NEWS

Going from boom to gloom

MARKOPOULO – This one-time rural backwater east of Athens has gone from Olympic boom town to economic gloom town in barely five years. Markopoulo’s dream of prosperity, conjured up by the 2004 Olympic Games, evaporated when debt-stricken Greece entered its first recession in 16 years. «In 2004, there was a lot of work,» said building contractor Yiannis Evangeliou, 55, perched on the second floor of a site he is overseeing – one of the few in activity in the nondescript town of 10,000 souls. «Now people are just sitting around in cafes; they have no jobs,» he said. «We don’t go out as much. We buy fewer clothes. We’re really careful [with money] because we have kids. What else can we do? Stop eating?» The Games triggered a construction boom in the sun-drenched town, as a new highway connection to Athens, proximity to Olympic venues and the country’s main airport and to crystal-blue waters brought hopes it would become a new hub. But as Greece’s debt crisis has amplified the global downturn, people have stopped moving to Markopoulo. Credit has tightened, tourism dried up and construction almost stopped. In her coffee and cheese-pie snack bar near the central square, Vassiliki has cut all prices by 20 percent, selling the Greeks’ favorite ice-cold frappe coffee for just 1 euro. Still, customers are scarce. «We do this for people to make it through the crisis,» Vassiliki said as few passers-by strolled past empty shops. Like several other residents, she declined to give her full name, either out of small-town caution or because some were migrants. Greece’s 250-billion-euro ($338.9 billion) economy contracted by an estimated 2 percent last year, less than the average 4 percent drop in the eurozone. But the impact has been felt harder since jitters over Greece’s ability to repay its debt mountain shook markets. Fear of the crisis has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, residents and shop owners said. «Since they said there was a crisis, people have stopped spending,» said 31-year-old waiter Dimitris Christodoulou, serving fish in a restaurant in the port of Porto Rafti. Conservative New Democracy Mayor Fotis Magoulas said even those who could afford to were no longer spending or investing. «People are in shock. It’s also psychological,» he said. «We are being bombarded with messages that it’s very difficult, about the recession, the International Monetary Fund. People are scared.» Unemployment in Markopoulo has risen to around 10-12 percent from a mere 3-4 percent during the Olympics, he said. Hammered for months by markets over sharply deteriorating public finances, the Socialist government has announced a series of deficit-cutting measures including fuel, tobacco and real estate tax hikes and a public sector wage freeze. In the streets and cafes of Markopoulo, many residents agreed that time had come for some belt-tightening. Nicoletta Tzobanouli, 35, cramped inside a minuscule kiosk selling sweets and newspapers, made light of adversity. «I always felt squeezed in here so I’m not afraid to be further squeezed,» she said. «I agree with the measures, as long as they take us out of the crisis.» Polls show a majority of Greeks back the government’s plan, although trade unions have called a general strike on February 24. But many Markopoulo residents say they want quick results and their patience with austerity measures would be limited. «We will accept them for now. Protests look extreme at this point, but in a year or so we may take to the streets,» said Andronikos Ioannidis, 62, sitting in his empty photography shop. EU pressure for the austerity plan has angered some who say the best way out of crisis was to restore economic growth. «They are asking for harder and harder measures but this has a time limit. There has to be growth… you can only kill a cow once but you can milk it forever,» said local council opposition leader Nikos Sourbatis. «Now [EU governments] are trying to kill the cow.» Worryingly for Prime Minister George Papandreou, who faces the prospect of having to impose still tougher measures on his core electorate, Sourbatis is a member of the governing PASOK socialist party. Even those residents who acknowledge that most of Greece’s woes were self-inflicted say pressure from Brussels is driven partly by envy at their easygoing Mediterranean lifestyle, and feel entitled to more European solidarity. «The EU sees how much we’ve spent all these years, that we had more fun than others and they don’t want to give us money,» said Evangeliou. «But they have to support us since we are EU members.»