Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Greek truckers' strike bites harder

The latest round of talks this morning between leaders of Greece's truck drivers associations and the government failed to find common ground and so the industrial action which is likely to see the country ground to a halt in the next few days is set to continue.

The dispute was the result of attempts by Athens to liberalise Greece's transport market by opening up the trucking profession to everyone with a heavy goods licence and so doing away with the existing permit system which has meant that like taxis, only those registered can operate.

On the one hand the opening up the profession is part of the IMF/EU/ECB process of making Greek products more competetive by reducing transport costs however, drivers associations argue that the sudden implementation of the system means that many of their members stand to lose hundreds of thousands of euros spent obtaining an operating licence.

Instead of petering out strike actions are set to escalate as Greek international truck drivers associations are also preparing to join the strike so threatening imports and exports to other EU countries.

The Greek media has been speculating on whether the government will be forced to bring in the army to make sure the country does not run out of fuel and other basic goods.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Repent of your debts - Time is running out. IMF

Monday, July 26, 2010

Life in a Day - Drama, action, turmoil but no pictures

Last week I announced that I would be taking part in the Youtube Life in a Day project. The basic idea being that people from all over the world would upload a video shot on the 24th July that showed something of their life and from all this footage A film could be fashioned that would give future generations an idea of what everyday life was like all over the planet.

So, keeping that in mind I set off on a journey with video camera in hand hoping to capture something of the flavour of a holiday weekend in Greece. What I got was full of adventure, the triumph over adversity, trials and tribulations all set against an exotic backdrop of Mt Olympus. What I didn't get however was images.

Starting off from Thessaloniki in blazing sunshine I decided to take my friends up on an invitation to join them camping on the slopes on Mt Olympus which given the unrelenting heatwave sounded too inticing to pass up. What I didn't count on was a blow out in the back tyre of my Vespa just as I was getting close to my final destination. The scooter ran over a 5" nail and shuddered to a halt on the hard shoulder of the southbound National Road (motorway).

Of course as anyone who has ever driven a Vespa knows that one of its virtues is that you have a spare tyre by your side. But only if you've remembered to fix the previous flat. Whoops! Soon a member of a road crew draws up and asks if he can help but unless he has a spare tyre hidden round his person there is not much he can do. However, he does say that the Vespa can't be left where it is as it constitutes a hazard to other road users and so I end up pushing 130 kg of dead machine half a kilometre to the nearest lay-by in 40C.

But all is not lost as my friends are just a quick ride away, if I call them now they could have me and the spare tyre in Katerini within half an hour so there's no reason to worry is there? Well, there wouldn't be if they didn't happen to be camping half way up the mountain in a spot with no mobile phone reception. More calls, more SMS's but no reply. As time is quickly passing I decide to see if I can make it back into town to find a garage to fix the problem before everything shuts down for the weekend.

An hour and who knows how many hot footsteps later I find a suitable place only to discover that it was closed, "Should have been here a hour ago, he was in" informs me the owner of the petrol station nearby. He does his best to find out if anywhere else is open but timing is against me and considering its already 6pm there's little or no chance of finding a place that is open.

Suddenly remembering something told to me by the road crew guy I ask if he has that spray that allows you to drive on a flat. Yes, he does!!!!! So I'm saved. Haahahaha, who the gods wish to destroy they first make them as mad as hell to paraphrase Euripidis and the frothy mixture in the can proves about as effective as weak cappucino in fixing the puncture.

So sensing that fate is not going to release its sharp fangs from my ass I decide to call it a day and trudge another few kilometres into the centre of Katerini in order to catch a bus back to Thessaloniki and come back on Monday. Exhausted, smelling like a goat and covered in grease and grim I climb onto the coach being very careful to give fellow passengers as wide a berth as possible.

Just as we are leaving the coach station my phone rings and its my friends, "Hi all...... here ok?..... I....... " I frantically phone back but all I get is the usual message saying the user cannot be contacted.

