Coming to terms with Greece’s ‘year after’

After Greece’s annus mirabilis, with its stirring Euro 2004 win, Olympic kudos and world exposure, a comedown was only to be expected. Few, however, likely expected the barrage of bleak headlines seen so far in 2005. «After the pride cometh the fall» rarely seemed so apt. Either the country is busy clearing out its underbrush early, or we’re in for an annus horribilis all our own. What might a no-holds-barred «state of the union» address say about today’s Greece? The overview is surely not all grim. On the (fairly) bright side, the traditional political schisms over ideology have softened as Greece has moved forward. Those differences that remain, among a sort of informal, two-party concord at the top, tend to involve questions of influence; this has provided an overlay of stability, though at the price of deeper patronage and conflicting interests. The New Democracy party, which displaced PASOK’s Socialists last March, is already well ensconced in power and has to be considered (barring a major upheaval) the early odds-on favorite for re-election in three years’ time. This spring’s presidential elections will not generate the crisis many feared last fall, since the two big parties cut a deal on the next incumbent, former foreign minister Karolos Papoulias. And the two parties are almost as one regarding key issues like Turkish relations and the EU Constitution, which will be ratified with near-unanimity in the Greek Parliament – but not in a national referendum – sometime this year. PASOK has a genial leader in George Papandreou, while parties habitually in government (and often the country) usually benefit from their soul-searching spells in the wilderness. The problem often starts when restructuring implies weakness and a lack of direction. Unruly catalog So with the political system tending toward the center, a solid foreign policy course charted and contentious elections mercifully far away, what are the two big parties presiding a bit too comfortably over? The news to start the year has been fit for a pessimists’ feast. For all Greece’s Euro-optimism, the European Commission took it to task for unreformed public finances – lamenting «no substantial measures in the right direction» – in the wake of the Olympics last summer. The Commission launched an excessive deficit procedure against Greece after its government-generated audit of past finances, giving it to 2006 to get its deficit down to 3 percent from nearly 6 percent, as it is now. A revised Greek plan still has to be submitted. Greece is likely to get its slice of EU structural funds cut drastically in the new package for the period 2007-2013 (CSFIV), especially if the EU budget is kept at 1 percent of EU GDP, as it is now and as the biggest members want, rather than expanded to 1.24 percent. The difference could mean up to 10 billion less for Greece – a huge cut in the outside income many have come to regard as almost a right. If you think the cotton farmers are angry in 2005, just wait until 2007. The European Court of Justice is also on Greece’s tail. Its advocate general reported this week that Greece failed to recover some 200 million euros in state aid it funneled to Olympic Airways (OA) from 1998-2002, aid that did not meet EU-approved conditions. The decision to create Olympic Airlines out of OA and two subsidiaries in 2003 hardly convinced the Commission that Greece was on the straight and narrow regarding its national flag-carrier. A formal court ruling against Greece may follow. Both old and new airlines looked in vain for a buyer. The economy is still suffering a hangover, not just from last year’s costly Games but from the bubble market of 1999. Despite much lower interest rates, the bourse is trading at half the stratospheric peak, while retail involvement has dropped off a cliff. As a gauge of economic performance, consumer interest or general probity, it is still not a pretty sight. Foreign investment continues to lag woefully compared to the other old 15 EU member states. Exports fell last year, imports surged. If selling Greece isn’t so simple post-Olympics, getting others to buy Greek isn’t any easier either. And developments on the judicial front are hardly balm for the soul. An alleged trial-fixing ring has exposed the judiciary to intense criticism and self-scrutiny. PM Costas Karamanlis’s government this week promised wide-ranging anti-corruption measures, including huge fines and criminal charges against errant judges. Even priests have been fingered, fomenting a crisis in the Church of Greece and providing talk-show fodder. Greek journalists have been caught up in the fun too; alleged conflicts of interest led to publication of a master list of those also working state jobs, but this awkward across-the-board exposure did nothing to root out the deeper problem – insofar as anybody really knows what that is at this point. And on the pitch The sporting world similarly struggles. Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou, the sprinters charged with dodging a pre-Games drug test and faking a motorcycle accident as an alibi, expect to be exonerated soon by a sports tribunal. Is a mere slap on the wrist in the offing after their international disgrace? And the judicial inquiry into the Panionios-Olympiakos match that was canceled due to riots led to a massive climbdown in a reconsideration of the first ruling against the two clubs. Eventually, people might even get the impression that the arbiters of justice are nodding off at the wheel. Graft-generated headlines, followed by sweeping measures that get watered down; surely it has been seen before. But will it actually stimulate the train of reform needed to restore some public trust in key elements of the system? The revelation of judges on the take is shocking to many, that of journalists and even priests to fewer, although the creep of graft makes it appear that eruptions were inevitable at some point, like magma becoming lava. So much of it all – from the sprinters to Olympic Airways/Airlines to the judges and priests to cotton overproduction in Thessaly – merges into a catalog of murk that defies efforts to separate chaff from grain, much less find cures that aren’t worse than the disease. The picture is of a country so full of promise and energy that is doing its best to strangle its own potential because of timidity, complications, lack of transparency, and old habits. Greece isn’t the only one facing such problems – just look at the appalling soccer scandal in Germany, World Cup hosts next year – but enough examples form a pattern, and elected authorities are, by definition, expected to deal with it. The government’s «softly-softly» approach to reform aims at alienating no one, but when the problems are structural and not just piecemeal, more is required. Outbreaks of impropriety can be useful. Exposure of the societal underbelly to the harsh light of public scrutiny is the first step toward addressing problems, even if it’s not the most appealing, and far from enough in itself. What’s needed is not sanctimony, but will and determination to set things on the better course the country has richly earned after the past few years of sacrifice, without having everybody fall into a cynicism-driven funk. Tougher steps taken this week on soccer violence and pension reform could herald a new approach. The message last year was that the world should take Greece seriously. Now’s a prime time to back up the hype.

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