Richard Pine: Greece caught in the middle as history repeats itself

Postwar divisions, in the form of ‘the three Greeces’, are evident again in the current crisis

Students  protest against  austerity measures  in Athens  this month. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

Students protest against austerity measures in Athens this month. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

 

In about 1505 Raphael painted The Three Graces, a study of the young ladies of Greek mythology, traditionally endowed with sincerity and openness. On the left of Raphael’s picture is youth and beauty, on the right is elegance. These two ladies are, shall we say, full-frontal to the artist. In the middle, displaying her backside, is mirth. Well may she laugh on the other side of her face.

Fast-forward to present-day Greece, where we have “the three Greeces”. Unlike youth, mirth and elegance, who had gods for parents, and probably a good upbringing, the three Greeces were born in the civil war of 1946-49. On the left, the communists, who lost. On the right, the conservatives, who won, with the support of Britain and the US. In the middle, there was for many years a gap in which Greece turned its backside towards the world.

In 1945 the US supplied napalm, which brutally ended the civil war and precipitated continued US support for the right, even during the military junta of 1967-74. Today, the new US ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, a career diplomat, stresses the geopolitical centrality of Greece to the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Balkans. He thus sees Greece as vital to stability in these regions, as it was when fought over by Britain, Italy, and Germany in the second World War.

It came as a brutal shock, not only to the West but to Greeks themselves, that in January 2015 a communist-led government (Syriza) was elected, when communism had been excoriated for almost the past century. Syriza stepped adroitly into the gap left in the political spectrum by the almost total collapse of Pasok, the centrist socialists who created the modern prosperity of Greece but were also mostly responsible for its economic and administrative crisis.

Lies and obfuscation

The present mess was caused by lies and obfuscation on all sides. In order to enter the euro zone, Greece falsified its statistics, with the connivance of a European Union hell-bent on expansion. When the economy collapsed, the austerity imposed was based on assumptions which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now admits were erroneous. So there is fault in every direction. No sincerity, no transparency, no elegance and certainly no room for mirth.

This was Greece caught in the middle, between modernisation to create economic growth and a desperate attempt to sustain its traditional identity.

Today, both left and right are explicit in their politics. In the centre, still displaying her backside, is the liberal middle ground, looking, as in Raphael’s picture, towards the right.

Suddenly, not only is the polarisation of Greek society back in focus, but in parliament there’s a contest between the full-frontal left, wanting to rescind the bailout and defy the EU and the IMF, and the full-frontal right, Golden Dawn, the third-largest party, composed mainly of fascists, most of whom are on trial for murder, attempted murder and membership of an illegal organisation which openly admires Adolf Hitler.

Full-frontal in the case of Golden Dawn means not only the policy of rescinding the bailout (putting them in the same economic camp as Syriza) but also burning synagogues and mosques, expelling foreigners and beating up homosexuals.

In the circumstances, one could hardly call the lady in the middle “mirth”. The middle ground, New Democracy, may well win the impending election. It has few policies, but it appeals because it is the only alternative to the now discredited Syriza. If elected, its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, will have no choice but to accept further austerity, at a time when 25-30 per cent of retail outlets have closed, youth unemployment runs at 60 per cent, emigration by skilled workers, such as doctors, is on the increase, the number of refugees continues to grow, and indebtedness, at present levels, will not be eliminated until 2060.

Nobody for PM

In a recent poll, 41.5 per cent of citizens, when asked who would be the most appropriate prime minister, said “nobody”. Such is the poverty of political leadership. Prime minister AlexisTsipras has made promise after promise on every front, claiming in every crisis that at the eleventh hour all would be well, knowing how empty such promises were. He has faced down two internal revolts by Syriza hardliners, but he will not survive a third.

The message from the West, especially Germany, is: get rid of Syriza and install a complaisant middle-ground government which will adhere to existing agreements and accept ever-increasing austerity. There are some, such as Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who would like to expel Greece from the euro zone and let it go down the tubes with its drachma.

In response, Euclid Tsakalotos, the Greek finance minister, has argued that Greece has “rights”. So do animals, but we still countenance their extinction. The threat of a new bailout, he says, “is not morally right”. Oh dear. He thinks Greece has a moral right to be heard, when it is not only treated with contempt in Brussels but is part of a pan-European conflict including Portugal, Spain and Italy, all of which the northern states see as economically inferior and politically negligible.

A correspondent asks: “Could you write something hopeful about Greece?” Well, all I can do is repeat the words of John Paulson, one of Wall Street’s shrewdest billionaires and a major investor in the country: “Greece’s key asset is its people, who are hard-working, resilient and entrepreneurial.” True, Mr Paulson, but to display those qualities they need jobs, elasticity in the economy and a chance to invest time, energy and capital in their own business ideas. None of those is on offer at present. And if things get any worse, the lady in the middle may be forced to turn around and show us her true feelings.

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