Ireland is not Greece - so what is it that makes both countries so similar?


"GREECE IS not Ireland," the Greek finance minister Giorgios Papaconstantinou declared last week. What he meant exactly is uncertain, although it is assumed he was referring to the Irish banking crisis, which is not replicated in Greece. In other words, Ireland's financial woes cannot be compared to Greece's, and vice versa.

Conversely, Irish Government Ministers have been saying over the past week that "Ireland is not Greece". In fact, the two countries could not be more similar. If there ever was such a creature as the Celtic Tiger, it had a cousin, the Hellenic Hound, trotting after it and emulating it. Overspend, overindulge, exaggerate, be overconfident. Each on the rim of a fragile Europe and an even more fragile euro zone, each proud of its independence from the age-old dominant neighbour, and proud of its historic contribution to European culture. Nevertheless, both states are deeply ambivalent about their role in Europe and the loss of sovereignty to supervening powers - the loss of that hard-won independence and identity.

Citizens in both countries are saying: "Don't punish us, the ordinary man and woman in the street, punish those responsible for these appalling debts". In Greece they are called "the kleptocrats" - those who have been ripping off the plain people and walked away from debt: not so much the banks as those in positions of social, administrative and clerical authority.

After November's local and regional elections, which left Pasok, the governing party, with a reduced but secure mandate, more taxes are in the pipeline, such as heavier duty on tobacco and an increase in the price of some basics, including bread.

One of the reasons for a reduced vote for Pasok is that it impaired Greece's sovereignty by calling in the IMF. Another is that "it's a socialist party that is no longer socialist". If the Irish expression "smoked salmon socialist" had any currency in Greece, it would be levelled at those in power today - an elite that many claim has lost touch with the plain people who put them into power in the 1980s on a platform of raising up the lower, predominantly rural, classes.

The elections, widely regarded as a "referendum" on Pasok's first year in power and its decision to agree to the EU/IMF bailout, were significant in three ways. Firstly, they confirmed polls in August and September showing that 60-70 per cent of voters had no faith in either Pasok or the opposition to solve the crisis: as a result 40 per cent of voters stayed away from the first round of the polls, and 55 per cent in the second round - this in a country where, technically, voting is compulsory and where an 80 per cent turnout is regular. Both Pasok and opposition New Democracy (ND) lost support, and only the communist KKE increased its national vote.

Pasok won eight of the 13 new regional governorships, and the two biggest mayoralties, Athens and Thessaloniki, both long-term ND strongholds. And in many cases, elections were won on the slimmest of margins: by 50.1 per cent to 49.9 per cent.

Secondly, the creation of larger local administrations has changed the political landscape: there is still much confusion as to how what appears to be administrative centralisation is going to facilitate the government's policy of "more power to the people". More functions are being assigned to new regional governors - ie infrastructure, tourism and the environment - but how they will exercise them has to be seen.

The third consequence of the political instability over the past year is that, with widespread dissatisfaction with Pasok and ND (the first for its management of the crisis, the second for having caused it), political parties have fragmented, with new formations on left and right. Former foreign minister and loser in the ND leadership challenge Dora Bakoyannis is to launch her own party soon, adding to the confusion, amid which a coalition government after the next general election becomes increasingly likely. What is certain is that Greek society - its economy, structure and culture - is changing fundamentally. No one, not even prime minister George Papandreou, with his reputation for lateral thinking, can predict how this will be achieved.

Traditionalists see it as the end of whatever makes Greece what it is. Modernists see new work practices, social structures and forms of communication as vital if Greece is to become a viable and trusted member of the EU.

Papandreou made what is widely seen as a gaffe before the November elections by insisting citizens should "vote responsibly" - ie, for Pasok's policies, and threatening to call snap general elections if he lost significant ground. He was safe, because a general election would most likely have returned Pasok with an increased majority. But it's an outcome that no one wished to contemplate, especially in view of the fact that international markets and the regulatory bodies, are, in a sense, treating Greece as mandated territory.

Which must give Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan considerable cause for anxiety - even though everyone at the two thresholds of Europe insists that Ireland and Greece are so dissimilar.

Richard Pine lives in Corfu where he is director emeritus of the Durrell School