Letter from Thessaloniki

During the days of Carnival, much of this disorderly country descends into chaos. Yesterday – and for a second time after the daring escape in June 2006 – a helicopter picked up two prisoners from the high-security Korydallos Prison in Athens and flew away. Let us brag about being experts on how to put on Carnival. After all, we have invented Carnival-related events that are connected with the ancient worship of the Greek god of wine, divine intoxication and the art of escaping from prisons, Dionysus. Read all about it in Euripides’ «The Bacchae.» Further north, in central and eastern Macedonia, the cities of Xanthi, Naoussa and Polygyros in Halkidiki and Neapolis in Thessaloniki stage big parades. Ancient Thracian customs with elements of primeval Dionysian ritual meet Christian celebrations in the town of Serres, where, specifically in the village of Aghia Eleni, the custom of revelers dressing up like monks (kalogeri) takes place. Quite understandably, effigies of the most celebrated monk of our times, Ephraim, the central figure in the Vatopedi land-swap scandal with the state, could not be absent – despite the appeals of local Orthodox Church organizations seeking the withdrawal of such parade floats. It has happened in Patras. Not everyone, though, is refusing the privilege of being represented by an effigy in the Carnival parade. In fact, politicians – quite alert to the perfect corruption of our public life – would probably be unhappy were they ignored in the processions. Greece may be facing its worst economic downturn since World War II, while, according to statistics, northern Greece is in even a more dire situation. But so what? The country is seizing on Carnival this year to drown its troubles – and even to jest about the financial crisis. As an on-strike actor at the State Theater of Northern Greece told me recently: «You know, these days, banks are happy to be robbed. It’s a sign they’ve still got cash left!» What is the lesson? «It’s good to receive a 5-percent wage increase, yet it’s far better to achieve the good things in life honestly, by inheriting money or winning a lottery. The Greek way.» The actors in Thessaloniki got less than they asked for, but, all the same, they got their 5 percent. It’s a fact that when the going gets really tough, there’s even more reason to celebrate Carnival. Still undecided as to how to tackle the economic crisis, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose constituency is Thessaloniki, said three days ago that he intends to hold talks with opposition leaders next month, following an emergency summit with his EU colleagues due to take place next Sunday. That Sunday is known as «Cheese Sunday,» or «tis Tyrinis,» as no meat products are to be consumed. Macaroni is often served on this day. Unexpectedly, the word «macaroni» is not Italian, but comes from the Greek words «macaria,» or blessed, and «aeronia,» or eternal. This fact was not mentioned by Mr Portokalos, the father of the bride in «My Big Fat Greek Wedding.» The Friday, Saturday and Sunday before «Kathara Deftera,» or Clean Monday, which falls on March 2 this year, usually offer the aforementioned parades and traditional events wherever Carnival is celebrated. Clean Monday is actually the first day of Lent (Sarakosti). While a festive feeling still prevails on that day, the foods consumed are all considered pure, without having caused the shedding of blood. However, banks are closed on this day. Personally, I couldn’t care less, since I don’t trust my bank anymore. Lately I was talking to them about a loan, but I finally I decided not to give them one. Seriously now. Today, except for a few investment bankers, as things are in the US, they are also in the Balkans – who would guess that things would get so dire? Until very recently, using the key geographical location of the Balkan countries, many Greek banks have managed to considerably expand their presence in this region over the last 15 years. This has been a very crucial factor for the domestic economy. Not only are Greeks «historically» well-acquainted with the broader Balkan region, but their interest has been sharpened further since the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union. Greece has invested 14 billion euros so far in the Balkan states in the fields of telecommunications, foodstuffs and cement industries, and financial and credit services, according to data from the Foreign Ministry. Today over 1,200 bank representatives in the Balkans are Greek, which gives this country some 20 percent of the bank sector in the Balkans. It was easy in the beginning, at least while the improving stability across the Balkan region helped to reduce the political risk for foreign banks. The local people decided to take their money from jars and mattresses and deposit it with banks. Foreign banks could offer cheaper and more flexible loan products than the domestic institutions. Past estimations have shown that five Greek banks – National Bank of Greece (through United Bulgarian Bank), EFG-Eurobank (through Postbank), Alpha Bank, Piraeus Bank and Emporiki Bank – controlled a total of about 20 percent of the banking business in Bulgaria alone. Yesterday, temperatures were below zero degrees Celsius in Sofia and in Bucharest. Yet the predictions are much more frightening. According to experts in the region, Eastern Europe is heading for a violent «spring of discontent.» Greek analysts fear that the global economic downturn is generating a dangerous popular backlash on the streets. Troubled by corruption and political instability, Bulgaria saw severe riots in recent weeks. Bulgarian students were protesting over the death of one of their number in an apparently random criminal attack, blaming the Socialist-led government for failing to ensure security. They were joined by farmers angry at low prices for their produce and problems with EU subsidies often diverted by corrupt administrators. «We are fed up with living in the poorest and most corrupt country,» the Sofia protest organizers said in a statement. Luca Niculescu, a media executive in Bucharest, adds: «In a few months, there will be people in the streets, that much is certain. Every day we hear about another factory shutting down or moving overseas. We have gotten used to very high growth rates. It’s an explosive cocktail.» Now, the doubt for Greek banks is whether they should – or rather, whether they can be allowed to – spend some of the government’s 28-billion-euro liquidity support program abroad or not. This is a tough dilemma and in a globalized crisis, everyone shares the pain – and the risk.

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