22:26, 15 June 2012
22:26, 15 June 2012
Antonis Perris was a devoted son. When his elderly mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago, there was no question of putting her in a state facility.
He would care for her at home in Athens and they would face the future together.
But then things started getting very much worse.
‘The problem is that I was not prepared when the economic crisis hit and I do not have enough money in my account,’ wrote the 60-year-old unemployed musician.
‘My credit card is overdrawn, we do not have enough food to feed ourselves. I live a drama with no end. Does anyone have a solution for me? World leaders, you who brought this financial crisis, you all need hanging!’
On the brink: Greeks will go to the polls again on Sunday, and the outcome of their votes will be critical for the country’s future
Perris wrote of his despair in an internet chatroom three weeks ago. Then, one morning, he led his mother on to the roof of their five-storey apartment block. Hand-in-hand, they jumped off.
Not long ago, this episode would have been a national scandal. Today, it is just another tragic footnote to the story of a society on the brink of collapse.
On Monday morning, this modern European nation could be waking up to a nightmare scenario, which runs as follows. The cash machines start drying up. Supermarket shelves are cleared by families fearful that food supplies will run out.
There are queues round the block for the last dribbles from the petrol pumps, and deliveries come to a halt. Within a day or two, protests have turned to looting and random acts of violence against strangers. Overwhelmed, the police retreat to their bases. The most vulnerable citizens lock the doors and pray.
And gradually, the country that gave the world ‘democracy’ descends into another word it also created — ‘anarchy’.
Understandably, no one on the tense, graffiti-splattered streets of Athens wants to discuss this possibility ahead of tomorrow’s Greek election in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For many, though, it is hard to envisage how much further they can fall.
Helen Papoutsi, 49, is a proud woman. A professor’s daughter, she has worked as a nurse for 27 years and has a daughter at university.
Yet she is one of many middle-class Greeks whom I find alongside homeless migrants and the mentally disabled in the early evening queue for a central Athens soup kitchen.
A plastic bowl of pasta will be Helen’s only square meal of the day.
‘They’ve cut my pay, I have to work longer hours and I can’t pay the bills any more,’ she says quietly, before dissolving into tears.
‘How can I be a good mother when I can’t even afford to support myself?’ She still has a faded carrier bag from a fancy Athens boutique and is clinging to what is left of her dignity.
No hope: Greece’s middle classes are facing crippling poverty, with many depending on hand-outs simply to eat
But like her unemployed friend and dinner companion, Georgia Goudi, she says she has no hope.
‘They want us to vote? For who? The rich will get richer and the poor poorer. It can only get worse.’
We are unlikely to see this nation implode in the immediate aftermath of tomorrow’s vote.
The most probable outcome is more procrastination and horse-trading — just like the dithering that followed the last, entirely inconclusive election in May, since when Greece has been without a government.
But deep down, everyone knows that the status quo cannot go on much longer.
Greece is on borrowed time. Ultimately, Greeks face a choice between swallowing the austerity package imposed by the EU’s German paymasters — punitive taxation and a purge of the public sector — or they can be relegated from the euro and return to a much-devalued drachma.
The second option would see the country’s existing wealth cut by half.
And while it might enable Greece to rebuild itself over time, the first months of that journey would be perilous as a bankrupt nation found itself unable to buy essentials such as medicines, not to mention food.
It is a nightmare scenario that some have called ‘Drachmageddon’. And it is one we in Britain will feel acutely as billions are wiped off the value of our shareholdings and pension funds as the markets tumble amid fears that Spain and Italy might be next.
On a knife-edge: Supporters of the conservative New Democracy party waves flares during a rally at Syntagma square in Athens
One thing is certain. Absolutely no one in Athens expects any improvement in the dismal situation that constitutes ordinary life in Greece today.
In the days since I arrived here, the local news has included the following stories: a pharmacist shot dead for his day’s takings; chemists all over Athens running out of cancer drugs; a ferry company unable to pay for fuel, thus stranding thousands of people on several Aegean islands; a lynch mob attacking a fisherman on a government exchange programme — for being Egyptian.
Walking the streets, I have met a neo-Nazi party with a surging popular vote and a proposal to halt illegal immigration with landmines.
