Is Greece really collapsing because of its financial crisis? Uday K. Chakraborty visits Greece and gives you first hand information from ground zero in Athens .
A couple of weeks back I visited Athens and its outskirts just to see how things are in world’s oldest democracy and an important tourist destination of today. Greek debt crisis is the top story in world media today. The country has been living on borrowed money for quite some time and now unable to service its debt. Virtually bankrupt, it not only faces international embarrassment, but also its people face daily hardships and unemployment and consequent anxiety and frustration. Its vast tourism industry, which is country’s major foreign exchange earners, is also beginning to feel the pinch, as while foreign tourists are cancelling their trips and banks are not releasing sufficient Euro to run daily operations of various establishments.
I could see that the city’s infrastructure have vastly improved, showing that at least part of those borrowed money from European Union and IMF have been spent on its development.
Meanwhile, its squares and markets are bustling. Between the Syntagma Square and Omonia Square is European Athens, in contrast to the quintessentially Greek Plaka, and Oriental Monastiraki. And, there are no better places to observe Athenian life. Today, such daily life is often punctuated by political demonstrations of all hues and colours. On Omonia Square, the city’s hyperactive middle class plaza, while the parade of Greek food reaches our table one by one, we take time in eating the, allowingourselves to enjoy the show put up by a variety of pavement artists and acrobats just outside.Around Omonia are many government buildings. There are chaps discussing politics, inevitably. These are evident from the intensity of the debate, the waving newspapers and gathering crowds. Circling the square – a geometric possibility in modern Greece –I carefully notice that, while there is still one or two discreet nigh-life establishments, open prostitution no longer exist in this area, what I saw in the early nineties. But, then bang opposite the restaurants there is a huge unfinished office complex, a harsh exhibit of the current economic slide.
If Athens’ rather makeshift, sloppy, unfinished look seems disconcertingly haphazard at first, it is necessary to see this scattered metropolis as a whole to understand that it could not be other than it is. In the first place, more than most capitals, Athens is the embodiment of its country in highly concentrated form. It exemplifies a way of life, which Athenians themselves, rarely at a loss for words, can only call “Greek Reality”. It is a complex, but definable combination of attitudes that makes the country tick or, according to the lenders, not tick.
I find this both engaging and perplexing. The life style is quite pleasant, but it takes its toll on the economy. Greece has mastered a few industries – its shipyards are the sixth largest in the world; tourism is an excellent and well organized business; petrochemical have made quite a few Athenians wealthy in the past 30 years – but still Greece is one of the least productive of the major countries of the Europe.
My hotel receptionist confirmed another side of Greece’s problem – the loss of its young talent. All his four brothers have left for USA and are unlikely to return. In fact, one third of the Greeks live outside their native country and they do not much remittance back to Greece.
Another problem is that in recent times Greek middle and lower-middle class have relinquished some economic spaces to new immigrants from Middle East and Asia, who settled here. For example, atVarvakios, Athens’ biggest market, I ask a Bangladeshi shop owner how is life is affected. He informed while economic downturn meant he had lost his job in a construction firm, at least he has this shop which he owns. “A shop I built with sheer heard work and thrift.” But, a typical Greek should not be so lucky and has no other second source of income to fall back upon.
Greeks, who have based their life on creativity, enterprise and hard work, are still thriving. These include small shops, kiosks, restaurants and cafes. I visited quite a few restaurants frequented by the Greeks and tourists alike. Run by individual family members, they offer excellent food. But, at the end most of them asked for the payment verbally or writing on a chit of small paper. When I asked for a proper bill, they politely smiled, saying “Sorry, the machine is not working” or offered us free dessert – on the house- instead!
Current debt crisis also meant that restoration worksof the priceless ancient monuments are progressing at a slow pace. While coming down from the Acropolis, my daughter chatted up some architecture students and their professor from Athens University who were deeply engrossed in their restoration work. The professor took more time explaining the current Greek financial crisis and its effect on his students. “You see, despite such bright boys, we have no job” He said, “At least in your country you get jobs. Here, a qualified engineer is now forced to work in a shop, to get over this problem”.
But, then what really has caused this problem, I asked my journalist friend, Alexei Patrakias. ”Corruption and mass scale tax evasion,” he replied. In Greece on the one side are the rich peoplewho helped by the earlier right-wing politicians,cornered most of the business and construction contracts. Apart from avoiding paying tax and they also took their money out of the country. Similarly, small businessmen, many of them in tourism industry, also manage to pay very little taxes.The salaried employees had to pay increasingly higher levels of taxes.” He continued, “Naturally the nation cannot generate surplus money to repay its debt or to reinvest in the development in its economy.The disaster was always in the making.” He expressed his preference to go back to the earlierDrachma days.
“But, Drachma is no good,” says the agent in the foreign exchange kiosks, nearby. “Drachma, as a currency, was a kind of laughing stock, in the international market. With Euro, at least we are part of a respectable group, and our currency has prestige and utility. We should not reverse the clock.”