By Michael Nevradakis
Originally published in 99getsmart.com
It was just four months ago, though it already seems like a lifetime away, when Greece’s celebrity finance minister Yanis Varoufakis publicly stated that “creative ambiguity” won the country a “loan lifeline” from the institutions formerly known as the troika: the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund. Despite the never-ending soap opera that is Greek crisis politics though, few would have imagined that the SYRIZA-led coalition government would succeed in outdoing itself in terms of its “creative ambiguity,” by calling a referendum which, just days before the polls open, remains remarkably unclear as to its actual meaning and potential consequences.
Setting The Stage for the Referendum
What has been actually happening in Greece though, over the past week? Lots has been heard in the Greek and international media, much of it tainted by either a pro-austerity or pro-SYRIZA bias and a generous dose of sensationalism. Cutting through all of this media-created noise, the realities are as follows: in a peculiarly-timed nationally-televised address which aired live a minute after midnight on June 27, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras announced to the nation that a referendum would be held on whether or not to approve the set of proposals put forth by the “institutions.” The last referendum held in Greece was in 1974, just after Greece’s Western-backed military regime fell, when Greeks overwhelmingly voted “no” for the restoration of the monarchy. This announcement was initially hailed by a majority of the public, as it was seen as a bold step towards giving the Greek people a direct say in the country’s affairs for the first time during the five-plus years of financial crisis.
It quickly became clear, however, that the referendum was not as straightforward as it initially seemed. Just what were the Greek people being called upon to approve or disapprove? Though a lot has been heard in the Greek media about the demands of the “institutions,” these media reports have overwhelmingly been cast through a vehemently pro-austerity filter. The government posted the full, translated text of the proposals on the Internet as well as Sunday’s ballot, but even today, almost half of Greek households do not have Internet access, particularly older generations which happen to have the highest percentage of voter participation (and which are also the heaviest television viewers). Only days before the referendum, the consequences of a “no” vote also remain equally muddled on the part of the government: how will a SYRIZA-led government interpret it and what will its actions be should this be the outcome of the referendum?
So far, the only thing that has been heard from the SYRIZA-led government is that a “no” vote would “strengthen” the government’s “negotiating position.” On Friday, Varoufakis stated that if “no” prevails in the referendum, the government has received “some very decent proposals” from “official Europe,” adding that “a deal is more or less done,” without going into any additional detail about what this supposed deal entails. Varoufakis added that if “yes” ultimately prevails on July 5, that the government will sign off on the proposals presented by the “institutions”—just days after he and Tsipras strongly indicated that they would resign in the event of a “yes” vote. Notably, the Greek people will not be asked to vote upon any of the other proposals that are apparently on the table, either from “official Europe” or on the part of SYRIZA. In an interview on Australia’s ABC, Varoufakis outright lied, claiming that Greece does not have the capacity to print drachmas. In fact, Greece possesses a state-of-the-art printing facility for banknotes, one of six such facilities in the Eurozone.
In the meantime, two days after calling a referendum, and after allowing sufficient panic to set in, the Greek government decided to impose capital controls, declaring a week-long bank holiday and imposing a daily withdrawal limit of €60 per account, per day, for all Greek bank accounts). Public officials who were to be paid on the 27th and 28th of the month were obliged to queue up at specific bank branches, opened exclusively for them, to withdraw a maximum of €120 from their paychecks. Following this, the ECB embargoed Greece, while the SYRIZA-led government did not enact any measures whatsoever to calm down a jittery populace, including pensioners, who were suddenly left with limited access to cash. Instead, the government offered additional guarantees of €4.92 billion to the National Bank of Greece and €1.91 billion to Eurobank, two banks which have already been heavily recapitalized with taxpayer funds during the crisis. Essentially, the government acted to protect bankrupted banks that have remained afloat with public support, but took absolutely no measures to assuage the nerves of the populace or to protect salaries or pensions.
The SYRIZA-led government, in other words, far from undertaking a “heroic” and “brave” decision in giving Greek voters a say, have instead hastily organized a rather unclear referendum under the worst possible circumstances: with banks shuttered and capital controls imposed. This has given fuel to Greece’s oligarch-owned, pro-austerity media, who have successfully transformed the public debate into a dilemma between voting “yes” to “stay in Europe” and maintain Greece’s “European prospect,” and voting “no” and bringing “catastrophe” and “chaos” to Greece in the form of a “grexit.” In essence, the referendum has been transformed into a yes-or-no vote on staying within the Eurozone or departing, even though SYRIZA continues to maintain, at every opportunity, that it refuses to consider a grexit and that will keep Greece within the Eurozone and the European Union.
