By Nikos Konstandaras
In the middle of the political storm that rocked Greece last week, the International Herald Tribune and Kathimerini (partners for the past 13 years) hosted a conference in Athens titled “Greece: Emergence from the crisis?” Participants had the good fortune and the misfortune to find themselves close to the center of the drama that has made Greece top news around the world for most of the past year-and-a-half. The organizers were forced to change location to avoid having their government guests run the gauntlet of protesters at Syntagma Square, only to have all of the participating government ministers and the leader of the opposition pull out. Thursday, the opening day of the conference, was suddenly the day of a cabinet reshuffle and no one knew what to expect. And so, businessmen, academics and representatives of international organizations that deal with Greece took center stage to present their views, to interact with each other and to respond to questions from journalists and the audience. It would seem that the political crisis, along with the absence of politician guests, led to conclusions that may be more useful and direct than those that would have emerged from a conference in a quieter period.
So what were the conclusions? Greece suffers from a lack of political leadership and strategy; citizens don’t trust politicians and have not been persuaded the policy being followed is the right one nor that it has brought any positive results so far; despite the country’s potential for development and prosperity, Greece cannot attract foreign direct investment (in fact, its own entrepreneurs choose to invest abroad) and is dependant on more and more loans; bureaucracy, corruption and the inefficiency of the public sector consume huge amounts of money and undermine every development effort; tax evasion is rampant, whereas law-abiding citizens are trapped in a tax system that is exorbitant, complicated and arbitrary, just as the laws are a tangled web and their enforcement selective. The overriding sense was that the Greek crisis is not a recent development — it has been running for decades. The biggest problems — which led to the current mess — required neither money nor great political minds to be solved. They needed some common sense, personal and collective responsibility and the political will to carry out reforms when the need arose.
Books will be published and doctorates awarded on research into how a country that managed to become a member of the eurozone, that staged a very successful Olympic Games in 2004, which has a talented, well-educated and industrious population, should fall so low, so fast. In this narrative, last week could serve as a distillation of the causes and symptoms of the crisis. On Monday, Standard & Poor’s demoted Greece’s credit rating to the lowest of the 126 countries that it grades. On Wednesday, during a strike and riotous protests against the government’s economic policies, Prime Minister George Papandreou made an incredibly stupid mistake: He accepted the challenge from the leader of the opposition, Antonis Samaras, to give up his position so that a coalition government could be formed — and then he backed down and stayed in his post. Papandreou displayed his frivolity and Samaras his persistence in making demands that the government cannot meet. On Thursday, facing spreading dissent in his party, Papandreou was forced to call an emergency meeting of his parliamentary group, where he managed to bring things under control. (On the same day, almost as a footnote, Parliament’s finance committee approved the government’s midterm economic program, with only government MPs voting for it). On Friday, the new Cabinet that was announced revealed that Papandreou was forced to set aside ministers who were his personal choices and to upgrade party dissidents, in an effort to bridge differences. He failed to create a coalition with the opposition, now he was attempting to achieve it within his own party.
Cooperation between the two main parties, a precondition for further support from our creditors, appears less likely than ever. This could hold up the reforms that would release new agents of growth in the economy (unless the new economy minister, Evangelos Venizelos, who has the weight and the ambition to enforce change, takes it upon himself to make the reforms work).
So, what can be done? Perhaps Greeks are sick of hearing about Turkey’s success, but it is useful to remember that the current boom was born of the terrible economic crisis that our neighbor’s politicians caused 10 years ago. It was then that those same politicians summoned a technocrat from the World Bank, Kemal Dervis, and committed themselves to implementing whatever reforms he proposed. Dervis was finance minister for just one-and-a-half years, but today’s government in Ankara is still following the course he set — with spectacular results in terms of growth.
Every country, though, has its own way. We are still looking for ours.