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Greece is hurting. On the streets of Athens, people look melancholy, depressed, sad.
Weather keeps changing: it is raining, suddenly close to a freezing point, then sunny again. What does not change is misery on the streets of the capital: bundles and improvised beds of homeless people, beggars waving accusative banners and slogans, abandoned buildings taken over by squatters.
Athens in 2015 reminds me of Buenos Aires in 2002, or Moscow of 1998.
In 1998, in the city of Novosibirsk, I witnessed former Soviet scientists, selling books from their personal libraries in the underpasses and at the entrances to metro. At the beginning of new millennia, thousands of Argentinean middle class families, consisting of adults and children, ended up living on the streets, thrown out, evicted from their own homes.
Greece is now also in a deep slump. Unofficially, at least 30% of the population is unemployed. Wages shrank dramatically; people who used to bring home 2.500 euro a month are now often barely surviving on 800 euro. Like ghosts, without any direction, thousands of people are sitting on public benches or moving through the city, aimlessly.
In Argentina, Russia and Greece, the crises were triggered by neoliberalism, and by market-fundamentalism. For years, both Menem and Yeltsin were busy destroying social state and Communism in their respective countries. ‘Advised’ by Western economists and political handlers, Argentina and Russia got used to treating their own people like some experimental animals in a Friedrich von Hayek economic lab. Results were awful. Economies collapsed, debts mounting, and millions of human lives were shattered.
Peter Koenig, Swiss financial expert and economist, blames the destruction of countries like Russia, Argentina and Greece, squarely on neoliberalism:
“To begin with, let’s be clear, neoliberalism is a criminal, murderous plague that knows no mercy. Neoliberalism is the root of (almost) all evil of the 21st Century. Neoliberalism is the cause for most current wars, conflicts and civil strife around the globe. Neoliberalism is the expression of abject greed for accumulation of resources by a few, for which tens of millions of people have to die. Neoliberalism and its feudal banking system, led by Wall Street and its intricate network of international finance, steals public infrastructure, public safety nets – public investments paid for by nations’ citizens – robs nations of their resources (labor, physical resources above-and underground) – by avid schemes of privatization, justified under the pretext of ‘structural reforms’ to ‘salvage’ poor but often resources-rich countries from bankruptcy.”
What ultimately saved both Argentina and Russia were their decisive changes of direction – pulling out of the ‘system’, defaulting on their colossal debts, and putting, once again, welfare of their people above the interests of banks and international capital.
In both Argentina and Russia, governments yielded to the sentiments of their people – sentiments that grew strongly anti-Western, and antagonistic to the Empire.
In Greece, there is anger against the West, against capitalism and the Empire, but in many ways, Greece is still part of the West.
I spoke to dozens of people in Athens. Unlike in Istanbul, where young and educated people are monitoring with passion new developments in revolutionary Latin American countries, the references of most Greeks do not go further than Germany and France.
Greece is injured by Europe, but it is shockingly Eurocentric.
I met a group of people that consists of left wing intellectuals. Its members grew up in Czechoslovakia where their families were exiled, during those years of brutal US-sponsored military dictatorship imposed on Greece. Now they are naturally supporting Greek Communists, and hoping that Greece will be able to pull out of the Eurozone, even to exit European Union.
But they feel that Greek leftists, like themselves, are isolated; that they cannot count on almost any support from abroad. In Greece, there is almost no comprehension of the new anti-Western winds blowing all over the world. When I mentioned powerful alliances that are being forged by China, Russia and Latin America, I was told that I am talking about a different universe, totally unknown in Greece.
“One of the recent conditions imposed by Troika is that Greece would not borrow money anywhere outside Europe”, explained Boutsiadis Georgios. “They would do anything imaginable to keep Greece dependent on the European Union. Their biggest fear is that Greece would begin negotiating with Russians or Chinese, or both; that it would be successfully rescued by these countries.”
We are driving towards a coastal town Nea Makri, and Mr. Boutsiadis Georgios is recounting injustices Greece is facing:
“People do realize what is going on, but they feel helpless. EU keeps coming up with new conditions, which are clearly serving its own interests and are certainly damaging to Greece. Now they tell us: ‘you have to sell your state companies, including those in energy and transportation sector.’ Sell it to whom? Sell it to them, to the companies in the West? Even as it is now, country is hardly producing anything, anymore…”
I ask why doesn’t Greece leave Eurozone, rapidly and voluntarily. I ask the same question, on many different occasions: in Athens and on the islands. The answer is always identical: “Many people are afraid that re-introduction of drachma would mean devaluation and collapse of people’s savings.”
Thousands of kilometers away, former World Bank economist, and now prolific critic of neoliberalism, Peter Koenig, fully supports return of the Greek currency – drachma. He continues his attack against the system, reacting to fears expressed by the Greek citizens:
“How can they still respect the troika? Still want to stay in the Euro? Devaluation (probably between 30% and 50% to be in a favorable [for Greece] negotiating position) would be much better for Greece as a whole. Granted, imports would become more expensive and less available – but that is a small sacrifice for recovery from an otherwise unrecoverable situation. And I mean it – UNRECOVERABLE – perhaps for generations to come. On the other hand, Greece would become much more competitive internationally; a drastically improved export position, attracting more tourism, earning more foreign exchange liquidity – now they have practically none – and gradually being able to turn their positive trade balance into credit liquidity to stimulate local business for local consumption – creating employment, rebuilding a social network – public health services and public education, public pensions and unemployment benefits – all gradual, of course; but it would happen; logically. That is the beauty of the principle “local production for local consumption” – Argentina is a living example.”
