Greeks have been misled into believing they can live beyond their means

The coming storm.
The coming storm.
Image: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
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Greek drama and mythology are intertwined. Daedalus, a remarkable Athenian craftsman, designed two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, because the heat would melt the wax. Overcome by the excitement of flying, Icarus forgot his father’s warning and flew too high. His wings were destroyed, and he fell into the sea and drowned.

In a bitter parallel, contemporary Greeks (for the past 35 years) soared into the sky of high-standard living, and the wings that carried them were made up of money that came from European Union funds.

Revolving conservative and socialist governments never told them that they would need to learn how to to fly by their own means; never attempted to make any sort of structural reforms that would transform the state-owned economy into an open one; never combated corruption; never fought for transparency, efficiency and meritocracy in public administration; and never abandoned a system where government officials promised jobs for votes.

So, when the Greeks flew too close to the harsh realities of the global economic crisis, they realized that their wax had melted, and they fell into the chaos of a possible bankruptcy.

Here in Athens, just a few hours away from the International Monetary Fund’s payment deadline, and with slim hopes to forge a deal with the creditors, banks are closed from Monday, June 29 until Tuesday, July 7. Capital controls limit withdrawals at ATMs to €60 day. Citizens are rushing into supermarkets to stock up on supplies.

However, the average Greek is not willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of political elites, who have misled them into believing that they could live beyond their means. Instead, they blame the EU and creditors for turning Greece from a strong country, which organized the successful 2004 Summer Olympics, into a floundering economy where even ambulances and police cars often don’t have gas due to budget cuts.

After six consecutive years of an economic crisis and austerity measures, individual incomes have been slashed by at least a third, the Greek GDP has been reduced, and unemployment has increased to over 25% overall (and for 20-somethings to above 60%). Greeks are exhausted from the internal devaluation via wages and overtaxation.

They desperately need a way out, a change, even if the change leads them back to the drachma. They are so confused they do not understand that leaving the Eurozone is a choice that is definitely not in their interest and doing so would target their most vulnerable citizens.

The Syriza party, which has been in power since Jan. 2015, not only gave false hope by promising the public that it would “restore” salaries to where they were before the crisis, but also adopted nationalistic propaganda focused on demonizing foreign powers like Germany, the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Only a minority of well-educated and well-traveled Greeks realize that this is not true, but their voice is weaker than the voice of the masses who are ready to vote “no” to the European austerity package in the July 5 referendum.

The referendum has reinforced a polarization of the Greek public, dividing the supporters of the euro from believers in the Greek drachma. Yesterday, there was an eerie silence in Athens. Even the coffee shops in the fashionable neighborhood of Kolonaki were empty. The streets, too, although there were still queues for ATMS and supermarkets, the city gave the impression that most of the inhabitants had left.

In the evening, a vast group of “no” supporters protested outside of parliament.

Protestors Yiannis, 21, and Kostas, 22, who are both studying to become electrical engineers at the University of Athens, believe they have nothing to fear from capital controls. “Even if the banks were open,” said Yiannis. “We don’t have any accounts. We earn our pocket money from menial jobs and we have no savings and no chance of getting a real job.”

Zoe, a 62-year-old pensioner and former public employee said, “The creditors want to humiliate and impoverish the Greek people while Syriza is trying to defend the poor.” Probably she had not heard Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent speech, in which he disclosed that the government turned down his proposal to tax Greece’s wealthy ship owners.

Today, there were still queues for the ATMs. Lining up patiently on Alexandras Avenue, in the center of Athens, a 29-year-old architect named Panayiotis says he still does not know how he is going to vote on Sunday. “If things go wrong, I will leave Greece to look for a job abroad, as thousands of my peers have already done during the past 5 years.”

On the other hand, Maria, a 55-year-old clerk, blames prime minister Tsipras for having left the negotiating table. “The Syriza government is going to turn Greece into Bulgaria,” she says. “We are going to be part of the Balkans, not part of Europe. This is unacceptable.”

In the nearest supermarket, Tania, a 35-year-old lawyer, concludes, “It is a shame both for Europe as well as the Greek political elite that they have passed austerity packages which created a massive lower class of poor citizens, who are unemployed, desperate people who are embracing nationalistic ideas and conspiracy theories, and who firmly believe that they have absolutely nothing to lose by turning their back on Europe. They ruined the country.”

It is true. Anger is stronger than fear in Greece. And that could lead to a “no” vote on Sunday and eventually a Grexit.