Feb 042018
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Members of the Communist Party-affiliated labor union shout slogans during a rally in Athens, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Greek lawmakers, eying the end of eight years of bailout programs, approved more painful austerity measures late Monday, as strikes and mass protests brought much of Athens to a standstill. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Members of the Communist Party-affiliated labor union shout slogans during a rally in Athens, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Greek lawmakers, eying the end of eight years of bailout programs, approved more painful austerity measures late Monday, as strikes and mass protests brought much of Athens to a standstill. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The austerity measures, privatizations, salary and pension cuts, and all of the other measures implemented during the years during which the Greek economy was purportedly being “bailed out,” will remain in place. Indeed, it’s full steam ahead for all of these policies.

ATHENS, GREECE (Analysis) – Hundreds of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, on Sunday, January 21, in a mass rally opposing a compromise on the part of the Greek government regarding the Macedonia name dispute with Greece’s northern neighbor, temporarily recognized by the United Nations as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).

As talks between the governments of Greece and FYROM have progressed, seemingly out of the blue and after a very long period of dormancy, a significant percentage of the populace in Greece is seizing the opportunity to participate in the first large-scale street demonstrations in the country since the days leading up to July 5, 2015 referendum rejecting an austerity proposal put forth by Greece’s creditors. That referendum result was of course subsequently rejected by the “radical left” SYRIZA-led coalition government.

The Thessaloniki rally was, for many of its participants, more than just an opportunity to have their voice heard regarding the Macedonia name dispute. It was also a chance to speak out against the numerous other difficulties ordinary Greeks are facing, in the midst of an economic crisis that has been ongoing since 2010. Some of the speakers at the rally, and many participants as well, spoke out against austerity, forced home foreclosures and seizures, privatizations, and a host of other policies that the current government promised to oppose but instead has faithfully implemented since taking office in January 2015.

This promises to be the case this coming Sunday as well, at the follow-up rally being organized in Athens. This rally is set to take place in Syntagma Square, outside Greece’s parliament, the site of many massive protests in the past, including the “Indignants” movement opposing austerity in the spring and summer of 2011. And — while numerous representatives of SYRIZA were quick to label the Thessaloniki rally “fascist” or “nationalistic,” the purported domain of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party — Sunday’s rally in Athens will feature, as one of its main speakers, Greek composer and cultural icon Mikis Theodorakis, who is widely associated with the Greek left.

SYRIZA’s “success story”: calling austerity by a different name

When the SYRIZA-led Greek government isn’t busy denouncing the demonstrations, it is touting its economic “success story” and Greece’s supposed exit, in August, from its memorandum (loan) agreements with the country’s “troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) of lenders. SYRIZA has boasted about the country’s forthcoming exit from these memorandum agreements — including the one it implemented in July 2015 following its rejection of the referendum result — since the summer of 2017.

Most recently, such claims were repeated by non-elected Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos. In a softball interview with Reuters earlier this week — where Tsakalotos was pictured in his office with a decal of the PAOK football club, owned by pro-SYRIZA oligarch Ivan Savvidis, in the background — Tsakalotos stated:

We’ve been outperforming our fiscal targets, the economy is returning. … To those people who think we need something more, like a precautionary credit line or whatever, they are just pushing the key question back and I don’t see any reason for that.”

According to Tsakalotos, Greece will not only emerge from the memorandum agreements and troika oversight in August, it will also not require a precautionary credit line to fund the country’s needs in the short term. Instead, Tsakalotos claims, the government has built a “safety net” of funds that can last the country a year or more. Tsakalotos went on to issue vague promises regarding growth, “reforms,” social policies, talks regarding debt relief, and an economy that is turning the corner.

What went unmentioned by both Tsakalotos and the Reuters journalists, however, is that an exit from the memorandum agreements in no way absolves Greece from the harsh austerity that has been implemented there since 2010. While SYRIZA is attempting to market an “exit from the memorandums” as a selling point in light of parliamentary elections — slated to be held no later than September 2019 — and European parliamentary elections in the spring of 2019, such an exit simply signifies the conclusion of the loan agreements the current and previous governments signed with the troika.

The austerity measures, privatizations, salary and pension cuts, and all of the other measures implemented during the years during which the Greek economy was purportedly being “bailed out,” will remain in place. Indeed, as will be shown below, it’s full steam ahead for all of these policies.

As part of the SYRIZA-led government’s propaganda efforts, the Greek state “re-entered the bond markets” in the spring of 2017, via a 3 billion euro bond sale. It was the first such entry into the markets for Greece since late 2013, when the coalition government of the center-right New Democracy and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) completed a bond tender, again amidst proclamations of a Greek “success story.”

What went unmentioned in the Reuters interview, however, is that the bond yield (interest rate) of 4.625 percent was not only much higher than that of other crisis-hit countries in Europe, but higher than or comparable to that of such economic superpowers as Vietnam and Botswana.

These claims of a Greek economy on the rebound were repeated by SYRIZA and by media mouthpieces following last spring’s bond tender, even though the journalists in the aforementioned piece seem to have overlooked this bond issue, stating that one has not taken place in over three years.

Tsipras and media hallucinate a Golden Age

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, speaks with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during their meeting at Maximos Mansion in Athens, March 22, 2017. Gabriel is in Greece on a two-day visit as he is suggesting his country could offer to pay more money into the European Union, arguing that investing in Europe is "an investment in our own future." (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, speaks with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during their meeting at Maximos Mansion in Athens, March 22, 2017. Gabriel is in Greece on a two-day visit as he is suggesting his country could offer to pay more money into the European Union, arguing that investing in Europe is “an investment in our own future.” (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently described Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as the man who might go down in history for saving Greece from foreign economic supervision, while the Financial Times, in early January, fawned over Greece’s “remarkable turnaround” under Tsipras’ leadership. Another German newspaper, Die Welt, also gushed over Greece’s economic recovery in 2017, writing that Tsipras may even be able to solve Greece’s debt problem and, perhaps mockingly, added that he might even finally wear a tie.

Tsipras, in an interview on New Year’s Day, described 2018 as “the year of Greece” and has repeated the claim that Greece will emerge from the memorandums in August. At his annual State of the Nation speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair in September 2017, Tsipras promised an exit from the bailouts in 2018, “help” for workers and youth, and an end to creditor supervision of the Greek economy.

Such boasts on the part of the SYRIZA-led Greek government, and such omissions on the part of the global mainstream media, overlook the inconvenient reality that, barring some truly radical change, Greece will in no way be able to absolve itself of austerity and international financial oversight for the foreseeable future. This is because of the commitments the current government has made, which chain the country to a strict set of economic measures for decades to come.

Seeing through the mirage: what’s really on the horizon

Initially, in May 2016, the Greek parliament passed a 7,500 page omnibus bill, sans any parliamentary debate, that transferred control over all of the country’s public assets to a fund controlled by the EU’s European Stability Mechanism for a period of 99 years – that is, until the year 2115. Not even Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled that far into the future!

Second, Greece’s loan commitments to the “troika” of lenders are set to continue, at the current rate of repayment, until 2059, as reported recently by the German newspaper Handelsblatt. That is the year when Greece is expected to have repaid the balance of the loans it has received, as part of its so-called “bailouts,” since 2010.

The same article pointed out that the Greek government has made commitments to implement further austerity measures through 2022. These measures — totaling 5.5 billion euros and agreed upon in June 2017 in what is, in essence, a fourth memorandum — include no less than 113 demands on the part of the troika, encompassing new privatizations of public assets and pension reductions. Other measures foreseen as part of this deal include a reduction in the tax- free income threshold and the further dilution of already-decimated worker rights. No increase in the also-decimated minimum wage is foreseen, nor are any new social measures to be implemented until 2023, despite Tsakalotos’ promises to the contrary.

In connection with this agreement, assets slated for privatization include such strategic holdings as 25 percent of Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, the remaining regional airports that have not already been privatized, Greece’s national defense industry, and the Corinth Canal.

