While European politicians have been hailing an economic uptick in the troubled Greek economy, Greeks themselves have yet to see any real signs of rebound. What explains the divide?
ATHENS — After my last visit to Athens eight months ago, I am again in the capital city of Greece. Changes aren’t really visible. The cafés are full, the shops and flats are still covered with “for sale” or “for rent” signs, and the homeless still roam the city.
Is Greece doing better? For a few months, European politicians have been more positive about the country’s situation. European finance ministers say they are ready to talk about debt restructuring. The country might even show slight economic growth in 2014 after a six-year recession, and the consumer confidence index is improving too.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens last April, she welcomed these Greek efforts. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras talks frequently about the country’s recovery “success story.” “We showed that Greece is standing again on its two feet,” he recently.
But in the streets of Athens, this so-called success story doesn’t seem to be trickling down to the people. The unemployment rate is slightly decreasing, but a staggering 26.5% of the workforce and 57% of young people are still unemployed. A quarter of residents are excluded from public health care, and poverty affects 23.7% of the total population. “There is a macroeconomic improvement, but the ‘success story’ is not visible in the real economy,” says Angelos Tsakanikas, of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE).
“Too many foreigners”
Is Greece doing better? Today, hundreds of people are queuing to get food supplies in an Athens suburb. Vagia Lekka carries a cart full of food. She thinks she saved around 20 euros ($27). She came from Ioannina in the country’s north to see and feed her son, who studies in the capital. This worker with two children now earns just 600 euros ($823) per month. Her salary fell when she lost extra work she used to do on Sundays, so every euro counts.
In this queue, there are people who are truly in distress but also middle-class people who are having trouble making ends meet — for example, a retired man who has three unemployed children and a loan to repay.
Another, Viki Pavlidou, who has been unemployed for five years. She lives at her mother’s house and spends her time going to these free markets and soup kitchens to help stretch her mother’s 600-euro pension. She usually goes to the distributions reserved for Greeks that are organized by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. She votes with the group because she believes “there are too many foreigners” in Greece. But before that, she voted with the communist party.
Behind her is a couple with their children. Because they are Albanian and Golden Dawn checks identity cards, they are banned from distributions reserved for Greeks. In the crowd, blacks and Arabs are discreetly hurrying to get access to these rare free food supplies.
But this distribution isn’t philantropic. It’s a strike. A new law proposes to reorganize the popular markets in the streets such that each space would be assigned by a random draw. The small local food producers who come to sell their tomatoes for one euro per kilo are furious and afraid they’ll be left aside. The majority of the population believes it’s just a way to protect the expensive supermarkets.
“An unemployed ghost”
Is Greece doing better? Vasso Polychronopoulou is unemployed again. I met this 30-year-old woman three years ago just after she had lost her job. She found another one right away, but it only lasted six months. After another jobless period of time, she was hired by an international translation agency. A year later, the company relocated in India. Since then, she has been desperate to find another job.
“I am often selected for an interview, but I quickly understand I will not be hired,” she says. “The manager congratulates me for my good résumé, but that often means that I’m too old and have too many diplomas.” She can’t even receive benefits because she worked as a freelancer. “I am an unemployed ghost,” she adds.
In 2011, Georgia Dai was an exception because she was working. Her job in a musical library lasted two years and her friends had even nicknamed her the “crisis antidote.” But now this young woman is forced to take six-month contracts and undeclared jobs that pay 500 euros ($685).
Maria has given up getting social protection because she couldn’t pay the 200 euros ($274) per month. A friend of hers recently hired her for translation work and paid her by offering a year of private health insurance. She got tired of waiting for her job in the university, where she defended her doctoral thesis, and now does odd jobs. Her parents have advised her to leave the country, but she is hesitant. “I am only ready to leave if I find a job that corresponds to my diplomas,” she says.
Georgia thinks about leaving too, but where? “I don’t think the European countries are eager to welcome us,” she says.
Is Greece doing better? “We think that the major part of the crisis is over and that the machine can work again, but it’s still fragile,” says the IOBE’s Angelos Tsakanitas. Tourism is on the rise, the bank sector is stronger, and startup’s are increasingly successful, he says. Today, many young people who graduate from economics schools want to start their own companies. “But the problem is that the banks don’t loan money, and the Greek companies are having difficulty,” he adds.
The government is going to redistribute a part of the 2013 surplus to the poorest people. “With the economic situation stabilized, people will begin to see the first signs of redistribution,” says Panos Carvounis, a European Commission representative in Athens. But according to political specialist Georges Sefertzis, “these optimist speeches are contradictory with the people’s lives, especially those of the middle class, who are crushed by taxes.”
Is Greece doing better? Marches and strikes are still being organized, though fewer people are attending. Instead, they stay home, many feeling depressed and resigned. “Hearing again and again that there’s no alternative, people end up feeling guilty,” says psychiatrist Stelios Stylianidis. “Guilty because they took advantage of the system by asking a favor of their congressman.”
This resignation favors the government of Antonis Samaras, who after two years of managing the crisis managed to ward off the attacks of Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left).
Another psychiatrist, Dimitri Ploumpidis, says Greece is “depressed and a bit confused, just like an elderly person.”
And what about Europe? “Suicidal,” he says.