Eurozone’s have-nots ask: why should Greece get more than us?


Bozena Vargova, a retired physiotherapist from Slovakia, cannot understand why her country should bail out Greeks who often earn twice as much as Slovaks and run up debts.

"I don't feel like we should give anything to Greece," said Vargova, who lives on a pension of 370 euros a month, while the average Greek pension is 833 euros.

In the bitter wrangling over whether the eurozone should bail out Greece, some people sympathetic to Athens framed the debate as a stand-off between Europe's rich and poor: wealthy Germany humiliating poverty-stricken Greece.

But in the case of Slovakia – and other ex-Communist countries now in the eurozone – the dividing line is not about wealth levels but about attitudes to indebtedness and sacrifice.

That perceived gulf in values could be the biggest threat to the already shaky unity of the eurozone, and it is starkly exposed in Nitra, a city off 85,000 people in south-western Slovakia.

Sixty-year-old Vargova, and her husband, who works as a masseur, have sold their four-room apartment in Nitra and moved to a cheaper house in a nearby village to eke out their limited funds.

Vargova, who retired after working for 40 years, believes it is time Greeks felt some of the hardship Slovaks went through when their country transformed itself from a Communist economy.

"They lived beyond their means, now they have to tighten their belts," she said of the Greek people.

Harsh realities

Slovak leaders have frequently shared their impatience with Athens during Greece's debt crisis, which culminated last week with a decision to give the country a new bailout package worth up to 86 billion euros (£60.1 billion).

Prime Minister Robert Fico said it would be "immoral" to write off any Greek debt and he would call for Greece's exit from the euro zone if Athens fails to meet agreed conditions.

"Greeks must pay a tax for how they behaved in the past," Fico said on Tuesday.

"We have gone through our own tough path in Slovakia. If we could do it, as a country with substantially weaker economy (at the time), another country must do it as well."

One Twitter post by Slovak Finance Minister Peter Kazimir, suggesting Greece's government brought the harsh bailout terms on itself, led to a complaint by the Greek ambassador, according to a Slovak government source. The Greek embassy in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, had no immediate comment.

After a sharp slump in the Greek economy in recent years, Slovakia has now edged ahead of Greece in economic output per capita. Slovak output now stands at 76 percent of the EU average, while Greece is at 72 percent, according to 2014 data by Eurostat, the EU's statistics service.

But figures on household incomes still put Slovaks behind. Minimum wages are 380 euros in Slovakia and 684 euros in Greece. Slovakia's average pension is 408 euros.

Even adjusted for the lower cost of living in Slovakia, average Greek wages are still 25 percent higher than in Slovakia, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Reform sweep

With a monthly pension of 437 euros, 67-year old widow Maria Halmesova is better off than most pensioners her age living alone in Slovakia, yet she still struggles to get by. She spends two hours a day cleaning offices and homes to stretch her income.

"I spend 200 euros on rent and energy, food is very expensive, I'm lucky I don't need expensive drugs. Still, without additional jobs my pension wouldn't be enough to pay all the bills," Halmesova told Reuters.

If life is tough for many of Slovakia's 5.4 million people, it is in part because of market reforms in the early 2000s that made it easier to fire employees and made the tax system more effective – similar to some of the measures Athens now faces under the terms of its bailout.

Slovakia was dubbed the black hole of central Europe under Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1990s.
Slovaks instead voted in a new government which undertook sweeping market-friendly reforms, including major privatisations, tax changes, a labour market revamp, a pension overhaul and increased transparency.

The World Bank called the country the "World's Top Reformer" in 2004. The new policies brought in investors, boosted exports and growth, and kept debt down to well below the euro zone average.

Having lived through those tumultuous changes, Halmesova has little sympathy for Greek people protesting over the terms of the eurozone's bailout.

"When Slovakia went through painful reforms people sucked it up, there were no mass protests, no strikes," she said. "It's not solidarity for such a small country to contribute to Greece."