Friday, 17 January 2014

Changing Greece (Μια άλλη Ελλάδα)

2014 seems to be the year that the rest of the world starts to notice the changed Greece that my country is becoming. It still looks the same on the surface, but different words are coming out of people's mouths, together with different hand movements; the most subtle of all to be detected is the different emotions being vibrated. All this has to do with the way the country is grappling with the issue of how to become a 'normal' country. As the German newspaper "Die Welt" recently reported:
"Powered by the donors, the Greeks are going to put their country back on its feet. And something is moving, everywhere you look in Athens, whether at the office, in a museum or in the church."
"Die Welt" has in the past taken a similar hard stance other German media sites like "Bild" and "Focus", both of which have made monstrously unflattering comments about Greece in the recent past. So Die Welt's present thoughts could be regarded as sobering. It recently published a list of the visible changes that have taken place in Greece according to the author, who mentions that not all the changes have to do with the troika's demands, but they seem to be a direct result of the side-effects resulting from the changes being demanded. The complete list is only available in German, not English, which confirms my belief that the media is not interested in Greece these days: despite the crackpots that still believe in the possibility of a Grexit (still being reported in 'serious' financial news media), the demise of Greece is a fait accompli, and there is not much else that can be said or done about it in the global media. Only the Greeks can now play a role in picking up the pieces, keeping calm and carrying on, as a recent BBC article notes is now happening:
"With predictions of growth in 2014 and unemployment down slightly, there is a feeling of optimism from the government in Athens - but Greeks say they know there are still difficult days ahead." 
Not even in the Greek media will you find a complete translated list of the perceived changes (only a partial one): Greek news media have much more significant news to deal with on a daily basis. Greeks themselves cannot keep up with the latest news, as there is so much to take in. As I was writing this post, I was listening to the TV news in an empty house (which explains how I managed to hog the TV that night): more bribery arrests, more scandals coming to light, more financially related arrests, more Golden Dawn members remanded in custody, more warnings to non-payers of taxes... it's out with the old in Greece for 2014, as we wait and see what exactly will be in with the new. We're too busy to worry about what every Tom, Dick or Harry is saying about us outside the country.

The comments found at the end of the article (all in German) are very telling: people don't want to believe that anything has changed in Greece. The commentators generally hold similar views to the diaspora Greeks I have recently talked to: Κοιτάξτε τα χάλια σας! and Ρεμάλια, όλοι! are regular expressions to be found on social networking media, written by diaspora Greeks to describe people and events in Greece. Horrible expressions, aren't they? I've never use the word ρεμάλια to describe anyone, and I detest the over-used χάλια phrase: they both sound very bas class, straight out of kafeneio culture, utterly demode, with overtones of the over-used μαλάκα. They remind me of old-fashioned derogatory Greek phrases like σκατά να φας, only used now by old diaspora Greeks who remember their mummy and daddy saying it. Such phrases have been superceded by other slang idioms.

I am not surprised with the Germans' and diaspora Greeks' chants, because they comment only on what they think they see during their short (and always summer) holidays here. They don't live in Greece, therefore they cannot feel or understand the changes taking place; most hear/read about Greece from the media. They are possibly also the kind of people who aren't capable of understanding the changes taking place, and it may not suit them to hear such news. They prefer to highlight the few direct experiences they have of Greece, which are usually negative (and often self-created) ones, as those representing real Greek life today.

In reality, they are only deluding themselves, in the same way as those who harped on about things being so bad in Greece that people were fleeing in droves, to Australia of all places, which has very strict immigration policies. Much ado was made about this, both in the foreign and local press, in the early period of the economic crisis. The recent publication of the results of an immigration study has "confirmed many suspicions and revealed unpleasant truths":
"... the year when the real brain drain began in Greece was 2011. It peaked in 2012 and has continued at a steady pace this year. A quarter of Greeks seeking greener pastures headed for the United Kingdom, while most of the rest settled in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the United States. However, taking into account the official unemployment numbers, especially in Greece and Spain, the number of emigres so far is not that impressive... the majority of citizens who decide to leave have a high education level, with the percentage of degree holders among the Greek emigres reaching 89%. Contrary to popular belief, 51% of the Greek participants had jobs in Greece when they decided to move... they may have been unhappy with the conditions, their prospects and their salaries, but they were not in dire straits.”
It also turned out that of the 919 Greeks surveyed, among 7077 PIIGS (remember that acronym?), 97% were up to 45 years of age, and 46% said that it was the first time they had ever lived abroad. Oldies just don't pack up and leave; they have fewer chances of succeeding in a new country in the first place. Greeks (together with Italians) are generally happy with their cushy lifestyle at home. Most middle-aged Greeks are dissatisfied with their living standards, but they generally just wait for things to get better (like Italians). While in London last year, I was surprised by the prevalence of Spaniards and Poles working in 'menial' jobs (eg shop assistants). But they weren't being joined by Greeks in similar positions, whose main destination is the UK when they leave Greece in search of work. As the above link confirmed, an overwhelming majority of Greek emigres leave Greece with degrees, so they are probably not looking for menial work - they can find that here. (More on this issue later, when I finish researching it a little more.)

