Greece’s fate hangs in the balance

The most frightening thing about this terrible time is that no one knows whether this is the end of a bankrupt political, economic and social system and the start of a long and painful national rebirth, or whether the situation is unredeemable and we are condemned to an irreversible death as a nation state. Was the death of three bank employees in a firebomb attack during Wednesday’s general strike the senseless crime that will finally prompt widespread public revulsion at long-lived terror cults or will it go down in history as just one battle in a war that will tear the country apart? Greece is truly at a crossroads, a point of no return, which is more important even than the financial crisis. It may even be more important than the very real fear that the contagion will spread to an immunodeficient European Union and tear it apart. What is at stake here is whether the Greeks are willing to make the effort to reform themselves, and whether the blueprint that the government has accepted from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union has been worked out so wisely and delicately that its execution is feasible and will lead to growth and not asphyxiation. The memorandum drawn up by the two sides, which was approved by the PASOK majority in Parliament on Thursday, contains huge spending cuts which will, in effect, deprive every family not only of disposable income but, in many cases, even of the money for basic needs. At the same time, the memorandum foresees a radical overhaul of Greece’s economy, public administration, health and pension systems, and tax reform – all with the aim of simplifying procedures and making the state more efficient. The crucial thing is whether these reforms can be carried out and begin to produce benefits before the hardships of the spending cuts destroy the people’s patience and resolve. Reality today is a tug of war between two seemingly irreconcilable forces – the Greek electorate, on the one hand, and the demands made by our foreign friends in return for giving us enough money to keep digging ourselves deeper into debt, postponing our day of reckoning or giving us enough time to turn ourselves around. As we are the ones who need to borrow to pay for our daily needs in terms of wages, pensions, loan payments and vital imports such as fuel, it seems highly unlikely that our discontent with the current situation is likely to make the international community bend itself to our will. So that leaves the Greek people as the variable on which the solution of our problems depends. And here things are very unpredictable: It is still not clear whether the people will draw on the reserves that have seen their ancestors fight against greater adversity and win, or whether they have been so weakened by decades of populist pampering that they can mobilize for nothing more than to complain and maintain a status quo that has already disappeared. This is the result of what the ancient Greeks were always raging against – their people going soft: To call a young man malthakos (soft) was a mighty insult. (Today malakas – wanker – is not only devoid of negative connotations, two generations of Greeks see it as self-definition, a term of endearment.) People have every right to protest against what they see as a grave injustice: They will lose a very significant part of their income while those who made money out of corruption (from tax evasion to kickbacks from arms procurements) once again get away with paying nothing. Their anger is understandable. But the dead end in the economy is unrelenting: We need to borrow and we cannot do so on international markets. To get money from the IMF and our EU partners, we have to stick to the deal we made with them in order to keep getting installments of the three-year 110-billion-euro loan. Our choice now is whether we will work as fast as possible to reform our state and make it productive, or whether we will stick to the roles that brought us to this sorry point, secure in the knowledge that things will only get worse.

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