OPINION

Milestones and Footnotes

One of the guiding principles of life in Greece is that of neglect, of avoiding tackling problems until it is too late – or at least very late. We tend to let things fester because we don’t want to go to the trouble of finding a solution, or of risking the inevitable reaction to any proposal that might change things as they are. It never ceases to amaze one how the most convoluted, inexcusable and outdated system has created a clique that will fight tooth and nail to prevent any change that may, or may not, threaten its privileges. Because the civil service is full of civil servants and not managers, and the hierarchy that once existed has been swept away by a lethal mix of political nepotism and a leveling democracy (in which no one is responsible and there is no incentive for anyone to stick their neck out), there is very little management of anything in Greece – from the judiciary to the road network. This means that too few people are watching to see where a small tug, a slight nudge might improve things and keep bigger problems from erupting down the line. Procrastination, one might say, is a global problem. And in the end it does slow down productivity and creativity and thus, in its unbeatable fashion, creates problems that lead to a large number of people working unproductively – which helps keep unemployment down. But the sad thing is that sometimes a lot of work goes into ensuring that certain issues in public life are neglected, so as to function as deterrents. This we might call malevolent neglect. Greece is full of examples. Every morning, thousands of immigrants gather at the offices of the Athens Prefecture to submit their papers for the renewal of their temporary work and residence papers. Some of them join the queue from 7 p.m. the previous night, in the hope that this time round, their wait in the freezing cold will give them the opportunity to get into the office. Most of them speak Greek very well. All of them have managed to run the gauntlet of the initial registration process and are here to get their Green Card extended. These are proven, valuable members of our society. They are the people who have added whole percentage points to our economic growth rates, who build our houses, who care for our children, who have become members of our family. And yet we treat them like dirt, as did every part of our state machinery during the inconceivably difficult first phase of the registration process. One would have thought that by now the authorities would have worked out how to do things more easily. One would have been mistaken. Every day and every night, coast guard and police officers find an average of over 700 illegal immigrants in Greece (given Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s assertion that about 260,000 will have been arrested by the end of the year). A decade after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Gulf War, which heralded much movement westward from northern Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, one would have thought that by now the Greek authorities would know what to do with the illegal immigrants who arrive daily. There has been enough assistance and prodding by the European Union (which has funded and supplied a whole new border police corps as well as paid for high-speed patrol boats) and there has been persistent advice and prodding by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but still the illegal immigrants are treated as if they are common criminals. The reception centers that were meant to have been set up years ago are nowhere to be seen. The authorities would like nothing better than to ship everyone straight back to Turkey – usually the previous stop on their long and perilous journey – and are prevented in most cases by the fear that some do-gooder might discover it and embarrass them. It is usually up to the charity of the detention officers and local residents to determine whether the immigrants will be treated humanely or more like the horses and donkeys with broken legs that Greece ships to Italy for slaughter. The illegal visitors will initially be detained and treated like criminals, until the state machinery begins the charade of examining their applications for political asylum. It is no wonder that of the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned up in Greece, only a fraction have actually been granted it. According to the local office of the UNHCR, as many as 2,906 asylum seekers were received during the first nine months of this year alone, while according to Public Order Ministry records, the total number of people who have been granted refugee status as of December 31, 2000 in Greece number a mere 6,653. And here one begins to see the method in this apparent indifference. If the State sets up reception centers and if everyone is treated well, then Greece will become a destination for the hundreds of thousands of people seeking a better life in the West. As it is, only the fools, those who have been double-crossed by smugglers or those who are truly desperate, land up in Greece. When they do, and if they are caught, they do all they can to sneak out of the country again, westward. That is why, apart from the Albanians who are rapidly assimilating, there are actually so few foreign immigrants in Greece. As in so many other spheres of Greek society, the system runs on this neglect. Let things be so disorganized and bad that people will avoid them if they can. This ranges from word of mouth to keep illegal immigrants from heading to Greece right up to deterring the people from sending their children to the state education system or from seeking treatment in the national health system. When you know that the employees at the tax office are rude and obstructionist, you spend as little time as possible pestering them, which suits them just fine. This is a unique form of the survival of the fittest. Only those who come from big families or otherwise ensure that they have relatives or friends in a state hospital can be sure that they will be treated well. Others, who have money, can step outside into the capitalist system and pay the exorbitant prices of private hospitals. At least they feel they are being treated as human beings. Despite the best efforts