Third, the SYRIZA-led coalition government has committed to the maintenance of annual primary budget surpluses of 3.5 percent through 2023, and then 2 percent annually through 2060. In plain language, what this means is that the state will spend less than it earns in revenues. If revenues therefore decrease, expenditures will be slashed accordingly. And, as foreseen in the 2017 deal between the Greek government and the troika, should there be shortfalls in these fiscal targets, automatic budget and spending cuts are to be immediately implemented through at least 2022.

Here it should be noted that the net revenues of the Greek state declined in 2017, falling to 51.27 billion euros from 54.16 billion euros in 2016, leading in turn to a reduction in the pre-tax primary budget surplus from 2.78 billion euros to 1.97 billion euros. With state expenditures having reached 55.51 billion euros, Greece now faces a post-interest deficit of 4.24 billion euros, resulting in an increase in the country’s public debt. These figures will inevitably lead to the imposition of the automatic cuts agreed upon with the troika in 2017.

For those keeping score: Greece’s economy was said to be in dire crisis and endangering the whole of the Eurozone in 2009 with a debt-to-GDP ratio of approximately 127 percent. In 2017, after eight years of “bailouts,” this figure reached 179 percent. Yet the Greek economy is being touted as a “success story” and one that will, of course, remain firmly placed within the Eurozone.

While taking its backward victory lap, the SYRIZA-led government has made celebratory claims regarding the reduction in Greece’s official unemployment rate, which once hovered close to 30 percent but has since declined to 20.7 percent. It bears noting though that the total and per capita costs of labor have remained steady during this period, indicating that new jobs that are being created are on the very low end of the income scale. Furthermore, the percentage of those employed part-time or otherwise underemployed has increased in recent years. These individuals are not officially considered to be unemployed.

What also bears mentioning is the frightening “brain drain” — mass emigration — of Greeks during the years of the economic crisis. Approximately 500,000 to 600,000 Greeks are said to have left the country during the past decade. These losses do not just consist of unskilled or low-skilled laborers: 12,408 medical doctors, to take one example, have emigrated in the past 10 years. This means fewer skilled and educated professionals are living in Greece, spending their incomes in Greece, paying taxes in Greece, and contributing to Greece’s pension system.

In other words, unemployment is on the decline, just as long as all the unemployed give up and leave the country or accept low-wage jobs for which they are overqualified, receiving a pittance as an income.

Further illustrating the above, Greece ranks second in the world in negative wealth growth during the 2007 to 2017 period. On average, Greek households lost 37 percent of their wealth over this period, second only to Venezuela at 48 percent.

More austerity yet to come

Greek pensioners stand with other retirees as they gather to take part in an anti-austerity rally in Athens. Greek retirees are struggling to survive on ever dwindling pensions with repeated cuts imposed by successive governments as part of their country’s three international bailouts. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Greek pensioners stand with other retirees as they gather to take part in an anti-austerity rally in Athens. Greek retirees are struggling to survive on ever dwindling pensions with repeated cuts imposed by successive governments as part of their country’s three international bailouts. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

In January, the SYRIZA-led coalition government voted into law a new omnibus bill, totaling 1,531 pages, that is chock full of new cuts and still more austerity for Greece’s ravaged populace. What do this bill’s measures encompass? Some highlights of the newly-passed legislation include:

  • Cuts to social benefits to all but the lowest-income households.
  • The establishment of an “energy stock market” and further “liberalization” of Greece’s energy marketplace. A similar scheme implemented in California in 2001 resulted in “rolling blackouts” in much of the state.
  • The implementation of electronic auctions for home foreclosures and seizures, which will now include primary residences that were previously protected under the law. The establishment of electronic auctions will enable a well-organized protest movement at courthouses throughout Greece, which successfully prevented numerous auctions, to be bypassed.
  • Creation of a similar electronic auction scheme, where the assets of those with outstanding debts as low as 500 euros to the Greek state, will be auctioned.
  • The merger of schools and subsequent shutdown of schoolhouses all across the country.
  • A severe curtailment of workers’ right to strike.
  • The integration of 14 key public services and utilities into the existing “privatization mega-fund.” These assets include a significant share of the Public Power Corporation (DEI), majority stakes in the Athens and Thessaloniki water systems, the national postal service, the Athens public transportation network, and the main Athens Olympic facilities, including the Olympic Stadium.

It bears remembering that SYRIZA, prior to its initial election in 2015, campaigned on a platform of stopping further sell-offs of public assets and reversing previous privatizations. These measures come in addition to previous agreements that the SYRIZA-led government made with the troika, which will lead to the loss of the equivalent of up to three monthly pension payments for recipients beginning in 2019, and additional pension reductions impacting 2.7 million recipients, who will face cuts of up to 40 percent.

Even employees at SYRIZA’s owned-and-operated media outlets, including the “Sto Kokkino” radio station and the Avgi newspaper, have faced cuts. Three workers at “Sto Kokkino” were recently fired for refusing to sign a new contract that would have reduced their salaries by 20 percent. These firings have led to employees staging repeated work stoppages at these outlets.

A moment of truth?

These are not the signs of an economy that is recovering. They are instead signs of an economy that continues to sputter, ravaged by austerity and widespread public despair.

It is this despair that might show its face at Sunday’s protest outside of the Greek parliament in Athens. It could be said that this is the moment of truth for the Greek people, who were lulled into complacency after the overwhelming referendum result rejecting troika-imposed austerity was overturned by the SYRIZA-led government that many once believed would keep its campaign promises, stand up to the creditors, and end austerity.

Will Sunday’s rally be as big as many in Greece are expecting, and will it have any tangible political result, above and beyond the Macedonia name dispute that served as its initial impetus? We should find out soon enough.

michael-120x120Michael Nevradakis is a PhD candidate in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a US Fulbright Scholar presently based in Athens, Greece. Michael is also an independent journalist and is the host of Dialogos Radio, a weekly radio program featuring interviews and coverage of current events in Greece.

Jan 302018
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Protesters wave Greek flags during a rally against the use of the term "Macedonia" for the northern neighboring country's name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Over 100,000 Greeks have gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki to demand that neighboring country Macedonia change its name because it is also the name of the Greek province of which Thessaloniki is the capital. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Protesters wave Greek flags during a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Over 100,000 Greeks have gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki to demand that neighboring country Macedonia change its name because it is also the name of the Greek province of which Thessaloniki is the capital. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Greek authorities and the media may choose to brand the protesters “fascists,” “nationalists,” “xenophobes” or any number of other epithets, in an attempt to delegitimize them and their concerns. But what is fascist about being leery of U.S. and NATO intentions in the Balkans or opposing the nationalist, expansionist ambitions of a neighboring state?

THESSALONIKI, GREECE (Analysis) – While international media outlets focused on the women’s rallies of this past weekend, in Greece a population that for several years has not participated in any large-scale protests came out in force on Sunday. Greeks gathered to oppose a deal between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) — the country’s official name as per the United Nations — that would allow Greece’s northern neighbor to officially include Macedonia in its name. The demonstration flooded the streets of downtown Thessaloniki — the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia, and Greece’s second largest city.

Official estimates for the turnout ranged from 90,000 according to the police to over 500,000 according to rally organizers. What is indeed evident is that turnout was likely far closer to the organizers’ estimates than to those of the police. Photosfrom the rally show the crowd of demonstrators stretching from the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s main landmark, all the way to the Thessaloniki Music Hall in one direction and to Aristotelous Square in the other, spanning almost two miles along the city’s coastline. Busloads of protesters traveled from all corners of Greece, with over 500 coach buses reportedly delivering participants to Thessaloniki just from Athens alone.

Sunday’s rally signified Greece’s biggest demonstration, by far, since the period leading up to the country’s July 2015 austerity referendum, following a long period of relative dormancy. Joining the Thessaloniki protesters in spirit, members of the overseas Greek communities — in cities such as London (outside the British Parliament), Stuttgart, and Melbourne — came out in significant numbers and participated in rallies organized locally.

For many, Sunday’s rally — and the opposition of many Greeks to the use of the name “Macedonia” by the country’s northern neighbor — reeks of nationalism and ethnocentrism. And indeed, many right-wing and even far-right elements were behind the official organization of Sunday’s rally. This nationalist and ethnocentric view, however, does not represent the ordinary public that participated in the protest, many of whom also represented those with a more left-wing political outlook (including dozens of people I personally am acquainted with). Although left-wing, however, that outlook is opposed to the government led by the neoliberal, pro-EU, pro-austerity “leftist” SYRIZA party, as well as to the Communist Party of Greece — which denounced Sunday’s rally and which, on and off, has recognized Greece’s northern neighbor as “Macedonia.”

