OPINION

A question of faith II

The efforts to solve the Cyprus issue, which have dominated news and commentary in Greece in the last few weeks, are most interesting for a great number of reasons. One is that the catalyst of Cyprus’s accession to the EU has set off a reaction in northern Cyprus and Turkey which pits those who want closer ties with the EU against those who want to hold on to the old view of their nation being on the defensive against a world of enemies. This struggle for the future identity of the Turkish nation has not affected Greece or the Greek Cypriots directly, because they made their choices long ago and are now waiting to see how the Turks resolve their tensions. The issue is also of great interest in that it might show – if the two sides do agree to reunite their island in the way the UN plan proposes – how great enmity between two peoples of different ethnic origin and religion can be overcome if they decide to share a common future. Perhaps their example can one day help other troubled regions to end their differences. The formula here (again, if it works) is that differences at a local level can be eased when the two entities become part of a much larger whole which promises them guarantees not only for their security but also for their prosperity. It also helps when the sponsors of the two communities who are in conflict enjoy a warming in their own ties and when the UN comes up with a plan that can make the sacrifice of compromise palatable to both sides. But, more importantly, a solution on Cyprus will show that the two sides wanted an end to their conflict and division. It will show that they are ready to trust each other. And here I am not sure whether we in Greece are fully aware of the leap of faith that it will take for the people of Cyprus to bring down the walls between them – to the extent that Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan does bring the two sides together. Many Greek Cypriots will have to acknowledge the fact that they may never go back to the homes they had before 1974, while Turkish Cypriots will have to face the fact that they are, after all, a minority on Cyprus and not citizens of a separate, sovereign country. There are enough people of good will on both sides of the island to make this work. And there are a lot of people who are ready to display their determination by taking to the streets. The next demonstration by Turkish Cypriots calling for a solution by the UN deadline of February 28 is scheduled for this coming Tuesday. One can only wonder if we Greeks would be ready to take such a risk. The closest we have come to questioning our identity and our future is the way in which we have treated immigrants to our country – a harmless minority which has benefited Greece in many ways but which has forced Greeks to realize that change in a world of change is unavoidable for them too. And here things get complicated, because of the endemic weakness of our public administration and the malevolent indifference with which we mask our xenophobia, our fear of letting foreigners get too close. Our public administration suffers from a lack of common sense, from too many employees not doing enough work and from too few in other areas being asked to do so much. We see the failure of the system almost every day in some form or other. But the most spectacular failure has been in the process for issuing and renewing residence and work permits. On Thursday, Interior Minister Costas Skandalidis presented Parliament with an amendment extending the residence permits of migrants until the end of June. That is because the state machinery has been unable to cope with the effort by 700,000 people to renew their permits. But it is the government and its advisers in the state machinery who are fully responsible for this. After nearly a decade of ignoring the fact that immigrants were entering Greece, the government finally offered them the opportunity to register for residence and work permits at the beginning of 1998. That effort was plagued by problems, forcing immigrants to queue up for hours and days at a time in a heart-breaking paper chase to get their permits. Five years later, the situation remains unchanged. And it is highly unlikely that the six-month extension will mend anything. Immigrants who applied for an extension to their permits at the beginning of last year – for permits that would have expired at the end of 2002 – have still not got them. Now they have to make applications once again for 2003, after going on a new paper chase for the same number of necessary documents. On top of this, they have to repeat many of these eight documents in applying to municipal authorities for residence permits and then to provincial government offices (with seven documents) for their work permits. Evidently, the one bureaucratic department does not trust the other, let alone trusting the unfortunate applicant. The greater madness is that for each permit, each year, immigrants have to start gathering documents and certificates from scratch. These include a declaration that they have no criminal record and a certificate from a state hospital that they have no contagious diseases. But the services that are to provide these certificates, as well as all the others (including those from the incorrigible IKA) have not been reinforced with personnel to handle the huge demand. So everyone suffers: the migrants, the state employees, the migrants’ employers, and all Greek citizens who need to use those same services. The migrants will also pay, once again, the customary 50,000-drachma fee (translated dogmatically into 146.74 euros). And this is the heart of the matter. As in so many functions of our state machinery, the issue is to get money out of people. In other words, they could go to a government office with their old permits and get them renewed simply by paying the exorbitant fee of 50,000 drachmas. That would be the most efficient way to bring order and speed to the system. But this demands honesty, in that it implies the realization that immigrants are here to stay and should be treated as people with rights, rather than a voiceless mass to be pushed around by suspicious bureaucrats. If Greece can take that great step in cutting through the red tape entangling immigrants, it will have taken a great step toward curbing the bureaucracy that throttles us all and encourages corruption. In this, immigrants will have done us another favor. But we cannot expect others to fight this battle for us. We have to let the government know that simplifying everyone’s life is a reform that has to be made immediately. We must have faith in simplicity and honesty. This, after Cyprus, is our other national issue.