For the production of this article I, Leon, have translated and elaborated on the greatest part of Plutonia’s recommendation Eine persönliche Empfehlung zum NachDenken.
In a current on-the-spot report, Niels Kadritzke describes the abysmal chasm between the official optimism of the Samarás/Venizélos government and the reality experienced at the base of Greek society. No matter what the government may be saying or announcing, the citizens of Greece only find their everyday worries deepening. Prime minister Antónis Samarás has raised to new heights the art of lying to oneself. Unemployment has by far not been reduced; the numbers of the persistently unemployed are constantly growing. More and more people in Greece are forced to live in privation. Salaries are not getting paid regularly, if at all, and unpaid work is spreading epidemically. The industrial production has been steadily dropping back during the last 12 months, with the speed of decline accelerating towards the end of 2013. The success stories disseminated through the German and worldwide media are blatantly false.
Niels Kadritzke reporting for the NachDenkSeiten [their domain in English would be best translated as ThinkThingsOver].
A new year has dawned, but everything in Greece remains the same. The people are kept busy with the daily worries. Politicians through the television screens can be delivering optimistic new year messages all they want; no one listens. A large proportion of the Greek population have spent one of the days between Christmas and the New Year’s Eve anxiously queueing either in the tax office or in a bank; in a bank, in order to get the vehicle tax for 2014 paid in time; in the tax office, either to get the tax paid or to surrender the licence plates of their cars, because they can no longer be paying taxes and car insurance fees. More and more vehicles are taken off the roads; deregistrations at the end of 2013 have gone up to way over 100.000. Since the beginning of the crisis in 2009, around one million vehicles have been immobilized (and as a side effect, the used car export trade has become one of the few flourishing economic sectors).
On the second day of the new year, the long queues are yet again the big topic on the morning shows of all private television channels; we see people spending yet another day in the tax offices [a deadline extension was given on December 31 just before the closing of the banks]. The raking by gunfire of the German ambassador’s residence in Athens was covered briefly and only in the evening news. All television shows feature bureaucrats of the Ministry of Finance, either in the studios or via phone connections, who are asked painful questions to which they have only ridiculous answers to give. The Ministry did concede to an extension of the vehicle tax payment deadline [albeit for just a few days], but on the morning of January the 2nd, the tax offices had to be turning away the willing-to-pay citizens, because the electronic revenue system “Taxis” collapsed. The spokesman of the Ministry of Finance [not just a spokesman, actually; the Secretary General himself] explains as a matter of course to the public that they can still pay their tax through a bank [while on that very day the banks were also turning the tax payers away because they had no way of taking in the money, since their systems were only still seeing the expired deadline of December 31]. The spokesman [Secretary General] is asked whether the car owners will be spared of the fine [which is 100 percent up] even if they manage to pay the 2014 vehicle tax through the banks. He knows not; “this answer falls outside the Ministry’s jurisdiction”. A righteous indignation ensues in the studio, which is halted by the anchorman’s intervention: “Oh, and just yesterday this government assumed the presidency of the European Union!”. A burst of laughter from all mouths. Commercial break: hammering supermarket offers for the masses, high-tech alarm systems for the better quarters.
Greece at the end of the fifth crisis year: a profoundly disturbed society whose material reserves, even those of the middle class, are rapidly melting away; a society demoralised by a complete lack of prospects in terms of economy and by the fact that the ruling political class is on the automatic pilot, tenaciously holding on to power without developing any crisis management concept.
The chasm between this political class and the demoralised population is illustrated in a comment of Pantelís Boukálas’s which was published in the conservative newspaper Kathimerini on the 10th of December. The reason I am reproducing it here, is because it names almost all the elements that make up the Greek misery at the turn from 2013 to 2014.
Boukálas refers to the borderline majority within the Greek Parliament, who passed the state budget for 2014: a messed up set of data that rests on quite a few hypothetical assumptions and which will probably have to be corrected through a supplementary budget in the spring.
[Kadritzke’s text is a partial translation to German. My text below is an elaborate version for which I have taken into consideration both his translation and the original Greek comment entitled “Everyman’s day-to-day budget”.]
