Struggling Greeks losing belief in the state

Paul Mason
Former economics editor, Newsnight

Media caption,
Newsnight's Economics editor Paul Mason reports on the effects of the economic and political crisis in Greece

The breeze block homes that cling to the sides of the cliffs above Piraeus harbour are painted typical Greek colours: cream and pink. The bare twigs poking out of hanging baskets and trellises stand ready to sprout, as soon as some warmth arrives.

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The Medicins du Monde clinic in Perama sees about 90 patients a day

At the clinic, on the corner, people hang around the doorway. Some have sunken cheeks. Others emerge carrying that international brand identifier of poverty - the multicoloured plastic sack - filled with old clothes and basic food.

Volunteer doctors and nurses set the clinic up for migrants who fall through the Greek social security net. The diseases are not unusual for a poverty-stricken area: diabetes, hypertension, stress.

But since the crisis, something startling has happened. Greeks have started to turn up here, in ever larger numbers:

"It's gone from 8% of the users to 30% in four months, and because I can see the trends across all our clinics I'm sure it will reach 50% by the end of 2012," says Dr Nikitas Kanakis, president of the charity Medecins du Monde.

Social security 'running out'

Under the Greek system, you pay five euros to see a doctor and up to 25% of the medical bills yourself; the rest being covered by social security. But after a year of being unemployed the social security runs out, Dr Kanakis tells me. Some Greeks never had it - because after five years of crisis they have never properly worked.

Others, like Maria Vitali, just hit bad luck: her husband is a construction worker whose access to the system got withdrawn. So she sits with her five-month-old baby and her toddler in the waiting room.

The clinic sees about 90 patients a day. Recently they had to vaccinate 400 Greek children for free because they could not afford the vaccination fee: apart from any issues of poverty, it makes no sense medically, says Dr Kanakis, because vaccination only works if you do it to everybody.

"Even the pregnant women have to pay for the delivery in a state hospital. Sometimes this can be 800 euros or 1,000 euros - so if they can't afford it they don't give them a birth certificate."

In the last two months they started providing food as well as medicines. "Just here in Perama we're feeding 500 families," Dr Kanakis says.

Health service 'collapse'

The people who come here are trapped amid advancing penury and the retreating state. The minimum wage has just been slashed by 20% The government has just voted to cut the medicines bill by a further 1bn euros. What is going to happen to the health service if this goes on?

Image source, Reuters
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Poverty has visibly increased on the streets of Athens since the crisis began

"I think it will collapse," says Dr Kanakis. "Very soon. Because as the cuts continue, even very sick people can't get treatment; even people with social security. My mother has a pension of 500 euros and this month had to pay the special austerity tax, collected through her electricity bill. It was 350 euros. She's 80 years old. So tell me how she can survive?"

What is clear, once you get away from the incessant shouting on Greek TV, and the flash-bang battles between the anarchists and the police, is that this rapid breakdown of certainty is having a big, but immeasurable, effect on people's political expectations.

The polls tell one part of the story. The Pasok party, which tried and failed to implement the first austerity bill until replaced by a technocratic coalition in October, is now down to 11%. (Epikaria poll, 16 February 2012)

New Democracy, the centre-right party that expected to form the government - it has been a two- horse race since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s - is also in trouble. Its own vote - 27.5% - is not enough to form a government. And 20 MPs just got expelled for opposing the bailout.

The Christian Orthodox hard-right party, LAOS, has also split, after leaving the coalition government during the austerity vote last Sunday. I heard two perfectly ordinary guys, sitting next to me in a cafe, comment: "I don't care if the splitters from LAOS were once fascists. They are right."

The far left is now polling a combined 43.5%. The extreme-right party Golden Dawn is on 2.5%. And there's an air of mania.

EU hostility

During the autumn, Greek commentators began to speak of "anomic breakdown", where people begin to disobey laws and social norms individually. Back then I reported on small road toll defiance movements, and the occupation of courts trying to repossess homes.

Now it is different. Anomie has been replaced by something much less obscure in the annals of social history: visceral hostility to the Germans and north Europeans who are seen as imposing the austerity. And the hostility has only grown this week, as the euro group threw back in the faces of the Greek government their austerity plans and refused to release the bailout money.

The lightning rod for this hostility has been the call by two Greek octogenarians - Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos - for an "uprising".

Image source, AFP
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Manolis Glezos is assisted by protesters outside the Greek parliament in Athens in March 2010

Mr Theodorakis is, of course, famous as a composer. Mr Glezos is famous for tearing down the Nazi swastika flag from the Acropolis in May 1941. Both were gassed as they tried to march on parliament on Sunday night. As I was standing amid the teargas and missile barrages, a young masked protester limped up to me, almost sobbing: "They attacked Glezos!"

Few Greeks believe the austerity plan can work. The rationale among the politicians has turned from "Do the cuts and we will recover" to "Do the cuts because we have no option."

The projections of IMF economists - that Greece may get its debt down to 129% by 2020, by running a surplus of tax receipts over spending in the short term - looks to most people in high finance like wishful thinking.