Furthermore, this view glosses over numerous historical realities and, even more significantly, geopolitical realities in the region — and the role and ambitions of the United States and NATO in the wider Balkan region. This piece will briefly examine the historical development of the Macedonia dispute, the current negotiations and geopolitical forces at work, and the stance of the Greek government and establishment at the present time. Moreover, the efforts to downplay Sunday’s rally and to characterize an entire mass of protesters as “fascist,” will be analyzed.

 

Redrawing the Balkans: the birth of a “Macedonian” state

Contrary to what is often reported, the area now known as FYROM was not always officially named “Macedonia.” Indeed, it was not called Macedonia until after World War II, when it was a province of Yugoslavia and was renamed “Macedonia” by Yugoslav leader Tito, with the approval of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Previous to that, in the early 20th century, the region was successively known as South Serbia, then absorbed within Bulgaria, then known as “Vardarska,” named after the main river running through the region.

As pointed out by analyst Vasilis Viliardos, while this name change may have initially seemed to be an internal Yugoslav matter, it was anything but. Tito’s grand plan for the region was for a greater Yugoslav nation, one that would include “Macedonia” and stretch all the way to the shores of the Aegean and the city of Thessaloniki. In order to achieve these aims though, a Macedonian “nationhood” first had to be invented, one that would co-opt the ancient history of Macedonia.

The historical record provides evidence for these early efforts at revisionism. While, for instance, a 1937 map of Yugoslavia and a 1939 Yugoslav stamp illustrate modern-day FYROM as “Vardarska,” by the 1940s the Yugoslav authorities were actively promoting the region as “Macedonia.” A July 10, 1946 article appearing in The New York Times states “a ‘Federal Macedonia’ has been projected as an integral part of Tito’s plan for a federated Balkans…taking Greek Macedonia for an outlet to the Aegean Sea through Salonica.”

A Yugoslav stamp circa 1939 showing ancient Paionia labeled 'Vardarska'. A map depicting Yugoslavia circa 1937 is pictured on the right.

A Yugoslav stamp circa 1939 showing ancient Paionia labeled ‘Vardarska’. A map depicting Yugoslavia circa 1937 is pictured on the right.

Two weeks later, a July 26, 1946 article in the Times by C.L. Sulzberger stated: “The possible creation of a Macedonian free state within Greece to amalgamate with Marshal Tito’s Federated Macedonia State, with is capital in Skopje…would fulfill the Slavic objectives of re-uniting the…province of Macedonia under Slavic rule, giving access of the sea to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.”

Such expansionist plans on the part of Tito’s Yugoslavia were also recorded in U.S. diplomatic cables of that era, including a December 26, 1944 cable that stated:

The [State] Department has noted with considerable apprehension increasing propaganda rumors and semi-official statements in favor of an autonomous Macedonia, emanating principally from Bulgaria, but also from Yugoslav Partisan and other sources, with the implication that Greek territory would be included in the projected state. This Government considers talk of Macedonian ‘nation,’ Macedonian ‘Fatherland,’ or Macedonia ‘national consciousness’ to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic nor political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece. …

The approved policy of this government is to oppose any revival of the Macedonian issue as related to Greece. The Greek section of Macedonia is largely inhabited by Greeks, and the Greek people are almost unanimously opposed to the creation of a Macedonian state. Allegations of serious Greek participation in any such agitation can be assumed to be false. This Government would regard as responsible any Government or group of Governments tolerating or encouraging menacing or aggressive acts of ‘Macedonian Forces’ against Greece.”

Tito’s grand plan for “Macedonia” indeed began to be implemented following World War II. Starting in the 1950s, theories began to develop about the ancient origins of the “Macedonian people” as direct descendants of the likes of Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedonia — even though, anthropologically, the inhabitants of what is today FYROM are descended from peoples that settled in the area in the sixth to seventh century A.D., a near millennium after the era of Alexander the Great. This is not meant to be an ethnocentrist argument in either direction, merely a statement of fact supported by the historical record.

The discontinuity between the ancient Macedonians and those who today refer to themselves as “Macedonian” (and are attempting to co-opt this ancient history as their own) was admitted to by none other than former president of FYROM Kiro Gligorov, who stated in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1992:

We are Macedonians but we are Slav Macedonians. That’s who we are! We have no connection to Alexander the Great and his Macedonia. The ancient Macedonians no longer exist, they had disappeared from history long time ago. Our ancestors came here in the 5th and 6th century (A.D.).”

In a similar vein, the former prime minister of FYROM, Ljubco Georgievski, has stated, in a televised interview, that the ancient Macedonian people were Greek.

Nevertheless, landmarks in what is today FYROM began to be renamed after ancient figures and symbols. Statues of Alexander the Great were constructed, and the country’s main international airport now bears his name. FYROM’s original map, following independence, bore the Vergina Sun — a popular ancient Greek symbol inscribed on ancient tombs in the Greek region of Vergina, said to be the burial site of King Philip II and possibly Alexander the Great or his brother. This symbol was later changed on FYROM’s flag to a nonspecific sun with rays emanating from it, as part of an agreement between the two countries in 1995 that also set the constitutional, temporary name of Greece’s northern neighbor as FYROM.

Nationalist zeal was fostered amongst the population of this region, based on this ancient “heritage.” And as part of this nationalist zeal, expansionist propaganda also began to appear, including maps displaying a “greater Macedonia” in place of FYROM, extending into Greek territory and up to the Aegean shoreline.

In August 2015, for instance, the then-parliamentary vice president and former foreign minister of FYROM, Antonio Milososki, appeared at an event in Ontario organized by members of FYROM’s diaspora, speaking in front of a map displaying “greater Macedonia,” which included a significant chunk of Greek territory, including Thessaloniki. FYROM’s ambassador to Canada appeared in front of this same map at an event in Toronto in 2016. Elementary school classrooms in FYROM have been painted with the map of “greater Macedonia,” while the map of “greater Macedonia” has also been used in advertisements by FYROM diaspora organizations, such as in an advertisement appearing in the Toronto Star on July 31, 2014.

But how did FYROM, as an independent state, come about and adopt the name “Macedonia”? Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, “Macedonia” declared independence in 1991, claiming both the name “Macedonia” and the Vergina Sun as its national symbol, in the new country’s flag. And it is here where geopolitics really comes into the picture.

 

Another NATO-U.S. client state in the Balkans?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, second from left, accompanied by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, left, inspects an honor guard squad upon his arrival at the Government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Jan. 18, 2018. NATO's secretary-general urged Macedonia to solve its name dispute with Greece and proceed with wide-ranging reforms if it wants its membership bid to succeed. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, second from left, accompanied by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, left, inspects an honor guard squad upon his arrival at the Government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Jan. 18, 2018. NATO’s secretary-general urged Macedonia to solve its name dispute with Greece and proceed with wide-ranging reforms if it wants its membership bid to succeed. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

The breakup of the former Yugoslavia — initially achieved in the early to mid-1990s and since progressing with the formation of Montenegro and Kosovo as independent states — has been closely tied in with U.S., NATO, and European Union foreign policy and geopolitical ambitions in the area. Following the fall of the “iron curtain,” a main objective of strategists in Washington and Brussels was to wrest control of the Balkans away from Russian influence, bringing the entire region into the Western sphere.

Taking advantage of a disemboweled Russia in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, nationalist tensions were stoked, civil wars were fomented, and Yugoslavia dissolved into war, crisis and, eventually, a number of small, weak states. Decimated following the collapse of communism and the sufferings of civil war, states such as Croatia, Bosnia, and FYROM were the perfect clients for the West’s imperial ambitions in the Balkan region. Illustrating the region’s significance, it has been noted, for instance, that the new U.S. embassy in Skopje, the capital of FYROM, is the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

As part of such efforts, imperial powers stoked and then harnessed nationalist tendencies that had been fomented in FYROM, essentially trading diplomatic support of such ambitions for geopolitical and military cooperation. One of President George W. Bush’s first acts upon commencing his second term in office, for instance, was formal recognition of FYROM as the “Republic of Macedonia.” In all, 130 countries have recognized FYROM by this name, even as its official United Nations name remains “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” China is one such country, as well as traditional Greek allies — deriving from cultural proximity if nothing else — Russia and Serbia.