The Greek public showed no more interest for the 2014 state budget than the members of the Parliament themselves who passed it. The party leaders contented themselves with a limp repetition of the statements they had made a few days earlier on the occasion of the vote of no confidence [by the party Sýriza against the ND-Pasók government coalition]. It was clear to them that even the most fiery of speeches would not influence the numbers of yes and no voices, the dynamics of society or the outcomes of public surveys.
It is not wise on part of the government to assume that the passing of the state budget signifies any sort of acceptance of its financial or social contents by the members of the parliament who seemingly voted for it; once again, like many times before, many of this marginal majority had no choice but to give a spiritless Yes, full of resentment. It would be even more unwise on the leaders’ part to convince themselves that the Greek people are buying into their much-promoted successfully-and-happily-already-moving-out-of-the-crisis scenario. However epic or lyrical Samarás’s und Stournáras’s ravings are –ravings about a primary surplus that will be distributed to the weakest within 2014– more in the realm of drama is the citizens’ suffering who feel like background actors, hopelessly trapped in a bleak state of affairs.
And this is no fleeting, externally induced feeling. The conventionally so-called simple or average citizens –instinctively concentrated on their personal microeconomy and naturally unconvinced of the merits of the oh-so-wonderful macroeconomy with all its pompously hailed perspectives– have many justified reasons to doubt the goverment’s profession that we are living on the continent of the already actualized utopia. The official optimism has no footing in the public opinion; the citizens can only reject it as a blatant lie because of the dysphoric daily reality that has been imposed on them, because of the heart-wrenching uncertainty, the anguish of whether they will be able to make it for another day. The average Greeks, due to the disassembled health care system, find it harder than ever to be medically treated. They see their young ones return from unheated school buildings shivering from head to toe, and are embarrassed to hear of fellow citizens even dying in their own homes by toxic fumes from makeshift braziers, where they have to be burning all sorts of garbage materials, because in the bitter cold of this December they cannot afford anything anymore: not their share of heating oil for their block of flats (with the dramatic result that more and more apartment buildings are left unheated and with frozen radiators), no natural gas, no electricity, no proper wood; they cannot even borrow from relatives or friends anymore, since they, too, have run out of money, despite what the Troika may believe. Borrowed bank money has to be returned, though; money borrowed to set up small businesses or to have a roof over one’s head. The credit collection agencies established by the power elite and its branches in society are manically harassing the Greeks all day long, and a staggering percentage of the population is in danger of having their property unjustly confiscated.
It is this plain and simple: not the passing of the 2014 state budget and not any of the hollow promises and announcements of the government are able to remove even the smallest of the citizens worries.
The chasm between reality and the government’s perception of reality
The subject of this comment is the deep gulf between reality and its perceived version by the head of the government, whose parliamentary majority, in the meantime, has shrunken to one single vote, and who, according to the latest public opinion polls, is to be held responsible for three far-from-favourable developments:
- Firstly, his conservative party Nea Dimokratía has dropped significantly lower than the leftist opposition party Sýriza;
- Secondly, his coalition partner Pasók is fighting for bare political survival;
- Thirdly, if the elections took place now, the two-party coalition in the best-case scenario would only receive one third of the votes.
Please note: We are talking here about a country which, according to almost all knowledgeable economists ranging from those of the Financial Times to Rudolf Hickel [PDF – 56 KB], remains in the Eurozone as an intensive-care patient in a highly critical condition, to use a medical metaphor, and whose total debt, despite the drastic austerity programmes, still remains at 176 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), while the overall economy, meaning the GDP, has declined by over 25 per cent since the onset of the debt crisis.
The prime minister Antónis Samarás is described by many economists as a political fantast who has raised to new heights the art of lying to oneself. He himself offered a prime example of this mastery of his, when, after the last EU Summit in Brussels, on the 21st of December in front of European press representatives, he declared his country to “have reached the end of the road”. By “end of the road”, of course, he did not mean to evoke images of the dead end in which Greece is actually trapped; what Samarás rather meant to suggest, was that his country has overcome the economic depression and that within 2014 it will find itself “back on the path of growth” (while the GDP for 2013 is anticipated to have decreased by yet another 4 per cent).
