Pharmacist's death highlights Greek plight

Pharmacist's death highlights Greek plight

ATHENS - The Associated Press
Pharmacists death highlights Greek plight

AFP photo

Some Greek pharmacies will close on Friday, but not in protest against the relentless burden of austerity or the withering of state reimbursements for the drugs they sell. Rather, they are mourning for one of their own, a pharmacist who was shot dead in an apparent holdup.

Violent crime is more ingrained in many other societies, but the slaying of 54-year-old Spyros Poukamisas this week is the kind of sad event that cuts deeply into the Greek sense of community at a time of crisis and division. It is a symbol of the national handwringing about how far a country, steeped in glorious tradition, can fall.

"This is another atrocious crime, which shows that matters have come to a head. We have reached the limits of our endurance. Security is our first priority," said Antonis Samaras, head of the conservative New Democracy party, which is locked in a tight race with the radical left Syriza party ahead of elections on Sunday.

Granted, the death of Poukamisas near his pharmacy in a gritty district of Piraeus port this week was a fleeting episode, conceived by two men who vanished in a getaway car. Greece and the globe are more consumed by the vote whose outcome, realists and doomsayers alike fear, could imperil the idea of European unity and menace the world's biggest economies.

The immediate question is whether Greece, now under the stewardship of a caretaker government, will stick to traditional politicians like Samaras or empower Syriza's Alexis Tsipras, a populist who has talked of scrapping an international bailout deal that imposed harsh cutbacks and reforms on a population used to a better life.

The bigger conundrum for Greece is what it will be in the long term: a state adrift, as it is now, or a viable nation with a production-based economy and social cohesion to match.

The land that gave logic, justice and geometry to the world in ancient times has, in its more recent history, contorted inward. State excesses and book-cooking, record unemployment and inflated crime rates have fed Greek dysfunction.

Greek media reported that Poukamisas, the pharmacist, had been mugged in the past and that he told his assailants, "Not this time, guys," before they killed him. Pharmacies in the Athens area closed in protest for six hours Thursday. Most Piraeus pharmacies will be shut all day Friday.

A statement by the Greater Athens pharmacists' association said the killing reflected an "unprecedented" situation in Greece and "proves that our society is in a state of collapse and has been surrendered to the mercy of uncontrolled criminal activity." While aspects of such rhetoric appear overblown, statistics show a deterioration in law-and-order during the economic crisis. The Public Order Ministry reported an increase in nearly all categories of crime between 2010 and 2011, with murder up 5 percent and armed robberies in occupied homes up 110 percent.

Greece accounts for a tiny piece of the global economy, but the threat of contagion devastating spillover elsewhere in Europe and beyond drives jitters in the markets.

A vulnerable nation like Italy, however, has a strong industrial base and a host of brand names coveted worldwide. Greece has agriculture, but its fundamentals are more limited. Tourism and shipping are among the pillars of its fortunes; both are under strain amid speculation about whether Greece will have to abandon the euro in a chaotic and possibly economically debilitating exit.

This month, thousands of Greek and international shipping executives gathered at a trade event at which Theodore Veniamis, president of the Union of Greek Shipowners, invoked an old saying from Chios, a Greek island in the Aegean.

"The sea gets sick but never dies," he said. Veniamis asserted that Greek shipping remained internationally competitive, with a fleet of 3,325 vessels, but he lamented the impact of the global economic crisis on the freight market, as well as the administrative confusion caused by the abolition of Greece's merchant marine ministry.

Tourism accounts for nearly one fifth of the Greek economy, and the government seeks to lure an increasing number of tourists who are reluctant to relax in a country seemingly on the edge. A state campaign, "The True Story About Greece," touts antiquities, thermal springs and sun-splashed coastlines and islands.

Tatiana Karapanagioti, the culture and tourism minister, criticized the "gloom-and-doom myths" about Greece's plight, noting that tourism arrivals reached a record high of 16.5 million visitors in 2011. She said the elections on Sunday, a replay of an inconclusive, first round ballot, are not a cause for worry.

"This is simply our democratic process in action, no different than any other country," she wrote in a commentary in The Huffington Post this month. "True, the stakes of the coming election are unquestionably high. Yet, the birthplace of democracy is as safe, secure and calm as it has ever been." That last point is surely open to debate, or even derision among more seasoned critics. True, Greeks have had harder times. They put up with centuries of Ottoman rule, a schism between a king and a prime minister, a Nazi occupation, a civil war and a military dictatorship. But a nation whose pride springs from the intellectual exploits of ancient city-states has, for many, become a dangerously untrustworthy member of the global community.

This week, a debate in a London hall turned on whether Britain should return ancient Greek sculptures called the Parthenon Marbles, which were removed from the Acropolis in the early 19th century and are on display in London's British Museum.

Tristram Hunt, a British lawmaker, said it was unwise to send back the fragile sculptures, long demanded by Greece, as it faces the "terrible prospect of economic meltdown." But author Stephen Fry alluded with irony to the Greek crisis in support of the motion to return them.

"We will never, ever be able to repay the debt that we owe Greece," Fry said in praise of the contributions of ancient Greeks to world culture.