The Week in Review

One hundred and eighty-one years after becoming an independent state and (14 years later) acquiring a constitution, Greece often seems to be still struggling to come to terms with the functioning of its institutions. From the courts of law to the halls of Parliament to the soccer leagues, we know that seldom are the more meritorious in positions of authority or that their decisions will not be influenced by the ancient, Homeric principle of helping friends and harming enemies. We know all too well that – in the worst case – appointments and decisions can be bought, or result from favoritism or someone not paying enough attention to his or her duties. But even as we distrust our institutions, we idealize them. Although each tries to influence them to his or her own ends, we kick up an awful fuss if anyone casts aspersions on the flawlessness of our institutions or seems to question their own or any international efforts at collective order. How many people in Greece, rightly or wrongly, believe in the objective perfection of justice, that judges sit down, carefully consider all the evidence and take a decision that is not colored by who the plaintiff or defendant is? Who is not shaken by the frequent grandstanding of prosecutors who jail people for over a year before they are tried for misdemeanors simply because the case is in the public eye while other, more dangerous characters might slip away in the judicial shadows? And yet, if anyone comments on this or any similar instance (especially if the commentator is not a Greek) then we are greatly upset and we accuse the impertinent observer of interfering in the impeccable and irreproachable workings of our democracy. It is as if it is our birthright to interfere with our institutions, to know and understand that those who run them have their own agenda (and to hope that when necessary we will be able to influence them in our favor). We know that each has its own particular failings. And yet, we are quick to judge others when we see them doing the same in their own country or – God forbid – trying to influence the workings of our institutions or those of the international community. Very correctly, we believe that our institutions are our own business and no one else’s. Sadly, though, we often take foreign criticism and our reaction to it as some kind of proof of just how well our institutions work. It is as if we do not need to fix the system, and need only to defend it against prying eyes. An example of this is the painful issue of local terrorism. Whenever foreign countries – namely the United States – have criticized the inability of the Greek authorities to detain or convict suspected terrorists, we have responded angrily to the interference in our police operations and judicial system. And yet our own government stands up in Parliament, and everywhere else, and blasts public prosecutors when it suspects that their findings on some or other issue may not be in favor of the ruling party. Foreigners judging the competence of our institutions are taken more seriously than our government (or opposition) claiming that the servants of those institutions are hired guns for their rivals. Of course, in an ideal world, foreign governments should not care what happens to the perpetrators of crimes against their citizens in our country, just as we forgave and forgot the Islamic terrorists who killed dozens of Greeks in Cairo several years ago on the (seemingly excusable) assumption that those killed were Israelis. We take our institutions very seriously, understanding that they are all that stand between us and utter chaos or dictatorship. Our problem seems to be that we cannot subject ourselves to accepting that infrastructure as more important than ourselves – whether we serve it or require its attention. It is indicative of this that probably more people know offhand the date of a coup demanding Greece’s first constitution (3 September 3, 1843) than the day on which the modern Greek State was declared or the date on which the constitution itself came into effect. Athens’s main square is named for the constitution and one of its main avenues is named Tritis Septemvriou (September 3). The late great statesman Constantine Karamanlis said that the only way in which his unruly countrymen could be governed was through the constitution. And he lived to see the day upon which he declared that Greece resembles a boundless lunatic asylum. What had intervened was eight years of government by Andreas Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) which, in 1989, was collapsing in a sea of the prime minister’s personal scandals and allegations of widespread corruption at the top government levels. Papandreou, leading an ostensibly socialist party, governed pretty much in the authoritarian way of all his right-wing predecessors. So when his grip weakened (through illness, a very public adulterous affair with a woman half his age, and gross, accumulated mismanagement) everything seemed to fall apart. The weaknesses of the political system and the news media (which, usually sparse with the facts, took the claims of everyone with a tale to tell as gospel truth) convulsed the country. And yet, as in everything else, Papandreou had shown an acute understanding of the Greeks’ fetish with institutions when he declared the founding of PASOK on September 3, 1974, in effect piggy-backing on a famous date to give his fledgling party a profound historical ring. (In a macabre and cynical echo of this tactic, Greece’s A-list terrorist group usurped the student and workers’ protest against the military dictatorship at the Athens Polytechnic on November 17, 1973, to give its assassins the cloak of a popular movement that they never became part of.) Six years of government by Prime Minister Costas Simitis have resulted in several improvements – not least of which is the new institution of the Citizen’s Advocate which has recorded and made public much of the State’s malfunctioning. But exposing analytically the problems that too many of us know already is only the first step toward, perhaps, one day beginning to correct them. And here the problem is that which plagues our democracy – too few people are accountable for their actions, especially those who are entrenched in the civil service, which is the home of many of our institutions. The institutions were always the fief of the ruling class, but PASOK’s rise to power in 1981 democratized their abuse. First they were packed with PASOK appointees and then they began to share favors to the majority of the population that had been left out when the country was run by a right-wing club at the expense of everyone else. The vicious circle was now complete: Reform cannot come from within because too much of the existing system has been corrupted by a culture of intellectual, physical and moral laziness. The only way to fix this system would be to create a new kind of citizen, but the heavily politicized institution of education seems to be recreating the worst attitudes of entitlement, spinelessness and favoritism at all levels – from schoolchildren to university professors. Even the Church, which likes to call itself the bedrock of Greek nationalism, has, under its unrestrained leader, Christodoulos, made a bid for secular power, illustrating how the institutions’ equivocation can lead them astray – distrusting every other authority they abuse their own powers, which in turn makes them skeptical with regard to every other institution. We see that an estimated 40 percent of the economy is the so-called black economy. And we know that those who are out to whiten it are our tax department employees whose upkeep probably costs us more than the taxes that they collect. We see that our nation’s feelings are represented not by its government nor by civil society but by those few who make it their business to shout the loudest in our streets. These are great problems which need solving and it is our business to do so and no one else’s. But, in this as in so many other political and social issues, we are caught between the East and the West, the very old and the very new, the developed and the developing, ochlocracy and authoritarianism. Greece is like a laboratory in which its small population in combination with the exaggerated passions and the super-sized egos of every individual can serve to show what happens when we push institutions to extremes – or when we find solutions to their problems. At the start of the 21st century, Greece has a challenge and an obligation to revive and fortify its democracy. All the aid delivered on these first two missions comes from private sources. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou has promised support, but so far only NGOs have offered practical assistance. Doctors of the World, one of the first Western groups to bring humanitarian assistance, has worked together with UNICEF and the Alexandroupolis-based organization Hellenic Aid. Rosenberg emphasized the symbolic value of the humanitarian route that Doctors of the World followed through Turkey, although in the interests of easier access, future shipments will utilize the modern facilities of the airport at Zahedan in southeastern Iran.

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