Adding to the confusion and contributing to the uneasiness in Greece, various members of the SYRIZA-led government, including Giannis Dragasakis, the government’s vice-president, suggested earlier in the week that the referendum might be withdrawn, before rescinding his statement. It was then reported by the media that Tsipras submitted a new proposal to the “institutions,” a proposal which aimed to settle Greece’s funding from the supra-national European Stability Mechanism in order for Greece’s debt to become “sustainable” while giving emphasis to the “growth perspective.” This proposal would essentially mean that Greek taxpayers would repay the IMF loans with ESM money that would be loaned to Greece at double the interest rate.
This latest proposal, in essence, conceeded on almost all points to the “institutions.” It included the acceptance of a new retirement age of 67, the implementation of which would merely be delayed until October (as if that would make any real difference). It includes significant reductions in Greek military spending, on the order of €200 million in 2016 and €400 million in 2017, at a time when the military is already suffering from shortages of fuel and supplies in an increasingly unstable Eastern Mediterranean. The new proposal also makes mention of a “new framework” for labor markets that would be legislated in the autumn, and accepts recommendations from the OECD’s “toolkit 1” on “liberalizing” the marketplace. On Friday, this proposal was followed up by a new request by Tsipras, asking for a debt reduction of 30% and a 20 year grace period, as per the IMF’s recommendations.
SYRIZA’s Proposals and the “Debt Truth” Commission
SYRIZA’s “creative ambiguity” is unfortunately not limited just to the referendum which has been declared. In Greece, “kolotoumba” is the word colloquially used to refer to political “flip-flops” or promises that have been reneged upon, and in its five-plus months in power, SYRIZA has gone away from practically all of its key pre-election promises and the proposals of its Thessaloniki policy programme, presented in September 2014. During the first round of Greek negotiations with the “institutions” in February, Varoufakis’ initial offer was for the continuation of 70% of the previously-existing austerity measures from the second memorandum, agreed upon by an unelected, technocrat-led government in February 2012. Even the mere possibility of “grexit” was never placed on a table, nor was a debt reduction, write-off, or stoppage of payments.
That same month, SYRIZA proposed and then proceeded to elect a corrupt conservative former government minister, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, hailing from the New Democracy party, as President of the Hellenic Republic. Pavlopoulos, from 2012 on, had voted in favor of all austerity legislation and has repeatedly stated his pro-euro views, claiming that he will not sign off on a “grexit” as president. The February Eurogroup agreement, which resulted from the aforementioned “creative ambiguity” and extended the so-called “bailout” towards Greece for another four months, was then followed by a series of other broken promises on the part of the government: the restoration of the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels was postponed indefinitely, the levying of the unified property tax (ENFIA), which prior to the elections had been declared “unconstitutional” and “illegal” by SYRIZA, was not only continued, but taxpayers were told that it was their “patriotic duty” to continue paying this previously “temporary” tax. Funds for education, health, housing, and other social services were not restored, despite promises to the contrary, while another series of pre-election pledges, concerning the privatization program, was also violated: not only were the privatizations that had been enforced by previous governments not reversed, but new privatizations were proposed by SYRIZA, including that of the port of Piraeus (Europe’s largest port), the port of Thessaloniki (Greece’s second-largest port), and 14 regional airports of strategic and tourist significance. Indeed, a government delegation traveled to China to discuss the sale of the port of Piraeus and other strategic assets, including railroad lines, to Chinese-owned Cosco, which already owns the Piraeus container port under a previous privatization deal.
