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Indignant Greeks


Austerity measures, a looming default, a major brain-drain and massive unemployment: the disaffected have many reasons to protest

THE CONTINUAL flux within Greek society and uncertainty within the euro zone make it difficult to define the key factors at any one time. But two factors are certain: if Greece wants to be a player, rather than a passenger, then much of the old way of life has to change. And the corollary is that Greece will no longer be Greece.

Brussels and Berlin seem unable to recognise that Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain do business by different means. You can’t make a Greek into a Finn, or an Irishman into a Swede. The international monetary community appears to view people not as assets but as units of efficiency. Citizens see themselves as having intrinsic worth and merit.

This is why the ongoing dignified protests – which began at the end of May in Athens and elsewhere by the “Indignants” (Greek word is aganaktismenoi ) – have had more effect on public opinion and, perhaps, on politicians, than union-led demonstrations. They have no side, except their frustration at the poverty of politics and their own vulnerability to market forces. Apart from a few prominent personalities, such as 85-year-old composer Mikis Theodorakis, they are predominantly ordinary citizens from across the social and age spectrum.

Nothing like this phenomenon has been seen in Greece since the student demonstrations in 1973 which contributed to the collapse of the military junta. So much so that the political and economic concerns in the agora (public spaces) have been overtaken by the purely social. Aganaktismenoi may mean “the indignant”, but it is also a cypher for “disaffected”, and – another Greek word – apelpistikoi or those who feel helpless. These are people who have been alienated from their own country because there has been a breakdown between the political and social systems.

Two of the chief facilitators of the Indignant protests (who include a very senior Greek diplomat) told me they rejected an overture from Syriza, the coalition of far-left political parties, to get involved. This was, from the start, enabled by networking through media such as Facebook, to be a non-political, peaceful, epiphany of “real” people rather than vested interests. An exposition of frustration, distinguished by its ordinariness.

The Greek uncertainty is compounded by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, acknowledging that Greece’s bankruptcy does indeed necessitate a debt restructuring, while Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, resists any such measure.

The public service, which will lose 150,000 workers by 2015, and faces another round of pay cuts as part of new austerity measures, clearly does not relish a return to a new, devalued, drachma. Those in the private sector who need a stimulus to manufacturing, agriculture and tourism would welcome the boost in exports and the end of recession.

It is widely accepted within Greece that a default is inevitable. As far as the man in the street is concerned, there is an emotive reason for reclaiming the drachma. Not only would it indicate the reassertion of sovereignty, but drachma, the classical word for the coin, also means “a handful”, “as much as one can hold” – thus resonating with a sense of self-sufficiency and self-respect.

The element in the equation which might swing public opinion towards change is the young, educated, city-based population that no longer wants to be tied to the taboos and sacred cows of the past. The aganaktismenoi are predominantly young.

Yet, despite the focus on educational reform and the role of young people, Greece is going through a brain drain as its graduates seek more challenging and remunerative work abroad (the minimum monthly wage here is €590). While general unemployment tops 15 per cent, the figure for under-25s is 36 per cent.

At the same time, some older people are demonstrating a form of internal migration by leaving the cities and returning to the villages, to an older way of life uncomplicated by the disappointments of a shrinking urban civilisation.

Can there be such a change in the Greeks’ DNA that the whole country can move “forwards” without splitting society into two or more mindsets? An indication of the extent of the problem of change and transparency may be the rumour that three members of the anti-corruption squad have been arrested – for taking bribes.

Reaching consensus is far from easy. It is said that if you put two Greeks together, at least three political parties will be represented in the conversation. Fragmentation is the essence of debate, as Brendan Behan might have said. Papandreou’s Pasok government is far from monolithic: it represents a coalition of the old-style populists and the newer modernisers such as Papandreou himself, who is meeting strenuous resistance to the extra austerity measures which he has been told are necessary if Greece is to be rescued from insolvency. So much so that a revolt within his party this month could lead to loss of his parliamentary majority and a general election.


Irish Times

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