Friday, August 31, 2012

Austerity storm clouds darken Greek government's future

Greece's Indignados continue protests for sixth day - Sign says "We have a voice. Real democracy now!"

After months of official government announcements and newspaper headlines, Greece's latest austerity programme has been made public with anger and disbelief coming from all corners, including the country's usually supine media. The news that salaries,pensions, disability benefits and aid to the unemployed will be included in the the 11.9 billion euro package of cuts is likely to spark off a yet more protests as will the likely 40,000 state sector lay offs .

Police officers were the first to react with demonstrations in Athens after the government said that their wages and bonuses would not be exempt from the budget measures being demanded by creditors in return for another cash injection. The Greek language blogosphere was alive with angry responses from police related blogs angry that pre-election promises had not been kept and promising a series of protests over the decision.

The first hurdle facing Greece's fragile three party coalition government is how to persuade their restive backbenchers to voter for measures their supporters violently disagree with. On the one hand many rank and file MPs from New Democracy, PASOK and Democratic Left have said they are opposed but how much of this is principled protest and how much is just a PR ploy designed to keep voters back home sweet is hard to say. During the last two round of cuts much was made of potential backbench revolt which eventually failed to materialise.

The $64,000 question is how such cuts, if they are passed will be enforced without the support of the police. With resentment against yet more austerity rising after a summer lull, police officers are being used ever more frequently to end protests and labour disputes. If they decide that this is not their public function, as one police leader intimated last night during an interview on MEGA TV then what other means of persuasion does the government have? Even the feared quasi - military MAT riot units cannot be everywhere.

The first test of Greek prime minister Samaras's ability to impose his will on a recalcitrant nation will come in September with the opening of the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair which traditionally marks the start of the new political year. The presence of the prime minister and much of the government is also a signal every year for massive protests and last year's event proved no exception with football fans, taxi drivers and anarchists fighting pitched battles with 8000 police officers outside the fair,

Samaras has already announced that this year's attendance at the fair will be a brief one and will not include the traditional state of the nation address which coincides with the most intense of protests. However, even if the Trade Fair passes off without major incident Greece's political calender will provide plenty more opportunities for police and protesters to make their respective stances known

Friday, August 24, 2012

Despite crisis good times still roll for Greek MPs

"The state means justice and the people seek it at all costs'- Protesters outside Greek parliament.

Antonis Samaras is currently doing the rounds in Europe, attempting to persuade fellow EU leaders that Greece needs two more years to fulfil the obligations required to receive the country's next installment of cash to avoid bankruptcy. Samaras has even personally guaranteed that Germany will be repaid in full, though how intends to do this is another matter, unless there is a secret coda in Steve Job's will that no one has been aware of till now.

On the other hand The PM's attempt to prove the Greece has changed and become a more fiscally responsible country have been undermined by even high ranking members of his own government, who upon being elected to parliament seemingly appointed to state jobs just about every member of their extended family not in jail or the grave. Case in point being New Democracy heavy weight, Vyron Polydoras, who secured a government job for his daughter after Greece's first national elections in May. Polydoras was also involved in a scandal during the Karamanlis administration after he used his position as minister for public order to have them transferred to his own offices.

However, this misuse of parliamentary privilege is not limited to New Democracy as such moves have been made PASOK, Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn MPs, with a total of 150 extra employees being added to the public payroll at a cost of nearly 3,000,000 euros annually.

At first sight such nepotism and pork barrel politics would seem to give fodder to Greece's foes in Europe who argue that Athens refuses top take reforms of its bloated state sector seriously. However, such accusations ignore the fact that these abuses are the preserve of the those at the top of Greece's deeply corrupt political system. For ordinary Greeks, the cuts in spending are very real indeed. A telling example is that while 187,000 people registered as jobless receive unemployment benefit (usually less than 400 euros a month), 734,000 do not. Hardly evidence of profligate welfare spending and for those who remain unemployed for more than 12 months there is little in the way of financial assistance form the State.