The “kolotoumbes” do not stop here, however. Defense Minister Panos Kammenos of the supposedly anti-austerity Independent Greeks political party, which is SYRIZA’s minority partner in the governmental coalition, announced his proposal for a NATO base to be developed on the southern Aegean island of Karpathos. Additionally, the government refused to file charges against a long list of former government ministers and public officials, including the current president of the Bank of Greece and former finance minister Yannis Stournaras, for their actions in imposing the austerity regime upon Greece. More egregiously still, the SYRIZA-led government, after promising prior to the elections to discontinue the practice of legislating by presidential decree (a favored method of the previous New Democracy-PASOK coalition), issued such a decree on April 24 to confiscate the funds available in the Greek Treasury, including the funds of public institutions including public hospitals and the national health service, as well as pension and insurance funds. These confiscated funds were then used to repay the country’s May installment towards the IMF.
Throughout SYRIZA’s five-plus months in office, Varoufakis, Tsipras, and numerous other government ministers and officials have repeatedly stated their intention to repay the country’s debt, including obligations towards the IMF and ECB, in full and to the last penny. In March, Varoufakis, in an interview with the Associated Press, flatly stated that he would “squeeze blood from a stone” in order to repay the IMF, which holds views with which he personally agrees with, while falsely claiming that no country has ever reneged on its payments to the IMF. Once again, government ministers stated that this action was in the “patriotic interest” of the country.
The aforementioned actions set the stage for the latest round of “negotiations” between the Greek government and the “institutions,” negotiations which led to a 47-page proposal submitted by SYRIZA, encompassing austerity measures totaling €8 billion. These proposals include the continuation of dozens of privatizations, scheduled all the way past 2020, the maintenance of a primary budget surplus of 1% this year and increasing primary surpluses in the coming years, in order to appease creditors, the maintenance of previously “temporary” taxes including the ENFIA, and agreeing to fulfill the country’s debt obligations, with no mention of a write-down, stoppage of payments, or reduction in the debt level. In light of the fact that Greece finds itself running a small deficit this year, the maintenance of a primary surplus within 2015 would inevitably result in more cuts in order to meet SYRIZA’s own proposed “targets,” while the maintenance of a primary surplus or an economy which has shrunk by 25% over five years equates with making permanent an austerity regime which has strangled the marketplace and Greek households.
Even these proposals, however, were not enough for the “institutions”—and for good reason. While these “institutions” have not budged in their positions since SYRIZA came to power in January, they have seen the “radical leftist” government of Greece enter the initial February negotiations proposing continuation of almost three-fourths of the existing austerity measures, and have seen SYRIZA inch ever closer to full capitulation since then, as demonstrated by the 47-page proposal submitted most recently by SYRIZA. Under such circumstances, why would the “institutions” and the German government agree to anything less than their full demands, seeing that SYRIZA is coming ever close to a full surrender?
Notably, as this latest round of “negotiations” has taken place, the Greek parliament convened a “debt truth” commission to audit the entirety of Greece’s public debt. The final report issued by the commission on June 17 found that Greece is not only unable to pay the debt, but it is not obligated to, as the bulk of the debt is illegal, illegitimate, odious, while the repayment of said debt would contravene the basic human rights of the people of Greece. Despite these findings, however, the government has not demanded the cancellation of the majority of the public debt as part of its “negotiations,” nor has it called a referendum on this issue, in which the Greek people would be asked if they wish to repay this debt. Instead, as mentioned previously, Tsipras has publicly repeated the IMF’s proposals for a 30% reduction of the debt and a 20 year “grace period,” essentially attempting to sweep the problem under the rug for the next generation, and some other future political regime.
This “truth” commission also heard testimony from former members of Greece’s Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), who since 2011 have been publicly making allegations, backed up by a significant amount of evidence, that Greece’s debt and deficit figures were falsified in late 2009 and in 2010 in order to appear worse than they actually were, thus providing the political and economic impetus to drag Greece under the supervision of the troika. It has also been shown that former prime minister George Papandreou had met with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the IMF, prior to the 2009 Greek elections which brought Papandrou to power, amidst promises that “we have money.” These allegations led to criminal charges being filed against the president of ELSTAT, former IMF official Andreas Georgiou, in early 2013, charges which are still pending as of today. SYRIZA, instead of taking action against Georgiou, has allowed him to remain in his position as president of the statistical authority.