“Macedonia’s” declaration of independence led to developments in Greece as well, and arguably contributed to the downfall of the government led by the center-right New Democracy party, which was hanging on to a flimsy one-seat parliamentary majority and which was seen by many in Greece as not putting up enough diplomatic resistance to the naming issue. A rally held in Thessaloniki, on February 14, 1992 drew up to a million protesters and is arguably the largest such demonstration held in the history of post-war Greece. The government collapsed a year later, as members of New Democracy’s parliamentary faction, angered over Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis’ willingness to compromise regarding the name dispute, broke off and formed a splinter party, Political Spring, which eliminated New Democracy’s parliamentary majority and eroded its support in the snap parliamentary elections of October 1993.

The now-deceased Mitsotakis’ government may have collapsed, but one of his quotations lives on in infamy today. In February 1993, in a stunning display of arrogance, Mitsotakis, in reference to the Macedonia name dispute, predicted that the Greek people “will have forgotten about it in 10 years.” And just as Mitsotakis evidently held the Greek populace that elected him in such low esteem, today’s current “leftist” SYRIZA-led government apparently harbors similar feelings, as will be demonstrated.

 

Matthew Nimetz: The hardly neutral mediator

Matthew Nimetz, the UN mediator in the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, answers journalists' questions following his talks with Macedonian officials in Skopje, Macedonia, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

Matthew Nimetz, the UN mediator in the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, answers journalists’ questions following his talks with Macedonian officials in Skopje, Macedonia, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

Despite the collapse of the New Democracy-led government in Greece, a diplomatic stalemate ensued, and the Clinton administration, which was actively involved in the ongoing developments in the Balkans during this period, appointed Matthew Nimetz as its Special Envoy for the Macedonia name dispute in March 1994. The negotiations that followed resulted in a temporary compromise agreement in September 1995, where the name “FYROM” was established, the country’s flag was changed, and diplomatic relations between FYROM and Greece were restored while a final resolution regarding the name dispute was left for a later date. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance chaired continued talks regarding the dispute, with Nimetz serving as Vance’s deputy, before being appointed as the UN secretary-general’s Personal Envoy for the Macedonia dispute in December 1999 — a position that Nimetz still holds today.

Who is Matthew Nimetz? An examination of his background reveals a long and fascinating history of serving what can be described as globalist and imperialist aims. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review, Nimetz clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II from 1965 to 1967. Harlan was, quite notably, in 1937 one of the five founders of the Pioneer Fund, an organization that promoted the practice of eugenics, of which the Nazi regime in Germany was a strong proponent. Indeed, at least two of the group’s five founders are said to have held close ties to Nazi Germany, while Harlan served on the organization’s board for several years.

Nimetz then joined the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. While Nimetz was tasked with domestic policy, it was the Johnson administration that, in 1967, supported a coup in Greece that established a dictatorial military regime that reigned until 1973. President Johnson himself, in 1965, had been quoted as stating the following to Greece’s ambassador, when the latter rejected Johnson’s plan to divide Cyprus into Greek and Turkish parts, as a solution to the ongoing disputes between the two countries:

Fuck your Parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked… We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your prime minister gives me talk about democracy, parliaments, and constitutions, he, his parliament, and his constitution may not last very long… Don’t forget to tell old papa-what’s his name what I told you [referring to Greek Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou].”

From 1975 to 1977, having returned to the private sector, Nimetz was appointed as a Commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the entity that controls the New York metro area’s three international airports, its seaports, and its main bus terminal — and that owned the World Trade Center (and owns 1WTC today). Nimetz was again appointed as a Commissioner of the Port Authority in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, but Spitzer’s sex scandal and subsequent resignation prevented Nimetz’s nomination from proceeding.

Upon his return to government service in 1977, Nimetz worked under Cyrus Vance at the State Department and was tasked with the Greek-Turkish disputes, including the Turkish invasion and occupation of almost 40 percent of Cyprus (which continues to this day), the Micronesian status negotiations (which are said to have stymied any hopes for Micronesian independence, while essentially creating pro-U.S. dependencies in the Pacific), and, interestingly enough, Mexico-United States border issues. In 1979, Nimetz was then promoted to the position of Under Secretary for Security Assistance, Science and Technology, which included in its purview the U.S. government’s international communications activities. He also continued to supervise U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Notably, during Nimetz’ tenure at the State Department, the United States’ arms embargo against Turkey — which had been imposed in February 1975, not long after Turkey’s invasion and subsequent occupation of a significant portion of Cyprus — was overturned.

Nimetz is also a member of the board of advisers of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP). In the past, the committee has seen fit to present awards to the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, the aforementioned Cyrus Vance, former New York governor Hugh Carey (on whose campaign staff Nimetz served), and Richard Holbrooke, who was intimately involved in the Yugoslav conflict in the 1990s.

Interestingly, Nimetz, as of 2017, serves as a trustee of the George Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, an institution founded following the collapse of the Iron Curtain as part of Soros’ “open society” initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe. Kati Marton, wife of the late Richard Holbrooke, serves as a trustee of the CEU. Soros chaired the CEU until 2009 -– his replacement, Leon Botstein, had served as president of Bard College in New York.

It should be noted that Bard College is the home of the Levy Economics Institute, founded in 1986 by economist Dimitris B. Papadimitriou, who also served as the Institute’s longtime president and who is presently Greece’s minister of economy and development. Papadimitriou’s wife, Ourania (Rania) Antonopoulos, Greece’s alternate minister for combating unemployment, also served as a senior economist at the Levy Institute and taught at Bard College. She has also been closely affiliated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The UNDP and the CEU are, in turn, both listed as donors for an outfit known as the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe (CDRSEE), based in Thessaloniki. Nimetz has served as a director and founding chair of this organization, which, among other initiatives, has promoted a “Joint History Project” with the support of the EU. This project is described as an effort to “change the way history is taught in schools in the Balkans,” and one might be tempted to wonder whether such a “joint history” includes, for instance, a “joint history” of Greece and “Macedonia.”

Notably, the CDRSEE counts as its donors, aside from the UNDP and CEU, entities such as the U.S. State Department, USAid, the National Endowment for Democracy, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the “Foundation Open Society Macedonia,” the European Union, the European Commission, and the municipality of Thessaloniki, under the auspices of its mayor, Yiannis Boutaris.

A darling of neoliberals worldwide, Boutaris has received glowing coverage from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, NPR, and Global Risk Insights, while he was shortlisted for World Mayor 2014. He has characterized Greece as a “Soviet-type society;” stated that he is ashamed to be Greek; called himself a “star mayor;” and repeatedly referred to FYROM as “Macedonia.”

Referencing Sunday’s rally in Thessaloniki, Boutaris has stated that “in Skopje no rallies are being organized, we [Greeks] will never learn,” while describing the rally as “devoid of substance” and “harmful for negotiations” between the two countries.

Nimetz, as demonstrated above, clearly maintains strong and direct ties to a number of different organizations and figures who, it could be argued, undermine Greece’s position in its dispute with FYROM over the name “Macedonia.” And it is Nimetz who is the UN’s mediator for the dispute between the two countries.

This is not an unfounded concern for many Greeks. Nimetz, in an interview broadcast last week on Greece’s Antenna TV, essentially used the aforementioned interim agreement of 1995 — which he himself chaired as President Clinton’s Special Envoy and where the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” was adopted — as a negotiating position against Greece, stating:

One has to be realistic. Right now the name of the country in the United Nations is Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. So the name Macedonia is in the name now in the United Nations and recognized by Greece with that name. Over 100 countries recognize the name as Republic as Macedonia, so it has Macedonia in the name, for most countries.”

 

Redrawing the Balkan map once more?

