man who shot himself in the head started in near perfect silence, but it quickly deteriorated into what is now a typical scene from the Greek streets.
The members of special police units, who taunted the protesters with insolence and impunity, got hit by a barrage of stones and a few Molotov cocktails. The wind brought over a cloud of tear-gas that had been fired by the policemen before the demonstrations in front of the Greek parliament had even begun. People of all ages and social standings were crying, sneezing and cursing like there was no tomorrow – which, for many of them, there wasn’t. While their lives are rapidly and irreversibly changing for the worse, they are taking part in endless debates with the aim of finding the magic formula of viable resistence. The demonstrations in front of the parliament have – with various stops and pauses – gone on for three years and a half, but they changed nothing. Less and less people are turning up for the protests. Hundreds of thousands of them are forced to devote the sum of their energies to the most basic survival.
»I’ve had it up to here. It’s getting worse every day. They’re slowly wearing us down – they’re always pushing us to determine our limits. But we have no other option than to stay on the streets and keep fighting for our rights. At this stage, we really don’t have that much to lose. We’ve become a German colony and a prisoner of the international monetary institutions. We’re losing our very independence. Our country is being run by foreign banks. Even our prime minister is a banker,« said Bill Papadoupoluos, whom I met during a strike of medical staff employed in the private sector.
Bill is working as a nurse at a privately-owned clinic, but he hadn’t been paid for the last five months. Many of his colleagues are doing even worse. Some of them hadn’t received their salaries for up to thirteen months.
»This strike has been organised to force our employers into renewing the contract with our union,« he said: »Most of the employers have made a cartel pact under the full blessing of the EU to turn us all into wage-slaves. They took away our traveling expenses and lunch recompensation. They no longer even pay our social benefits. On paper, they cut all the salaries – regardless of the worker’s output or his education – to the minimum wage… But that doesn’t really matter, you see, since they long stopped paying us! Most of our savings are gone. Only our parents are there to help us. We cannot hold out for much longer,« explained this brave free-thinking nurse.
At the same time as the medical staff, archeologists went on strike as well. Greece has almost completely stopped its excavations and thus symbollically cut its ties to its glorious past. In front of the Greek national bank one could see a protesting crowd of exhausted and financially wrung-out pensioners. All of them were repeating the tale of how a fellow pensioner had commited suicide in their name, but many were growling it had really been murder – murder jointly commited by the politicians and various monetary predators. That was also the gist of one of the messages left by the mourners on the now ominous tree in the middle of the Syntagma square: »This wasn’t suicide. This was murder!«
»In the space of two years,« was the estimation of Alexis Cipra: »after a painful cycle of failure of the stabilization programs, we have been led to the point where our country is so looted that it is facing complete bankruptcy. In practice, this means lost lives, lost dignity and lost future.«
Cipra, 38, is the president of the SYRZIA party – a sort of coalition of left-leaning political movements. A young politican is convinced that on the pretext of the debt crisis, a brutal experiment is being conducted. In his opinion, ‘big capital’ and the key EU institutions are testing a society’s capacity to function without salaries, without social justice, without public wealth. »If this experiment is successful, they will try to force this project onto the whole of Europe. But they can already see the Greek people are not going to keep their cool for much longer. The parties that consented to this project are sinking. The society is in turmoil. Even more now, as the crisis has been transmitted to the rest of the European south, threatening Europe as a whole. The plan is definitely to strip Greece of all its productive resources and public wealth. The plan is for the ‘indigenous’ people to start working for miserable wages and without any laws to protect them,« explained Cipra.
He had no doubts about the crisis’ origins: »It is definitely a plan cooked up by the international capital, but it has been wholeheartedly embraced by our national capitalists as well. Luckily, it looks like they failed. The crisis of a country which is responsible for 2% of the Eurozone’s GDP is now threatening to topple the entire European edifice. Big bussiness’ greed has exceeded all limits and has actually taken on auto-destructive dimensions. The people realized this very fast, but it seems that the capitalists will be the last to get it. The only hope is the resistance that comes from society. It will be either the markets or the people who will prevail.«
The youngish leader of the Greek leftists claims that jumping out of the eurozone is not the solution. First of all, that would only benefit those who have already accumulated wealth. Also: by doing this, the Greek people would puss away and transform themselves into enemies of people who are today their allies. »What we really need to do is to overturn the balance of power, to put an end to the neoliberal dogma and open a new road for a democratic and welfare-minded Europe!«
From the early hours of the morning, a long line of tired and humiliated people is winding toward the Sappfho street, where the Doctors of the World organisation is handing out parcels of food and medicine. Both the Greeks – who are in the majority – and the immigrants are patiently waiting for their meals, while policemen in bulletproof vests are pacing up and down the street.
There is something profoundly wrong with this picture.
