Letter From Thessaloniki

The good citizens of Thessaloniki are all staggering through the long Christmas holiday from table to television commenting on current politics. What a mess. But it’s not as if we were without warning. My friend Pantelis told me the other day: «Take a successful city, like flourishing Athens. Take a decaying one, like Thessaloniki. What’s the cause of the difference? Government policy, sometimes.» It’s been couple of months since all the lenders and borrowers of Greece (and not just them) came to know the transformation of Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis, who awoke one morning – no, it was not last Christmas – bursting with generosity. Not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge – after his own transformation – the Greek premier traveled all over the country bestowing a ceaseless stream of gifts and blessings on all those with whom he had dealings. His government has done its best to sell off possessions to raise funds for hospitals and kitchens and orphanages. He himself visited the proprietors and patrons of asylums and prisons who still held their voting rights, to plead for the improvement in conditions for the unfortunates inside their walls. «I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!» Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. «The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.» For months now, the most important task for Mr Constantinos Simitis has been to convince his party that it not only had a past and a present but also a future in government as well – and must behave accordingly. Listening to MPs who commute between Athens and Thessaloniki, there was also talk of electoral manipulations and high drama in the Parliament ahead. Yet as to the question of who should lead the party in the forthcoming electoral battle, levels of suspicion were so high and tempers so inflamed that this national melodrama has taken on the cartoon-like outline of pulp political TV thrillers like Nikos Foskolos’s «Lampsi» (The Shining) on Antenna channel.   For it is not only the opinion polls that say George Papandreou’s prospects of becoming a prime minister are far better now than ever in the past. The structure of the PASOK party, virtually the same as the 1992 version, points to the same conclusion. Rumors insist there will be an announcement of a PASOK leadership change in the next one or two days, recreating the 1996 success story, when Simitis’s appointment as Socialist party leader gave his party a new political brilliance. Only this time, it’s sans Simitis. It is really very sad when some peek at their Christmas presents before Christmas. Really, can’t they wait? Others insist that the appointment of a modest and popular politician with an illustrious name, such as George Papandreou, is the best Christmas gift for PASOK. «The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny,» a journalist friend told me. He was a person who should know well. «And this is because even the wariest person will often mistake glitter for gold.» With all those glittering artificial trees around, and with a festive atmosphere in Aristotelous Square and the main shopping street, Tsimiski, Thessaloniki’s center looks like the usual lavish mixture of flashy productions one usually sees at New York’s Radio City Christmas spectacular. Yes, Thessalonians seem to have money to spend – for a day or two. Sure enough they are unaware that Christmas bonuses – or the «13th salary» as it is known in Greece – are being whittled away to nothing by wage freezes and rising living costs. And if the rank and file grumble, management can always remind them it could come down to layoffs eventually. Christmas comes, but once a year is enough. Seasonal fairy tales in a Charles Dickens manner, such as the one that follows, do not repeat themselves often. «’Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. ‘What do you mean by coming here at this time of day.’ ‘I am very sorry, sir,’ said Bob. ‘I am behind my time.’ ‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, if you please.’ ‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob (Cratchit), appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’ ‘Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,’ said Scrooge, ‘I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,’ he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again: ‘and therefore I AM ABOUT TO RAISE YOUR SALARY!’» No, Minister of Finance Nikos Christodoulakis, whose budget did everything that PASOK needs to win another election, would never allow this fairy tale ending to take place. And so, as Tiny Tim observed in some sort of macroeconomic terms (macro good, micro bad), God Bless Us, Every One!