Greeks in high spirits despite Sisyphean task lying in wait

Greeks in high spirits despite Sisyphean task lying in wait

Ariana Ferentinou
Greeks in high spirits despite Sisyphean task lying in wait

New Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis walks next to the protest site of cleaning workers who were laid off by the Finance Ministry in Athens. Varoufakis announced that the government will re-hire them in the public sector. AP Photo

“I could not have expected this. That little boy! And now, he is the leader of Greece!” The old man struggled to hold back his tears, in vain. He had to wipe his eyes with his hand.  Over forty close and distant relatives carrying the same surname as the new prime minister of Greece live in the village of Athamanio, eight hundred meters up on the Tzoumerka Mountains in the Epirus region. The old man was sitting at the “leftist” coffee shop in this village of some nine hundred inhabitants. At another table, another Tsipras, an almost centenarian priest, a great uncle of Alexis Tsipras, recounts how most men in the village joined the leftist resistance under the National Liberation Front (EAM) to fight against the Germans in the Second World War and how “when the Germans left, [rightist] EDES took over… I waited almost a century to see a leftist government and now my prayers are vindicated.” Not all of Tsipras’ relatives have voted for him, but, like the rest of the village, their political preferences tilted towards the right.

It has been less than a week that Greece has been governed a leftist party calling itself the Radical Coalition of the Left (Syriza), along with a junior partner, the conservative party of Independent Greeks (ANEL). This sudden but not unexpected change of political balances in Greece has shocked Europe. In a period of economic stagnation and political turbulence in the zone of Euro, Alexis Tsipras’ party is turning a new page by challenging the austerity and disciplinarian recipes imposed primarily by Germany on the debt-ridden south. After five years in the straight-jacket of a bail-out program, which has sent almost half of its citizens under the poverty line, Greece now under a new government will try first to persuade Brussels that their recipe is wrong and that there are alternative solutions for a member in the Eurozone heavily in debt. 

Alexis Tsipras is not only liked by his relatives up in the pine-covered village of Athamanio. His calm, smiling manner apparently charmed Costa Gavras, the famous Paris-based film director who confessed the new Greek prime minister “charmed him.” And when Gavras asked him why he named his party “radical,” Tsipras replied, “Our roots are radical; culture and democracy, these are my two pylons.” Gavras liked his answer.

It is too early to assess the new government in Greece and form an opinion of the members of this compact cabinet. Each minister is now heading a maze of responsibilities, and the economy with highly-qualified economists like Yannis Dragasakis and Yanis Varoufakis is given a top priority.

In his first cabinet meeting, Alexis Tsipras, live on the Greek television, told his team that “the Greek people have great expectations from this government, the people expect changes in justice, transparency and a different government style…  I want you to have in mind that the power assigned to us belongs to the ones who assigned it to us.” He underlined that he will show zero tolerance towards signs of “arrogance, overspending and corruption.” 

It was interesting that he chose to mention “arrogance” during his first meeting with his cabinet, because that may be a problem. Most of his ministerial staff has never been in a government post before, but a great number of them can show top domestic and international credentials in academia and different facets of leftist intellectual life. Some of them left their well-established academic careers abroad to come back to Greece in order to “save the situation.” Some have already built a high-flying, intellectual profile, occasionally criticized as “arrogant.” 

The lack of professionalism in politics on one hand and the eagerness to “give the people what we promised” resulted in an uncontrolled rush by several members of the new cabinet, who announced an avalanche of new measures even before the prime minister reads out his government program in the parliament next week. The announcement, among others, that all privatization plans for public enterprises are to be stopped triggered a collapse of the Greek Stock Exchange and an uncontrolled increase in the “spreads” of government bonds. This first show of a lack of coordination gave more reason for Greece’s European partners to panic and caused displeasure about what those “Greek leftists” are up to. On the other hand, it gave Tsipras himself the opportunity to demand his team restrains themselves until the government gets its program approved by the parliament. 

Several messages are being sent to the new government. The Europeans of the north and, particularly, Germany are advising strict adherence to the bailout program. The suffering Europeans of the south may see Tsipras as the leader of a new Europe, which will lead the continent back to its founding principles of social cohesion and democracy. New elections are in the pipeline in countries like Spain; maybe a Spanish version of Syriza would join the “Other Europe,” the people’s Europe, which Syriza envisages. 

However, the most interesting message came from outside Europe. U.S. President Barack Obama called Tsipras last Wednesday to inform him that the U.S. is “ready to assist Greece coming out of austerity,” an indirect criticism on the intransigent attitude of Germans in their dealings with Greece.

There is no doubt that tough times are awaiting the Tsipras government. He claims he is ready to “bleed” in order to give his people “optimism and dignity.”  His team may have the magical potion to alleviate the huge economic problems of his country and at the same time appease the international markets and pacify Brussels. The next few weeks will show.

For the moment, even in an uncontrolled and awkward rush, the new government gave a taste that they are very determined to follow their leftist policies to the end; this is something that perhaps Greeks did not expect, as they approach politicians’ promises with plenty of skepticism. Even so, the collective depression of the last few years is now replaced by a spirit of optimism and determination. 

“He is one of us,” said one of Tsipras’ neighbors in his modest Athens neighborhood. “We see him every day, he takes his rubbish out and he talks to us. We do not think he will change.”