2008: The end of illusions

Even before the year started, it was evident that 2008 would be difficult, mainly because of the storm clouds gathering on the horizon as the housing market crashed in the United States. At the time, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his minister for the economy, Giorgos Alogoskoufis, were adamant that the Greek economy was «armor-plated.» The fortifications, if they did exist, were useless: The crisis was here even before the storm crossed the Atlantic. The first sign that this was the year in which we’d have to face up to reality came in a different field, one both real and symbolic. The national soccer team, which had returned from Portugal four years earlier with the European Cup, crashed out of its title defense in June without winning a single point. This failure was an omen for what was in store for Greece this year – and a lesson: If you do not move with the times, if you do not renew your team, if you want only to hang on to what you have and to the tactics you know, you will watch the world pass you by. By staying in the same place, you will find yourself way behind everyone else. Shortly afterward, the Greek athletes’ dismal performance in Beijing proved that another miracle of 2004 – the Athens Olympics – was just that, a miracle. Politically, the year was a chain of scandals that ate up all the capital the New Democracy government had gained with its reelection the previous September. Amplified by our monomaniacal television channels, at times it seemed that scandals were the only thing happening in the country. Each new scandal would make the screaming commentators abandon the previous one in mid-sentence. First, Christos Zachopoulos, a senior Culture Ministry official and friend of the prime minister, broke several bones by jumping from his fourth-floor apartment in a bid to escape a web of blackmail allegedly spun by a young aide who claimed that he had enjoyed her sexually and then reneged on a promise of a permanent job in the civil service. This paled in comparison to allegations of routine bribe-taking by our political parties, as former officials of German industrial giant Siemens sang to the authorities. This scandal, like all others, dragged on inconclusively until we all found more exotic fish to fry. The wily monks of the Vatopedi Monastery engineered a land swap with the state that allegedly cost the latter 100 million euros in lost revenues and Karamanlis the resignation of another two close aides, who were accused of abetting the monks. In each scandal, as with most problems, the government pretended there was nothing wrong until things spun out of control. New Democracy, with a one-seat majority in Parliament, now lags behind PASOK in the polls. After these unnecessary reminders of the frailty of our politicians, judiciary, clergy and our breathless press, came the near collapse of our society. On the night of December 6, a police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old youth in Athens’s Exarchia district. Since then, drunk on rebellion, youths have rampaged through Athens at will. Political parties have kept the police on a tight leash but have also been unable to propose how to stop the violent protests, just as they have not been able to propose ways to make our education, health and pension systems meet the needs of the new century. With the worsening economy, whether we sink or swim depends entirely on us. The past year highlighted the mortal dangers of inertia. If our parties do not wake up and lead, if citizens do not push them to do so, 2008 could go down as the year in which we gave up on the future.