Hell’s angels

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Hades itself is tiled with «road maps» and comprehensive government programs. These proposals might have been intended to lead elsewhere but, as this is where they all end up, they may as well be put to good use, as infernal wallpaper. They’re durable, too. Whenever one plan is crushed or burned, another takes its place. Then again, any place with so many unsuccessful solutions lying about is likely to seem like hell anyway. We could be talking about the Middle East, whose hell appears to heed no zoning laws, neither human nor divine, expanding massively with each generation even while confined to the same tiny plot of land. It reminds one of Pharaoh’s dream in which the lean oxen eat the fat ones and remain lean. This goes on forever, with no redemption and no Exodus. As far back as writing goes, it’s the same old story of war and displacement. It’s no wonder that these badlands are the fountainhead of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. With so much trouble around them, people need to believe in a Higher Being. And by this they define themselves and others in ways that just keep them fighting. We could be talking about the Middle East but we could also be talking about Greece. Greece, of course, is no hell. Indeed, it is blessed. Not only is it rich in natural beauty, history and resources – ranging from beaches and sunny skies to antiquities and olive oil – it has managed to go for a generation without major political upheaval or war. This is one for the history books. We did our best to become part of whatever problem was brewing in the Balkans a little over a decade ago but, somehow, we managed to come away with no more damage than much wasted good will and our inability to get our northern neighbors to stop calling themselves Macedonians. But, on the whole, we have made great steps toward being a self-confident European country. We made it into the eurozone, proving our worth as Europeans before capping this with an EU presidency which was not only successful in holding the wheel steady at a time of unprecedented turbulence within the EU and in its relationship with the United States, but Athens even managed to make progress on issues crucial to the Union’s future. The presidency may be half-forgotten already, as there really is no need to remember something that was handled competently; but even this reflects on the new maturity we can now take for granted. The Simitis government can take a lot of the credit for our present state. But, though things are better than they have ever been, they are far from good. And for this, too, the government that has been in power for the past decade must be blamed. Because the essence of our politics has been inertia. This is not necessarily a bad thing, coming after a long history of coups, wars and foreign domination. Perhaps, in his sly, quiet way, Simitis understood that the Sisyphean task of trying to budge Greece would get nowhere if he tried to do too much. But he had to appear to be trying. So he and his government would make dramatic gestures and grand statements about how they were about to change everything, from Olympic Airways (again and again) to the country’s social security system, labor laws and competitiveness. Every one of these declarations drew howls of protests from the handful of special interest groups that dictate policy in Greece (not all the groups all the time, because there was always someone set to benefit this time round). Each time, the government feigned to tough it out but each time it retreated, achieving minimal gains for maximum fuss. This would, in turn, prompt derision in the pundits’ peanut gallery and more talk about wasted opportunities and cowardice in the face of the «political cost.» But, as his second four-year term comes to an end, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that through the very timidity of his achievements (while leading the most populist and powerful political party in Greece), Simitis managed to bring about as much change as one could expect in a country where (revolutionary sloganeering and stone-throwing notwithstanding) most people do not like change. Perhaps we Greeks cannot bear too much reality and Simitis, as an alien being (a politician who keeps notes at meetings!) realized there was no getting around this. Having been at the side of the great wizard Andreas Papandreou, who could dazzle the crowds into doing whatever he wanted but then asked for nothing but their love, Simitis knew that he could not sway the masses in this way. So he did the opposite, talking about blood, sweat and tears and then handing out bags of sweets so that he and PASOK could get re-elected. The savvy professor knew that the first rule of survival is to save yourself and then save others. The first rule of politics is to get elected, then see what you will do. Now, as we prepare for elections early next year, Simitis is reading the situation in a different way. The ruling force of inertia has brought the wheel of politics around very slowly to the point where it looks inevitable that, without it having done anything really while in opposition, the New Democracy party will be elected. This is change through voter fatigue, or through what ND leader Costas Karamanlis likes to think of as the «mature fruit» syndrome: Sit under a tree long enough and eventually you’ll be anointed with a dripping crown of juice. Gravity and inertia are tied together in a single equation, both in science and in Greek politics. So Simitis has sprung into action, throwing change at the electorate as if he were a first-time honeymooner at the Trevi Fountain. First he cut out the heart of the old guard in PASOK, replacing general secretary Costas Laliotis, the resident Machiavelli, with the soft-spoken and hard-working Michalis Chrysochoidis. This move alone could help make the party look and behave differently, Simitis’s idea being, apparently, that if the voters want change, why not change the ruling party into something else rather than wait for the electorate to change it altogether. Then there was the social program aimed at helping the needier members of society (with higher dole payments for the unemployed and subsidies for low-income pensioners), farmers (with much cheaper fuel), businesses (also with cheaper fuel) and everyone else (with lower taxes on cars). Then came the pay increases for civil servants. All this at a total expense of some 2.6 billion euros. The «Convergence Charter» followed, with promises to raise living standards closer to the EU average by 2008. Karamanlis then saw Simitis’s bid and raised the stakes, throwing his «Opportunity 2010» onto the table while keeping his cards close to his chest, faithful to the doctrine of playing it safe and saying that whatever Simitis can do he can do better. But, even as polls began to show New Democracy’s lead of around 8 percent being trimmed down by about 2 percent as the promises began to register with voters, the opposition got another lesson in the basics of democracy. The government might be a ripening fruit but it still controls the treasury and the legislative machinery. On Wednesday, it unveiled a grand scheme to enforce transparency in public life by obliging anyone in the public service, the security forces or with any involvement with the State whatsoever (an estimated 200,000 people and their immediate family members) to file annual declarations of all their assets and explanations as to how they acquired them. On Thursday, the government presented a plan that will allow some 300,000 illegally built homes to remain standing, in exchange for paying sharply reduced fines. They will also be hooked up to the public utilities grid for the first time. If the government were completely shameless, it would have legalized these buildings. Having some shame, it allows illegal homeowners to enjoy the benefits of legality without the hassle of building legally, but without allowing them to go legitimate. (On Friday, the government rested.) The problem with these programs and policies is that they cause a lot of noise but they do very little to solve the problems that they claim to confront. Very simply, a system whereby hundreds of thousands of people have to undergo annual scrutiny of all their finances is neither fair nor workable. So while hundreds of thousands will fight even more red tape, in an effort to prove they are not crooks, those who are actually corrupt will get away by the usual trickery. If we were serious about combating corruption, we would allow tax authorities to probe suspects to the extent that the US Internal Revenue Service does, without more committees and more laws. Regarding illegal buildings, no government has ever made urban plans ahead of the need for housing. This both forces and allows people to build according to their needs or desires. As it would be impossible to knock down hundreds of thousands of homes, there always comes a time when they are legalized, to the chagrin of those Greeks who go by the book. Aegean Minister Nikos Sifounakis commented on this, saying that since 1974 this was the 16th law ostensibly stopping illegal construction while doing nothing of the sort. And this is the staple of life in Greece, those who play by the rules are almost always short-changed by those who do not and the governments who pander to them. This is what, despite all the programs and plans, never changes. And this is simply because the law is not something objective which applies to all. There is a problem with how it is imposed and on whom. The rest is theater. And depending on whether you are happy with the way things are or would like something better, Greece can be heaven and it can be hell.

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