Greece in Debt, Eurozone in Crisis
With mass irregular migration and immiseration comes crime, both petty and organized, run by Greeks as well as foreigners. Athens was once seen as Europe’s safest capital; last year there were 145 armed robberies in a single week. The city has become a mecca for illegal weapons: you can get a “used” Beretta for around 800 euros or a .357 Magnum for a mere 500. Racist violence is on the rise, as are revenge killings and turf wars. Five dismembered brown-skinned bodies have been found since Christmas at one municipal dump. Even at midday, formerly prosperous streets are lined with women in hot pants and high heels, most of them African; their pimps stay in the shadows. Heroin is cheaper here than anywhere else in Europe.
As the authorities abdicate from policing parts of the city, the task of “keeping order” is assumed by vigilantes affiliated with the neofascist party Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, which last year won its first seat on the City Council. Chrysi Avgi patrols large areas of Athens, with the explicit or tacit support of many Greek residents and often of the police, staging pogroms against migrants and pitched battles with bands of anarchists who oppose them; on May 19 more than 200 people rampaged through the center, smashing shop windows and kicking or beating every dark-skinned man they saw while the police stood by. A young sympathizer described the group’s activities to me, proudly lifting his shirt to show a scar on his back inflicted, he said, by an Afghan with a knife. “We go into the basements where they have illegal mosques to check their papers, clear them out. They could be Al Qaeda; they could be anything. It’s not chance that they’re Muslims; they’re coming on purpose to undermine the country. There’s a plan, a secret funding mechanism, and there’s no state to protect us. The police are on the side of the migrants. We had to liberate Attica Square with our fists. The migrants were washing their clothes, their children, in the fountain; they were sleeping and praying in the square. It offends me to see them praying in the square.” This spring a 21-year-old Bengali was stabbed to death in “revenge” for the murder of a Greek expectant father knifed on the street for his camera. Two Afghans have been charged with the killing of the Greek; no one has been arrested for the Bengali’s murder.
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Victoria Square, a stone’s throw from the National Archaeological Museum, used to be a cheerful place full of outdoor cafes; now it contains a few uncomfortable metal seats and ugly concrete planters, “improvements” made for the 2004 Olympics. On a June evening, groups of Middle Eastern men stood talking among themselves; a few women and children sat quietly on the ground. As night fell policemen on six motorbikes roared round and round among them, revving their engines threateningly until most had scattered. Marina Vichou, a third-generation resident and member of a local community group, says that in the past two or three years the area has become “a warehouse for human souls.” Eleni Zoi, who has lived here since 1967, described brothels and gambling dens, illegal shops and filthy apartments where fifty people live without sanitation, filling the airshafts with used toilet paper. “Uneducated people blame the migrants, not the people who rent to them, who are often Chrysi Avgi supporters, or the authorities that fail to integrate them. We kept asking the authorities to do something about the situation, and they wouldn’t—as if they wanted the area to become a ghetto.”
The group came together two years ago, opposing a plan to turn a rare green space into a parking lot; much of their energy is now spent trying to defend the neighborhood from Chrysi Avgi. “The best way to fight the fascists,” Vichou says, “is to be united and do community things together. It’s very important for people to see that fascist activities are closely connected with illegal ones.” But she feels the cause is hopeless: “It’s all older people here, Albanian immigrants who are not yet established, small shop owners. Chrysi Avgi takes over and won’t allow anyone else to speak. They harass us too, call us filthy names in the street. If I could, I would sell my house and leave.” Zoi—a veteran of many protests, including the occupation of the National Technical University, which helped to bring down the colonels in 1974—insists she won’t be moved. But, she says, it’s the anarchists from a local squat who have so far held the line against Chrysi Avgi. “What can we do? Look at us. We can’t fight them with our fists. I’ve been on countless demonstrations in my life, always peacefully. I’m the one who goes up to people and tells them not to throw things. This is the first time I’ve ever been afraid.”
After decades of expecting everything to be done for them by the state, more and more Greeks are discovering the satisfaction of doing things for themselves: the Atenistas, a network that plants empty lots and cleans up derelict buildings; the community group that filled Kalliga Square with candles when a migrant was murdered there; the cyclists who swoop through the streets in a great flock every week; the campers in Syntagma. But they are working in the shadow of a tidal wave.