When I finally get home I'm torn between throwing my clothes in the washing machine or just burning them there and then as a health hazard and then have a shower and cold beer that instantly reminds me of a scene from the movie Ice Cold In Alex when John Mills in full stiff upper lip mode sits at a bar eyeing his lager after dragging himself half way across the Sahara in an attempt to avoid capture by the Germans.

This morning I got the puncture fixed and then caught the bus to Litoxoro, hoping that neither my bike nor any of the stuff in the rucksack I had hidden in the bushes in the lay-by had been stolen. However, just for fun instead of a heatwave the weather is stormy and we drive through pouring rain on most of the journey there. But it was all worth as I see that the bike is still there and so is all my stuff, exactly where I had left it.

Happy ending? Almost. I get the wheel changed and set off in the driving rain. My first thought is to see if I can't reach my friends after all but the riding up a mountain in the middle of an electrical storm seems to be pushing my luck way beyond its limits. So I turn off and start my journey back to Thessaloniki and just as I'm passing the place where I broke down the engine dies on me. NOOOOOOOOOooooooo!!!!! This cannot be happening. But it turns out to be Fate's last little joke and a couple of minutes later I kick start the Vespa into life and drive off, hoping that this is my last adventure for the time being.

But despite all this high drama I didn't take any video of a what happened, I guess that I was a little too close to what was happening and I just couldn't bring myself to record what would have been a seemingly endless list of expletives.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stress test claims one Greek bank

The much hyped stress test of Europe's banking system is intended to ally fears in the world money markets over the ability of the continent's financial system to weather a meltdown. In the end just seven of the 91 banks failed to make the mark, five Spanish, one German and one Greek.

Athens is claiming this as proof of the rude health of Greece's banking institution and the state run TV channels are running the story as if it was a 5-1 victory in the World Cup. However, by strange coincidence the one institution that failed the test is the state controlled ATE (Agricultural Bank of Greece) which is also responsible for hundreds of million in loans to the country's two largest parties. The ruling PASOK party lead by Giorgos Papandreou owes 98,6 million euros whereas the opposition New Democracy party which was in power till last September has debts of 105 million.

In addition the parties also owe sizeable amounts to Piraeus bank which narrowly escaped the same fate as ATE. It seems strange that the two banks which fared worse in the stress test are the one so intimately associated with parties in government.

A mind more suspicious than my own might come to the conclusion that ATE and perhaps Piraeus have been used as a private piggy bank by those in power and that much of ATE's present weakness comes from the Greek State's chronic inability to maintain a distinction between the needs of the Party (whatever ideological colours it purports to fly) and the needs of the country.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Taking a break

Lydia, originally uploaded by Teacher Dude's BBQ.

I though I would take time out from the usual stories of doom and gloom and write about something more pleasant. Since, believe it or not the life goes on much as it usually does here in Greece despite all that you may read on this blog or in the newspapers. people work, laugh, fall in love have fun and the like.

Me and Lydia went to a concert a few days ago in the centre of Thessaloniki organised by a soft - drinks company. It was an example of naked self - promotion but despite that I have to admit it was fun. Being surrounded by so many people have such a great time was infectious and any excuse to forget our troubles is always welcome. Lydia was enthralled by it all and along with half the audience decided to record the event on her mobile. I swear Aristotelous square was a sea of cameras and cell phones.

In addition I finally learnt to do something that I have been meaning to get round to for ages and so with some trepidation I set about learning how to make bread. Much to my surprise the whole procedure was a lot less demanding than I had imagined. Buoyed by success with my first attempt I decided to try my luck again, this time with Lydia's assistance. And once again something emerged from the oven that not only resembled a loaf of bread but also tasted a lot like it as well.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Death of Greek journalist Sokratis Gkiolias unleashes wave of rumours and speculation in local media

The Greek mainstream media has been having a field day with the tragic death of 37 year old journalist Sokratis Gkiolias yesterday, shot 13 times by three men outside his home in the Athens suburb of Ilioupoli by serving up ever wilder stories about terrorist attacks on the country's media. One TV presenter, Popi Tsapanidou even went as far as to say that the event was "Greek journalism's 9/11" on Skai TV channels morning news program.

