Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Sounding Off. An Essay.

This contents of this post (with perhaps some changes) will actually appear as chapter 4 in the upcoming new book "A Jay in the Jacaranda Tree", which is a memoir of over a decade of living on Rhodes (we moved here from the UK in 2005). I thought I'd shove some excerpts from the book on the blog from time to time.

Right now I'm up to a little over 10,000 words in writing the book. This is the only chapter that's perhaps not so centred around day-to-day living, just in case it puts you off!
Anyway, here goes...

4. Politics

Let me preface this piece by explaining my stance on this subject. Firstly, I'm a rather apolitical animal. You may or may not agree with me, but then, isn't that what freedom of expression's all about?

Example: why is it that some so-called democratic countries actually punish those who don't vote with fines or even prison sentences? That's not democracy in my book, it's totalitarianism. If someone exercises their right (which it should be in a true democracy) not to vote then that is democracy in action.

I have a CD by Steve Earle, the American musician, and on the sleeve notes it says “If you don't vote – don't beef”. I think he sums it up rather succinctly there. If someone chooses not to vote then that very course of action is a “vote” for non-involvement. It's a right that is implied by the very notion of democracy. The key is, those who don't vote have no right to beef. I accept that. If you're going to gripe about the government or its policies and decisions, then you have to have voted. Otherwise you have forfeited the right to be involved in any debate. But to make that decision has to be a fundamental right in a free society.

So, in this chapter I'm coming at it as a bemused observer, a political layman if you like, which is probably what most ex-pat Brits who come here are, at least at the outset.

When we arrived in Greece in summer 2005 everything seemed rosy in the garden. Kostas Karamanlis and his New Democracy party were in power and most people had no idea what was brewing behind the scenes. No doubt there were folk in the know, like the bloke who became Finance Minister under the first ever Syriza government which took power in January of 2015, Yanis Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, but most people had no inkling of what was to come.

See, the first thing I notice that's wrong with the system here is that there are simply too many parties. There are so many that it's an incredibly difficult task for any individual party to win an overall majority in an election. In fact, something that many are unaware of is that Syriza, who are in power under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras while I write this, is in fact not a party at all, but rather a coalition of at least six parties. Even if you count Syriza as one party (which as you've just seen - it isn't) these are the current political parties existing and campaigning every time there's an election in Greece:

New Democracy
Golden Dawn
Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK)
Communist Party of Greece
The River (not so far as I am aware, a tribute to the great Bruce Springsteen album)
Independent Greeks (ANEL)
Union of Centrists (EK)
Popular Unity
Ecologist Greens
Democratic Left
Christian Democratic Party of the Overthrow (XRIKA)
Reformers for Democracy and Development
Course of Freedom
Society First
Popular Unions of Bipartisan Social Groups
Popular Orthodox Rally
Movement of Democratic Socialists
More souvlaki for the downtrodden (OK, I made that one up)... about twenty more (true!).

Get the picture? In the USA there are two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. In the UK, granted, there are a few more, but by and large it's still a three or four horse race. Even then, the UK has recently seen a coalition government go virtually the full term when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were uneasy bedfellows from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition government in the UK since the Second World War.

Looking at the picture here in Greece one can see from the outset how unstable the system is. Small wonder that election follows election as no party finds it easy to win a clear majority. Of course the same applies here as in virtually every other democratic country on the planet too, which is: once a party wins the general election there's the short honeymoon period when their supporters shout about how the world's now going to be an infinitely better place. A few months then pass and it becomes clear that no miracles are going to be worked and the disillusionment sets in. Before long there are calls for another general election, people want 'change' and off we go again. Animal Farm.

Never has the expression 'talk is cheap' been more true than during election campaigns. 

Of course Mr. Karamanlis, on realising that something was soon going to hit the fan, especially as his party had presided over the vast expenditure of cash the country didn't have that was the staging of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, called an election in 2009 in full awareness that he'd be defeated. That gave him the chance to get out of the kitchen owing to the intense heart that was building day on day. PASOK got in under the new leader George Papandreou and he very soon declared to the country the truth about the state of the Greek finances that his government had inherited.

There are various opinions about what happened then, including some scathing verdicts about George Papandreou. Frankly, as an unbiased observer, it seemed to me that he was one of that rare breed, an honest politician. He told his country how bad things were, declared that there would need to be some draconian measures taken to try and fix the problem and then went to the country again owing to all the cries of no confidence in him. These cries seemed to me to be a result of people not liking the truth when they heard it. I heard a speech that he gave when he'd not been in power for long. In it he said, in essence, “I'm going to do what's right for the country, no matter whether it's popular or not, no matter what it may mean for my position as Prime Minister, or indeed my political career. I'm going to do what needs to be done and it's going to hurt all of us.”