In 2010 Greece’s economy shrank by 4.5 percent; a further slump of 3.8 percent is projected for this year. By the troika’s own figures, even if the Greeks can be forced to accept a second wave of cuts and privatizations, by next year sovereign debt will have risen to 166 percent of GDP; 8–9 percent of GDP will go just to pay the interest. (The interest on US debt, which so exercises Washington politicians, was at 1.3 percent of GDP in 2010.) The country will still be bankrupt, and the drumbeat for default is becoming deafening. What, then, is the point of punishing Greece further?
Despite the contemptuous grumblings of Northern Europeans, Greeks are quick to acknowledge the country’s responsibility for its fiscal mess, sometimes to the point of masochism. (“We ate it together, we’ll pay for it together,” the politicians frown. “We didn’t eat it, you did,” the protesters roar back, pointing to multimillion-euro bribes paid to fixers and legislators by companies like Johnson & Johnson, Siemens and Ferrostaal.) Many Greek intellectuals supported the government’s first agreement with the troika, because it was preferable to disorderly default and because some of its reforms (clamping down on corruption and tax evasion, shrinking the public sector, opening up restricted professions, making it easier for businesses to invest and thrive) have long been necessary but are blocked by vested interests. But such changes can’t be effected in the space of months, in the midst of a deep recession and without democratic control; even economists who backed the plan agree that it had little provision for growth and less regard for Greek realities. Rather than commit hara-kiri by alienating its base in corrupt public sector unions, PaSoK has shut its eyes and slashed the knife across the board, without planning or forethought. Hit by rising taxes and shrinking demand, 50,000 businesses have gone bust in a year. The new austerity package will see most of the state’s assets, from ports to power plants and banks to motorways, sold off to foreign companies, which will have no compunction about firing workers. The troika’s main aim is to rescue not the Greek economy but the country’s creditors—or at least to postpone default until “contagion” can be limited and the banks protected, by transferring the debt to taxpayer-funded lenders like the IMF and ECB.
Since the pain is almost certainly going to get worse, why not simply cut and run back to the drachma, as some of the Syntagma protesters advocate? At least then Greece would be in charge of its own destiny, free to take the traditional route out of debt through devaluation. Some analysts compare Greece’s plight to Argentina’s in 2001, when it saw daylight by unpegging its peso from the dollar. But Greece is not Argentina—among other things, the only oil it produces comes from olives—and even if leaving the euro were possible, the unpredictable consequences could be devastating: economic collapse, rampant inflation, rising nationalism. And while drowning by sudden default may seem a shorter, sharper torment than suffocation by the EU and IMF, the truth is that neither should be necessary.
Although most European bankers and politicians officially shudder at the prospect of a Greek defection from the euro, there are many on the right who would welcome such a “catharsis,” for reasons that Boris Johnson, London’s Conservative mayor, recently explained: “Bit by bit we seem to be creating a fiscal as well as a monetary union, in which huge sums…are being transferred from the richer to the poorer parts of the EU.” The Greek crisis has forced a recognition that the eurozone can’t continue as it is. It must either fly apart under the centrifugal force of the periphery’s debt or become more integrated, a union in which nations have common interests as well as a common currency. Neither option appeals to the bankers and eurocrats—or indeed to the voters of Germany, Britain, France or Finland, the main audience for the spectacle of Greece’s humiliation.
Just as the migrants have become the scapegoat for the Greek people’s suffering, so Greece has become the scapegoat for the structural problems of the eurozone, as well as for the failures of neoliberal orthodoxy. If the medicine isn’t working, it must be the patient’s fault. Greece’s entire economy is worth less than 3 percent of the eurozone’s GDP; the obstacles to a more humane, realistic and lasting reform are not financial but political. Like any homeless person on the street in Athens, the country has reached this point for reasons that are particular aa well as systemic. Beginning from the premise that it is in no one’s interest for Greece to default, any lasting solution must address both aspects—which means a rethinking of the eurozone’s policies and purposes, and a decision by political leaders to reclaim democratic control from the markets and ratings agencies. It would be pretty to think that such a thing might happen, but no one I know in Athens is holding their breath.