Some things change very quickly, while others take a longer time, and there are also some things that will not change, but employment and taxation don't come under this category. I keep this in mind as I start to work on my New Year's resolution, that bigger-than-a-blog thing, which I really want to be quintessentially and timelessly Greek. It's a large task to grasp, but slowly we are returning to our identity, and those quintessential timeless Greek elements are also rising to the surface.

With the help of a friend, I have compiled the list of the 50 changes that "Die Welt" mentions. Some points are made sarcastically, a little tongue-in-cheek. Some do not seem like tangible changes, but more like changes in attitude and mindset. It could also be argued that some of them contrast with descriptions of Greece as she is portrayed by news media and diaspora Greeks, the greatest critics of Greece. Not all people are law-abiding citizens of their country, and this applies not just in Greece; sooner or later though, we eventually all steer ourselves into the straighter path which is constantly widening to accommodate more and more of us. The reality is that these are the new rules of the game for the grand majority of Greek citizens. It's the way of the world: we prefer to go forward with the flow rather than to be constantly swept back with the tide, which eventually becomes tiresome.

Here is the list (thank you, Ulrike). Make what you wish of it.
1 Receipts Everyday life in Greece is rich in documents 2 Taxes The chief tax collector reported that in 2013 for the first time more taxes were collected than were actually budgeted for 3 Bribery The government introduced a compulsory rotation system where financial department heads must now change position every few years to combat bribery 4 Officials register The government sent a mandatory questionnaire to all employees to profile their workplace and qualifications 5 Layoffs Public servants who do not turn up for work are the first to be fired 6 Dismissals  Almost 1 in 10 Greeks were employed by the state in 2009. By 2012 there were 750,000; this is expected to go down to 660,000 by 2016 7 Restructuring The transformation to a modern administration is seen as a major task 8 Economy The government is minimising expenses during the EU presidency: 50 million euros is a much lower sum than previous years for serving customers given the increased travel volume between Athens and Brussels 9 Sponsor Audi is sponsoring the transport for the EU presidency 10 Middle class The Finance Minister used a VW Passat on duty 11 Renovation Very little but much-needed refurbishment takes places in the Ministry of Interior: old furniture, special mention goes to the fine cherry-wood conference table, laminate floor 12 Buildings In the past, ministers liked to show off their country to their visitors. Now, they use the Zappeion Megaron, a nice old building with a circular colonnaded courtyard, situated in the middle of the city. In 1906, it was used as an Olympic village 13 Visitors A record 17 million tourists came to Greece last year, more than the previous year when Germans kept away out of fear. , with a 10% rise in German tourists 14 German fans Now the tide has turned - there was a 10% rise in German tourism. "German tourists leave Greece with the feeling that they are in a safe place with hospitable and warm-hearted people," said the Minister of Tourism 15 Hospitality One of the rules of hospitality to the visitors is not to be ripped off: a survey of Athens taxi drivers revealed that no taxi driver tried to add absurd surcharges or to use a route with detours 16 Smoking Although people still somewhere everywhere, rolling your own tobacco seems to be the order of the day 17 Hellenes The National Archaeological Museum displays a ship wreck from the Aegean Sea dated 70-50BC - it was full of art that was already considered ancient at the time. The then world went crazy about those pieces, and then the Greeks of today like to point that out 18 Purchasing power The economic performance is far below pre-crisis levels, the standard of living of many Greeks has fallen dramatically 19 Savings Austerity measures totaling 30% of economic output have been made in Greece 20 Bars The pubs in Plaka are full as before. But people keep to one drink lasting a long time 21 Mini growth 0.6% growth is expected in Greece in 2014. "The recovery has begun," says a member of the government, adding that "at least it is not decreasing" 22 Struggle Enough with the impositions on the Greeks, the government states, as it is more willing and prepared to argue persistently with the troika 23 Elections PASOK received 44% of the votes in 2009. It has since dropped to single digits 24 Solidarity The government wants more concessions from European partners, lower interest rates or better repayment terms, a kind of debt relief that is not being named as such 25 Deficit  By the end of 2015, a deficit of just 11 billion euros is predicted by the Finance Minister 26 Markets The Greeks want to be able