On Salamina Island, I speak to an Iraqi refugee, who is now working for European Union as an interpreter:
“People say that nothing will change. But they actually like their new, fiery Prime Minister. It all feels very indecisive here. Between them they say: ‘if someone took our money, then why do we have to suffer from those austerity measures? Some people want drachma; others don’t, thinking that euro is ‘much safer’. Many people left the country – for the US, Australia, Germany. I have friends who left, and I have many friends who lost their jobs. Those who are retired can hardly make ends meet.”
As we speak in a local cafe, people begin forming a small circle around us. Those who speak English are chipping in their thoughts. A man in his late 70’s begins speaking French, then we settle on our broken German:
“Here, we are mainly blaming German banks. And as they are squeezing us, we are recalling the WWII. Greece got never compensated for what Germany did to it. Germany destroyed our country, 70 years ago. We are drawing parallels now: People say: “let’s calculate how much we own them now, and how much they own us?”
Others recall the US support for the Greek military junta. In this case, too, damages were never calculated, and no compensation paid.
The conversation gets fiery. Wine begins to flow.
“Where are you from?” They ask.
“I was born in Russia”, I say.
“Where in Russia?”
“In St. Petersburg… In Leningrad”, I say.
“In Leningrad!” elderly lady shouts. “We like Leningrad more than St. Petersburg.” I definitely like it more, too.
But all this is just emotional. People are injured, scared, and angry. They react spontaneously. Voting a Communist Prime Minister into office is mostly their rebellion, their protest, not necessarily a sign of their ideology.
With my new friends, I try to discuss Latin America and China, but some of them reply with the stereotypical rhetoric carried of the Western mass media.
I search for glimpses of internationalism, of Communism as we know it in Cuba or Venezuela, but it is clearly not there.
Peter Koenig has offered several ways forward:
“Greece has various options. Tsipras-Varoufakis must know them. Perhaps they keep them hidden away until “the last ditch” moment. To begin with, they could have imposed and still can impose strict capital transfer controls, to avoid the outflow of precious capital from Greek oligarchs, capital that eventually is missing for rebuilding Greece’s economy and would need to be replaced by new debt. Although, this is basically against EU’s rule of free transfer of capital, Greece as a sovereign country, can roll back its EU vassal status, take back its sovereignty and do what every reasonable central bank would do in Greece’s situation – impose capital transfer restrictions. After all, the Euro is also – and still is – Greece’s currency.”
“The EU has no interest whatsoever in a Greek exit. In fact, they are afraid of a Grexit, not only because of a potential default on the Greek debt, but it could open a floodgate for other southern European countries in distress to follow the Greek example. That would be the end of the Euro as we know it. It might be the final blow to the dollar-euro house of cards, house of casino money.”
“Greece’s debt today stands at 175 % of her economic output. The best – and only decent and socially as well as economically viable option – is exiting the Eurozone by her own decision. Greece would be declared bankrupt. The Anglo-Saxon rating agencies would be quick in downgrading Greece financially to ‘junk’. The financial markets would shun her. No more money, but utmost pressure to repay what they can. Greece would be in the enviable position of negotiating debt repayment at HER own terms – à la Argentina in 2001.”
“Finally – or perhaps refreshingly – Greece could look east, to the Russia-China alliance. Their assistance under much more reasonable conditions is virtually assured. – Why insisting on following a defunct predatory system, when there are new promising development potentials looming on the horizon?”
On the seashore, in a small fishing village, with former Greek exiles, I discuss the past, particularly Lucas Papademos.
They show me old story from The Telegraph, published in 2011 and titled “Goldman Sachs rules the world”:
“The new president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, and the new Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos all reportedly have the US investment bank as a common denominator… Papademos was involved in Greece’s transition from the drachma to the euro. One of the things that made this transition possible was, of course, a gross exaggeration of the health of Greece’s finances – aided and abetted by advisers from Goldman Sachs who showed Greece how to conceal its debts using complicated financial instruments called swaps.”
“Papademos worked for Goldman Sachs as an advisor”, I am being told. “Then he left, and became Governor of Bank of Greece. He applied for loans; burdened Greece with huge ones… in 2002 Papademos became the Vice President at the European Central Bank. His bosses were Wim Duisenberg, and then Jean-Claude Trichet! That was from 2002 to 2010. And in 2010 it was back to Greece – he served as an economic advisor to Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. Do you see the cycle?”
“German banks landed Greece money. It was all planned…”
We are having more goat cheese, and more wine.
After a while, my friends begin asking me about BRICS. In Greece, it is an unknown territory.
China is also an unknown territory, even Russia. There is actually great sympathy towards Russia, in Greece. But it is an abstract, strictly emotional sympathy.
Like the rest of the continent, Greece is too Eurocentric and too unfamiliar with the rest of the non-Western world. Its media and its education system made it this way.
Greece is in a cage; it is a hostage. The door is actually open. But the country is scared to walk out and face the world. It still prefers to suffer from familiar tyrants, than to encounter the unknown.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.