The news coming out of Greece these days is in stark contrast to the dramatic stories international readers were used to at the height of the financial crisis. From large demonstrations, intense riots, and political instability, the narrative—at least from the financial press—has shifted to praise for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza-led coalition government for the speed and decisiveness of the reforms they’ve introduced since they were reelected in September 2015.
The hopes of those who voted for Syriza in January 2015 were drowned when the party signed up for more austerity in the elections that followed later that year. Now Tsipras is keen to show the fruits of his sacrifices (as he often labels them in his speeches) and to highlight positive comments from the likes of Bloomberg and the Financial Times. If these voices are to be believed, Greece is on the mend, the crisis is beginning to be overcome, and there are hopes for an era of political stability and economic recovery.
This narrative, however, is built on sand. When Syriza and its coalition partners, the hard-right Independent Greeks, became the latest enforcers of the hard line dictated by Brussels, the EU saw this as a great victory, believing that it would at last bring stability to the tumultuous landscape of Greek politics. In fact, it may have achieved the very opposite.
Greece’s finances are, overall, better than they were a few years ago. Unemployment has been falling (closer to 20 percent now, down from around 27 percent at its height four years ago), industrial production is up, and, if the full shops over Christmas are to be believed, some consumer confidence might have taken hold. But while there is some positivity in the markets, the benefits have been very slow to reach the majority of the people, who watch in dread as their tax bills keep rising. Running a business in Greece is difficult because of the tax burden (individuals and businesses now owe a whopping $120 billion in back taxes), while wages remain very low. And further cuts in pensions (which often support whole families) are coming in 2018. Meanwhile, the debt-to-GDP ratio remains stubbornly high, guaranteeing that austerity will continue for years to come without substantial debt relief, which Greece’s creditors are considering but aren’t exactly keen on.
Tsipras, the country’s youngest prime minister ever, is talented in many ways, but also cynical. While Syriza has pushed through social reforms that no other major party would contemplate—gay marriage, freedom to legally choose your gender, citizenship for second-generation children of migrants—it has also been more than happy to cozy up to Donald Trump, as we saw in Tsipras’s recent US visit, or consider selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Though one must recognize that Greece’s defense policy is (for better or worse) tied to Washington’s, especially now that Erdogan’s Turkey is becoming a more difficult neighbor, these moves have alienated core supporters of the party. But most of all, it is Syriza’s adherence to austerity that is making the party’s reign very difficult. It is also where our biggest problem lies.
When Europe broke Syriza back in 2015, it removed fiscal policy as a field of contestation. This has left the main parties no ground to compete on except cultural issues. So Syriza is brandishing its progressive credentials, while New Democracy is brandishing its conservative ones. In this climate, it’s extreme ideas that win out. This pattern doesn’t just taint Greece; it seems to be gripping Europe as a whole. And this is why we must pay attention to what happens when fiscal discipline creates a political vacuum.
The culture wars come to Greece
Turn on the TV, look at the front pages on the newsstands, check what’s happening in Parliament: In place of a hopeful narrative, you will find polarization, fear, and the emergence of a political climate that could be described as Trumpism on the Mediterranean. The recent massive demonstrations—more than 100,000 in Athens on February 4—over the name of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), although hijacked by the opposition and extreme groups like Golden Dawn, reveal a people in deep emotional distress. (Ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia and FYROM’s independence, many Greeks have opposed its use of the name “Macedonia,” arguing that this implies claims on the northern Greek region of the same name.)
This might sound surprising to international readers, most of whom probably assume that the main right-wing opposition in Greece is a center-right party—as, for some periods of its existence, it was. And after the hard-line Antonis Samaras, prime minister until 2015, was replaced as leader of New Democracy (ND) by the liberal Kyriakos Mitsotakis in January 2016, many hoped that, alongside Syriza’s capitulation, it would mean a return of centrist politics in Greece, perhaps even the formation of a new consensus on the future of the country.
Leaving aside Mitsotakis’s own problematic past (especially a procurement scandal involving the German multinational Siemens), few understood at the time how a politician who wasn’t even close to winning the first round of the intraparty elections could become the eventual winner. It became evident later on, when he appointed as deputy leader Adonis Georgiadis, a minister of health in the Samaras government and a former MP for the far-right party LAOS. After Georgiadis moved to ND in 2012, he quickly rose in the ranks. His populist appeal and frequent TV appearances marked him as the leader of the hard-right faction inside ND; it was his alliance with Mitsotakis that secured the latter’s election. But at what price?
Georgiadis has widely promoted books like Jews: The Whole Truth, by Konstantinos Plevris, whose son Thanos is also a New Democracy MP. Georgiadis frequently calls Greece “a communist country” and is an open Trump fan who has regularly spread fake news on Twitter and TV, like a fake story sourced from a far-right website that claimed refugees had taken down a picture of the Virgin Mary in a small town, that the PM had flown to Paris in the prime ministerial jet to take his family to Disneyland, or that then–Education Minister Nikos Filis wanted to “ban the use of excessive vowels in the Greek language,” which he had picked up from an Onion-like parody page. A few months ago Georgiadis was seen selling “nanobionic vests” on the TV show he had (he has had to leave it since then) on a local channel. He is the man spearheading the introduction of Tea Party politics to Greece, and is seemingly now in charge of the ND party line. Now he’s embroiled in a massive scandal concerning his time as health minister amid allegations of shady dealings with the pharmaceutical company Novartis.
