Bitter Christmas in Greece

Bitter Christmas in Greece

“You will not believe this. I was walking the other day on a central street of Athens near the Hilton Hotel and a decent looking, properly dressed with well groomed hair, elderly lady approached me and asked in a quiet voice, ‘Can you, please give me some money to buy half a kilo of bread?’ I was shocked and gave her three euros I happened to have in my hand at that moment.” This was a journalist from Greece talking to me on the phone.

We were arranging TV coverage of the Christmas Eve celebrations in Istanbul. But my colleague did not have any time to sort out technicalities. Seriously disturbed about her encounter with such an unlikely “beggar,” she wanted to share her despair and frustration. “There are malnourished children who are sent to school. The teachers do not know what to do,” she said. I had heard that and had read about the situation in the Greek press but I wondered how much of it was real. She was adamant. “It is true, it is true. And the politicians are totally disengaged with the society.”

This was a different Christmas. The hardship felt by almost everybody brought out the spirit of solidarity which had been largely lost: numerous charities and volunteer groups sprang up, especially in cities, to cater for the needs of those members of society that the state now ignores: the poor and the sick. The Church, which had been suffering from internal strife and corruption scandals, found the chance to clean its name and went back to its original role of helping the ones in need. And they are many. In a strange twist of fate, where the trust toward the politicians is fading fast, the faith in the social role of the Church is rising.

Due to the occasion of Christmas, I spoke to several relatives and friends in Greece. The news I got was no different than that of my journalist colleague. With the exception of the upper crest of the society, the Greeks are really suffering. With more than twenty thousand people homeless, literally living on the streets, half of whom are in Athens, with hundreds of thousands below the poverty line and even more out of work, the Greeks are going through one of the worst times in their recent history. “At least during the German occupation, in the Second World War, we knew who the enemy was and we knew that we would be liberated one day. Now we do not know who the enemy is and we cannot see the way out,” an elderly aunt with a good memory told me. “I have a strong urgency to enter the Parliament building and throw a bomb to get rid of all of them once and for all,” another relative shouted to me on the phone. Actually, my relative may have been politically incorrect but the figures agree with her.

During a recent poll, almost 90 percent of the respondents stated that their income was reduced this year, and almost 90 percent believe that their economic situation will get worse in the coming year. Over 80 percent have negative feelings about the two year term of the Papandreou government while the former prime minister, who had been elected with a comfortable majority only two years ago, is now supported by a mere 15 percent of the respondents.

Still, having no alternative, around 77 percent believe that Greece should stay in the eurozone but the people’s anger is apparent at the low support for their country’s political representatives: no single party enjoys more than 21 percent support.

The New Year finds the Greeks in need of a new type of political governance although its parameters are still not clear. The present odd coalition of three main parties under the technocrat Loukas Papadimos has already started to show cracks as the constituent parties began electioneering with their eyes fixed at the early general elections coming in the spring, rather than leading the country in consensus through tough reforms.

And the electorate more than any other time feels that if they do not cater for themselves nobody else will on their behalf.