Democracy and its malcontents

It is sad that despite the very many changes that have transformed Greece and its relations with others in the last few years, many problems appear to be as bad as they were a decade ago. Our streets are periodically swamped by garbage, our traffic is choked by demonstrations, public works projects are often built very late and at exorbitant cost, our schools and universities are closed by strikes and, to top it all, displays of xenophobia cast a shadow over a nation known for its hospitality. For nearly eight years we have had a government under the most modern-minded prime minister in memory. Costas Simitis’s unlikely ascent to power in early 1996 was greeted by many of us as the dawn of a new seriousness in Greece. Simitis, methodical and tireless and with his eye fixed on the goal of bringing Greece closer to Europe, appeared to be the complete opposite of the charismatic, mercurial PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou. And that, as two elections in which he won showed, was what the people wanted. Now, with about seven months left before the next elections, and with PASOK trailing the conservative New Democracy party by about 8 percent in opinion polls, we can begin to make out the outlines of the Simitis government’s legacy. Very broadly, it appears to have brought about many significant changes but it has not changed people’s thinking and the way things are done in Greece, and it has often capitulated to the status quo. Now, even when the government does try to show it has some spine, it finds itself cornered by the behavior of various groups which it may have pandered to in the past, or by an ineffectual public administration that it did not try hard enough to make efficient and accountable. There are many examples of how Greece remains hostage to special interests and political client-patron relationships which obstruct every effort to achieve progress based on merit and also keep the same self-perpetuating system going. But the two most striking examples of the Greek malaise are dominating the news these days. The first is the culture of protest and unaccountability illustrated by prolonged strikes by small groups to the detriment of the public as a whole; the second is the racism that has once again made itself felt in the case of a young Albanian who, through earning top grades in his school in Nea Michaniona near Thessaloniki, was entitled to carry the Greek flag in the October 28 Ohi Day parade but has been forced to back down by the protests of parents and pupils at his school. The irony is that in both cases all this – the strikes and the xenophobia – is presented as if it were the epitome of democracy. «This was decided with flawless democratic procedures,» the mayor of Nea Michaniona told reporters earlier this week. The «this» he was referring to was a sit-in protest at the town’s senior high. Pupils, at the urging of their parents who had apparently voted on this, stopped the school’s functioning, demanding that the government rescind a 2000 law allowing students who are not Greek to carry the national flag in October 28 parades. The students were, in other words, using a method countless others had used before in demanding more money for education and other such issues. Now, though, they had voted (democratically) for a sit-in in order to express their ethnic insecurity. Three years ago, the same Albanian-born student, Odhise Qena, now 18, had given up the right to carry the flag when he was the top student in his junior high. Now he stepped down again, saying that he did not want to «spoil a national holiday.» October 28 commemorates the day in 1940 when Greece rejected an ultimatum from Nazi ally Italy and entered World War II, pushing invading Italian forces deep into Albania. Three years ago there was a huge fuss over young Odhise, or Odyssea as he is known in Greek, with even President Costis Stephanopoulos speaking out in support of him. Three years later, a media-stoked frenzy over crimes committed by immigrants has died down and all over Greece these people are making a great contribution to the economy and society. So why can Odhise still not carry the flag? Because, despite the almost universal statements of support for this pupil, the government, the news media and the political system in general have not done enough to tackle bigotry in Greece, to flush out the poison. One of the turning points in our society in past years was the political, diplomatic and social storm that followed the declaration of independence by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which anointed itself «Macedonia.» This provoked an almost universal mobilization among Greeks, who feared their heritage was being usurped. A mentality was created in which the Greeks were once again seen as under threat, a favored myth with deep historical roots. More than a decade later, and although relations between Athens and Skopje are good and Greece is its northern neighbor’s biggest investor, the name issue is not solved – because both governments are unable to sell a compromise to their people. More significantly, the incredible incompetence with which the Greek government and public administration have handled the issuing of residence and work permits for immigrants has left these people isolated as second-class residents in the eyes of the natives, even though many have been here for 10 years already. The inability of the public administration to ease the entry of immigrants into society has allowed bigots to keep the focus on differences in people, despite the fact that most communities have come to accept the new blood. Immigrants who applied for residence and work permits at the start of 2002 have still not got them. Instead of blaming the State, the government has blamed the immigrants for this, sticking to the motif of blaming the voiceless for their woes. At the other end of our society, we have those who are totally empowered and who never grow tired of endless complaint – public sector employees. University professors are now entering the seventh week of a strike in demand of a major pay hike and more money for universities. State hospital doctors have also been protesting for weeks. Garbage collectors, led (appropriately enough) by PASOK unionists, have left tens of thousands of tons of rubbish decomposing in the streets of Athens and other cities for more than a week now. They want more pay and to prevent private companies from collecting garbage. And this last point is the secret code of the virus that plagues our society: Those who are employed in the public sector cannot be fired except in the rarest of cases. Whereas this once had a flipside in which civil servants’ salaries were lower than those of people employed by private companies, the ability of the former to strike with impunity means that now those working in the public sector are paid better than those who are taxed to pay both for their salaries and for retirees’ pensions. If those working in the private sector were of another color or nationality, international human rights organizations would step in to rescue them. If private companies were to be allowed to collect garbage, that would mean the strikes by municipal workers would have no effect as the streets would still be cleaned. In this case the absurdity of the current situation would be clear as day: Some people would be working without stopping and getting paid less than those sitting on the sidelines demanding more pay for less work. Because even Greeks cannot bear too much absurdity, and as political parties know that public sector workers are the only ones who can afford to be unionized and must therefore be placated if they want to govern, don’t expect private garbage collection companies to be allowed into our cities anytime soon. As private sector employees are truly the second-class citizens in this scheme of things, immigrants who want to get ahead will have to join the civil service. Maybe then, at last, they’ll have some rights and, for the rest of us, something might get done.