Holding the country by the throat

The drama in Piraeus over the past weeks is a play within the play of Greece’s need to reform its economy and change the expectations and behavior of its citizens. The country’s largest port provides the opportunities that will enable Greece’s development in the 21st century as well as wonderful opportunities to obstruct that progress. It is the site of the greatest foreign investment of the last few decades – Chinese giant Cosco taking over operations at two docks for 35 years – and the stage for the most brazen effort by a minority of workers to blackmail the whole country into meeting their demands. The Communist Party’s PAME labor movement has chosen well in making Piraeus the setting for its battle of wills with the government. Greece’s myriad hydra-headed interest groups have always conducted asymmetric warfare against the government and state, trying to cause the most possible damage to the greatest possible number of people so as to extract maximum gains for themselves. Farmers block highways and close borders, harming the interests and trade of both Greece and its neighbors whenever they have a complaint or a new demand. Seamen usually strike during Easter or Christmas, preventing people from getting to their islands for the holidays, while garbage collectors choose the same period to walk off the job, condemning Athenians to weeks of scurrying between the decomposing mountains of their excesses. Even the smallest group will take to the streets of central Athens – blocking traffic for hours and preventing access to shops – to press for its own esoteric demands. This institutionalized and widely tolerated selfishness has been the mark of our democracy since the collapse of the junta in 1974. If Greece were a living being, Piraeus would be its throat – the small part through which all the vital elements pass and where they are most vulnerable. Shipping and tourism, the two main pillars of the economy, rely on the smooth functioning of the port, which is home to hundreds of shipping companies. Trade and commerce also rely on an open and efficient port, more so now that Cosco has staked China’s prestige on making a successful investment of the Piraeus Container Terminal, the first such venture wholly operated by China’s biggest shipping, container and logistics company. If the Piraeus investment appears to succeed, it will open the door to more Chinese involvement, which will in turn make the country attractive to other foreign investors than it is now. Piraeus, in other words, is crucial to the country’s development in several vital sectors. And that is why the Communist Party has extended such a desperate grip on Piraeus. The party, which got 7.5 percent of votes in the last election and was remarkably docile during the five-and-a-half years of Costas Karamanlis’s nominally center-right government, is doing all that it can to exacerbate public discontent with the economic reforms, income cuts and higher taxes. It strives continually to present itself as the legitimate and viable alternative to the ruling PASOK party and its supposed socialist ideology, while declaring that it owes no allegiance to the Constitution because, its cadres declare, it did not vote for it. The Communists will do anything they can to destabilize the economy so as to sow greater discord and increase their share of the vote. As they control only two of the 14 unions that are part of the Panhellenic Seamen’s Federation, Piraeus is the spot where a few dozen activists can cause the most damage – both in real terms and in the propaganda war, with the world’s media gorging on images of tourists stranded in the port. The field of battle has been chosen and the Communist Party has already shown its tactics and taken control of the perimeter. With citizens, traders, shopkeepers and tourists held hostage, it is up to the great absentee – the government – to show its colors and enter the fray. But the government has repeatedly proved too willing to surrender, too afraid to take a stand in defense of the country. It is precisely that deserter’s mentality which made Karamanlis’s New Democracy the disaster that it was and left the country in ruins. PASOK, though it is doing its best in other spheres, has still not gathered the courage to push the Communists off the rubble of our economy and start the effort to rebuild.

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