Samarás’s message for the turn of the year was offered in the same tone: “The hardest part is already behind us… We have prevented the worst… We have broken the vicious circle of depression”, were some of the things he tried to convince the Greek people about. Greece is supposed to become a normal and sovereign country that will be able to finance its credit requirements “through the markets” once again during this year, so that it will not have to negotiate any more austerity measures (with the Troika).
What Samarás does not say, and what has already been arranged, is that when the last instalments of the Troika bailout programme are paid out in the summer of 2014, the country, in order for its credit requirements to be met, will be linked to a financial market which will be demanding two or three times the interest rates of those demanded so far by the EU and the IMF.
And another thing Samarás forgets to mention: According to the latest OECD report, in order for the country to have achieved its declared debt reduction targets by 2020, during the years from 2014 to 2020 it should be obtaining a positive average economic growth of 4.8 per cent, which these very experts hold for practically unachievable, due to the uncertain international environment and the crisis-impaired growth potential of the country (OECD Greece Survey November 2013 [PDF – 325 KB]).
Despite all that, Samarás insists on preaching debt deliverance: “Greece is not pushed with the back against the wall anymore”. The majority of the population is not buying into any optimistic economic forecasts of his, because a hard, cold wall is exactly what they feel pushed against. Not to mention that the OECD experts anticipate a further recession of at least -0.4 per cent for Greece in 2014 (see table 1 of the above mentioned survey).
In order for the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the current condition of the Greek economy and society that have nothing to do with the illusions disseminated by the media, a few fundamental facts have to be stated here:
- The unemployment rate for September 2013 was reported as having risen to 27.4 per cent. Especially worrying is the fact that the rate did not sink below 27 per cent during the entire third quarter of the year, from July to September which are the months of the high tourist season. During the second quarter of 2013, the Greek statistical agency ELSTAT had recorded two “quasi-unemployment” categories: the underemployed, not-by-choice part-time workers who are willing to work more hours should they be given the opportunity; and the discouraged citizens who are not looking for a job anymore, although they would work if they were given the chance. According to the ELSTAT, the numbers of citizens in both categories have nearly doubled from the year prior (source: Macropolis, 24/12/2013). Adding the numbers of these two categories into those of the unemployed makes the unemployment rate shoot up to 33 per cent; thus the number of the unemployed is three times the rate of the third quarter of 2009 (9.3 per cent), and five times the rate of May 2008 (6.6 per cent).
- Of the 1.4 million unemployed in Greece today, 71 per cent are long-term unemployed, that is almost a million people, and it has been announced that some of these will be receiving 200 euros per month during 2014 under specific conditions. The number of the long-term unemployed is expected to be rising during the coming years. This means that more and more Greek families will be left with no income whatsoever, no unemployment benefits, no social security and no medical care. [The current unemployment allowance is about 360 euros per month for a limited period of 12 months, regardless of the height of previously earned salary, and can be claimed only by former employees, and even for them without any medical insurance whatsoever. People who have been self-employed and had to close down their businesses receive no unemployment allowance at all.] Giorgos Patoulis, President of the Medical Association of Athens, estimates that in the meantime the uninsured have reached the number of two million people (Kathimerini 2/1/2014).
- All this means that the terrible figures which are presented in the “income report” of the Greek statistical agency ELSTAT for 2012 (Statistics on Income and Living Conditions 2012 [PDF – 152 KB]), will turn out to be even more catastrophic for 2013. Already in 2012, 19.5 per cent of the population were living under conditions of “material deprivation” (which is not to be confused with poverty) – a percentage significantly higher than those of crisis-stricken Spain and Portugal (5.8 and 8.6 per cent respectively). Some indicators of this material deprivation:
- 40 per cent of all Greeks could not go on paying their loans;
- 30 per cent of all Greeks could not even pay their most urgent bills on time (electricity, gas, water);
- 27 per cent of all Greeks could not afford to heat their apartments to an acceptable standard.
These percentages were significantly higher for the materially deprived (at the end of 2012, those statistically labelled as “income poor” were 23.1 per cent of the Greek population): 51 per cent could not pay their bills on time, 48 per cent were not able to heat their homes in the winter. All percentages were undoubtedly much higher for 2013 and will be skyrocketing during 2014. The debt crisis is destroying even the intermediate strata of the population.
