There is a serious air of concern here in Crete. It is hardly spoken about, but it must be similar to the feeling they had when the Ottoman Empire cast its eyes toward the island or when invasion from the sky threatened in May 1941. The Greeks here have always been optimists, which is just as well because, since ancient Greece was overrun by aggressors and fragmented, there has been little to be joyful about.
I was not here when Greece acceded to the EU nor was I here when it opted to join the euro and consigned its ancient currency, the drachma, to what it believed was the rubbish bin of perpetuity. I can imagine the celebrations and the optimism that swept through the people. They must have believed that the democracy they had brought to the world would spread throughout Europe and make for a safer, richer experience of life for all her children.
For nearly eight years, Greece has been in the grips of crisis; the favourite expression of resignation, ‘Ti na kanoume?’ or ‘What can we do?’ is heard almost as often in a kafenion these days as ‘Yeia sas’ or ‘Good Health’.
The previous administration under Adonis Samaras bent its knee to the Troika and undertook to tighten the belt of the nation, sell off national assets and change the laissez-faire way of life. The Greeks bore it stoically, but after years of austerity they sensed that things were getting worse, not better. A scapegoat was needed and, as is usually the case, because the Greeks resolutely refuse to believe that it is their own entire fault, blame was heaped upon outsiders, on foreigners. Fortunately, the blame was mostly directed onto Germany (which shoulders blame like Simon of Cyrene shouldered Jesus’ cross) rather than on some internal minority.
Contrary to the belief held in many other countries, the Greeks are not lazy. Many of them work from early morning until 6pm, admittedly with a three-hour afternoon break, but they often start another job in the evening. Tourists may see older men sitting around kafenions playing backgammon, smoking and drinking, but using this to assess a nation’s laziness is akin to judging a book by its cover.
After many years of austerity, quiet grumbling grew louder with the rise of fringe parties promising salvation. One such party Syriza, an amalgam of communist and left-wingers, saw an opportunity to seize power. Alexis Tsipras, their charismatic young leader promised an end to austerity and a better future. Greeks, not inherently wedded to his ideals, flocked to his banner in droves believing they had nothing to lose and at least he offered change with hope.
Naively believing in himself and the academic credentials of his Finance Minister Janis Varoufakis, a university theoretician, he went to Brussels as the new Prime Minister and insisted he execute the will of his people and austerity must be relaxed. He received little sympathy, but oodles of short shrift. Having been bitten, he rounded on his major creditor Germany. He suggested that, despite treaties and agreements having been signed to finalise the matter in 1990, Germany still owed Greece a Fuhrer’s ransom for all the wrong doings of a war that ended nearly three generations ago. This was a master plan in feckless diplomacy and guaranteed to fail.
In the meantime, thousands that did not vote for him, followed rapidly by many that did, started sending money abroad, making a run on Greek banks and a lack of capital inevitable. Faced with a deepening crisis, but still just about able to believe in his own powers of persuasion, Tsipras has had to modify his rhetoric.
He now demands early assistance from Brussels to enable him to pay an imminent IMF loan that falls due on 9th April followed closely by civil service salaries and pensions on 14th April. He cannot find the money for both.
His is a left-wing idealistic government, which perhaps would see Fidel Castro’s Cuba as Utopia. If he has to choose between paying Greek workers or repaying foreign bankers, it will not be a difficult decision. Brussels, of course, plays its usual game of hand-wringing concern, coupled to a stern ultimatum that Greece’s antiquated work practices must be brought under control.
Despite Syriza accepting conditional surrender terms, Brussels has dug its heels in still further. Could this be because it feels Greece must be held up as an example to other potential defaulters, or it is a crass attempt to cause the Syriza government to fall and force elections, which Brussels believes it can influence as it did the Ireland referendum.
In a game of astonishing brinkmanship, Alexis Tsipras meets with Russia’s President Putin on 8th April. On the face of it, Tsipras might be firing a warning shot over Brussels’ bows to remind them that, just as Putin can ride roughshod over Ukrainian democracy, he might be just the ally to help Greece fight Brussels’ diktats and international bankers. However, just as Tsipras has his agenda, so too does Putin who seeks vengeance for what he still sees as EU meddling in a Russian domestic issue.
The Greek PM goes like an Easter lamb to the slaughter at the hands of the cunning Russian wolf. Yes, he might be bailed out and yes, he might be able to cock-a-snook at Brussels. Yet it will be a fearful price if Brussels should shrug its shoulders. Once Tsipras accepts help from Russia, he will soon discover the consequences of his folly, which will be little short of all American/NATO bases in Greece and its islands being given their marching orders. The burgeoning Russian fleet with ships in every Greek port and Russian dominance in the Mediterranean would soon become the penalty he and Brussels would have to pay.
I am fearful that a country that brought the concept of democracy to the world should be about to have it sacrificed on the altar of expediency by a man still wet behind the ears. Does he really believe it is his destiny to save his people from Brussels’ petty tyranny by delivering them into the crushing hands of a man for whom democracy is a commodity to be purchased?
If you were sitting in a kafenion and Alexis Tsipras came wandering in, before he departs for Moscow, muttering ‘Ti na kanoume?’ What advice would you give him?
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