Greece’s mission impossible

Greece’s mission impossible


No comic book superhero was ever given a tougher mission than the one just undertaken by Lucas Papademos, who has been appointed head of an emergency government in Greece.

He has to keep Greece’s credit lifeline open and the country tethered to the eurozone. He must implement reforms where everyone else has failed and change the world’s perception of Greeks and the Greeks’ perception of themselves.

Mission impossible?

No superhero has had so many odds stacked against him. The politicians who appointed Papademos to head a fractious three-party coalition have made clear they want him out of the way soon; after two years of mostly pointless austerity and missed targets, the citizens of Greece are suspicious of change; many of Greece’s EU partners make no secret of their haste to cut Greece off from the eurozone and the European Union. To undo the damage of decades, Papademos has three months.

Even before his first policy statement, 55 percent of respondents in a Greek poll said they trusted him. Perhaps, this was so mainly because they needed to put their faith in someone different from their politicians.

Papademos’ fight is for the honest citizens – those who see half their salaries going to tax and social security dues and who get poor public services in return. These are the millions of hard-working citizens and immigrants who have nothing to hide, who have paid taxes upon taxes and put their savings in the country’s banks rather than spiriting them abroad (like tax-dodgers). These are the people who kept Greece functioning when others cheated, when politicians lavished benefits on their favorites. It is they who will pay the bill and pull Greece toward recovery.

To keep Greece in the eurozone, Papademos’ immediate tasks are to secure the next loan installment that will keep Greece solvent; to ratify a new 130 billion-euro bailout from the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF; and to negotiate a 50 percent debt write-down with private sector creditors. To achieve this, he must get the parties supporting his government to sign a commitment that they will abide by the agreement with creditors.

But politicians are not the only problem. Unions and small opposition parties, which talk of toppling what they call the “bourgeois system,” have been merciless in resisting every reform. These include reduced benefits, public-sector layoffs and the deregulation of closed-shop professions.

Protests have often turned violent, with anti-establishment militants taking the opportunity to attack the police.

If Papademos can gain the trust of such groups long enough to start implementing reforms, he will succeed where others either failed or did not dare to go. And he will achieve this only if he is seen to introduce the spirit of justice in Greece, with everyone paying taxes, with laws that are enforced without fear or favor, where hard work is rewarded.

Reform is the key to Greece’s future. Even the burgeoning number of economists who declare that Greece should leave the euro in order to save itself agree on the need to make the economy and society more rational.

And yet, leaving the euro would be a death sentence. Not only would it strip Greeks of the benefit of having a strong currency for the first time in their volatile history, but it would reward all those who have repeatedly cheated the rest of us and have hidden their euros abroad, waiting for an opportunity to wipe their debts clean and then buy up an impoverished Greece on the cheap.

If Papademos manages to hold together his coalition, if he wins citizens’ trust and manages to sideline or disarm unions and opposition groups, if he is supported by our EU partners, Greece may gradually begin to change.

Greek and foreign media, Greek and foreign politicians, have repeatedly exaggerated the benefits, early pensions and other lunacies in Greece’s economy. This has obscured the greater problem: the gross inefficiency of a society based on an age-old patronage system of votes-for-benefits.

Papademos, the outsider, could change all this – providing a new vehicle for reform-minded members of the old parties while also attracting other talented outsiders to try and help their country. The people of Greece are ready for this. They know that the charismatic populists of the past brought nothing but ruin. Perhaps, they hope that with Papademos at their helm, this is the time for every man and woman to join the effort to rescue their country from bankruptcy, poverty and isolation.

* Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini