Remember Greece?

Note: This is the second of two posts recounting Eye on the East’s recent visit to Athens. Part one can be found here.

It’s hard to believe that less than two months ago, Greece was on the verge of exiting the eurozone and forcing the European Union to ask serious questions about its own viability. Today, Athens’ social, political and economic battles – under the vigilant eyes of its creditors – no longer make the international headlines, but they are only just starting to be fought.

During a short trip to Athens in June, there were only two things on people’s minds: financial collapse and the long-awaited concert of British pop rocker Robbie Williams. After I attended the Williams concert and got that out of the way, there was nothing else to talk about other than the crisis: whether banks would collapse, whether people would be putting their old drachmas back to good use and whether there was reason enough for Greeks to be worried for the future and that of their families.

Being in Athens provided an interesting perspective from those whose lives would be directly affected by the repercussions of a financial crisis almost 30 years in the Greek making (it’s all too easy for us to philosophize from the comfort of our homes and safe bank deposits). Those supporting the government supported it wholeheartedly, especially in its confrontation with the IMF/European Commission/European Central Bank troika (influenced by Greece’s largest, and harshest, German creditor). While those who didn’t support the government’s policies and negotiation strategies for emergency rescue assistance still supported their prime minister wholeheartedly. “I may not agree with everything [Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras says or does, but I trust the man, he isn’t tainted, he is clean,” one friend told me. There was nothing like the mention of Yanis Varoufakis – the colorful, charismatic, impertinent and bright Greek Member of Parliament and then Minister of Finance – to heat up any conversation. “I wish we had our own Varoufakis in Lebanon,” I once said, to which a friend angrily replied, “you can take him. It isn’t with his sort of arrogant and aggressive attitude that we will solve our problems.  You can’t fight Europe like this.”

Who’s fighting who? – A miniature reconstruction of the Parthenon frieze depicting the battle between Athena and Poseidon, on display at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Credit: Marina Chamma.

But who’s fighting who? It didn’t really matter that Greeks voted Syriza (or the Coalition of the Radical Left) into power in January 2015, in response to the troika-imposed austerity measures previous governments were abiding by for the last five years. And it didn’t matter how forceful their ‘no’ to the austerity measures was in the latest referendum. The fact of the matter is that it is Europe that ended fighting Syriza and Greece and not the other way around. Finance and geopolitical power politics proved more forceful than democracy and the will of the people, even in the birthplace of democracy itself. Having said that, Syriza itself is divided and Tsipras just oversaw the Greek Parliament’s approval of a massive basket of reforms, the scope of which was described by the BBC as “breathtaking.” Still, it is widely believed that if there were to be elections in the coming months, Tsipras and Syriza would win. Charisma and perceived good intentions can go a very long way I guess…

It has taken me far too long to synthesize and make sense of a financial and political crisis with more twists and turns than a Latin American soap opera. But when you bare the crisis of the trillions of euros and the political struggles, I think it boils down to two simple and basic things: first, for a party like Syriza to come to power means that Greek democracy is as healthy as ever. Unlike other countries, Greece may claim the right to export democracy if it so wishes, and why not, it could even make money out of it to increase government revenues. And second, don’t expect much of a democracy when you’re indebted all the way up to your ears.

Doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of us in the undemocratic, financially impaired world…

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