I feel like an orphan. An unemployed youth in London staring at a screen, trying to make out how a country – her country – entered such a state of dissolution.
Within 48 hours a referendum was announced and the world leaders were left bewildered to witness the agreement they had just reached with the Greek Prime Minster George Papandreou go down the drain. Then the Greek parties angrily expressed their opposition to such a measure. The world leaders, angered too for different reasons, demanded that the question to be posed should be if the country wants to remain a member of the Eurozone. Then the members of the Prime Minister’s PASOK party were infuriated and refused to back up the Prime Minister. The opposition is demanding his resignation. Papandreou refuses to resign and seems to be searching for a heroic exit from the situation. As a friend said: “two, three hours ago I stopped pretending that all this is true and I enjoy the situation as a huge, ingenious farce”.
She is not the only one experiencing such feelings. The majority of the people around me express a mixture of disgust, surprise, disbelief and slight amusement. Deep inside, they all share a sense of disappointment and humiliation. They have lost part of their national pride and alongside, part of their self-esteem.
Greeks feel both love and pride for their country. Greece (“Ellada”) in the local language is a feminine noun and as a woman, she is the fairest of all. Her seas are crystal blue and her mountains green. Her sun is warm and her rain is soft. Her womb is full of wonders: black olives and sweet grapes, juicy tomatoes and golden wheat. She would never let you hungry or thirsty. When you are tired and sad, she will make her lakes glow and her birds sing for your pleasure. She is attentive like your mother, devoted like your lover.
Seeing such a divine creature being treated like a poor relative makes people lower their heads in shame.
Nobody doubts that the Greek system was dysfunctional. Actually, that was quite obvious. Money trusted to the politicians from the European Union to improve the infrastructure and increase the competitiveness of the country mysteriously disappeared. Equally mysteriously the country became one of the primary importers of Porsche Cayenne. Nobody controlled anything, nobody bothered.
At the same time, people were getting acquainted with a new lifestyle. Where once savings were highly praised, banks started offering loans for everything: cars, school fees, housing, vacations, luxury goods. The word “lifestyle” entered the Greek vocabulary and raised the social expectations for a high standard of living. Consumers were spending like there was no tomorrow. However, they were also working long hours. Education was a highly regarded value, a way out of poverty. The average Greek speaks two to three languages (granted, with a thick accent) and most likely holds some short of higher education certificate. The country was undergoing an economic and construction boom and the future was full of promise.
The young people’s parents, who had lived in the pre-European Union Greece with the political instability and poverty, tried to make the best out of these new conditions. They would offer their votes to politicians in exchange for a position in the public sector for their child. Their civic duty to safeguard meritocracy came second to the benefit of their offspring. Similar phenomena were and are common in every end of the public sector, from the army, where every Greek man is summoned to serve upon reaching adulthood, to the trafficking police. There was no measure, no sense of measure and neither the politicians or the civil society seemed willing to put an end to it. Some efforts made were quickly abandoned. People desired change but contributed little to it.
When reality blew into people’s faces two years ago, the situation sounded like a bad joke. Nobody was prepared for such a swift change of political rhetoric. Before the 2009 elections, Papandreou was claiming that “there is plenty of money available”. After the elections the national treasuries were found empty. We had finally reached the bottom of the seemingly bottomless barrel and everybody was left stunned. Greeks went to bed as investors in bonds and woke up as partners in a hedge fund. The country was going down. And it was going down fast.
It is tragic to witness something like this even from a(n) (insecure) distance. First your parents sound worried. Then your brothers are stressed. Then your friends have gotten desperate. You go back home for a few days and people’s eyes are empty, emotionless. Words seemingly belonging to the history books, such as national unity, division, bankruptcy, transitional government, make a violent return to the vocabulary of journalists and politicians alike. You try breathlessly to decipher the overwhelming volume of messages you receive and begin to wonder which other terrifying words could soon invade your life.
If indirect democracy is based on a binding contract between the citizens and the government that bestows power to the politicians so that they can build a prosperous future for the people, then this generation of Greek politicians, or at least its majority, has failed in all their diffidence. The end of the post Cold-war era with all its high hopes, ideals and bitter disappointments seems to be coming to an end.
It’s late at night and rain is falling heavy outside my window, cleaning the dirt off the streets. Is this a sign?