Result? In the ensuing election he was voted out. Then came a “government of national unity” that was anything but. Then Mr. Samaras, the new leader of the New Democracy party was asked to form a government, also a coalition, then came the Syriza era under Mr. Tsipras. Syriza was elected on a “no more austerity” ticket, which just about sums up all that's wrong with democracy. I'd liken the situation to a family. Let's face it, there are many similarities. A country needs to live alongside its neighbours and trade with them. It needs to earn its living in the world and 'cut the coat according to the cloth'. No cloth means no coat.

Put it this way, a set of parents give their son £10 per week pocket money. Then the father loses his job. Now with only one income coming in they can barely pay the mortgage and scarcely feed the three of them from week to week. Dad and mum say to their son, “Son, we can no longer give you £10 per week while the economic situation is as it is. You'll have to make do with £4 until we see more money coming into the house, whenever that may be.” The son says, “I'm not having this! I want my £10 and you'd better give it to me.” Where's that £10 going to come from? It's simply not there. Mr. Tsipras was elected on a similar wave of the public's refusal to accept the reality of the situation. The public don't want to see their income reduced. That's understandable of course. But if the country's budget is over-stretched, if the balance of payments is so seriously in the red, there isn't much any government can do about it.

Here is where I return to the “talk is cheap” analogy. It's so easy for a party to campaign with a raft of promises because these are mere words. The facts are that whatever Syriza promised, (we'll kick out the Troika, we'll stop reducing pensions, we'll do this and we'll do that...”) it was never going to be able to deliver, but the public elected them because the'd been told what they wanted to hear. Going back to Mr. Papandreou, he told them the truth (“Son, it'll have to be £4 from now on”) and the public didn't want to hear it.

Democracy is where millions of people, largely ignorant of the facts, make decisions based upon their own desire not to see their pocket money reduced. Of course one should have sympathy for the son in the illustration and for the public in cash-strapped Greece. The facts, however, are harsh and the reality clear – everyone in the country will have to suffer fiscally for many years, possible for some peoples' lifetimes, before the country is back on its feet, if it ever will be. If a child runs the family home then disaster is the sure and only result in the end.

I get asked all the time “how has the crisis affected you?” Lots of people also like to opine before even asking. That's why the numbers of people from northern Europe taking their summer holidays in Greece dropped once “austerity” kicked in. Vastly over-exaggerated stories about conditions here in Greece were circulated in the media in the UK, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia etc. - all the countries which form the backbone of the Greek tourism industry.

For instance, as a part time job I do a few excursions during the summer season. Without exception, every week for the past few years, especially soon after the news broke about how bad things were financially for Greece, I've found myself having the same conversation with guests from those countries referred to above. Usually my guests are die-hard Grecophiles who will come to Greece whatever happens because they love the country. They are usually sensible enough to see through all the hyped up lies in the media. Yet so many of them have said to me, “Our friends back home were horrified when we told them we were coming to Greece. They said things like 'You're going THERE? Is it SAFE? Surely there's no money in the Bank ATMs, no food in the hotels and tavernas, widespread begging on the streets, crime and violence everywhere.”

I'm not exaggerating. Repeat visitors have told me how, when they got home from the previous holiday here on Rhodes, their neighbours, workmates or family said things like “Aren't you glad to be back home. It must have been awful for you.”

OK, so it's a little different on the islands from the cities and the mainland, but all the same, my wife and I spent three days staying at a hotel slap bang in the centre of Athens in July 2014 and still we felt it a safer city to walk around at night than London. You know what a perip'tero is, its one of those kiosks that sells newspapers, drinks, confectionery and cigarettes and they're to be found along pavements all over Greece. We walked back from Monastira'ki to our hotel, which was situated on the street that leads from Omonia Square to Syntagma (you can't get much more downtown that that) after midnight and those kiosks were closed for the night. Most of them have wooden eaves around which are hung the current copies of newspapers and magazine, attached to a string with wooden clothes pegs. As we walked home in the streets the shutters on the two or three perip'tera that we passed were rolled down, but the papers and magazines had been left on those pegs for the night. With no wish to denigrate my home country (and hopefully avoid kneejerk comments from UK readers), I can't see anyone doing such a thing there. Those periodicals would have been trashed, stolen or possibly set alight.