However, behind the hysteria and rampant speculation there are many aspects of the case which do not add up. According to official police ballistic reports the weapons using in the murder have been linked to the terrorist group, Sect of Revolutionaries (Secta Epanastaton) which appeared on the scene for the first time in early 2009, in the wake of the widespread rioting and social turmoil that followed the shooting of 15 year old teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a police officer in central Athens.

Since then the group has been linked with a series of highly organised, often bloody attacks on police officers, news outlets and banks. These hits have been marked by the sophisticated tactics, indiscriminate violence and large amounts of explosives. However, the nature of the Gkiolias's death owes more in style and substance to a gangland hit. The use of three shooters, the large number of bullets and the fact that the killers apparently disguised themselves in something akin to police uniforms (according to eye witnesses) is more reminiscent of the contract killings that sometimes take place in Greece when different criminal gangs seek to resolve their differences.

Also the choice of target is problematic as Sokratis Gkiolias was neither a member of the police force nor a high profile media personality. As the manager of a radio station and supposedly connected with the controversial Troktiko blog (though the exact nature of the connections still remains unclear) he was not a household name in Greece.

These doubts have not stopped the mainstream print and electronic media in Greece from promoting the idea of this as a terrorist act and the sense of fear amongst them is palable as the major TV channel's talking heads seek to paint this as an attack on free speech in particular and democracy in general.

As with so many aspects of Greek public life the truth lies hidden beneath layers of deception, half-truths and calculation that sound more like the plot of an Oliver Stone movie than real life. It seems unlikely that the culprits will be brought to justice any time some, despite government statements to the contrary. There are few leads and the country's anti-terrorism unit has a dismal record in building cases. Despite a string of attacks the authorities admit they have few leads on who exactly the Sect of Revolutionaries are. One only has the remember the 17 November organisation who were able to act with impunity from the mid 70's to 2002, their run of bombings and killing only stopped when one member was unlucky enough to be badly injured when an home made explosive device went off prematurely.

It's hardly surprising that given the dearth of leads and lack of convictions many Greeks across the political spectrum believe that elements within the state (known as "parakratikoi") maybe behind the attacks though reasons for this are wildly diverse. Whether there is any truth at all in such claims is less importance perhaps than in people's willingness to give them credence. Yet another indictation that the Greek's confidence in their public institutions is at rock bottom the victim not only of the current economic crisis but also a legacy of corruption and scandal no government is willing to eradicate.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Guardian interview with Giorgos Papandreou - life style puff piece?

"He cuts through the water with agility and speed." gushes Helena Smith, the Guardian's Athens corresponent, who then goes on to describe Greece's embatted prime minister as "statuesque" and later swoons over his "Olympian stamina". Guys, get a room.

This kind of journalism was be hilarious if the story behind it was not so tragic and didn't involved the suffering of so many people. Yet, the Guardian's interview with Papndreou is yet another example of how shallow the foreign media's analysis of what is happening in Greece really is.

We find out from the hard hitting piece that, "you have to make tough decisions in politics" and that "as long as I feel I am doing what I think is right and just for my country, for the Greek people, that is enough for me." While Smith does mention the enormous problems that Greece faces, many the result of the policies adopted by Papandreou's own PASOK party when it was in power she allows many claims by the prime minister to go unchallenged.

For example Papandreou insists that he was unaware of the true extent of Greece's financial woes before taking power in September 2009, a claim that the governor of the Bank of Greece refuted in an interview with the investigative journalism TV show "Neoi Fakeloi" (New Folders) which aired on the Skai TV channel May 2010. According to Giorgos Pavopoulos both the former and present prime minister were told during the national election campaign that the country's national debt was rising fast and likely to reach 12% before the end of 2009.

