[MGSA-L] Greece, land of pain and joy

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Sun Apr 24 19:08:38 PDT 2011

  Monday April 25, 2011			Search 	
Greece, land of pain and joy

By Nick Malkoutzis


There are rare moments when a thread of togetherness winds its way
through a country to lift its everyday burdens. Sometimes, these
moments are born from political, sporting or other types of victories.
But victories tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in
people. It’s usually moments of grief or sadness that stoke the purest
of emotions, creating a fleeting sense of community before it’s sucked
into the morass of daily stresses and strains.

Greece experienced such a moment last Sunday when the death of
singer-songwriter and musician Nikos Papazoglou was announced. He was
an unassuming man who made rare public appearances and dodged the
media spotlight. The reaction to his death was a reflection of
people’s love for his pure and passionate music, but it was also a
sign of respect for Papazoglou the human being: as an artist he
shunned commercialism and stayed true to his values and as a man he
remained humble and generous despite his fame.

The reaction to his death was an evanescent moment of hope. Privately
and quietly, people honored a man that represented goodness, honesty,
devotion and humility – the opposite of everything modern Greeks are
purported to represent. It was a moment for those who hold these
qualities dear to let out a cry of frustration at Greece’s plight.
Years earlier, Papazoglou had identified the inner turmoil that many
Greeks feel about their country in his song “Ah Ellada” (Oh Greece).
It professes a love for a contradictory homeland that “blackmails me,
bothers me, casts me off like a bastard and clings onto me.”

It’s an anthem for those who are torn between love for their country
and hate for what it has become. These are the people who live
respectable lives, who are aware of Greece’s ills but who have been
unable to prevent Greece’s demise. The frustration for these people is
that they appear invisible to the outside world. The debt crisis has
led to all Greeks being pigeonholed as liars, cheats, tax dodgers and
beggars. It’s a one-size-fits-all image promulgated by domestic
politicians who want to share the blame with a voiceless accomplice,
by an over-zealous local media that wants to atone for its own murky
role in the country’s slide into the cesspit and by some international
observers who smudge the dividing lines to deliver a neatly-packaged
story, so – as was the case last week – reports on the dispute over
the planned landfill in Keratea are transformed with no regard for
objectivity into stories about hardline resistance to the government’s
austerity measures.

Facts have been a major casualty in this stereotyping but so has the
opportunity for an alternative point of view to be heard. Minds have
been made up and judgments have been passed. Even some members of the
Greek diaspora have hurled invective against their brethren,
displaying self-loathing for a people who have supposedly blackened
the name of Greece and sullied the legacy of the ancient Greeks.

It shows how quickly reputations can be ruined. In 2004, the Greeks
were earning praise from around the world for being worthy
torchbearers of the ideals born in Ancient Olympia. Of course, few
people outside Greece then were concerned about what organizing the
Athens Olympics cost. It’s only when you’re broke that people become
experts on what you should or should not have spent your money on. It
also gives them license to address you with all kinds of epithets. So,
Greeks were labeled corrupt en masse with no regard for the fact that
the serious graft was carried out by a small group of politicians,
public officials and businessmen, and that much of it took place with
the help of foreigners from countries that today preach to Greece
about how it should follow the righteous path.

There was a poignant moment this month when on the same day (April 11)
there were significant legal developments in Munich and Washington
regarding the payment of kickbacks in Greece. In Germany, two former
managers at Ferrostaal were charged with paying bribes of more than 62
million euros to win submarine orders in Greece and Portugal. In the
USA, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $70 million to settle charges
that it paid bribes to win business in Greece and several other
countries. It was a reminder that claims that Greeks are somehow more
genetically conditioned to be corrupt than others are as racist as
they sound. It takes two for an illegal transaction to happen and
Greeks were never short of willing partners from abroad.

All these suspect deals were paid for by Greek taxpayers – the same
taxpayers that now stand accused of being immoral themselves thanks to
the misconception that tax evasion in Greece is a “national sport.”
The truth is that it’s a game played by a minority, albeit a
significant one. Civil servants and private sector employees, who make
up roughly three quarters of the country’s 4.4 million workforce –
have their wages taxed at source and contribute their fair share.
There is, however, considerable tax evasion among the 1 million or so
self-employed – particularly the top earners in that group – and among
businesses, where entire sectors such as gas stations enjoyed a free
ride for decades. This is starting to change but it does nothing to
alleviate the exasperation felt by millions of Greeks who have always
paid their way but are nevertheless regarded as swindlers.

