Thursday, April 29, 2010

Digging Deep and Seeing Greece's Flaws

The New York Times

April 28, 2010

Digging Deep and Seeing Greece’s Flaws


ATHENS — For Paul Koptides, who works in a car rental agency here, the news that Greece’s bonds had been reduced to junk status was just the latest in a series of blows, including wage cuts, new taxes and pressure from European neighbors for ever deeper austerity measures.

But far from blaming the international community for failing to come up with a rescue package quickly, Mr. Koptides, like many Greeks, is taking a hard look at his own country these days.

He sees far too much mismanagement and corruption. Greece’s shadow economy is the largest in the European Union. Bribing government officials is routine. And tax evasion is a national sport.

“We did this to ourselves,” said Mr. Koptides, 37. “It is our problem. It’s not Germany or Europe’s fault. We did this to ourselves.”

Greeks seem to be engaged in national soul-searching these days, wondering whether traits they once found amusing might have led to many of their difficulties now.

Some say their country may have been unprepared to join the European Union in the first place. Some focus on how European Union funds sent to Greece were spent on wasteful projects. Greece’s last administration hid the extent of its debt.

“There has always been this way of thinking in Greece that the thieves are the clever ones and the ones who don’t steal are the patsies,” said Petros Anagnostou, 46, a book dealer. “We have to develop a conscience as a community, to see ourselves as a collective society. If it is a jungle out there, then we will eat each other and end up in a place like we are today.”

That introspection has not alleviated a sense of mounting crisis. The day’s newspapers on Wednesday carried huge headlines suggesting that the country was on the brink and that time was running out.

A newspaper that is supportive of Prime Minister George A. Papandreou took aim at the European Union, saying it was going too slowly in extending a 30 billion euro loan (about $39 billion) to help Greece pay its bills. The dawdling has needlessly increased the intensity of the crisis, the editorial in the newspaper, Ta Nea, said. But most concentrated on internal Greek politics.

The financial crisis has left many Greeks worried about what kind of a year they are heading into and where they can safely save their own money. Some like Costas Papadakis, an air force pilot taking the day off in Athens, said he was working on not panicking because that would only make things worse.

He said he did not think the Germans had behaved well toward Greece. But he shrugged, saying he would have done the same thing in their position.

“We will have to learn to pay taxes,” said Mr. Papadakis, 27, who was enjoying a frothy coffee at an outdoor cafe. “It will be all right. Other people do it.”

The austerity measures have prompted a parade of protests, big and small, over the past few weeks, most of them by students and civil service workers objecting to wage reductions and tax increases. Many Greeks agree with the demonstrators’ sense of unfairness. They believe the burden of the new measures will be carried by the poor and the middle class, while the rich will continue to hide their assets offshore.

But few Greeks expect much to come of the protests.

“It is going to be a very tough few years,” Mr. Anagnostou said. “And the ones who did not pay their taxes, the ones who stole, have disappeared.”

Vicki Apostolopoulou, 38, the manager at a costume jewelry store on a busy shopping street, said customers had stopped buying months ago. “They come in,” she said. “But they don’t open their wallets anymore.”

Ms. Apostolopoulou said the fiscal crisis was the first subject of every conversation she had with her friends. “Basically, we should be angry with ourselves for this crisis,” she said. “But it is still a very scary time.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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