On the other hand Papandreou is allowed to repeat without challenge the oft heard claims that his government will help mobilise youth to change the country through the setting up of new businesses, especially those connected with renewable sources of energy and "green" initatives. While the sentiments are admirable no details are given about such programs and how they are to be funded when money for services as basic as hospital supplies are drying up. Nor does it seem to be having effect on the growing problem of unemployment which is hitting young Greeks hardest of all with over 30% without work, a figure set to rise still further as the economy continues to shrink.

At no time is the fact that many economists belive that the current IMF/EU/ECB bailout plan is doomed to failure according to many of the world's leading economists who think that the austerity package is most likely to lead to a long term depression reminiscent of 1929. Instead the government's tired old line that the there are no alternatives to the measures is repeated and that the economy will be "reinvigorated". No wonder the interview was warmly and repeatedly quoted on the state run ERT TV news.

What we see is yet another example of how "access journalism" reduces reporters to little more than stenographers and cheer leaders for those in power and that by making so many compromises to gain access to their subject the whole point of a newspaper interview is subverted and allowed to become little more than a life style puff piece. The fact it makes its appearance in a newspaper as serious as the Guardian makes it all the more depressing.

Greek journalist executed on own doorstep

Greek journalist, Socratis Gkiolias was gunned down this morning when he answered his door. According to police reports the gunmen shot Gkiolias, who was married and a father of a two year son at least 16 times and then fled the scene in a stolen Honda Civic which was later found burnt out in the Vouliagmeni district of Athens.

The fact that Gkiolias was associated, at least according to much of the Greek press with the controversial Troktiko blog has sent the Greek language blogosphere into a frenzy of speculation over who is responsible for the murder which bears all the hallmarks of a gangland execution. According to the internet based news site the attack has drawn the attentions of Greece's anti-terrorist agency whilst contributers to Troktiko hint that those behind the killing have connections with elements within the State or "parakratikoi" as they are called in Greek.


According to latest police reports the weapon used in the killing have been linked to previous attacks by a group calling itself the Sect of Revolutionaries who first came to public notice in January 2009 following an armed attack on a police station in Athens. Sect have also claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on police officers, journalists and banks.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Greece - looking beyond the statistics

As Greeece sinks more and more deeply into economic recession one of the most frustrating aspects of the crisis is the lack of quality coverage from the foreign press. Whilst most Greeks have little of no confidence in the veracity of local media reporting, they do not expect the same kind of low grade journalism from organisations such as the BBC or the Economist.

On Thursday Gavin Hewitt, the BBC's European editor wrote about the current situation in Greece in his blog and while reflecting the widely held belief amongst economists the the current "rescue package" is doomed to failure seemed happy to simply regurgitate Athens's line on how the situation is all under control and that things are going to plan. Hewitt even went as far as to say that;

"It was expected that austerity would persuade Greeks to keep their wallets shut. Private consumption is actually up by 1.5%."

No source is given for this surprising factoid and it flies in the face of virtually every piece of economic and anecdotal evidence I know of. Since the massive hikes in VAT and tax on petrol have lead nearly everyone I know to cut back on spending on everything from holidays to food. According to the national daily Imerisia sales of petrol have fallen 30% since the beginning of the year leading to the closure of over 1000 petrol stations nationwide. In addition foreign retail chains such as FNAC and Aldi have recently announced that they are pulling out of the Greek market and local supermarket chain Atlantik is set to close its doors as well with the loss of 4000 jobs.

These events hardly point to a bouyant retail sector nor do they seem to show that private consumption is on the rise. This is another example of foreign commentators with little in the way of real life experience of the countries they are covering relay on official statistics and second hand accounts. If Hewitt had asked anyone outside the hermetically closed worlds in which foreign journalist often operate he would have seen a different picture from that shown in the officially sanctioned Greek state media which drifts ever further from the shores of reality in its quest to prop up the government's line.

However, the BBC is not alone in swallowing the half truths and full-on misconceptions that often surround Greece's role in the present economic crisis. A hardy perennial in that category is the idea that the country has, in the words of the Economist, "a lavish social security system" and that uncontrolled public spending on the old and poor has bankrupted the country.

