Friday, January 07, 2011

Fire next time - Greece on the edge

Greek protesters Vs riot police - Thessaloniki, Greece

With 2011 underway there seems little in the way of good news to cheer most Greeks. Repeated increases in VAT, road tolls, ulitility and fuel bills, public transport combined with spiralling unemployment and shrinking wages have made people both angry and weary. The list of social and economic changes being pushed through parliament by the ruling PASOK government has left voters dazed.

Yet as anyone who has ever lived here knows the difference between the political leadership announcing policy changes and those actually being implemented is often huge and in many cases such reforms end up being ignored. On the other hand the massive increases in indirect taxation on basic goods and services are having a real effect on lower income groups who are being pummelled financially to such a degree that many are no longer able to pay basic bills such as electricity and phone.

I predict however, that in the next few months the sense of numbness and helplessness that Greeks feel at the speed and scope of the changes wears off there is going to be a massive groundswell of resistance against the government. Already the first signs are apparent,  it is estimated that 20% of road users are now refusing to pay motorway tolls and despite government officials promises to clamp down that figure is set to rise as non-payment becomes more widely percieved as an act of resistance rather than just a way of saving money.

Indeed the threats by PASOK officials to come down hard to offenders is another sign of the weakness the government has in putting into action promises made to the country's creditors. It's almost a law of nature that whenever Athens announces the latest harsh punishment for tax evasionand other violations the amount of revenue collected drops. In the absence of a reliable tax system politicians are reduced to making ever more grandiose threats of punishment, knowing full well that the are likely to be ignored.

In its quest for tax euros the Greek state has been forced to adopt tactics that sound like a page out of the Sheriff of Nottingham's playbook. Grab whatever you can from whoever you can. In such a chaotic situation non-payment of tax and other obligations makes everyone feel a little like Robin Hood rather than an errant knave.

Which support for government at an all - time low Athens is using the police force more and more to deal with the fallout from its reforms, a policy that is fraught with risk and the potential for re-igniting the large scale violence that Greece witnessed in December 2008 when a 15 year old was shot by a police officer. Already the Keratea region in Attica has been the centre of widespread and violent clashes between inhabitants and police for over three weeks. Villagers in Ovriokastro have fought standing battles, blocked roads,beseiged the local police station and set fire to patrol cars in an effort to block the construction of a rubbish dump in the area. In reply riot police units have repeatedly employed tear gas, plastic bullets and water canon in an attempt to allow building to go ahead.

It is just a matter of time before another such clash between protesters and police in another, more urban part of Greece acts as a spark to set off wider confrontations between Greeks at the end of their tether and the authorities. Unlike 2008 though the spectrum of those unhappy with the status quo is much wider and the stakes much greater. The issues are no longer better wages and jobs but survival as money starts running out for whole families and those without work become ever more desperate.

Prime minister Giorgos Papandreou may cut a convincing figure on the international stage while in Brussels, Washington or Berlin but his ability to convince fellow countrymen to accept painful changes is dropping rapidy and he is faced with a hostile population that would quite happily lynch many member of the government given half a chance. The savage beating by marchers of ex-minister Kostas Hatzikdakis before Christmas was widely seen as an attack of the whole political set up rather than just a single politicians. With the social contract in tatters and the authorities relying more on force to get things done the potential for serious social disruption is growing exponentially.

Unlike the monetarist policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the early 80's there is no widespread support from any sector of Greek society for the changes which are seen as unfair and deeply destructive. Whereas Thatcher could rely upon electoral support of Southern England and large sections of the working class, disgruntled with the Labour party Giorgos Papandreou's PASOK has no such mandate and has alienated virtually all the party's natural allies since taking power in 2009. What is left is spin which is propagated by a suppine local media and blunt police force, a recipe for instability as at some point neither will be sufficient to contain the growing sense of unjustice over what is happening to the Greek economy.

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