Greece: Time for painful changes

"I won't pay!" Public sector workers demonstrate in Athens on 11 February, 2010 (AFP)
"I won't pay!" Public sector workers demonstrate in Athens on 11 February, 2010 (AFP)
11 February 2010 – Le Figaro (Paris)

While Europe's 27 member states meet in Brussels to attempt to save the Greek economy, workers have taken to the streets of Athens to protest against a package of austerity measures announced by the government. But in a country where tax fraud is rampant, people will have to accept painful changes if the state is to remain viable.

"Yesterday my boss told me I would now retire at 60 instead of at 58," said Nicos Anvaris, 52, a construction worker who braved the drizzling rain to join several thousand other protesters in Syntagma Square, Athens, on the morning of 10 January. "Who does he think I am, a Spaniard? I'm telling you, they're trying to force the American system on us here in Greece, the cradle of Europe! Let them try. They'll do it over my dead body." Nicos and 700,000 other public sector workers, want nothing to do with the pay cuts which the trade union, ADEDY, affiliated with the last surviving Stalinist communist party in Europe (KKE), feels are "unjust and useless sacrifices.

"Strikes in Greece are now a daily occurrence. The one yesterday, however, was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for the Greek state, which is in danger of bleeding to death. Recently elected prime minister George Papandreou has a knife at his throat. The euro is under threat because speculators are betting on the failure of his administration, and the "cradle of Europe" has to go cap-in-hand to Brussels. The stakes are enormous. States are now under attack from huge capital funds on the hunt for wounded prey.

Greeks not connected to their state

None of the crowd marching in Athens is unaware of this fact. But they don't care. It is as if the "Greek State" and the "Greeks" were two totally unconnected concepts. "Ever since the Second World War," explains Helen Ahrweiler, president of the Athens National Theatre, "Greece has not had a State. Our politicians manage institutions and infrastructures that don't work. The lack of a State, that is the Greek disease!" It's true that the 11 million Greeks are not poor, but Greece is. For no one, or almost no one, pays any taxes. Every morning in the chic district of Kolonaki doctors, architects, high-ranking civil servants and captains of industry, who declare 10,000 euros in annual income, meet in the Café Dakapo.

Each of them owns a minimum of a house in Mykonos, another in Hydra, luxury flats in the capital, sports cars, and foreign residences and bank accounts. The Greek "elite" practice tax evasion with all the passion of boys who have just discovered golf, and in their own way, the less well-off also do what they can to ruin their country little by little. According to the World Bank, 35% of the Greek economy works by "moonlighting," and many local economists believe this estimate is much too low. In fact, when asked what the average salary is in the country, they burst into laughter. The minimum wage is 700 euros per month. "It means nothing," explains Richard Someritis, editorial writer for the centre-left daily, To Vima, "because virtually all of them have two or three jobs."

A selfish society

If they do not have two jobs they bonuses, and this is especially true of Greek civil servants, who represent 32% of the wage earners and 40% of public expenditure. "In this country seven out of ten civil servants don't even work," claims Gikas Hardouvelis, economics professor at the University of Athens. Nonetheless they receive all manner of surprising bonuses for things like "computer use" and "responsibility," and Greek customs officers have even managed to obtain a bonus for simply showing up to work on time. Most of these bonuses are not taxed, but they often increase salaries two-fold. "In France," Mr Someritis exclaims, "you at least have trains that run. Here we have nothing but deficits!"

Papandreou is allegedly planning to publish lists of the country's biggest tax evaders, a move that may put an end to tax evasion, and herald the advent of a fairer tax system. For the moment the embattled Prime Minister can count on the support of 60% of his countrymen. However, he faces an uphill struggle, because the crisis in Greece is not simply economic, but also a political and social one. "We have lost our social cohesion," explains writer Takis Theodoropoulos. "In the blink of an eye we went from a community society to a so-called "open" society, meaning an individualistic, hard and violent society. It is very new. The Greeks are like big children." Berlin, Paris and Washington are now demanding that these children grow up fast. Very, very fast.

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