Yet what the Economist either do not care to know or did not bother to find out is that while lavsh payments are to be found in the sytem they are limited to the members of the country's state and party nomenclature and that for every 50 year old living high on the hog on their state pension there are hundreds of other OAPs eeking out a living on less than 400 euros a month in a country where the cost of living is only shade lower than in countries such as Germany and the UK.

With the highest rate of poverty in the EU and the largest number of working poor Greece is hardly the worker's paradise that publications such as the Economist would have us believe. Life for those without the right party and personal connections is a hard struggle for survival which is daily getting becoming more difficult as the IMF/EU/ECB measures eat away at the nation's economic foundations so bringing little more than poverty and despair in the name of an economic orthodoxy which failed so spectacularly in 1929.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


IMF-HAL, originally uploaded by Teacher Dude's BBQ.

"IMF - I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Make juice, not war.

Make juice, not war., originally uploaded by Teacher Dude's BBQ.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thessaloniki newspaper victim of arson attack

As well as writing this blog and putting pictures on Flickr I also work with a left - wing newspaper here in Greece providing pictures of the various political events that happen here in Thessaloniki. Yesterday at 4pm the offices of the Dromos newspaper were the target of an arson attack when an incendiary device was placed in the corridor outside the offices on the second floor. Thankfully, employees inside the newspaper offices were quick to put out the fire and so nobody was injured. If the attempt had been successful the result could have been tragic as the corridor is the only way out for those working on the six floor above.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack but suspicion has fallen upon far right groups who have been known to use such tactics in the past.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Life in A Day

Sometimes an idea just grabs your imagination and won't let it go. This happened to me when I heard about the Life in a Day project on Youtube in which people are invited to submit clips that show something of their lives during the course of one day, 24th July 2010. The videos will be made into a movie by Kevin MacDonald (director of the Last King of Scotland) and produced by Ridley Scott (of Bladerunner, Gladiator etc, etc fame).

Actually, this is not the first time that such a collaborative framerwork has been used to produce a video. Placebo's version of Running Up That Hill used clips from fans miming the lyrics of the song to produce a video (you can even see my EFL/ESL lesson plan based on it).

I'm looking forward to the 24th July though to tell you the truth I still don't know what I'm going to shot. Whatever happens, it's great to have a project to focus on during the dog days of summer. For details of the Life in a Day experiment check out their Youtube channel.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Greek general strike - Thessaloniki 8th July 2010

About 3-4000 protesters marched through the centre of Thessaloniki , Greece today to demonstrate against government plans to radically reduce pensions and social benefits.

"Stop debt payments now" - "Στάση πληρωμών του χρέους τώρα"

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Critical Mass Ride starts with a water fight

The guys with the Critical Mass Ride decided to have some fun while promoting the idea of cycling as an alternative to the internal combustion engine in Thessaloniki by having a water fight. So instead of duelling pistols at dawn it was water pistols at sunset.

It's good to remember that despite all the doom and gloom caused by the economic crisis life goes on, people have fun, joke, laugh, fall in love and have babies and do all the things that the rest of the world does no matter how bleak things seem to get.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Give me debt or give me death

Give me debt or give me death

Internal devaluation is just a polite way of saying screw the poor. If you think that the crisis in Greece is nothing to do with you think again.

The Greeks are fighting the first battle in war against those on lower incomes that will, sooner or later involve the rest of the Europe Union. One can only hope that these policies which promise to repeal hard won social reforms are defeated on the shores of the Aegeon.

IMF/EU/ECB - Resistance is anything but futile

One of the worst aspects of the current economic crisis here in Greece is the way it has sucked the hope out of so many people's lives. The current austerity measures offer nothing in the way of hope for the millions of Greeks on lower incomes whose backs are already up against the wall. This sense of dispair limited to any one group or region but rather has spread like some infectious disease throughout the social spectrum.