Wall-to-Wall Pro-Austerity Propaganda
The “creative ambiguity” of the referendum and the government’s evident weaknesses have fueled the pro-austerity, pro-“yes” fire, both on the part of Greece’s establishment opposition parties, as well as the overwhelming majority of the Greek and international media. Every single politician from the previous regimes which governed Greece, including former prime ministers Antonis Samaras, Kostas Simitis, and Kostas Karamanlis (who spoke publicly for the first time since November 2009) have expressed a strong position in favor of voting “yes” in the upcoming referendum. Former television personality Stavros Theodorakis of the upstart To Potami political party has also not been shy in expressing a pro-yes, pro-austerity, and vehemently pro-German viewpoint, while the party is the beneficiary of copious amounts of free airtime on the same television stations which Theodorakis once worked for, while other new political parties are completely shut out of the media. Even the supposedly “patriotic” far-right Golden Dawn party, through its leader Nikos Mihaloliakos, has stated a clear position in favor of the euro, claiming (falsely) that Greece “doesn’t produce anything” and “cannot afford” to leave the Eurozone and the EU.
Even the governing coalition has not been free of voices which have spoken outright in favor of voting “yes” or who have asked for the referendum to be withdrawn, with four members of the minority coalition partner Independent Greeks expressing such views in recent days, leading to the removal of one of these members from his parliamentary position. In essence, this means that the already-flimsy governing coalition has been further weakened.
On top of this, one of Greece’s largest labor unions, the GSEE, publicly called for the referendum to be withdrawn, while the Greek Chamber of Commerce (SEB) called for a vote of “yes.” The aforementioned two organizations, as well as many other purportedly pro-worker labor unions, are viewed by many Greeks as being closely connected to the country’s party structure, essentially forming part of the so-called “deep state.” Numerous actors, celebrities, university professors (that are typically beneficiaries of EU-sponsored funding and grants) and prominent personalities have also chimed in as part of the “yes” chorus. Additionally, many employers and managers in the private and public sector have warned their employees that they will not be paid their salaries unless they vote “yes” or participate in demonstrations in favor of a “yes” vote.
However, the real damage is being done on the part of Greece’s corrupt and oligarch-owned media outlets, as well as by international news organizations through their reporters and correspondents on the ground in Greece. Prior to the January elections, SYRIZA and several of its prominent officials promised to crack down on the country’s oligarchy once in office. Its actions though, upon coming to office, suggest otherwise. On June 11, the two-year anniversary of its shutdown by the previous government, SYRIZA reopened national public broadcaster ERT, amidst great fanfare. However, what was not said was that ERT was reopened based on the law which had initially established its replacement, NERIT. Not all former employees were rehired, while the popular protest programming which had aired during the two prior years that ERT had been operated as a “pirate” station by its workers, was wiped from the schedule. Since its relaunch, ERT has essentially operated as a press wing of the SYRIZA government (which already owns a growing nationwide network of party-owned radio stations and its own nationally-circulating newspaper, Avgi). Tsipras is given unlimited airtime on ERT and is faced only with softball questions by its reporters, while ERT’s social media accounts reflect a clear pro-government slant. Furthermore, after ERT’s relaunch, the government announced its intention to sign a new contract with a private consortium known as DIGEA (jointly owned by the same oligarchs which own Greece’s six largest private television stations) for the digital transmission of ERT’s television signals throughout Greece, albeit “temporarily.”
In the meantime, the government’s rhetoric against the media oligarchs has been limited to a PR stunt in demanding that the stations pay for the usage of public frequencies (they have still not done so), and suggestions that a new licensing bid for these stations (which are still unlicensed) will be declared, a proposal which however calls for a smaller number of TV stations to operate and the auctioning off of this reduced number of frequencies (indeed this was included in SYRIZA’s 47-page proposal). The combination of auctioning the frequencies and making fewer of them available will inevitably drive up their price and mean that only the oligarchs and their ilk can afford them. And as all this has taken place, the SYRIZA government was reportedly prepared to renew the long-expired terms of the National Radio-Television Council (NCRTV)), the country’s “independent” broadcast regulator, despite the fact that this practice of continued renewals has repeatedly been deemed unconstitutional by the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court. The three members of the NCRTV finally resigned on their own accord, and in response, SYRIZA has allowed the NCRTV to operate, unconstitutionally, with four members instead of seven. The new, “temporary” president of the NCRTV is Lina Alexiou, the mother of SYRIZA MP and speaker of the parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou.