I have wandered amid the weeds of derelict Olympic stadia built just eight years ago at vast expense for those ruinous 2004 Games. Anyone for softball? If not, how about planting some carrots on the pitch?
I have toured a bank vault without a single vacant deposit box because everyone wants to lock away their valuables in case the country descends into lawlessness.
Even if the dreaded meltdown does not come to pass on Monday, the spectre is still not going to go away.
There are two main players in this election. One is New Democracy, a centre-Right party that wants to renegotiate the German bail-out deal while staying in the euro. As far as Germany and the international markets are concerned, this lot would be the preferred option.
Frontrunners: Antonis Samaras (left), leader of the conservative New Democracy party, and Alexis Tsipras (right) leader of the untested Far Left Syriza
The other front-runner is Syriza, an untried Far Left consortium that wants to tear up the German deal, abandon public sector cuts and yet, somehow, remain in the euro.
If Syriza wins an outright victory, watch the markets fall off a cliff on Monday morning.
The likely outcome, though, is some sort of fragile coalition involving elements of both these factions and a demand for a new deal. But if the Germans decide there is no further scope for negotiation (and the German public certainly feels that way), then tomorrow’s election could be immaterial.
After another period of fraught EU negotiations, Greece would be shown the door and it would be Drachmageddon time anyway.
There is a palpable sense of poverty almost everywhere. Some areas have become feral no-go zones after dark. And yet what I find most surprising is the sense of calm, almost defiant resignation.
There has been no stampede for petrol or food. True, people have been withdrawing cash at the rate of up to 800 million euros a day, and an estimated 70 billion euros is thought to have been squirrelled away in foreign bank accounts in recent months.
But what is perhaps more surprising is that 170 billion euros is still sitting in ordinary Greek bank accounts. There have been no queues outside Athenian banks this week. In short, there is no panic.
New Democracy: The party’s supporters wait for a speech from its leader, Antonis Samaras, during a pre-election campaign rally
‘Perhaps this is what it feels like just before the volcano is about to explode,’ says Nikos Konstandaras, columnist and managing editor of the mainstream national newspaper, Kathimerini.
‘This election offers no clear solution, no clear choice between “in” or “out” of the euro. So many people have taken the view that what will happen, will happen.’
Ever since the Greek economy went into freefall after the global economic crisis of 2008, the Greeks have been blaming their politicians — and the Germans — for their plight. But wiser Greeks concede that the real culprit is to be found in the mirror. The fact is that for years, Greece juggled a ludicrously bloated public sector with a national allergy to paying tax.
Last month, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, prescribed a simple path to Greek salvation: ‘I think they should help themselves collectively — by all paying their tax.’
She was castigated in Greece for her insensitivity, but she had one ally — the Greek taxman.
‘I agree wholeheartedly. Tax evasion in Greece amounts to 45 billion euros each year,’ said Nikos Lekkas, head of the Greek tax authority. ‘If we could raise even just half of that, Greece’s problems would be solved.’
His main problem, he added, was a conspiratorial lack of co-operation from the banks.
The Greek economy has long been a basket case. Until last year, anyone belonging to one of 600 ‘hazardous occupations’, including hair stylists, cashiers and radio announcers, could retire in their early 50s on a state pension equivalent to 80 per cent of their final salary. Just 5,000 people in a country of nine million admitted to earning more than £90,000 a year.
Greece’s shipping billionaires, meanwhile, enjoyed (and still enjoy) tax-free status on the basis their industry brings in 14 billion euros to the economy each year and they might go elsewhere if threatened.
Threatening: Extreme right party Golden Dawn has said it will remove immigrants from hospitals and nurseries in Greece if it wins power (pictured is party candidate Ilias Panagiotaros)
The system has been tightened. The list of ‘hazardous occupations’ has been halved (though it still includes cheesemakers). Retirement ages have risen and pensions have been slashed by between 10 and 30 per cent. Yet most government offices are still overstaffed and incompetent. Buying something as simple as a car tax disc can take a day.
Just this week, it has emerged that Mr Lekkas and his team of tax collectors have had considerable success with a new innovation — a form of council tax.