to borrow money again in the capital markets. GIven that they needed a haircut before, that will be quite an adventure. "The markets prefer reduced interest rates and longer maturities," says the minister 27 Surplus Antonis Samaras boasts that there has never been a country in the world that has mined its deficit as quickly as Greece. It was at 15% in 2008. A surplus of 0.9% is expected for 2013 28 Facing the crisis Greece no longer borrows in order to spend: "We have completely eliminated one of the basic reasons for the crisis," said the Minister 29 Exports During the crisis, imports plummeted drastically. At the same time, there is now a "significant increase" in exports which is remarkable, given that for decades, production was mainly inland 30 Deficit Without taking into account debt service, Greece is expected, for the first time, to announce a small surplus of 1.2%, a necessary condition for further assistance 31 Troika Greeks don't like to hear about the "fulfillment of all requirements" from the aid package 32 Benevolence The - unexpected - primary surplus will now benefit the Greeks, relieving hardship: 70% will be plugged into the social security system, 30% will be saved 33 Flexibility The troika demanded that patients pay a fee of €25 on being admitted to hospital form 2014, a ruling which has laready been cancelled. This lack of money will be compensated through an increase in tobacco taxes 34 Transfers In 2010, Athens could not pay over 9 billion euros in debt. Now, 7 billion have already been paid out 35 Latecomers Thessaloniki is the 2014 European Youth Capital. Even as late as 2013, several issues were still pending. "It is the Greek way, we are always late. But there will be no problems," promised the provincial governor 36 Waiting The government has promised that you will be able to queue up at only one counter, in just one day, in order to be able to set up a new business 37 Reward If you are a foreigner and you intend to buy a property worth 250,000 euros, you will get a  residence permit as a present for five years 38 Privatizations Four billion euros have been made through privatizations. Admittedly, the plan included more 39 Cadastre One must first know what belongs to whom, before one can sell it. Land registry has progressed in this direction, under the guidance of Dutch experts 40 Lawyers Previously, each party had to bring in a lawyer to make a real estate purchase. This is no longer the case: "Resistance from interest groups was immense," the government admits 41 Praise German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised the Greeks during his recent visit for the work they have done on reforms. "The work that is being done here is not just a job for Greece, but for Europe. For that, I give my encouragement" 42 Protests Europe Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas Looking out of his office down at the Syntagma Square, the Minister for European Affairs says that the better the signals, the more people believe that the road to recovery is less painful, and fewer people take to the streets to protest 43 Action The Greek Post Bank recently admitted to 400 million euros in bad loans, leading to arrrests. Coincidence or not: Many arrests were made exactly during the ceremony taking over EU presidency 44 Churchgoers More people are going to church, according to the Fathr Maximus of the Athens Archdiocese. "Whether they are religious or not, the congregation at the liturgy increases. People don't look just for material aid, but assistance for the soul" 45 Consumption Although Father Maximus sympathises with them, he never liked the consumerism of the boon years: "Greeks lost their identity because of it" 46 Education To be someone and to make a living, you had to have studied at university. Now, for the first time, dual training courses, according to the German model, are being applied (ie learning a profession through apprenticeship with a firm and theory at a school) 47 Culture 12 million people visited significant museums and archaeological sites in 2013. The Minister of Culture has promised that in the spring, the opening times will be extended to attract even more visitors 48 Museum The New Acropolis Museum had already attracted 6 million visitors since it opened in 2009. It did not receive a single subsidy, according to the Director 49 Service A Greek archaeology professor regards the museum as a training centre: "The staff here learn that we have to provide good service, so that we can live off the income" 50 Requirement Half the stunning Parthenon frieze was "kidnapped", says the New Acropolis Museum's director. He wants it back: "It belongs to humanity, and it belongs to Athens.

Some great progress has indeed been made in Greece, but there is still a very long and painful way to go, especially on the political and administrative level. Nothing will happen about this overnight, but the progress being made already on the social level is bound to have an effect on other levels too.

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