This muddled media situation has perfectly set the stage for the unprecedented media terrorism campaign that has followed over the past week. The newscasts and talk programs of all major private television stations in Greece and their associated media outlets (radio stations, newspapers, etc.) have provided far more coverage of the “yes” position compared to the “no” position, while this coverage has been accompanied by headlines and on-air proclamations which are clearly designed to terrorize the public into voting for more austerity. In a recent analysis of the main evening television newscasts and their coverage of successive “pro-no” and “pro-yes” demonstrations in Athens, it was found that the “pro-no” coverage across these stations totaled just eight minutes, while the corresponding “pro-yes” coverage received over 46 minutes of airtime. One station, Mega Channel, featured statements and sound bites from 36 different individuals in favor of “yes” and zero in favor of “no” in one of its newscasts. One other station, the self-proclaimed “reputable” and “non-sensational” Sky TV, offered zero minutes of “pro-no” coverage and over eight minutes of “pro-yes” coverage on its newscasts over a two-day period. This coverage has included absurd on-air headlines which have compared, for instance, “pro-no” voting booths that have sprung up, to the political situation of North Korea, while warning of (non-existent) “shortages” at supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations and dire warnings of impending catastrophe. One Mega Channel newscast used images from South Africa in 2012 of an elderly woman protecting another elderly woman using an ATM, as if it had taken place in Greece today, while the newspaper Star Press used an image of an elderly individual from Turkey holding loaves of bread in his hands following a catastrophic earthquake in 2011, as if the individual in question was in Greece and was hoarding bread in response to the referendum. Newspaper headlines have spread fear of a “haircut” on bank deposits, of shortages of basic goods, and of pensions which are “in danger,” as well as dire warnings of the “catastrophe” that a grexit would bring, with grexit being equated with a “no” vote.
None of this should come as a surprise in light of the fact that almost the entirety of Greece’s national media outlets are owned by a small cabal of oligarchs, with extensive interests all across the economic spectrum, from shipping and oil refineries to insurance companies and publishing houses. Indeed, Greece’s former representative to the IMF, Panagiotis Roumeliotis, admitted in recent testimony before the “debt truth” commission that numerous Greek journalists had attended IMF-sponsored “seminars,” where they were coached on how to provide reporting with a pro-euro, pro-austerity tilt.
The international media, through its coverage and its reporters and correspondents on location in Greece, has been equally terrible. The usage of the word “bailout” to describe the austerity program and loans which successive Greek governments have implemented has become systematic, lending a positive aura to such policies. Most reports, and most reporters (particularly through their Twitter accounts) have not hidden their pro-austerity and/or pro-SYRIZA biases. Channel 4’s Paul Mason, whose coverage has been strongly pro-SYRIZA, has written the foreword for Varoufakis’ recent book. Another correspondent, Simon Nixon, brazenly tweeted that Varoufakis has made “leftist history” by turning the “fastest growing Eurozone country” into a “basket case” that has “defaulted” to the IMF. One New York Times headline stated “If Greece defaults, imagine Argentina, but much worse.” CNN featured a “default countdown” in its live coverage from Greece, while most international media outlets have painted a completely untrue picture of Greece as a country that has been thrust into turmoil, chaos, and violence, with endless lines at dried-up ATMs, an infrastructure that is not operating, stranded tourists, and violence and protests in the streets, none of which is true.
The reality is that the situation has remained largely calm in Greece, queues at ATMs are usually small or non-existent, most ATMs are still being regularly topped up with more cash, while “capital controls” do not apply to tourists and anyone using non-Greek ATM cards in Greece. Debit and credit cards continue to be accepted as usual, airplanes and ferry boats and trains and buses are operating as scheduled, and there has been no reported violence of any kind. But, as the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. This highly sensationalistic and false coverage of Greece has done significant damage to Greece in the midst of its money-making tourist season.
One of the favorite punching bags of the international press corps in Greece have been Greece’s purportedly “generous” pensions and retirement system, with a number of highly-followed correspondents and journalists essentially cheerleading in favor of cuts to pensions. What they have not said is that over the years of the crisis, the Greek retirement age has been successively increased to age 65 for men and 60 for women, that SYRIZA itself has proposed a new increase to the age of 67, and that the troika has cut Greek pensions eight times in the past four years. Indeed, most pensions have been slashed in half since 2012, 45% of Greek pensioners receive less than €665 per month (below the poverty line), while one-third of pensioners receive approximately €360 per month. The pension fund itself was depleted following SYRIZA’s presidential decree, which emptied public coffers to make the May IMF payment.