Millions of Greeks were outraged by the suggestion that, having paid a purchase tax (what you and I know as stamp duty), they should also pay a further tax on their property. They call it haritsa — ‘the axe’.
But the taxman had the bright idea of attaching it to the electricity bill. So, if you dodge this tax, you get disconnected. As a result, it has already raised more than 2 billion euros.
Meanwhile, the inevitable rise of the extremists should worry us all. Certainly, a trip to the Athens headquarters of the Golden Dawn party is an alarming experience. Having had negligible support in recent years, this overtly fascistic organisation ended up with 21 seats at the last election.
Last week, a senior party figure hit a female Communist during a live TV debate and then ran from the studio — though he is now suing her for ‘provocation’.
Despite this, the party is expecting an increase in its votes tomorrow.
Shocking: This footage from Greece’s private Antenna television station shows Elias Kassidiaris, front left, spokesman for Golden Dawn, slapping Liana Kanelli, a former MP for the Communist Party of Greece
Golden Dawn, frankly, make the BNP look fluffy. There are heavies from central casting on the door. They warn me that it is strictly forbidden to photograph the building, hilarious given that it is on a main road with an enormous banner draped over a second floor balcony saying: ‘Greece for the Greeks.’
Everything is decorated with the party’s symbol, a variation on the swastika inside a laurel wreath.
Inside, walls are lined with photographs of Nuremburg-style rallies with plenty of flaming torches. ‘We are not Nazis. We are nationalists,’ says Golden Dawn candidate Ioannis Vloudis firmly.
So how come they march around with torches and swastikas? ‘It is not a swastika,’ says the retired vet. ‘It’s a 2,500-year-old symbol from ancient Thrace. It’s not our fault if the Nazis stole our symbol.’
He says his party wants Greece to stay in the euro, renegotiate the bailout and get the rich to pay more tax. Just like every party on the opposite side of the political spectrum, then. What separates Golden Dawn is its naked xenophobia.
It not only wants to seal Greece’s eastern border — with landmines if necessary — and deport the country’s estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants. Its members have called for immigrants to be removed from hospitals and nurseries.
Meanwhile, attacks on ethnic minorities in Greece are increasingly commonplace.
Meltdown: Neo-Nazi attitudes are gaining ground in Greece – and the police and ethnic minorities are paying the price
For others, it is the Germans who are the villains. Everywhere I go, the level of casual anti-German vitriol is astonishing.
‘They slaughtered whole villages here, and now they want to tell us what to do? Merkel [the German chancellor] is like Hitler,’ says Stavros Vasilarkos, 58, in his near-empty bar in the shipbuilding district of Perama.
At the back of the bar, a handful of unemployed men make a coffee last all night as they play pool or backgammon. ‘Who are these Germans anyway?’ asks Vasilarkos. ‘They were in the trees with tails when Greeks were building beautiful buildings such as the Parthenon.’
He cites the story of a group of German holidaymakers who recently walked out of a Cretan nightclub without paying for their beers. They argued they didn’t need to pay since Germany had covered the cost with its latest bail-out. They were never going to win the brawl that followed.
Down at the port city of Piraeus, Father Andreas Marcopolos is starting the daily task of supplying 3,500 free meals to his flock, ranging from homeless immigrants to impoverished professionals.
Can it hold? If Greece votes to reject the austerity package imposed by the IMF and World Bank, it will see its existing wealth cut in half
The imposing church of St Nicholas faces a huge cruise ship, the Noordam, on the other side of a thick fence.
‘The shipowners give us nothing. They have no heart,’ says the normally jovial 58-year-old priest.
‘We are a Third World country and it is getting worse.’
He introduces me to Diana Fanelaki, 45, a mother of four children. Her husband, a chef, has not worked since January and their electricity has been disconnected for months.
She has just been served with an eviction order and receives no benefits because her husband failed to pay enough into the state welfare scheme.
I try to explain how welfare is a very different prospect in Britain. But she thinks I am joking. For a second or two, I can almost detect a smile.
Whether she will find anything to lift her mood after tomorrow’s elections is another matter.
As the world watches and waits, the birthplace of democracy is a pitiful sight this weekend.