I lived 4 years in Greece where I met my husband, and spent all of those years fascinated, baffled and exasperated by this country and its culture, history and language. I have grown to understand the country slowly and piecemeal over the years, and 15 years later it is less of a mystery to me.
I still find it exasperating - like most people who have "adopted" a country I have something of a love-hate relationship with it - but I also feel compelled to defend it.
A lot of people outside Greece - especially in western countries which have already "taken their medicine" over the GFC - are baffled and exasperated by the continuing protests taking place in Greece over the government's austerity package. There is a sense of "What is wrong with these people, don't they understand that this has to be done?" The protesters seem selfish, immature, short-sighted, unrealistic and unsophisticated, especially the longer the protests go and and the more violent they become.
But there is much more behind these protests than is visible in the news we see here.
Greece is in its soul a socialist country, but it also has a lot of wealth in private hands. As everyone is now aware, one of the biggest problems the government has is tax collection. A huge proportion of the country does not pay its taxes, and tax avoidance, through both the black economy and more blatant fraud, has become entrenched over so many years that anyone who DOES pay their taxes is a mug. Why pay tax? The money goes nowhere and you and your family lose. Avoiding tax has become a way to amass wealth in itself and amassing wealth is important to support the largesse expected by family members and to show off what you can afford.
Greece has an outmoded, semi-Socialist economy which is now finally, unavoidably and painfully being dragged into modernity. The retirement age for most jobs is 55 (50 for women), public sector wages and pensions are very high, education and health care are free (admirable, but it doesn't work - they are poorly run, inefficient and unsustainable), and government borrowing and lending have been uncontrolled at best.
It has a bloated, spoiled and inefficient public service which is plagued by laziness and corruption. On the other hand many people have worked their way through the public service for years with the expectation of the early retirement age and generous pension that everyone else got before them. Logically enough they have planned for this and factored it into their personal finances. Of course they are shocked and upset that this is disappearing – as obviously necessary as this is to outsiders.
Greece has a history of repression and rebellion and it idolises renegades and dissenters. From the 1821 War of Independence after 400 years of Turkish rule, General Metaxas refusing Mussolini’s demand to allow Axis forces to enter the country in 1940 (the date he refused enshrined as a national holiday), the 4-year Italian/German occupation, the civil war that raged after World War 2, student hero protestors during the reign of the colonels in the 1970s, to the struggles with domestic terrorism since - Greeks love a rebel and a maverick. The right and the expectation to protest are enshrined in Greek culture and history.
This also goes some way to explaining the continuing problem of domestic terrorism which Greece also faces. Though people deplore it, there is also some undercurrent of support for some of these groups which shocked me when I lived there.
Recent political history has seen demagogues and economically inept leaders making a virtue of dissenting from global orthodoxy, exasperating its European partners and failing to tackle systemic economic problems.
Greece was never in good enough shape to join the Eurozone but expected to get a boost from it; instead it got pummelled from day one, as inflation continued to soar and leaders lost the ability to control the currency. Those on the minimum wage, and skilled professionals like teachers, nurses and others have not seen their wages rise in years, while the cost of living continues to soar.
Relative to wages, food and necessities are very expensive in Greece. One of the saddest things I remember is hearing on the news a few years ago that bakers had started selling slices of bread because people could not all afford to buy a full loaf. People we know are working in service industries earning 30 euros a day, working three to four days a week. And they are lucky to have those jobs.
So even before these austerity cuts, Greece has been suffering. The economy and the impact on the population have been worsening and the pressure unrelenting for years. There are lots of people now who have already reached their limit. Those who can migrate will do so; those who cannot, face the coming years with despair.
Greeks have been angry for years about the ongoing systemic failures in government and the failure to tackle corruption and tax evasion. There is widespread contempt and distrust for government and the public service, with good reason. If the measures being taken now had been taken a decade earlier, there would not be the need for such deep and widespread cuts, affecting those who have not been rorting the system and those who cannot afford to pay.
A Greek-Australian economist I heard on the radio a year ago suggested that Greece should set up a “dob-in-a-tax-evader” phone line to harness public anger and win over hearts and minds. Much as I hate this type of thing in Australia and the social division it encourages, I thought this was a good idea. It is essential to have public support for austerity cuts and at this point the Greek government is obviously failing. Along with the austerity cuts, they must show that corruption is being tackled and systemic changes are being made; the sacrifices must be worth it for the long term and not just to pull back the country from the brink.
While the shots on the news are of masked young men throwing rocks and worse, all sorts of people are turning out for these protests. The protesters are a mix of student rebels, anarchists, the short-sighted, rabble-rousers, professionals, families, pensioners, unskilled and skilled workers – all of whom are angry.Prime Minister George Papandreou said last year, "We are on the edge of the abyss."
He was right. The danger now is that Greece becomes another Mexico - a once thriving country descended to a near-failed state with a marginalised economy and overrun with crime and corruption.
But George Papandreou is unquestionably the right man for this job. Previous leaders either contributed to Greece's problems or failed to address them. None, up until Papandreou, campaigned on a promise to tackle the corruption and inefficiency and make overdue changes.
Well now he is all they have. They do need him, and they're stuck with him.
They need the austerity measures and they need the changes that will come.
It's just very very unfortunate - and unfair - that they have come so late that those who shouldn't have to pay the price, are paying it.