Both Greek and international media outlets also repeatedly reference the results of public opinion polls conducted by major Greek polling firms. These surveys show an apparently overwhelming majority in favor of both the government (SYRIZA is said to be 20 points ahead in the polls) as well as, counterintuively, in favor (70-80%) of remaining in the euro…at all costs. What is never mentioned by either the Greek or international media outlets, however, is that public opinion surveys conducted by Greek polling firms are neither independent nor objective. The polls themselves are conducted on behalf of media outlets which are pro-austerity and/or pro-SYRIZA (including the SYRIZA-owned Avgi newspaper), while the polling firms themselves are the recipients of generous government funding, and therefore have an incentive to portray favorably the government of the day.
The media has systematically ignored and buried coverage of polls conducted within Greece by reputable non-Greek firms such as Gallup International, whose pan-European end-of-year survey in December found that 52% of respondents in Greece favor a return to a domestic currency, or Bridging Europe, whose March 2015 poll in Greece similarly found a 53% majority in favor of leaving the euro, and whose most recent poll found that 63% of Greeks are not afraid of grexit. Instead, the international media and even left-wing media outlets and scholars ranging from Noam Chomsky to Tariq Ali, have repeated the myth that a large majority of Greeks want to remain in the Eurozone. Similarly, these media outlets have largely ignored the findings of the “debt truth” commission and have completely ignored the aforementioned ELSTAT allegations.
Similarly, media mythology that the “spendthrift” Greeks lived beyond their means or that Greece “doesn’t produce anything” has not been dispelled by Greece’s media, nor by the journalists and correspondents covering Greece for international outlets, despite the existence of clear facts to the contrary: Greece had, and continues to have, among the very lowest levels of private indebtedness in the entire European Union, lower still than the “fiscally responsible” Northern European countries. Furthermore, annual reports by the Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Unions of Agricultural Co-operatives (PASEGES) show that Greece produces enough of most staple agricultural products to be self-sufficient, while Greek industries still do exist in realms as varied as defense manufacturing, aluminum, steel, cement production, clothing and textiles, and more, accompanied by a burgeoning “start-up” landscape. Indeed, any reductions in Greek industrial and agricultural capability over the past two to three decades can be attributed to EU policies, such as the “Common Agricultural Policies” which have disincentivized the production of many previous staple crops.
IMF “Mistakes,” the Eternal Greek Inferiority Complex, and a Visit to the Heart of the EU and NATO Machine
One of the more ludicrous aspects of the ongoing crisis and “negotiations” have been the IMF’s repeated “admissions” of “mistakes” that it made in Greece’s “bailout” program, with the latest such admission coming in a tweet made by Dominique Strauss-Kahn on June 27. One has to wonder just how “mistaken” the IMF really was in the case of Greece though, when considering that the IMF’s modus operandi in all of the countries it has “saved” has been the same: stifling austerity, reduced salaries and pensions, slashed social spending, and privatizations of key industries, resources, and public assets. The fact that the very same Strauss-Kahn has previously admitted meeting with Papandreou prior to the latter’s election in 2009 shows that the IMF’s actions in Greece, far from being mistaken, were premeditated and par for the course, following the fund’s standard operating procedures.
For this reason, the latest show of “support” towards Greece, a crowdfunding campaign launched on IndieGoGo, proves to be yet another demonstration of “faux solidarity” towards the country and its suffering populace. This crowdfunding campaign, launched apparently by a 29-year old shoe shop employee in Britain, is raising money to cover Greece’s recent unpaid loan installment to the IMF. Far from collecting funds to help support the homeless, the hungry, or those without income in Greece, this “show of support” is instead raising funds to pay one of the prime culprits in Greece’s economic crisis of the past five years, a fund which has, according to the Debt Jubilee Campaign, made a €2.5 billion profit as a result of its “bailout” of Greece, while 92% of the “bailout” funds have gone back to Greece’s lenders and never entered the Greek economy.