I have to add a cautionary note at this point. The official unemployment figures do not necessarily reflect the real employment, as there is a dark figure of undeclared employment, at least in the tourism and gastronomy section, which during 2013 was the only relatively growing sector. There is yet another gloomy figure behind the phenomenon of undeclared work: 27 per cent of all people having any job are obliged to work without any insurance, meaning that they do not obtain any rights or claims whatsoever on unemployment-, health- and retirement benefits.
- The number of employees who are not regularly or not fully paid is rising rapidly. Whoever is still employed in Greece, is by no means automatically receiving a regular income. According to an empirical study of the National Statistics Institute of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE ΓΣΕΕ), only every second Greek company is able to be paying wages and salaries regularly and on time. More than one million (out of 3.5 millions) employees are receiving their payments with at least one and usually two to three months delay.
- There is also a more and more widespread use of other unorthodox payment methods, such as payment with commodities, a phenomenon that recalls the historical circumstances of the Soviet Union’s transformational period. A Northern Greek supermarket chain, for example, partly pay their sales personnel with vouchers to be exchanged for goods purchaseable in their own shops. Since the autumn of 2012, more and more full-time employees only get paid as part-time employees, receiving four- or five-hours’ worth of compensations for eight-hour workdays. Most of the affected do not resist against being disadvantaged like this, because they have no other prospects of work (INE study, Kathimerini 1/12/2013). This manifestation of the crisis is illustrated very clearly by a pre-Christmas report by Marili Marghomenou (Kathimerini 22/12/2013), for which a sales woman described her situation as follows:
“In the Greece of crisis you must learn to learn to value what you have and to be very careful not to lose it. At work there is no way you can say No to your boss. You just stick in there and work twelve hours a day. Although you are only a sales woman, you have to perform all sorts of duties, like organizing merchandise deliveries and carrying around heavy boxes. And despite all that, when you meet with an unemployed friend for a cup of coffee, you can only think: I’m OK; I’m still fine.”
This small scene captures the whole misery of Greece today, a country already past a collective threshold of impoverishment and destitution, where fatalism befalls people and spreads itself almost automatically among them.
- The INE researchers assume that every second Greek company is indeed unable to be paying salaries regularly, because they have no liquidity. This calls attention to a basic current real-economy problem: even healthy and sustainable companies hardly have any chances of obtaining bank loans anymore. Despite the fact that the Greek banks have been “restructured” [or “made healthy”, as the German verb „sanieren“ interestingly suggests] by the EU and IMF bailout funds, as even the most reputed business newspapers bitterly note, are exactly therefore completely unwilling to support the real economy with credits. Especially the smaller and medium businesses (which make up the 90 per cent of all Greek businesses), are barred access to financial services because they cannot provide the collaterals required by banks. An excellent source of information on this specific banking problem is this analysis of Jens Bastian’s, who is an economist and Greece expert who during the last years has worked for the EU Commission’s Task Force in Athens.
- The industrial production in 2012 has been dropping steadily and the drop has accelerated during the last months. According to the statistical agency ELSTAT, the production index of the Greek industry for October 2013 dropped by 8.4 per cent in just one month; even the index for incoming orders, which depicts the future prospects, crashed by 17.5 per cent. Compared with October 2012, the industrial sales went down by 5.2 per cent, while in the period between October 2011 October 2012 it had managed to rise by 3.9 per cent (ELSTAT press release 10/12/2013, in Macropolis 20/12/2013). Numbers like these illustrate that “the industrial sector is still signalling recession in the Greek economy” (Macropolis 20/12/2013).
- Such signals are far from ideal for attracting investors from abroad. The fact that the so-called “strategic” investments are not generated through the privatisation programme (for reasons that I explained in Nachdenkseiten 16/9/2013), makes it all the more puzzling that in all budgets over the last years –including the preliminary budget for 2014– the public investment resources have been reduced sharply. The cutting of these costs with the aim of achieving a primary surplus in the budget, is a classic example of the absurdity of this Sparpolitik –German for “policy of saving”– that is being implemented in Greece.