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Archive for July, 2015

If I were a Greek watching the coverage of the Greek crisis by the British media I would be inclined to believe that someone in Britain was orchestrating a massive campaign to ensure a No vote in our own referendum on EU membership by blackening its name for causing the ruin of Greece. Its accusers range from The Spectator‘s Charles Moore (poor little Greece, July 4) to David Davis MP (he would, wouldn’t he), Paul Mason of Channel 4 News, who sees pro-Syriza demonstrators as “ordinary Greeks” and pro-EU ones as “cashmere-wearing nouveaux riches, “ and Jenni Russell in The Times (July 2) who thinks that Syriza, “not yet corrupted…is the country’s best hope for genuine change.”

Or is it Putin, who wants a warm sea port and free supplies of feta cheese? Remember Encounter!

Jenni Russell does at least have the wisdom to see that the real problem is Greece’s political culture: in effect, bad habits learnt as the only available means of protection against the arbitrary and despotic rule of the Ottoman sultans under whose yoke they lived, along with much of the Balkans and the Middle East, for several centuries. The state is used as a mechanism for enriching “your” people, through dispensing patronage, in the form of jobs, contracts and so on. Samaras, the last PM, visited by a proud schoolfriend when first elected in 1981, was found to be going through lists of constituents to whom he had promised jobs: something that all MPs have done. A regional police commander, for example, will receive “sweeteners” (a lamb at Easter and Aug 15th perhaps) from shepherds who twice a year pass through his territory on their transhumant journey, as an insurance against trouble he might otherwise cause them for trespassing on other farmers’ land.

Since the state is not to be trusted you learn to rely on family and long-established networks of favours given and received or on outright bribery. If you want a favourable outcome in a lawsuit you pay the judge. If you want your tax bill reduced you pay the tax man…if you pay tax at all. Out of 800,000 registered freelance professionals (this includes doctors, lawyers, language school owners), 500,000 claim not to earn more than €8,000, the threshold for income tax. If you want to pass an exam you buy the questions in advance. I was investigated twice by London University’s chief exam security officer on suspicion of selling A-level questions.

There is a finely calibrated vocabulary to describe all these gradations of what we think of as dishonesty. We know we are doing wrong, in a sense, but volevòmaste. We make a sort of accommodation with our conscience; after all everyone else is doing it too. But people, like foreign journalists who cannot speak Greek, do not see any of this and therefore fail to understand what the Greeks themselves call the “Greek reality,” the ellinikì pragmatikòtita . Yet this is what has brought about Greece’s undoing. It is no fault of the Germans, who also, let us not forget, have voters to think about before lavishly disbursing their money.

As for the idea that Syriza “is the country’s best hope for genuine change,” well, that is a bit of a teaser. Schauble, Germany’s economics minister, found that negotiating with Tsipras and co was like dealing with student activists, which is exactly what Tsipras has been – all his life. In fact his government has just reinstated a law that allows student organisations to control universities and students to remain students for years without passing their exams, while himself personally intervening to prevent the introduction of electronic voting at elections. So much harder, after all, to intimidate the reluctant than it is when having a show of hands at the factory gate.

The Kathimerini newspaper recently carried an article about tsapatsoulià, that characteristic Greek way of doing business: botch it up, make it up, improvise something at the last minute. It is a word of Turkish origin. Once, trying to replace a spark plug, I showed the old one to the spare parts man. He returned with one plainly not the same. When I demurred, he replied, “It’s a spark plug, isn’t it?” A friend trying to get noticed by the post office clerk leaned over the counter to see what she was doing. She had a bowl of lentils on her lap which she was cleaning. She held it out. “Do you have a family?” she said belligerently.

I suspect Tsipras went into those negotiations in rather the same way, with ill-thought out proposals written on the back of a cigarette packet. No wonder the Troika lost patience with him, especially when the minute he left room he accused them of blackmail and criminality. And why would they trust him when he comes from a political tradition that has been resolutely anti-US, anti-NATO and, latterly, anti-EU? Indeed, why should one believe that he went into the negotiations with any kind of sincerity when failure allows him to preserve the “purity” of his ideological commitments, which seems to be closer to his heart than the long-term interest of the nation? And you would think that his ideological references might give his English fans some pause: the Communist Party of the 1940s with its kangaroo People’s Courts and summary executions of class enemies and its incessant attacks on other Resistance groups of different political persuasion.

People are suffering, that is for sure – though let us not examine the veracity of the statistics too closely – and you can certainly argue about the wisdom of the Troika’s proposed solutions to the Greek problem, but to suggest they caused it is both absurd and extraordinarily irresponsible. Six months with Tsipras’s hand on the till have made matters very much worse.

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