A group of people hold banners reading "We are Macedonia" during anti NATO protest in front of the Parliament in Skopje, Macedonia, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed lawmakers in Parliament, Jan. 19, 2018. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

A group of people hold banners reading “We are Macedonia” during anti NATO protest in front of the Parliament in Skopje, Macedonia, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed lawmakers in Parliament, Jan. 19, 2018. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)

Some actors are no longer sharing Nimetz’s enthusiasm over the recognition of FYROM as “Macedonia” by “most countries.” Earlier this month, Serbian foreign minister Iviva Dacic stated in an interview that “[w]e’ve been fools to recognize Macedonia under that name” and that Serbia “made a mistake when it recognized that country under its constitutional name (‘Republic of Macedonia’),” due to FYROM’s subsequent recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Dacic added:

Serbia made a big mistake there. All of Europe and the world are using the name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM), whereas we slapped our brothers the Greek, and now expect the Greek not to recognize Kosovo, while we recognized Macedonia by insulting the Greek, and they (Macedonians) are always voting in favor of Kosovo. I must say, we’ve been the fools. There, I’ll use an undiplomatic term.”

Dacic’s comments may be more than just undiplomatic. They may reflect broader changes that may be afoot in the Balkans, which are intimately tied to the future fate of FYROM, regardless of name.

In 2015, a protracted political crisis commenced in FYROM, resulting from a corruption and wiretapping scandal that impacted the ruling nationalist, center-right VMRO-DPMNE government. Large-scale protests were organized in FYROM in both 2015 and 2016, which have been likened to “color revolutions” seen in other countries in Eastern Union and Central Asia. Snap parliamentary elections were called in 2016, but were postponed twice before being held on December 11, 2016.

The protracted political crisis continued, however, as no clear winner emerged from the polls. After months of political stalemate, the second-place “social democratic” SDSM party was given a mandate to form a government, immediately after the visit of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee. Ironically, this regime change has prompted the development of a new “stop Soros” movement in FYROM, as there are some who consider the country’s new government as subservient to or controlled by the financial and geopolitical interests of George Soros.

Geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko has, since 2016, repeatedly predicted that FYROM would fall victim to Western-induced “hybrid warfare,” of which the snap elections and formation of a SDSM government are allegedly a part. This “hybrid warfare” would have, as its end result, the split of FYROM into two, with one half joining a new Albanian federation (which Kosovo may also join, and which will surely provoke a response from Serbia), and the other half joining Bulgaria. A possible step towards the latter outcome is a treaty signed between FYROM and Bulgaria, which Korybko has argued opens the door for FYROM to be subsumed by its Eastern neighbor in the event of a “crisis.”

In the meantime, the parliament of FYROM recently passed legislation making Albanian the country’s second official language, though this legislation was later vetoed by FYROM’s president, Gjorge Ivanov. It should not be overlooked that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in 2015 that Bulgaria and Albania want to divide FYROM between themselves.

Another possible indicator of looming instability is reflected in the actions of both Russia and China, which previously eyed FYROM for strategic projects in the region. The Russia-backed Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline and the China-backed Balkan Silk Road high-speed railway were both slated to traverse FYROM on their way to central Europe.

Korybko argues, however, that both Russia and China seem to be entertaining second thoughts about these projects, with Russia eying an alternate pipeline route through Bulgaria, while China is considering an alternate route for its railroad, which would still begin from the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus in Greece (privatized in 2016 by the “anti-privatization” SYRIZA-led government) but would be rerouted through Bulgaria. These changes, according to Korybko, are as a result of the risk of crisis or instability in FYROM, which both Russia and China are increasingly wary of.

Perhaps further reflecting this new geopolitical posture towards FYROM, Lavrov stated recently his belief that Greece should not make any concessions regarding the Macedonia name.

It may also be the case that the new Rex Tillerson-led State Department, along with NATO, are seeking to put their own stamps on pending matters in the Balkans, and may consider the ongoing dispute and political uncertainty involving FYROM to increasingly be a liability for Western interests in the region. In 2008, Greece, a member of both the EU and NATO, vetoed FYROM’s bid for NATO membership, citing the unresolved name dispute. It is surmised that a similar action could be undertaken by Greece to block FYROM’s EU aspirations if the Macedonia dispute remains unsolved. This may be considered by the State Department and NATO to be more trouble than it’s worth, resulting in further developments and a possible redrawing of boundaries in the region.

Interestingly — echoing both the fall of the Mitsotakis government in 1993 following the Macedonia name crisis, and the fall of the previous center-right government in FYROM following a wiretapping and corruption scandal — the center-right government of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, which vetoed FYROM’s NATO candidacy and which pursued a foreign policy that was more open towards Russian interests, itself was beset by a wiretapping scandal and by what seemed like a constant stream of political and even sexual scandals, followed by the violent December 2008 riots in Athens, before collapsing in 2009.

The newly-elected government of George Papandreou, grandson of the aforementioned “Papa-what’s his name” of Lyndon B. Johnson fame, delivered Greece’s first austerity agreement and brought the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Greece. He further has been accused of falsifying Greece’s debt and deficit figures — specifically, inflating them — in order to provide the political and economic impetus to place Greece under international financial oversight.

 

Protesting more than just a name

People walk between Greek flags ahead of a rally against the use of the term "Macedonia" for the northern neighbouring country's name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018.(AP/Giannis Papanikos)

People walk between Greek flags ahead of a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighbouring country’s name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018.(AP/Giannis Papanikos)

This brings us to present-day Greece, mired in its ninth year of the economic crisis — with no real end in sight, despite the cheery claims of the SYRIZA-led coalition government that Greece will exit the memorandum agreements later this year and return to a period of economic stability. Such optimism is not reflected on the ground, however, and it was perhaps a matter of time before ordinary Greeks, after a period of dormancy, started to lash out.

Sunday’s rally may have been such a moment. Despite rampant accusations that the rally represented runaway nationalism and fascism, at its heart it could actually be considered as an anti-imperialist rally, at least from the perspective of many attendees — the response of a populace that is finally tired of what it considers to be a political system that is soft on issues of national interest, and of the indignity of being a pawn in the regional chess match of great imperialist and Western powers.

More than this though, the rally also represents an expression of increasing frustration with the economic realities and struggles in Greece today. Speakers at the rally on Sunday did not restrict themselves to the Macedonia name dispute. They also addressed the privatization of national assets, of airports and harbors, by a government that had once promised to put an end to this sell-off. They addressed the economically dubious and environmentally destructive gold mining operations in Skouries (not far from Thessaloniki). And they addressed the home foreclosures and auctions — which are set to increase this year with the seizure even of households’ primary residences and with the introduction of electronic auctions, replacing courthouse auctions that have often been stymied by a well-organized movement that has sought to prevent them.

In short, speakers at Sunday’s rally addressed many of the major concerns on the minds of most Greek citizens today.

It is perhaps for this very reason that the Macedonia name dispute has suddenly returned to the forefront again, after years of being a diplomatic afterthought. As evidenced above, both Greece and FYROM are facing, each in its own way, a great deal of domestic turbulence. Returning a somewhat forgotten, culturally symbolic national issue to the fore can be seen as a great distraction from other, everyday troubles and concerns of ordinary citizens. Not surprisingly, numerous arguments against organizing the mass rally in Thessaloniki have centered on the “need for unity” at a time when the Greek government is “engaged in sensitive negotiations” on “an issue of national importance.”

Just as the Greek parliament is comprised of parties whose positions are, in fact, unrepresentative of Greeks’ attitudes towards the economic crisis and Greece’s continued membership in the Eurozone and the European Union, the same is evident with respect to Greek citizens’ views regarding the Macedonia issue. Though most public opinion polls in Greece should be taken with many grains of salt, as they are conducted by state-funded polling firms and on behalf of oligarch-owned, pro-austerity, pro-EU, and pro-NATO media outlets, several recent polls nevertheless showed wide majorities opposing any Greek compromise on the Macedonia name.

In a survey conducted by polling firm Marc, 68 percent of respondents (including, interestingly, 64 percent of SYRIZA voters) opposed a compromise. A poll conducted by online portal zougla.gr found 79 percent of respondents not in favor of a compromise. And a Metron Analysis poll found that between 77 and 82 percent of respondents opposed various proposed “composite names” for FYROM, such as “North Macedonia” or “New Macedonia,” while 61 percent of respondents favor a national referendum on any deal concerning the naming issue.