The irony of the situation is that during Greece's deeply divisive dual elections in summer much of the European political leadership and the financial establishment across the world exerted as much influence as it could muster to shore up support for New Democracy and Antonis Samaras, and in doing so helped maintain the corrupt political empires that helped Greece get so deeply into debt in the first place. 

SK Rapid Wien supporter calms down fans during face off with Greek riot police

Monday, August 20, 2012

As crisis deepens Greece's rulers take racism into the mainstream

Seeing refugee families approach Greek riot police close gates to ministry building

With August coming to an end and the temperatures dropping from the low 40s C to low 30s C The northern port city of Thessaloniki shakes off of its summer lethargy as people come back from their annual holidays and the town readies itself for the return of its large student population. However, amidst the renewed hustle and bustle some things haven't changed. Many of the businesses in the centre remain shuttered, their store fronts decorated with graffiti and For Rent signs, the cafes while now busier are far fewer in number and the restaurants mostly remain empty except on the weekend. The only new business is a chain of fast food outlets that does a roaring trade in in 70 cent hot dogs and cheap iced coffees.

On the other hand whether it be in the supermarket lines or in the streets the talk is about how everyone will pay the latest round of bills. The guy pumping petrol complains about the cost of road tax whilst the woman behind me in line frets about how she'll make it through the winter if the government decides to raise the cost of heating oil by 40% as promised. 

And these are the lucky ones. The ones who still have a job and some source of income. For those who were already at the bottom of the pile before the crisis took hold the situation is now dire. No  large supermarket is complete without a gaggle of beggars waiting outside its entrance. The sight of old people and young kids rummaging through waste bins for food or stuff to recycle no longer turns heads, or even draws a comment.

For Greece's most vulnerable the country is rapidly becoming an endless nightmare, not only because of lack of jobs or money but because they are being scapegoated by politicians in power along with their allies in the national media. For immigrants the situation is worst of all. While the foreign media have focused on the open racist rhetoric of the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party (which won 7% of the vote in the last national elections) the campaign against non-Greeks is not limited to the party's shaven headed black t-shirted thugs.

With the start of the Xenios Zeus police operation Athens has been using mass round ups of anyone with a dark skin in central Athens to prove that it is tough on undocumented migrants despite condemnation by Amnesty International. With the Samaras government unable to halt economic contraction and faced with a humiliating fait accompli from Berlin, Greece's failing political system is looking for a way out. In this they have found willing allies in the country's ailing mainstream media, owned to large extent by oligarchs determined to make sure that the country remains in the Eurozone, whatever the social cost.

A typical example of the manner in which immigrants are portrayed in Greek news can be seen in the recent case of a 15 year old girl who was beaten and left unconscious after an attack on the Greek island of Paros. With the police under pressure to produce results they arrested a Pakistani hotel employee, who according to official reports confessed to the crime. The fact that he was not allowed access to a lawyer during his time in custody on Paros seems to be considered a minor detail. Later police said that his DNA had been linked to the crime scene. At this point both TV and newspapers decided that trials and verdicts were irrelevant in such a case and talked of "a beast in human form" and "monsters among us".

Such language and tactics draw unfavourable comparisons with the propaganda attempts of the Nazi's in the mid 1930s and are being increasingly used by "respectable" mainstream reporters and politicians who routinely attribute rising crime rates and economic decline to the presence of immigrants.

In a climate where the nightly news bulletins are full of stories blaming the country's growing lawlessness on ruthless foreigners, it is hardly surprising that attacks on immigrants are on the rise, increasing not just in number but also ferocity. 

To make the situation even more intolerable, immigrants have every reason to believe that the police is not a neutral player in this increasingly violent game. During the recent elections some studies suggested the in Athens alone nearly 50% of police offers cast a vote for Golden Dawn, while Indymedia Athens and alternative news sources are full of police either turning a blind eye to racist violence or even abusing foreigners themselves.

The reality is the racism in Greece has, along with poverty become part of the respectable mainstream, simply another tool to be used by an deeply unpopular political elite eager to win back support from an electorate worn down by four years of economic collapse and terrified that everything that worked so hard to achieve over the previous decades will be taken away from them.