Fragmented politics

New Democracy (ND) wants to stick to the fiscal limits agreed with Brussels but unleash a radical, free-market reform onto the economy: privatising faster, possibly introducing a flat tax to free up small businesses.

But the experts in Brussels and Washington look askance at this. In Hungary, they have a worked example of what happens when a mercurial right-wing party takes over in a crisis and implements a flat tax.

In summary, it was a failure - and Hungary is now begging the IMF for $20bn.

But in any case few believe ND can get a majority for its free-market therapy. In fact, the combined support for ND, Pasok and the rump of LAOS totals 43% in the polls.

The left, for its part, remains riven by splits. When the security squad of the communist trade union PAME clashed with anarchists on a demo last summer, the communists pinned the blame on the other big left party, Syriza.

Outflanking both of them, a tiny former "eurocommunist" party called the Democratic Left has gone from near zero to 16% in the polls.

Yiannis Bournous, the international spokesman for Syriza, believes that despite this, it may be possible for the left to attempt to form a government. "And run a state that's part of Nato?" I ask. He makes clear that any left government would do the basic things - certainly not leave Nato.

Syriza and the DemLeft do not even want to leave the euro: Syriza's proposal is for Greece to declare a selective moratorium on debt repayments and use the euro bailout money for a programme of social reform.

In the meantime, their growing popularity is not just down to the militant atmosphere on demonstrations: "We've built a solid record in local administrations," claims Mr Bournous "and all over the country groups of our supporters are organising things: food provision, bartering clubs, self-help groups. That's how we've built ourselves.

"We are talking about a new bloc of forces that have their internal differences but which agree on the rejection of the new memorandum and this suffocating policy of super-austerity."

Does he seriously think they can form a government?

"This is our proposal. They must put aside their partial differences and after the election, yes, form a new bloc of power."

This week the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, voiced fears others have only spoken about in private: that given the low showing of the "mainstream parties", there should be a truly technocratic government, with no career politicians involved.

Others, such as the appointed Pasok MP Elena Panaritis - an economist who advises the party leadership - say the elections should be postponed:

"If there's an election so soon, then there'll be elections again in two months, and an election the next months, and then we can kiss the country goodbye, and possibly the euro goodbye. If we're not seriously looking at the repercussions we're looking possibly at a situation like Russia in the early 1990s; then Russia had a poverty rate higher than under communism. And it had crooks running the country."

I have been reporting the Greek crisis now for two years, intermittently on the ground, and it looks like something changed, tangibly, in the past 10 days.

The established parties lost belief in what the EU is forcing them to do; parts of the EU lost belief in it too; and the people - quite wide layers of society - lost belief in the political class.

'Collective punishment'

I cannot emphasise enough the role of policing and the media in this.

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The streets of Athens on Sunday night were filled by protesters, tear gas and fires

On the ground, Sunday's demonstration felt massive. It was never allowed to assemble in one place but even the PAME contingent, where I stood on Stadiou Street, looked maybe 50-70,000 strong.

The organisers claimed 250,000 had tried to assemble. The police claimed 4,500. The media reported 15,000. Both of the latter figures were a joke.

What was no joke were the clashes between police and the hardline protesters - drawn from the anarchist black bloc, the fringes of the far left and in increasing numbers from right-wing, football-supporting groups on the fringes of LAOS and the fascist group Chrissi Avgi. Time and again, on the grounds of confronting the rioters, police made incursions into large masses of peaceful protesters.

This is hardly spoken of by Greek ministers and the EU doesn't seem to want to comment on it. But I can tell you from repeated experience, it feels like a process of collective punishment of a peaceful majority.

I think this week caught Greece on the proverbial brink of something. The anger could easily solidify into anti-German sentiment, but with the conservatives and Orthodox right implicated in the first bailout, anger can more easily flow to the left.

It may be of course that I am overestimating the dangers. But here is another problem of perception: in the three hours I spent at or close to the front of the rioting on Sunday night, I did not see a single other television crew. Ours was repeatedly harassed, verbally and physically, most harshly by a small group of right wingers who accused us of being German.

At the start of the demo I saw one other (foreign) TV crew and that was it. Parts of the Greek broadcast media have long since given up telling the story of the streets; for most of them it is too dangerous, such is the popular hostility to a media many believe is in the pocket of a corrupt political class.

That is sad, but here's the wider problem this creates. If you are Schauble, Rehn, Merkel, Lagarde, you are increasingly flying blind in this crisis. The Greek papers, heavily politically aligned, can only partially reflect what is happening. The Greek politicians you talk to spend their nights shuttered behind grilles in anonymous offices - they cannot appear in public, they cannot get a feel of the streets.

The Greek politicians in power cannot deliver the country they run to an austerity package they do not believe in. And after the election, power is likely to be even more fragmented.

Just as the combined might of the IMF and the Greek government is pulling economic levers that do not work, the more insidious problem is that they are pulling political strings that are broken.

You can watch Paul Mason's full report on the personal and political impact of the Greek crisis on Friday 17 February at 22.30 GMT on BBC Two.