Of course, what major Greek and foreign media outlets instead chose to focus on was one single survey, conducted by polling firm Alco on behalf of radio station “Radiofono 24/7,” which found that 63 percent of respondents were in favor of a compromise solution on the Macedonia name dispute. It bears noting here that “Radiofono 24/7” is owned by up-and-coming oligarch Dimitris Maris, who maintains extremely close ties with SYRIZA. His media outlets — which also include online portal news247, the Greek edition of the Huffington Post, the newspaper Dimokratia, and the management of national newspapers Ethnos and Imerisia on behalf of their new owner, Russian-born oligarch Ivan Savvidis, himself close to SYRIZA — are unabashedly favorable towards the current Greek government.

Indeed, Maris’ outlets participated in the political and media blitz against the forthcoming rally in Thessaloniki in other ways as well, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras providing a softball interview to Ethnos and Radiofono 24/7 a few days prior to the rally. In this interview, Tsipras warned of the dangers of not reaching an agreement swiftly, justifying this stance by claiming he is “half [Greek] Macedonian.”

In turn, main opposition party New Democracy, currently ahead of SYRIZA in all published public opinion surveys, is said to have “suggested” to members of the party not to appear at Sunday’s rally. Nevertheless, numerous members of New Democracy are said to have been present at the demonstration.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronimos joined the chorus. After meetings with Tsipras and with the president of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Ieronimos stated publicly that “now is the time for national cooperation, not rallies,” while discouraging clerics from participating in Sunday’s rally. Nevertheless, this call went unheeded by many within the church: one local diocese is reported to have sent 60 busloads of parishioners to the rally.

The leader of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Dimitris Koutsoumbas, in a radio interview prior to the rally, stated that “there is no need for nationalist rallies” at this time, while longtime member of parliament with the KKE, Liana Kanelli, warned those thinking of attending the rally that if a solution is not reached that is to NATO’s satisfaction, war will follow in the Balkans.

Even smaller, non-parliamentary and purportedly anti-imperialist and anti-austerity parties could not help revealing what may perhaps be their true sympathies. The far-left ANTARSYA, in a statement that carefully avoided any specific reference to Greece’s northern neighbor by any name, denounced the “nationalist” rallies while calling for NATO’s ouster from the Balkans. The president of the United People’s Front (EPAM), Dimitris Kazakis, in a radio interview prior to the rally, announced his position in favor of abstention from the rally — on the grounds that it did not call into question NATO and the EU, even though as it turned out, speakers at the rally did speak against and question austerity, privatizations, and other EU-imposed “measures.”

 

Rally-goers faced concerted campaign of obstacles and discouragement

Thousands of protesters take part in a rally against the use of the term "Macedonia" for the northern neighboring country's name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018. Over 100,000 Greeks gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki to demand that the term "Macedonia," the name of the Greek province of which Thessaloniki is the capital, not be used by Greece's northern neighbor known by the same name. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Thousands of protesters take part in a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018. Over 100,000 Greeks gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki to demand that the term “Macedonia,” the name of the Greek province of which Thessaloniki is the capital, not be used by Greece’s northern neighbor known by the same name. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

It could, in fact, be argued that there was a concerted effort amongst the political and media establishment to prevent the rally or to discourage people from attending. Indeed, leading up to the rally, estimates of its turnout heard on the Greek media were rather low, ranging from 10,000 to 20,000, while potential attendees were also warned of poor, rainy weather, which was forecast for Thessaloniki on Sunday (the rain never materialized).

The obstacles continued even on the day of the rally. Numerous reports on social media from ordinary attendees reported that toll booths on the main highway leading to Thessaloniki that were closest to the city — the state-owned tolls in the Malgara region — were closed early Sunday, leading to tremendous delays. Many buses reportedly reached Thessaloniki later than planned as a result, and many of these buses are said to have been stopped by authorities in Kalohori, a suburb of Thessaloniki five miles from downtown, forcing many participants, including the elderly and disabled, to walk the rest of the way. There were also several reports of cell phone networks being unavailable in downtown Thessaloniki for the duration of the protest. Notably, each of Greece’s three cellular carriers is foreign-owned.

Media coverage of the rallies was also limited. Live coverage was not provided by public broadcaster ERT — which, just a few years earlier in 2013, had organized rallies of its own when it was shuttered by the previous New Democracy-Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government, with its Thessaloniki studios acting as a hub for such protests for two years until ERT was reopened. Private stations did not provide live coverage either — save for a local, Thessaloniki-based station, Vergina TV, and a very small number of other such local stations throughout Greece, which rebroadcast an internet stream of the rally.

 

Writing off the rally with simplistic, pejorative labels

Protesters at a rally against the use of the term "Macedonia" for the northern neighboring country's name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Protesters at a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

When all of that did not have a tangible negative impact on the rally, the political and media spin began. SYRIZA condemned the rally, characterizing it in an official statement as “a triumph of fanaticism, nationalism, and intolerance.” Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, in reference to the rally, said that “ethnic paternalism and exceptionalism” harm Greece’s position. Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Amanatidis, whose ministry is supposedly negotiating on Greece’s behalf, argued in a Skai TV interview that “140 countries recognize FYROM as ‘Macedonia,’ why not us?”

In turn, Alternate Foreign Minister George Katrougalos, a “constitutional scholar” who in 2011 was an active participant in the major protests against austerity in Greece, stated that those who disagree with a compromise that includes usage of the name “Macedonia” are “extremists and nationalists,” and that it would be a “patriotic solution” to include “Macedonia” in a compromise agreement.

Continuing the chorus, Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas deemed the rally “an expression of nationalism,” Transport Minister Christos Spirtzis described the participants in the rally as “crazy far-right wingers,” while Health Minister Pavlos Polakis called the demonstrators “junta nostalgists.” Deputy Minister of Agricultural Development Yiannis Tsironis characterized the rally as “relatively small” and with “no impact” on ongoing negotiations.

Such statements should not come as a surprise. In its pre-government days, numerous members of SYRIZA openly referred to Greece’s northern neighbor as “Macedonia.”

ERT journalist Stelios Nikitopoulos, one of the most prominent figures of the ERT protests, tweeted an invitation to a counter-rally against “nationalism.” Ironically, alongside his many postings decrying the protests as “fascism,” he also tweeted, unquestioningly, the police’s official figure of 90,000 attendees, comparing that figure to the one million said to have attended the 1992 demonstration. In reality, though, aerial photographs of the two rallies show a crowd that is similar to or perhaps even bigger in size this year.

Going one step further, ERT and national privately-owned broadcaster Alpha TV, in their reports on the rally, claimed that it was attended by merely “dozens” of protesters. ERT later claimed this was a “mistake.”

Foreign media aso got into the act. The Washington Post, quick to accuse others (including MintPress News) of serving up “fake news,” vaguely reported that “tens of thousands” attended Sunday’s rally, claiming it did not reach the magnitude of the 1992 rally. The French wire service Agence France Presse (AFP) also largely downplayed the scale of Sunday’s rally, especially compared to 1992, estimating turnout at “over 50,000,” while referring to the aforementioned Alco poll showing a majority in Greece favoring a “compromise,” but excluding other surveys contradicting this result.

AFP also tweeted a map of what it claimed to be the Greek province of Macedonia, which excluded the entire western section of the province but did include the separate province of Thrace, itself the occasional target of expansionist claims from Turkey. Despite corrections being sent or tweeted to AFP from numerous members of the public, the incorrect map remains online.

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While, in all, the rally was peaceful and did not get broken up by provocateurs — as is often the case with rallies held in Athens, and particularly outside the Greek parliament — unfortunate incidents did occur. Provocateurs said to be representing far-right groups torched an anarchist squat in Thessaloniki prior to the rally, with no injuries reported. Another group, reportedly anarchists, attacked a bus delivering attendees to the rally, injuring one woman, while another similar group is said to have attacked a bus in Athens that was headed to the rally. A cyclist with Greek flags is also said to have been targeted by alleged anarchists in Thessaloniki prior to the rally. Leading up to the rally, graffiti was sprayed on Thessaloniki’s historic White Tower stating “You are not born Greek, you devolve into one.”

