Archive for January, 2013

Oh Greece, Greece, who is to blame for all your ills? Once it was the Turks, then it was the English, then America and the CIA, then Angela Merkel and the cruel Germans…That was only yesterday. Today it is those wicked Greeks on the Lagarde list:  some two thousand people with bank accounts at HSBC in Switzerland who have been robbing the Greek exchequer of millions of euros owed in tax.

Well, maybe. But it should be said that anyone born in Greece before about 1975, who had the means and did not get any spare money out of the country or turn it into gold sovereigns and bury it in the garden was an idiot! For the simple reason that the political history of Greece through the first half of the twentieth century was an endless series of coups, dictatorships, invasions, civil wars and general uncertainty about what might be going to happen next.

And, secondly, as I have pointed out many times before: while it may be true that the rich profit most from dishonesty, dishonesty is practiced routinely and without remorse or shame by everyone living in Greece. Without it, it is not possible to live.

I recently spent a week staying with farmer friends in a small village in Macedonia. They told me – and I checked this story with several different people – that retired tobacco farmers are still receiving €2000 per year in subsidies even though it may be ten years since they last stuck a tobacco plant in the ground; and tobacco was a state monopoly anyway with all sorts of fixed prices and acreages that bore no relation to what was produced or how it was produced. And how many others are pocketing EU subsidies for non-existing crops and animals?

One of the women in the family is a primary school teacher. She told me that a teacher like herself can retire after twenty years’ service with a €40,000 lump sum and a full pension for ever. I heard stories of people retiring early from other public service positions with lump sums of €80,000. Not dishonest, you might say, but somewhat profligate on the part of a state as bankrupt as Greece.

The HQ of the local frontier guards – a body set up to “control” clandestine immigration from Albania – was close to where I was staying. Its personnel were apparently recruited in a somewhat haphazard manner, the local chief being a former teacher. Rather than patrolling the remote frontier areas of the mountains, he chose to “raid” all the local sheep farmers who were known to be employing Albanian workers, many of them no longer illegal but properly registered, with official papers. He would carry them off in spite of their employers’ protests and take them to the frontier where, for €200 per person, he would offer to let them return to their jobs. Was he fired when this behaviour became known? No: merely moved to another district.

One evening I was comparing prices in the Thessaloniki fruit and veg market with London. The stall-holder approached and we started talking. I said I thought prices had gone down a bit since Greece’s economic woes had started.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s the Germans. They are deliberately driving down all the prices in Greece, houses, land, islands. They want to buy everything up and take over.”

I said I thought it was a bit unlikely that the Germans wanted to buy a place that was in such a mess. I told him the story of the tobacco farmers and their subsidies. I said, “You can’t blame the Germans for things like that. How is Greece ever going to get out of this mess if no one will take any responsibility for what has happened?”

“Take my son,” he said. “He has just finished Thessaloniki university, with the best marks in physics. There are not any jobs here. The Americans have taken him from us.”

“But that will be good for him,” I said. “There is money there for research. He’ll be able to do things he could never do here. It is hard for you, seeing your child go away but it is not very far. I have lots of Greek friends who have spent their professional lives in the US and they come back home all the time on holiday.”

No. America had stolen his son, just one more example of foreign malevolence towards Greece.

It is not long since asking a village café or gas station for a receipt would have produced a look of shock such as you might expect from a person whose mother you had just called a whore.

A thousand things…How many drivers who have never been anywhere close  to a sheep or a wheat stalk are driving “agricultural” vehicles bought at huge discounts? How many farmers pay no tax? For years after the Civil War governments exempted them, presumably as a ploy for buying their favour and “pacifying” the countryside.

Foreign journalists rarely speak Greek, so cannot hear these stories for themselves. And even the ones that do rarely seem to leave their downtown Athens comfort zone.

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