If these people are not being branded cheats, then they are accused of
being accessories to the plundering of public coffers, the haphazard
handing out of state sector jobs and the construction of a corrupt
state by voting for governments that carried all this out with
impunity. This charge is difficult to deny, at least in relation to
the years that Greece has not been under a dictatorship or operating
as a foreign protectorate. Each citizen has to accept a portion of the
blame for the country’s plight but that portion cannot be equal among
all. There are those who have profited directly from their political
choices and they must carry the heaviest burden.

To those who say that Greeks deserve everything they get because they
voted for corrupt governments, one could point out that not so many
years ago, a relatively young man reformed his party and ran for
office on the promise of stamping out corruption and tidying up public
finances. He comfortably won a general election largely on the back of
these promises. His name was Costas Karamanlis and his administration
turned out to be one of the most disastrous in recent history as
corruption grew and public finances imploded during his five years in
power. It’s one of the defects of democracy that quite often the
people you vote for in the hope they will improve things turn out to
be huge disappointments. Greeks, for example, could just as easily
look at other countries and wonder what possessed Americans to
re-elect George W. Bush or Italians to persist with Silvio Berlusconi
as their leader.

In reality, Greeks have no more of a predilection for poor rulers or
bad governments than people elsewhere. Nor do they have a pathological
tendency to lie, which is another accusation that has been thrown at
them as a result of the furor over the country’s economic statistics.
Again, this is a misinterpretation of the facts because Greece’s dodgy
deficit forecasts revealed an institutional weakness within the
eurozone rather than a weakness of character among Greeks. The
revision of Greece’s deficit forecast when PASOK came to power in
October 2009 was the result of a political fudge rather than a
statistical trick. Like all eurozone governments, the Greek one sent
its deficit forecasts as well as its statistics to Brussels to be
checked. Although both sets of figures were dispatched by the
country’s statistical service, the deficit forecast was drawn up by
the Finance Ministry and was simply forwarded by the statisticians.
The process was open to political exploitation and the New Democracy
government, about to fight a general election, chose to present a
rosier picture of the economy than was actually the case. The incident
has prompted the European Commission to introduce stricter oversight
rules but a whole people remain stigmatized, dismissed as liars,
because of weak rules and even weaker rulers.

It may be this sense of injustice that prompted six Greeks to take
legal action this week against Germany’s Focus magazine, which in
February 2010 published a front page featuring a statue of the goddess
Aphrodite displaying her middle finger to the world next to the
headline “Swindlers in the Euro family.” The magazine ran a feature
about Greece’s “2,000 years of decline,” including reports of tax
fraud and failed construction projects. The six Greeks who are suing
the journalists involved for libel and defamation allege the article
included false claims and was insulting to the Greek people. It could
be the first attempt to restore some balance to the criticism of
Greece and its people.

The accusations leveled against Greece have been grave given that its
economy makes up less than 3 percent of the eurozone and it amassed a
huge public debt in full view of its partners and lenders, both of
whom are now profiting from providing it with the money to stave off
bankruptcy. Germany, by its own estimates, is making a profit of 600
million euros a year on the money it has lent as part of Greece’s
bailout package, while investors are purchasing Greek bonds at record

Greece, as a country, broke the rules but the price is being paid by a
lot of people who are innocent of the charges of corruption,
selfishness and mendacity indiscriminately leveled against them. Those
who criticize and curse Greece should be in no doubt that Greeks are
suffering for the mistakes of the past: they are losing their jobs,
having their wages cut, paying higher taxes, seeing their pensions
slashed, watching their labor rights being eroded and are living with
constant uncertainty about what the future holds.

Contrary to popular belief, many of these people have followed the
rules, paid their taxes, made their pension contributions and stood
for what is right. Some of them have been snared in the cogs of a
misfiring and malfunctioning system. Some have their hands full trying
to eke out a living in trying circumstances. Others have given up hope
of being anything more than hostages to the egoism of the few. But
there are those who keep the hope alive, who persevere and remain true
to their beliefs, as Nikos Papazoglou did. The reaction to his death,
the coming together of minds and souls, was ephemeral but it was a
reminder that decent and passionate people exist and that there might
be enough of them to turn this country around. “The sweetest homeland
is the heart... whose sacred earth is pain and joy,” he sang in “Ah
Ellada.” Those who really love Greece have suffered enough pain. They
deserve to share in some joy.
ekathimerini.com , Saturday April 23, 2011 (16:50)

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com

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