 

Momentum going forward — looking to February 4 in Athens

Despite all such challenges, turnout at Sunday’s rally was healthy and likely exceeded everyone’s expectations, and particularly those of the government, which now finds itself in a difficult position vis-à-vis the public. Despite its positive economic rhetoric, SYRIZA remains behind in the polls, while the Macedonia rally could be seen to have acted as an informal referendum against the government’s handling of the issue and its apparent willingness to accept what would be viewed as a soft compromise.

Adding to the government’s troubles, the rally’s organizers are now planning a follow-up demonstration, this time to be held in Athens, on February 4. At Sunday’s demonstration, it has been reported that speakers called for the Athens rally to be about more than just the name dispute, but other issues as well, including the government’s recently-passed omnibus bill which projects still further cuts and a new round of privatizations.

Furthermore, SYRIZA’s governing coalition partner, the populist-right Independent Greeks, perhaps seeking to salvage their own tarnished image, have proposed a referendum on the Macedonia issue, a position which is not shared by SYRIZA. This could potentially fracture the fragile coalition, perhaps leading to its collapse and the loss of the government’s parliamentary majority.

Many Greeks are also tired of their country being continuously threatened by its neighbors. At times, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has made expansionist claims on the Greek region of Western Thrace, while Turkish Air Force jets routinely violate Greek airspace, including 141 such flyovers in one day last year. These are not victimless incidents. In 2006, Konstantinos Iliakis, a Greek air force pilot who was attempting to intercept Turkish fighter jets, died in an accident in the Southern Aegean Sea.

Problems also exist with northwestern neighbor Albania, which in 2016 dredged up a decades-old minority-rights issue of the Cham people in Greece, an issue unrecognized by both the UN and the OSCE. Last year, Albanian authorities in the city of Himara expropriated and demolished homes belonging to the city’s Greek minority.

There is also the unresolved Turkish occupation of almost 40 percent of Cyprus, which includes the division of the island’s capital, Nicosia. It’s ironic to hear Erdoğan lashing out at the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when his own military continues to divide the capital city of a sovereign country and EU member-state.

Also ironic are the recent words of Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades, currently facing a battle for re-election, stating, “the name doesn’t matter… [FYROM] can call itself ‘Northern Greece’ if it wishes.” Notably, the occupied northern territory of Cyprus is known as “North Cyprus,” and presently recognized only by Turkey. Anastasiades, in 2004, was a supporter of the United Nations’ “Annan Plan” for “reunification” of the island, which among other things would have maintained a Turkish military presence on the island, and which was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum.

Many Greeks are therefore highly suspicious of the country’s neighbors, and even more so of the intentions of the United States, EU, and NATO and their ambitions in the region. It is feared by many that any compromise allowing FYROM to officially use the term “Macedonia” will simply fuel the expansionist claims of hard-line nationalists and politicians in FYROM, who might seek to “unify” Macedonia as one territory under one flag. Such concerns are not without merit. In June 2017 for instance, chants at a nationalist rally in Skopje claimed that “Thessaloniki is ours.” Such frustrations were channeled in Sunday’s rally in Thessaloniki. Similar claims are made by nationalist Bulgarians, some of whom, in a recent demonstration, accused Greece of “usurping” the name of Macedonia.

Greek authorities and the domestic and international media may choose to brand the protesters, or at least a significant percentage of them, as “fascists,” “nationalists,” “xenophobes” or any number of other epithets, in an attempt to delegitimize them and their concerns. But what is fascist about being leery of U.S. and NATO intentions in the Balkans or opposing the nationalist, expansionist ambitions of a neighboring state?

Symbolically, and in an indication that this is much more than a “far-right” issue, famed composer and cultural icon Mikis Theodorakis — who, despite a checkered political past, is viewed as an icon of the Greek left more broadly, and who is not noted for his fascist tendencies — issued an open letter addressed to the Greek prime minister. In this letter, Theodorakis warned that allowing the usage of the name Macedonia in any form by Greece’s northern neighbor would be “disastrous.”

Following up on this, Theodorakis stated after Sunday’s rally that “we have reached the unfortunate state where we have to apologize for our patriotism.” In previous open letters, Theodorakis has spoken out against the harshness of economic austerity and SYRIZA’s betrayal of its pre-election pledges.

Further illustrating that Sunday’s demonstration — and the belief that Greece should not compromise regarding the Macedonia name — is not an exclusively right-wing issue, is its endorsement by the left-wing Popular Unity political party. Popular Unity, which has positioned itself as an anti-austerity movement and which has also been active in the protests against home foreclosures and seizures, came out in support of the rally from an “alternative and radical perspective,” via its affiliated iskra.gr online portal. Popular Unity leader Panagiotis Lafazanis, in turn, described the rally as “expressing broader concerns” of society.

Theodorakis reflected the sentiment of many ordinary Greeks — who are neither fascists nor supporters of far-right parties, but who are fed up with a decade of economic crisis; with the loss of Greece’s sovereignty and control over the country’s own affairs; and with governments that have rescinded their promises and implemented endless reductions to salaries and pensions, increased taxes, slashed social services, sold off the country’s valuable public assets and utilities to foreign buyers at absurdly low prices, and who are seen as being both soft in negotiations on national issues and arrogantly indifferent towards the popular will. This disregard was evidenced when the SYRIZA-led government overturned the result of the July 2015 referendum that had rejected more EU- and IMF-proposed austerity, and was evident again both before and after Sunday’s rally.

Will the rally serve as a catalyst for broader developments in Greece? February 4, the day of the planned large-scale demonstration in Athens, may provide some answers.

Michael Nevradakis is a PhD candidate in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a US Fulbright Scholar presently based in Athens, Greece. Michael is also an independent journalist and is the host of Dialogos Radio, a weekly radio program featuring interviews and coverage of current events in Greece.

Jan 032018
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook wants to get more of the world's more than 7 billion people online through a partnership with some of the world’s largest mobile technology companies. Facebook Inc. announced a partnership called Internet.org on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook wants to get more of the world’s more than 7 billion people online through a partnership with some of the world’s largest mobile technology companies. Facebook Inc. announced a partnership called Internet.org on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Internet content is neither “open” nor “equal” when Facebook, Twitter, and Google themselves are guilty of censoring or throttling information and material on their platforms, at will and with zero accountability to users.

SCHOHARIE COUNTY, NEW YORK (Analysis) – In a conversation I overheard recently, one of many such discussions that are being waged nowadays, the topic was professional basketball player Enes Kanter, a member of the NBA’s New York Knicks and a native of Turkey. Kanter, an outspoken critic of the increasingly autocratic Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan through such mediums as Twitter, is facing a four-year prison sentence in absentia in Turkey, a sentence sought after by prosecutors for “insulting the president.”

In the discussion I was party to, a group of liberal New Yorkers blamed Kanter’s predicament on none other than … Donald Trump. We were told Trump is a “good friend” of the “Turkish dictator” and “envious of his dictatorial ways,” which he “wants to bring to America.” Turkey’s worsening relationship with the United States was ignored, as well as the friendship between Erdoğan and former president Barack Obama, which has been confirmed by Obama himself.

What does this have to do with net neutrality? Nothing and everything. This mentality is increasingly prevalent in public discourse today, where Trump is often cited as the sole and only source of anything that is rotten in our society, while the actions of his predecessors are conveniently ignored or overlooked. This is not a defense or an attack of Trump, simply an observation regarding the level of present-day political discourse.

It also brings us to the issue of net neutrality.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) five commissioners, in a 3-2 vote along partisan lines, voted to repeal Title II net neutrality regulations that classified broadband service as a public utility, just like traditional copper-wire landline telephone service. Title II rules provided the FCC with broad regulatory authority, which Republicans, including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, cited as the main reason for their opposition, regardless of what their true motivations may have been.

Of course, blame towards Pai quickly turned into blame against Trump and his administration, as Trump designated Pai as FCC chairman earlier this year. But it bears pointing out that Pai was originally appointed to the commission by Obama, an appointment that was unanimously approved by the Senate in May 2012. Pai won a second five-year term, retroactive to July 1, 2016, in a Senate vote in October that included “yea” votes from four Democrats, who cited Pai’s efforts to boost rural broadband availability. In other words, both major parties had a hand in the chain of events that led to the repeal.

