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Fistfights in the garbage

By Nikos Konstandaras

Something seems to be changing in our partners' view of the Greek problem. Even the toughest of our creditors have come to understand that there is no use in continually demanding austerity, that Greek society is bleeding, that if they want to save the eurozone they will have to save Greece and that this requires sacrifices on their part, too. The question now is whether we are ready to save ourselves, to gain something from our sacrifices, or whether we will remain stuck in our familiar dead-ends.

Having gained plenty of experience regarding Greece, our partners have committed themselves to helping reduce our debt, and to loaning us what they had promised, on condition that we stick closely to our commitments. In the Eurogroup's statement on the issue last week, there were 17 direct or indirect references to this conditionality. We get nothing if we don't first meet the conditions.

Again, though, our partners are working with a kind of rationalism that we are not yet acquainted with. Seeing that previous agreements did not have the required effect instead, Greece kept sinking in recession and despair they changed their views, they changed tack. Maybe because they are in a position of power, where their decisions actually change things, the leaders of the EU's strong economies understand the weight of their responsibility with regard to saving the euro and united Europe. Maybe that is why they can change course and try to correct mistakes. Maybe because we Greeks continue to feel that others are responsible for our fate, we do not look likely to change our mentality, our course, even if it is we who suffer the consequences of inaction.

The most striking example of this absurdity is the situation at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, where garbage has been piling up all over the campus for the past 10 weeks. Only Aristophanes could have come up with such a great metaphor for Greek exceptionalism. A labor dispute between workers and the company with the contract for cleaning the university resulted in workers taking over the administration building, garbage piling up out of control, volunteers who tried to clean up being attacked by students supporting the strikers (and the dumping on campus of whatever garbage had been collected), the principal first being with the strikers then calling in police, police raiding the university, clearing the administration building, the workers returning and blocking entrance to the building, and so on. However justified the strike may be, when two months have passed and no progress has been made, one would expect that at least some of the protagonists would realize the impasse and a road for compromise would open. Not in Greece. We see the same mindless drive to a dead end in every protest including that by judges and prosecutors, whose relentless go-slow over the past few months has choked up an already messed-up justice system.

Citizens have every right to protest and demand solutions to their problems. But the state has the responsibility of assuring the smooth functioning of society; this is the duty of every institution, its functionaries and citizens themselves. Greece's problem is that we grew accustomed to leaving issues to fester, avoiding the responsibility of dealing with them, waiting for life to sort them out. This mentality lead to bankruptcy, to the ghettos in parts of Athens, to the inequalities between groups of citizens and different professions, to a fatal familiarity with illegality.

The political system, with its own absurdities, provokes a dangerous cynicism in citizens, who cannnot accept that the parties responsible for decades of mismanagement can now save the country. People are angry and desperate. The main opposition party excels at its own absurd bluffing. You keep threatening us with disaster if we don't accept new measures, but we have had no such disaster, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras accuses the government hiding the fact that tough measures have been taken (and that although they have caused much pain and little progress, they have kept Greece in the eurozone). With half-truths, Tsipras professes to unveil the government's bluff and then bluffs that, as soon as he is in power, he will undo all the measures and Greece will return to prosperity and the ways of justice. Other parties again (the Communists and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, from their extreme positions) fight the system from within, declaring that they oppose it while exploiting all its benefits. Who can the citizens trust?

Europe has finally seen the political and European aspect of our problem. If only we too could see it and understand that in saving ourselves we help save Europe. If the government shows determination and acts with justice, if the main opposition party shows that it sees the reality of problems, maybe together they can persuade society to care, to accept change to demand change. Maybe then we can find solutions. We always have the option of fistfights in a surging sea of garbage.

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday December 4, 2012 (15:42)  
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