The normally resilient Greeks seem close to despair in this crisis


LETTER FROM GREECE:The people have faced many traumatic events since independence but now they are losing hope, writes RICHARD PINE

IN 1984, the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe wrote that his country’s trouble was “simply and squarely a failure of leadership”.

So it isn’t only Greeks who experience disillusion with their leaders or political parties, whose approval ratings in recent polls slumped well below 20 per cent.

But failure of leadership is not the only problem. If the maxim is true, that people get the leaders they deserve, then we should also remember what Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children – that India experienced a “collective failure of imagination” so that “we simply could not think our way out of our pasts”.

Trapped in a mindset which adheres to the myth of the welfare state, the condition of anomie – a hopeless lack of purpose – pervades both parliament and people. The Greek phenomenon is unusual in that the system is exploding and imploding at the same time.

The violence of the street protests (both physical and verbal) indicates a society on the brink of civil disorder, while the paralysis of the political system puts a huge question mark over the outcome of the impending elections, given the low level of support for the main parties and the increasing adherence to minority parties on the far left and right. Whether any kind of stable coalition will emerge is extremely doubtful, given the paucity of political intelligence and the volatility of public opinion.

Unemployment is running at over 20 per cent (and at 50 per cent for the under 25s); the minimum monthly wage is set at €580 (if you are under 25 and entering the labour market for the first time it’s €510); shops are closing at an alarming rate and prices are rising. This ever-deepening recession means, most likely, a decade of hardship for most ordinary people, who rightly reject the idea that they are to blame for the crisis, and ask why the super-rich go free while they are imprisoned in debt.

When any figure of authority, such as the police commissioner, appears on the tv screen, the kafeneion (local bar) erupts in derision. When members of the troika appear, it’s not derision but deep resentment and open accusations of German arrogance, while newspapers show cartoons of Angela Merkel wearing a Nazi costume.

The normally mild-mannered Greek president, Karolos Papoulias, who was a resistance fighter against German occupation in the second World War, was stung by recent remarks from Berlin into an uncharacteristic outburst asking what right Germany (or for that matter Finland or the Netherlands) has to dictate to Greece.

Those of us who enjoy the basic necessities of life – shelter, food, light, warmth, transport, even medical insurance – may find it difficult to understand how so many Greeks are vulnerable to losing them if conditions continue to be as dire as they are.

It is the dual dilemma of physical and financial hardship on one side, and wounded pride on another, that is causing such dismay.

Two images predominated during the February protests: one was the sight of two of Greece’s most cherished octogenarians – composer Mikis Theodorakis (who stood up to the military regime in 1967-74) and Manolis Glezos (who tore down the swastika from the Acropolis in 1941) – being tear-gassed in Syntagma Square. How could the riot police do this to two of our most respected citizens?

The other image showed a husband and wife on the ledge of the office building where they worked, threatening to jump because they had been sacked. It brought home to millions just how desperate an ordinary citizen can become when driven by fear or the reality of losing those basics: home, family, respectability. Their (luckily averted) suicide is symptomatic of the increasing despair of thousands of citizens, especially in the major cities.

With minister for public order Christos Papoutsis admitting, “We have reached the limits of the social and economic system”, the possibility of civil disorder increases daily, with ordinary folk defying the new tax laws and scrambling over each other for goods such as medicines which are in short supply. Whether any government could call in the army to control widespread disorder and maintain distribution of goods and services, is debatable, especially with the memory among so many of the military junta of 1967-74.

With its history of discontinuity since independence – a traumatic series of development, crisis and recovery – Greece is familiar with disaster, and many commentators say there is sufficient resilience to ensure survival. That may be true in rural areas where the villagers still produce the basics, but it isn’t true of born-and-bred city dwellers who don’t have the resources of an ancestral village to fall back on.

The shops are advertising telos epochis – end-of-season reductions. One Athenian clothes store, whose owner despairs of the 60 per cent drop in turnover, has discovered a new line which is selling very well indeed: gas masks. No pedestrian is complete without one in Athens these days.

But the posters proclaiming 70 per cent reductions might as well also be proclaiming the end of an epoch: something has died in Greece, but there seems to be no prospect of new life to succeed it.

The country is knackered with a capital F.