This crowdfunding campaign has been a media sensation and a convenient distraction from other, more serious issues at play. Similarly, while demonstrations in solidarity with the Greek people which have sprung up across the world in recent weeks, some demonstrations have unfortunately come across as being in favor of SYRIZA (belying, at the very least, a sort of blissful ignorance about the realities of SYRIZA’s actions while in power), while one has to wonder just why such support was not as evident during the five previous years and just how extensive it really is, considering that politicians such as German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble are enjoying record approval ratings (if the polls are to be believed), likely in part due to their stance towards Greece.
Within Greece’s borders, once sees a similar phenomenon prevailing within a significant sector of the populace: a longstanding inferiority complex vis-à-vis the more “civilized” countries of the West. It is this nationwide Stockholm Syndrome, this learned helplessness and dependency on being a part of something “bigger and better,” whether it is the Eurozone, the EU, or NATO, which has long been a highlight of the Greek psyche, at least for a significant portion of the population, and helps explain why so many people are still in support of the very institutions which have imposed on Greece the conditions that have resulted in the worst economic depression during peacetime of any developed country during the post-war period. It explains the turnout at pro-“yes” demonstrations. It explains the reluctance with parting with the euro (even if independent polls show a majority in favor of grexit). It also explains the absolute euro-fetish of almost the entirety of Greece’s political class.
A little over two years ago, I personally had the opportunity to travel to the heart of the beast: a weeklong visit to EU institutions and to NATO, as part of an academic program I was invited to participate in. This week was full of misery for me but was nevertheless beneficial in that it was remarkably eye-opening. Hearing statements made by EU and NATO officials about Greece and hearing their viewpoints about such quaint notions about democracy were truly telling and spoke volumes about the regard with which these principles are upheld within these institutions. Throughout meetings with EU and NATO technocrats, a number of very revealing statements were made which I took note of, including:
- “The sovereign state is a 19th century construct, and nothing lasts forever.”
- [Unelected prime minister] “Monti best thing that ever happened to Italy”
- “There are regions of Italy which we wish Brussels could govern directly”
- “The labor force should be ‘flexible’ and should ‘diversify'”
- “Mussolini ‘dealt with the situation'”
- “We believe in a Single European Consciousness”
- Three reasons for European economic crisis: “Bad design. Bad luck. Bad decisions: Greece.”
If anyone has any uncertainties as to the democratic “leanings” of the Nobel Prize winning European Union and of counterpart institutions such as NATO, the aforementioned quotes should dispel any such doubts.
Of course, the EU increasingly does a fine job of demonstrating just how authoritarian and undemocratic it is even in its public statements. This was seen, for instance, on June 29th, when the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is being negotiated behind closed doors and under total confidentiality by the European Union and the United States, was brought to the European Parliament for a plenary vote. In response to previous criticisms about the non-transparent TTIP proceedings, Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for trade, stated that she “does not receive her mandate from the European people.” The unelected president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has stated that “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties,” while Schäuble has publicly stated that “[e]lections change nothing. There are rules.” Furthermore, Article 352 of the EU treaties afford the EU the “necessary powers” to implement coercive measures against member-states without any existing legal basis.
What Are the Alternatives?
It does not take much to demonstrate the EU’s true, undemocratic colors. Yet the common retort heard in response to arguments against the policies of the EU and the institutions is “what are the alternatives?,” or, reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “there are no alternatives.” And yet, the alternatives are many, varied, and have been expressed by a number of economists and political figures, both within and outside of Greece.
Iceland serves as a shining example for all who believe that there is another road to be followed instead of assuming that even an illegal or odious debt must be repaid or that banks are “too big to fail” and bankers and politicians “too important to jail.” Iceland refused to pay an odious and illegal debt which, similar to that of Greece, was covered under foreign legal jurisdiction (under the law of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands). Icelanders have been given the opportunity to “crowdsource” a new constitution and to vote in a non-binding referendum, though the new constitution has not yet been implemented. Bankers and former politicians have, in several cases, been imprisoned. And Iceland’s GDP is growing faster than any country in the Eurozone while unemployment is plummeting. Even the IMF was forced to admit, in a May 2015 report, that Iceland is quickly approaching pre-crisis economic levels with the policies that it has undertaken. Yet, the example of Iceland has been completely ignored by the Greek media and in practically all outside media coverage of Greece, just as similar examples from Latin American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, have similarly and systematically been ignored.