On the islands the vast majority of tourists who have decided to come for their holidays will tell you that it was as enjoyable as ever. The sunshine is still the same, the cuisine is the same, the welcoming people are the same and the scenery too. For many people on holiday, if they didn't know there was a crisis they'd probably never have guessed.

As for us ex-pats living here, each must tell his or her own story. In our case the only appreciable effect that the financial crisis has had on us has been the cost of fuelling up the car. When we arrived in August 2005, petrol (OK... gasoline, guys) was about 85 cents per litre. That translated into around 60p in the UK, where it was selling for more like 90p. So in effect we were paying 60% of the UK price for our petrol. Today, in December 2016 we're probably paying 120% of what we'd be paying in the UK. Of course we have Greek friends who are on pensions who have seen their income cut by 40%. We have friends working in the tourism industry, especially those working in hotels, who have been made to wait for their wages for months at a time.

As for that last fact, I could be quite wrong but I see it as the greedy hotel owners using the financial crisis as an excuse. The hotels to this day are still doing a roaring trade and the cash is flowing in thick and fast. Too many lowly staff (room cleaners, bar staff, waiters and waitresses) have been paid perhaps for the first month or two of the season, say May and June, then been told that they can't be paid until the end of the season or even later. It's scandalous and puts these hardworking people under extreme financial duress. Many of these folk are Albanians or Bulgarians and live in rented accommodation. By the time the season ends they are several months behind with their rent and have been borrowing money to do their food shopping. They haven't been able to pay their electricity bills. Yet all the time they cheerfully serve the hotel guests as these laze around the pools and eat and drink to their heart's content in complete ignorance regarding what the staff who serve them are enduring.

At one hotel near us here in Kiotari, a couple of seasons ago an Albanian friend of ours organised a staff walk-out during September. None of the waged staff had received a bean since the end of June and they were desperate. In Rhodes town there is even reputed to be a union representing hotel workers, but for all the good it does it may as well be selling souvlaki. What did the hotel management do? They sacked all the strikers with immediate effect and hired new ones. There are that many people out there wiling to work in such conditions. In fact, our friend told us that he was owed a couple of thousand Euros when he was fired. He eventually got called into the hotel in November and told he'd have to accept €900 or nothing. That was the first actual income he'd received since the end of June. On top of that, each time he applied for a job for the following season he discovered that the hotel owners and management had been circulating his name to ensure that he didn't get hired. He has a wife and two children under ten by the way.

Eventually a restaurateur in Pefkos gave him a job, but not until he'd had to beg to be given the chance to prove what a good worker he was. Whilst my sister and her husband were out here staying with us we went out to eat there and saw for ourselves just how good our friend was at his job. He was the one smiling and laughing with the guests, while it was all the owner could do to acknowledge a “good evening” from his guests with a grunt.

Returning to politics then, as is par for the course, after 23 months in government Syriza is now being called a bunch of liars and Alexis Tsipras a betrayer. He got in on a wave of bravado. He was going to tell Europe what was what. Greece wasn't going to be bullied. Greece wasn't going to kow tow. After a visit or two to Brussels he and his finance minister at the time, Mr. Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, soon got their reality check and discovered what life was like in the real world. The compromises that the PM agreed were too much for Yanis Varoufakis, who subsequently resigned. Give the man his due, he wanted to stick to his principles, something that most politicians find it simply impossible to do.

Where will Greece be in five years time, ten years time? The only thing I can say, in my humble, layman's opinion is this: Greece needs tourists, so please come.


  1. Bravo John - great piece. Looking forward to your next book to complete my collection once again. We were in Crete when everything fell apart and were appalled at how much Greek money fled the country. Our Cretan friends were furious at the treatment of the journalist who broke the story (I think it was known as the Lagard list) about the wealthy Greeks abandoning their country and countrymen.

  2. Really interesting article John, explained in layman's terms. I am sure Andrew Marr would have made an entire book out of this last 2 years in Greek politics but not been half as clear.

    It would be interesting to know the hotel blacklisting people in Kiotari along with the snarling restauranteur In Pefkos so I can avoid in future.

    Your blog continues to light up the gloom of a British winter.

    1. Barry, owing to the fact that (as they used to say in the war) walls have ears, I chose not to be specific about the hotel where the strike took place or the restaurant that eventually gave our friend a job. If you (or anyone else who's maybe interested) would like to know, perhaps PM me, eh? A nod's as good as a wink.

  3. I would like a privately emailed nod please John.