Even more worrying is the man holding the shadow-interior-minister position. Makis Voridis, an upper-class lawyer of the highest pedigree, led a far-right youth group in the 1980s, a position to which he had been appointed by the then-imprisoned former dictator, George Papadopoulos. While Voridis has repeatedly claimed to be a changed man, in the 1990s and 2000s he headed the Greek sister party to France’s National Front (FN), called the Hellenic Front. Former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen attended Voridis’s wedding in 2005, in which the FN’s deputy leader was the best man. These inclinations of the aforementioned politicians were not a secret, by the way: The respected center-right daily Kathimerini ran profiles of them under the title “Dancing With the Hard Far-Right” in 2007, while they were in LAOS.
Syriza is not blameless in all this. The party’s alliance with the hard-right Independent Greeks—accepted for electoral reasons because Syriza couldn’t form the majority it needed to govern alone—has opened it to similar accusations. The Independent Greeks’ leader, Panos Kammenos (formerly a minister with New Democracy), is aligned with businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, like wannabe media baron Ivan Savvidis. Kammenos was also involved with Trump adviser George Papadopoulos (no relation to Greece’s former dictator). Because of Kammenos and his party, Syriza cannot effectively attack ND’s slide toward outright Trumpism (and therefore the far right).
Greece is therefore caught in endless petty party feuds of little to no substance. Meanwhile, ND supporters and politicians are trying hard to bring back a civil-war atmosphere, talking about kicking out the communists, supporting the church against LGBT rights, spearheading a backflip over the Macedonian issue, in which they now support the demonstrations that demand no use of the word Macedonia even in a composite name (whereas they themselves have signed up to the use of FYROM on several occasions), which is now straining the country’s international relations, and casually promoting Darwinian rhetoric in public discourse (Mitsotakis recently said in Parliament that “equality is against human nature”). All the while, Greeks continue to suffer under the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies.
The collapse will not be televised
This polarization is fueled by the media, which are more than ever either unwilling or unable to properly scrutinize power. Just a few years ago, Evangelos Marinakis was mainly known as the chairman of the Olympiakos football team (from which he was recently ordered to stand down while he awaited trial for match fixing). His close friendship and family ties with the Mitsotakis family is evidenced by a photograph that shows him sitting with them, Voridis, and Georgiadis at a wedding in 2015, while his father was close with former prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis. Marinakis himself was also the best man at the wedding of Mitsotakis’s sister, MP Dora Bakoyannis, who is herself a former minister with ND.
Since then, Marinakis has bought majority shares in DOL, the country’s largest publishing entity (with several newspapers and magazines under its ownership), and, in consequence, the second-largest holding in MEGA, Greece’s biggest private TV station. Marinakis currently controls the largest single block of titles in the Greek media, which includes several daily and weekly newspapers, some of the most highly visited websites in the country, a majority stake at a press-distribution company, and a major printing company. He uses these outlets mostly for anti-government attacks.
An example of the corrosive effect this is having on Greece’s public discourse involves the Paradise Papers revelations. Despite the fact that the name of Mareva Grabowski Mitsotakis (the ND leader’s wife) appears in the leaked documents, the story really hasn’t received appropriate coverage. This might have something to do with the fact that the names of other media owners, along with their relatives, also appear in the Paradise Papers.
On the other side, Ivan Savvidis, the Putin-affiliated businessman and a former MP with Putin’s United Russia party, has also acquired a major media company that controls several daily papers and radio stations, with a generally more pro-government stance. Between them, Marinakis and Savvidis control the majority of media in Greece. Politics now revolves entirely around when the next elections will take place and who will win; the other grave issues facing the country, like the ongoing privatization programs, poverty, and corruption, only reach the citizens through slogans and propaganda. Cynicism rules.
A dose of reality
Syriza is not the party people thought they elected in 2015; New Democracy is not the party people think it is. And in between is a population largely driven to existential despair.
Before the last bailout agreement, in 2015, Greece was given two choices by its creditors: heavy taxation, or deep social-services cuts. Syriza opted for the first, partly because previous governments, which promised cuts, never managed to deliver. New Democracy suggests it will lighten people’s tax burden and make cuts instead. But Syriza’s transformation from troublemaker to the best austerity government the Europeans have had the pleasure of working with leaves the conservatives with little credibility in Brussels, which they now beg for support.
And so the politics of division is the only game in town. It’s “communists” versus the church and “degenerate liberals” versus “commonsense” conservatives. The ability to think straight is quickly dissipating. And just like that, Greece finds itself one accident away from even darker times.