Instead of blackmailing the voters of Greece to make a difficult and vague choice between a complex set of proposals and a “no” whose consequences have not been clarified on the part of the SYRIZA-led government, a referendum could have been held, with the banks open and daily life operating normally, on whether the Greek people wish to remain in the Eurozone at all costs or whether they wish to return to a national currency. Such a suggestion was, indeed, recently made by renowned analyst and author Tariq Ali, in an interview with aired on Dialogos Radio. The SYRIZA-led coalition government could break free of its Euro-fetish and open a serious dialogue with the voters of Greece, presenting a plan to break free of the EU and austerity stranglehold, explaining that it will be a challenging transition at first, but asking for the popular support and resolve to take this courageous next step. The people of Greece could be presented with an objective explanations of the pros and cons of each choice. The Greek people could also be invited, just as the people of Iceland were, to form popular committees to review the Greek constitution, the immunity laws protecting current and former politicians and government ministers, and a host of other issues pertaining to the structure and function of Greek democracy. Indeed, this referendum (or set of referendums) could have been held on or around February 20th, the date of the “creatively ambiguous” Eurogroup agreement.
The truth of the matter is that alternative voices exist in Greece, and they are plentiful. Despite the commonly-heard rhetoric, SYRIZA is not governing with a popular mandate. It received 36% of the vote—out of those who voted. While approximately 2.2 million voters chose SYRIZA on the 25th of January, over 3.5 million registered voters did not vote for anyone at all, in a country where voter turnout was traditionally very high, pre-crisis. This demonstrates that the largest percentage of Greek voters were not swayed by any of the parties participating in the January elections. Notably though, with the elections called on such short notice, almost two dozen smaller political parties were unable to raise enough funds to qualify for participation and inclusion on the ballot. These parties participated in the 2014 European parliamentary elections and in the two consecutive Greek parliamentary elections of 2012, and several of these parties have expressed clear positions against austerity and the memorandums, and in favor of leaving the euro, declaring a stoppage of payments and write-off of the majority of the debt, and investigating previous governments and politicians for their actions in leading Greece into its impasse. These parties include the United People’s Front (EPAM) and the “I Don’t Pay” Movement, and are joined by other parties which either managed to participate in the January elections (Antarsya) or which have adopted a vaguer approach to the question of grexit (the Pirate Party of Greece) but have adopted a clear “no” position in the upcoming referendum and which have questioned many of the austerity policies of the past five years and have called for more transparency and the implementation of many of the measures seen in countries such as Iceland
Indeed, a number of economists within and outside Greece have presented proposals for just how Greece could manage a grexit, without necessarily devaluing its currency at first (by not floating the currency on the open markets, similar to China), by nationalizing Greece’s central bank, and by writing off, at the very least, a significant portion of the debt. British economist Roger Bootle recently was awarded the Wolfson Prize in Economics for his proposal on how a Eurozone exit could be safely managed by any member-state. Economists Dimitris Kazakis of EPAM, Leonidas Vatikiotis of Antarsya, and many others have repeatedly, steadily, and clearly articulated how a grexit could be implemented and what the next day would bring. However, all of these smaller political parties and movements have been systematically shut out of the pro-austerity media, both in Greece and internationally.
The bottom line is this: SYRIZA, far from giving the Greek people a historic democratic choice, has instead called a referendum whose message is unclear and muddled and which does not tackle the main issue at hand: to grexit or not to grexit. The referendum is being held under the worst possible circumstances, with banks closed, ATMs disbursing limited funds, and with the Greek Treasury and public coffers having been previously ransacked via presidential decree to pay the May tranche to the IMF, while Greece’s high tourist season is being hit hard by the swirling uncertainty and accompanying sensationalized media coverage. This situation has given plenty of fuel to light the pro-austerity fire, spurred on by the Greek and international media and practically all of Greece’s main opposition parties. And while all of this has been happening, SYRIZA is apparently still discussing other proposals, which it is not revealing to the Greek public and which it will not bring to the voters as part of a referendum, though if SYRIZA’s statements over the past week and its pre-referendum proposals are any indication, its proposals are not much different from the final solution put forth by Greece’s so-called European “partners.” This is faux-democracy and faux-radicalism at its finest, and it is par for SYRIZA’s course, based on its actions throughout its five-plus months in office.