Talking to friends the conversation always seems to find its way round to the financial mess the country finds itself in. Everyone I know is worried about the future since the massive economic dislocation we are all going through seems to offer nothing but years of poverty and deprivation, negating decades of hard won progress.

For the young the sense of a future deferred, cancelled, even is strongest. What do they have to look forward to? Unemployment, low wage dead end jobs, a life spent living with their parents? After so many years of study and struggle they are coming to the realisation that much of what they were working towards has disappeared and nothing is being offered to take its place.

Prime minister Giorgos Papandreou may talk about the light at the end of the tunnel but few believe his words as they are the same broken promises that the Greek political class have been manking for years. The same wooden language expressing ideas that no one listens to anymore (not helped by the fact that Papandreou is a monumentally awful public speaker).

The fact is that that the recently elected PASOK party has absolutely no popular mandate for the changes they are making to pension schemes and wages since none of the recent measures were in their pre-election manifesto. Papandreou insists that his party had no idea of the size of the deficit they were inheriting on taking power last year (a contention vehermently dened by the head of the Bank of Greece who says that the head of the opposition knew of the massive overshot in public spending figures). Yet it is a measure of the collapse in public trust in the present political system that few are willing to believe him.

Lacking a mandate the leadership of the PASOK party has resorted to fear and intimidation both within and outside parliament to push through legisaltion demanded by the IMF/EU/EB troika. Any MP refusing to follow the party line faces immediate dismissal form the party whilst outside parliament the presence of riot police has become a permanent fixture of demonstrations of any size.

However, this is just the beginning, the real battles lie ahead of us in September when Greek politics traditionally revive after the lethargy of a long, hot summer. Also the effects of the first wave of cuts in wages, rising unemployment and the fall in income from tourism are likely to combine to form a perfect poltical storm. In the face of such massive unrest it is hard to see how Papadreou is going to maintain party discipline amongst PASOK backbenchers already deeply upset about the route the party is taking. Likewise the party base is unhappy with being identified with such wildly unpopular policies.

In addition there is every likelyhood that the Greece will fail to find enough revenue to fulfill Troika (IMF/EU/ECB) targets and will be forced to borrow even more to pay the bills. Already a second rise in VAT has been imposed on an economy struggling to become competitive, a clear indication that government measures to increase revenue are not proving as effective as Papandreou promised.

With a spiralling debt, massive drop in economic activity and steadily rising unemployment how long is it before Athens is forced to renegotiates its debt load?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Repeat after me: You have no choice

This is the message that the Greek media have been bombarding the country with ever since the PASOK government went cap in hand to the IMF, EU and ECB for a bailout loan that would, it was said save the country from bankruptcy.

Whilst the strict terms under which the the money is being spent may help French and German bankers sleep better at nights the cost of "internal devaluation" have wrecked havoc with those Greeks at the bottom of the ladder. Hit by a triple whammy of large price hikes caused by two increases in VAT, cuts in income and massive rise in unemployment many are struggling to survive, cutting spending on even basic such as groceries to the bone.

This in turn is further deepening the crisis by hammering the country's retail sector which has responded by shedding jobs and so the vicious circle creaks on.Even going to Greece's famed beaches has become a luxury beyond the reach of many as petrol has risen by nearly 60% in less than a year.

The government say we have no choice, there are no alternatives and the measures, as painful as they are are necessary to restore Greece to financial health. However, in the absence of any kind of coherent plan for economic growth the present policy of cutting costs and raising more government revenue through indirect taxation seems a recipe for disaster and is likely to doom the country to a long period of stagnation and poverty the likes of which modern Greece has not experienced in 50 years.

Summer is not traditionally a period of intense political activity here but come September Prime minister Giorgos Papandreou is likely to be faced with an electorate at the end of their tether and outraged by a political system that has been marked by both massive corruption and unbridled incompetence. At that stage even his supporters in the supine national media are not going to be in a position to help him out of the hole he has dug for himself, his party and the country.