Greeks have afterthoughts but hope dies last

Greeks have afterthoughts but hope dies last

I’ve just got back from a very quick trip to Athens; I was prepared to find things still in turmoil, with people complaining about a lack of money, a lack of jobs, a lack of business and a lack of progress in negotiations with Europe. According to the international media, the country is about to collapse and be kicked out of the eurozone; a default could lead to the biggest catastrophe its citizens have ever experienced.

What did I see? I saw a country whose people by now have become more stoic, more resilient and more aware. They have learned a lot during these past six years of austerity, heavy taxation, unemployment and economic stagnation. Three months ago, they elected a government that challenged the rules of the game in Europe and claimed that the recipe Greece’s creditors (EU, ECB, IMF) wrote up for sorting out its national debt and restarting its collapsed economy was wrong. 

By now, however, they have come to realize that things are not as easy as they were promised. They hear that the “tough negotiations” that their new government is conducting are seen by Europeans as a “loss of time.” Utterly disillusioned with Europe, they have revised their beliefs on the given support from their European partners. Also, out went their respect and tolerance for their old domestic political parties; they blame them for most of their recent ills. They also blame themselves for their collusion with a political and economic establishment that delayed the country’s development.  

All the people I met, spoke to and listened to, and all those I had seen enraged and desperate back in autumn, are now quite cautious, agonizing over the outcome of the negotiations of their new government with its creditors. Yet, behind their calmer and more composed approach, it was clear that they cannot wait forever.  

The rise of Syriza to power as it formed the first anti-austerity radical left government within the EU revealed certain unpleasant truths for the Greeks about today’s Europe even as it enthused its followers and encouraged the anti-austerity movement in Europe. Most importantly, it showed that a democratic vote in an EU country could be ignored, bypassed and undermined if an elected government’s political program challenges an established neoliberal economic model now dominating the EU. It showed also that the central players of today’s Europe, in a coordinated effort to “sort out the leftists,” can discredit Greece’s new chosen leaders, ridicule their political program, “bully” their financial negotiators so that they give up their electoral promises and make an example for anybody else who might kindle similar ideas in Europe.

I am not saying anything new. Numerous observers and experts have been pointing out that the advent of Syriza to the European political scene generated a disproportionate reaction – the isolation of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis during a very strained eurozone meeting in Riga last week was no exception. Greece is seen as the black sheep of an all-white Europe and has to repent for its electoral program – for which it was elected – in order to be helped in meeting its huge debt repayments.

The Greeks are aware of all that.  

But surprisingly the election slogan of “hope” that Syriza used still holds. In spite of its mistakes, inexperience and inside splits, the new Syriza government, after three months in power, has somehow generated a placating effect on society. Its biggest asset, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, has managed so far to maintain the trust and confidence of almost half of the electorate. 

But things are changing. After witnessing a barrage of European reaction against their new government, the Greeks are prepared to compromise on their expectations provided they stay in the eurozone. Now, only 40 percent would vote for Syriza if new elections were to be called – a big drop during the last month – while most, almost 70 percent, are scared of being left out of the eurozone.

And what about hope? That has an expiry date, too: June, when the leeway given by the creditors to the new government to come up with a new set of proposals to replace the old (failed) bailout program. The latest polls show that while more than 60 percent of the people hoped that the new government would secure a new agreement in February, this figure dropped by 20 points in April. 

They say that hope dies last. And that you remain calm until the end.