Greece is fast changing into a crisis spot. A couple of weeks ago, the German philosopher Hans Magnus Enzensberger said that in Europe, only the anorexic girls are going hungry. This was arrogance beyond anything that could still be deemed excusable. Enzensberger not only forgot about hundreds of thousands of immigrants; he also forgot about the sort of lines that can be witnessed at Sappfho street. In the Greek capital, there are at least a dozen such public kitchens. One out of eleven residents of this once-proud city now goes to them. As recently as a year ago, most of those standing in such lines were immigrants. Today the data provided by the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) shows that at least seventy percent of those queueing are the Greeks. No wonder that a wall near the city center bears the slogan: »Do not underestimate hunger!«
The public kitchens are ill-equipped to keep up with the ever growing needs of the people who had been tossed across the poverty threshold like a bag of trash. The same goes for the so-called ‘solidarity clinics’, where kind-hearted doctors are offering free services and care for the poor without insurance. At the moment, a staggering third of the Greek population is living under the official poverty threshold. According to countless predictions, one out of every two Greek families will be poor in about a year.
Does your country even have a fighting chance, I asked the author and poet Anastassis Vistonisitis, one of Greece’s most reputable writers. »Well,« he replied: »We used to have humongous growth and countless foreign investors. We were the stars, the centre of the world. Money used to be so very cheap. We bought cars and apartments, we launched new companies. No one saved their money. It was such great fun. Happy days, right? We got the Euro, the Olympic games – we grew so fast. And then the hammer fell down. Overnight. At first, we couldn’t believe it. Then we gradually began to sober up. The first wave of cuts was put in effect, then the second and the third. The international financial institutions backed us into a corner. When the first representatives of the International Monetary Fund arrived to Athens, I knew we were in deep shit. Wherever those guys came, they brought only penury and destruction. But we, the Greeks, are a proud people. We will not be humiliated. We shall get back on our feet. We always have. Our history is a succesion of ups and downs. That’s what makes me optimistic.«
I first met Vistonitis in June 2004, two months before the beginning of the Olympic games. He had been the head of the task force charged with drafting the proposal for the Greek candidacy. Eight years ago, I remember him as a fellow of exceptionally good cheer. Those were modern Greece’s most heady days. I remember the Spanish architect Santiago Caltrava grinning with glee while overseeing the finishing touches on the new futuristic olympic stadium. The Greek economy was growing by six to seven percent per year. Unemployment was at a record low, commerce was booming. On top of all that, the Greek football squad won the European Championship. The whole Athens was a starburst of joy. The Greeks were living out their ancient myths.
Eight years later, Greece is rotting while technically still alive. Those Olympic memories now seem as distant as the time of The Iliad. »We are not the only ones to blame for the situation we are now facing. Almost the entire world is in debt. We are far from being the worst case, so I find it a great injustice that we are the only ones paying the price. Oh well, a number of other European countries are sure to follow. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, even France. When those major players start taking hits as well, the Entire Europe will be shaken to its foundations. We have all been screwed by those loans. It wasn’t relief, it was pure extortion. Our politicians – they’re the ones to blame for the debt, not the people! The politicians have been blindly following the dictates of Brussels and Berlin. Europe should be grateful to us for accepting its rules, which are good for their financial elites and nobody else. Anyway, they should be grateful to us, instead of humiliating and insulting us! At any moment, we could have called China for help, but we didn’t! You know that the Chinese wouldn’t hesitate for a minute! They cannot wait to get their hands on some key European ports. In a very short time, this would enable them do dominate European trade. Just imagine what that would mean for the European economy, and for the United States as well! Forging an alliance with China is our great strategic weapon that we can use at any time,« explained Vistonitis, who feels that the entire Western world is in crisis. We have all made a mess of things and squandered our future, he feels.
»It simply can’t go on this way. We’ll all be forced to make some sacrifices, and that is how it should be, but the European elites want to turn us into slaves working for two hundred Euros. They want to turn us into Bulgaria or Romania. And we won’t allow that. We are much too proud and much too well aware of how much we’ve got. We are a Mediterranean country which has always been fairly self-sufficient. We’ll take our future into our own hands. We have plenty of food, water and sea. Now, through our Cyprus connection, we have plenty of natural gas as well. We refuse to be enslaved by the monetary institutions. We will survive!« So spoke the writer in the Monastiraki square at the heart of Athens. His country, he said, was being demolished, and its people were highly strung-out. »Enough is enough! If they keep pushing us toward poverty and despair, then we’ll take the matter into our own hands. That moment is approaching fast. Does that mean getting out of the European Union and the eurozone? We’ll see. But I get the strong feeling that the people will no longer stand for being extorted in this manner. If the Europe decides we are to perish, it is sure to perish along with us.«