of so many doctors and teachers, the state medical and education systems are so burdened by the accumulated errors and malpractice of the past that the generalizations expressed here are the norm. And they affect people who possess neither the meson (leverage through having a person on the inside) nor the cash. At another level, there is a numbing regularity about the reports of people committing suicide in prison. In fact, there was even a most horrifying case about a decade ago in which a young man who was jailed for a traffic violation that he could not pay off was tortured, hanged and burned to death in a prison uprising that the authorities callously allowed to smoulder for many days, not giving a damn for the prisoners. This is a crime by the system that should obsess the sensationalist news media, yet it does not. Deaths in detention are hardly reported at all, as if they were as routine as traffic accidents. The message from our Justice Ministry – as in the interminable pre-trial detention period, which for some people stretches to 18 months – is very simple: Be good and/or don’t get caught. Because our police are not among the world’s best at solving crimes, having brutal prisons and a judicial system that can take up to eight years to settle a case might just be the most effective deterrent. What it does, though, is give real criminals a long and easy ride to almost certain acquittal through the crime being written off. The innocent or those seeking justice are destroyed, as easily as a Homeric god crushes a person, as though he were a fly. Generations of Cabinet ministers have passed through woodpaneled offices and chauffeured limousines with the sole aim of doing as little as possible to jeopardize their chances of re-election or of pursuit of higher office. They have, for the most part, avoided reforming systems that are completely out of date. This applies as much to the labor market as to the Church’s unnatural grip on public life. It applies to foreign policy, the military and the civilian bureaucracy. In all of these spheres, the only things held sacred – the only standards – are intransigence and the lack of effort to solve problems. This mentality pervades our thinking too. Despite all the shallow clamor, there is very little dialogue and almost no debate. The parties are united, as the wit Emmanuel Roidis commented over a century ago, in their common goal of feeding at the public trough. The best lies, the promises of the least pain are what get governments elected. Once in office, our officials believe that they can do no wrong, especially if they do nothing at all; while the opposition, in its own way, also demands that the government do nothing, because whatever it does will be condemned outright as being worse than nothing at all and, since it is the opposition, it hastily extends its embrace to every group reacting against the proposed change – all for the sake of votes. In all this, Greece, as self-absorbed as its citizens, functions as if it is not part of a wider society of nations, as if it does not have to live up to the human rights standards that it knows every one of its citizens wants and that apply to everyone here; as if it does not have allies that it has to support in order to have their support when the need arises; as if it can solve foreign policy problems only by demanding the maximum results and treating anyone who works out a beneficial compromise as a traitor; as if jailing other countries’ citizens and keeping them in judicial limbo for weeks is something that should not raise passions in their home country simply because we have become immune to the mistreatment that we mete out to one another; as if the sexual slavery of foreign women here is a confirmation of Greeks’ virility and wealth rather than a contamination that would have horrified our grandfathers; as if the spirit of resistance and revolution that those same ancestors instilled in us do not need to be treated with caution and respect lest they become irrelevant today; as if the international press has to be less superficial and bigoted than our own when dealing with other countries, including ours. Everywhere we look we see the abdication of responsibility. People are elected to office or rise in the state machinery without feeling the obligation to die in the attempt to make this country better than they found it. Partisanship ensures that accountability is nothing but the punishment of losers. Ambition is good only if it means personal advancement and if one is not caught cheating, in which case the system will grind him or her down or blithely look the other way, depending on the circumstances at the time. But having said all this, it is also true that almost every single Greek is better than the system that he or she labors under. This applies to those who are not afraid to voice their opposition to the many. There are security force personnel who go out of their way to help people in need, even illegal immigrants. There are teachers who give their all to inspire a gifted pupil or support one about to sink, there are doctors who suffer abuse even from patients and their families while trying to help them and to battle a system that, in exchange for tenure, gives them little help and less recognition. There are ministers who will dare risk the enmity of their colleagues and carry out reforms in the knowledge that they have nothing to lose but their job and the label of mediocrity. There are citizens who care about the fact that when they or their relatives sought better lives abroad, they were never treated the way we treat Albanians, Pakistanis, Georgians, Bangladeshis, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians and representatives of every other nation huddled against the cold outside the Athens Prefecture offices or collapsing, freezing, onto our beaches. It is as if the malignancy that is our bane forces whatever good is within us to grow stronger so that we can help each other and our foreign friends, in the knowledge that we have to be on the alert to help each other. Only the illusion of comfort, that everything is all right, created by our brain-washing mass media, prevents a revolution. Up to a hundred years ago, such malevolent neglect was the last gasp of many an old regime.