It is frequently said that we now live in a “post-truth” world. But often it is those tending to favor this term who themselves are guilty of “post-truth,” ascribing blame to one party when there’s plenty of responsibility to be shared across the political spectrum. It would seem that the favored usage of this term, at least from academics and media pundits, masks an underlying defense of neoliberal values and attacks on anyone perceived as threatening them. This leads to political attacks that obscure the big picture on a number of important issues, with net neutrality being no exception.

What the current debate and controversy over the repeal of Title II net neutrality rules ignores is the inconvenient truth that, in reality, net neutrality never existed. Truly equal access to information and resources did not exist, even under the net neutrality regime. Indeed, the digital divide — also known as “digital inequality” — is just as real today as it was before the net neutrality regulations went into effect. Above all, the hypocrisy of the supposed leading champions of an “open internet” — companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft — is strikingly evident.

 

Life in the slow lane

A woman uses her smartphone in central London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. UK Lawyers say the mounting tally of those arrested and convicted of making offensive comments through social media, shows the problems of a legal system trying to regulate 21st-century communications with 20th century laws. Civil libertarians say it is a threat to free speech in an age when the internet gives everyone the power to be heard around the world. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

(AP Photo/Sang Tan)

When I am in the United States, I reside in a rural community in upstate New York, not far from the state capital. And it is here in this region, populated largely by farmers, that the only “broadband” access available is via the “4G” mobile networks of two providers. The quotation marks are necessary because such “4G” access is not unlimited. Instead, it is data-capped. Once the monthly “high-speed” quota is surpassed, access is dropped to 2G speeds — at best. Download speeds on one such throttled connection were recently measured at 0.25 Mbps, only about four times faster than an old-style dial-up connection and well short of the minimum level to be considered “broadband” (as of 2015, the FCC set 25 Mbps as the minimum download speed for a connection to be considered “broadband,” up from 4 Mbps previously). There is no cable or fiber optic infrastructure in the immediate area.

An even more significant point is that mobile broadband was never truly covered under net neutrality — up until 2010 in a regulatory sense, and since then through the exploitation of a loophole in the regulations that did not explicitly prohibit a practice known as “zero rating,” in which mobile providers could exclude certain traffic and data from customers’ data caps, thereby affording preferential treatment to content of the provider’s choosing.

In other words, “net neutrality” in its true sense did not apply to mobile broadband usage anywhere in the country — not in urban areas and not in rural communities such as my own, where it is essentially the only locally-available broadband option. Yes, satellite internet is available, but it too is data-capped and prone to slow upload speeds.

The cost of this mobile broadband option is also extravagant, much higher than the cost of wired broadband access in areas where it is available. And, based on my own personal usage experience, it is very likely that mobile providers were also surreptitiously throttling specific websites even further once the 4G data cap was exceeded. While certain websites, even relatively graphics-intensive ones, might still load reasonably quickly, other websites, such as the browser version of the file-sharing app Dropbox, are essentially impossible to use.

 

Never was a “neutral” or “equal” internet

The removals began days after Google, which owns YouTube, trumpeted the arrival of an artificial intelligence program that it said could spot and flag "extremist" videos without human involvement.

The removals began days after Google, which owns YouTube, trumpeted the arrival of an artificial intelligence program that it said could spot and flag “extremist” videos without human involvement.

Millions of Americans have been experiencing online life in the slow lane even during the years that “net neutrality” regulation was in effect. The digital divide, or “digital inequality,” manifests itself in a number of different ways. According to data from the United States Census Bureau, a wide swath of states in the central and southern U.S. have broadband penetration rates of between 61 and 71 percent of the population, while it is predominantly the states of the northeast and the west coast that boast penetration rates exceeding 80 percent.

Furthermore, according to a 2016 FCC report, when net neutrality was still very much in effect, 10 percent of all Americans lack access to broadband service, including 39 percent of rural Americans and 41 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands. And 2015 data from Pew Research demonstrates clear digital inequalities across income, educational, racial, and generational lines, not to mention a clear divide between urban and suburban areas as compared to rural areas.

What this all boils down to is the reality that internet access is not distributed equally, and this also includes internet infrastructure and broadband speeds. Large swaths of the United States, and tens of millions of Americans, remain without access to broadband internet access, or have very limited options — and those on paper only, as is the case in my own community.

Even for households with access to wired broadband services, the “net neutrality” era did not, in reality, result in a free and open internet. Major internet service providers such as Comcast, owners of NBC, began imposing data caps on home subscribers, offering “unlimited” access at a hefty additional cost. “Net neutrality” regulations did nothing to stymie this practice, which can be said to violate one of the core principles of net neutrality, that being the equal treatment of all traffic. When throttling takes place, via either a wired or a mobile connection, by definition it means that certain traffic is being prioritized over other traffic. For instance, if you are a content creator and are facing data capping and throttling, your content is at a disadvantage compared to someone whose connection is not capped or throttled.

Similarly, when internet access is made available in tiers, whether those tiers have to do with the amount of data transferred and consumed per month or the speed of the broadband connection itself, by definition, traffic (and users) are not operating on an equal playing field. Those who are able and willing to pay more will get more. This may not be a concept new to telecommunications — think back to the days of expensive long-distance phone calls, or even to cable or mobile bundles today — but it is a practice that perpetuates “digital inequality” and goes against the spirit of net neutrality.

Using a “smart TV” or a Roku or Amazon Fire stick? Access to content is controlled! And while “smart TV” platforms often do have a built-in browser allowing users to access content other than what’s pre-installed or available via an “app store,” Roku or Amazon Fire sticks and other such technologies are pretty much closed systems, providing users with content that is either pre-installed or installable via a catalog of available applications. This is not an “open” usage of the World Wide Web.

And even during the “utopian” years of net neutrality, companies with deep enough pockets were able to purchase faster lanes for themselves. Netflix as well as Google, for instance, set up agreements known as “peering arrangements” with ISPs, allowing their data direct access to the backbones of these ISPs — and quicker access to consumers.

There was a time when snapping up a monopolistic position in the marketplace and ensuring that your product enjoyed favorable placement — as was the case in the late 1990s with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser — resulted in antitrust litigation. Nowadays, such practices are par for the course.

 

Champions of the “open internet”: Do as we say, not as we do

Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi standing up to Israeli soldiers after Israel occupying her land. Her Twitter account was mysteriously removed after she was arrested and tried in an Israeli court for slapping an Israeli soldier who entered her home.

As the threat to Title II net neutrality regulation became greater, and especially after its repeal, certain major technological forces came out and stated their support for an “open internet.” These companies include Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, all of which have publicly championed net neutrality and the need for the web to remain “open.

These public proclamations may make for great PR — but they also expose the stunning hypocrisy of these companies, who say one thing but practice another on their own platforms. Internet content is neither “open” nor “equal” when Facebook, Twitter, and Google themselves are guilty of censoring or throttling information and material on their platforms, at will and with zero accountability to users

The examples are many. For instance, there’s Facebook’s ongoing war against so-called “fake news,” with Facebook and its own hand-picked “experts” as sole arbiters of what constitutes “fake” and what does not. Google, in turn, recently altered its search and news-gathering algorithms, and “de-ranked” the Russian news services RT and Sputnik, in its own crusade against “fake news.”

Taking things one step further, YouTube is busy assembling its very own 1984-style Thought Police, via the hiring of 10,000 new staffers who will be tasked with weeding out content deemed to be “extremist” — even though YouTube ultimately plans to turn this important internet-saving task over to automated algorithms in the future. How the determination will be made as to what constitutes “extremist” content, either by human censors or by algorithms, remains unclear.

Not to be outdone in this Orwellian race to the bottom, Twitter has recently announced that it will judge verified users’off-site behavior in its determination as to whether or not to strip users of their verification badges. In other words, Twitter has taken on the role of judge, jury, and moral arbiter of users’ actions even beyond its own corner of the supposedly “open” internet. (Notably, I have attempted to obtain verification on both Facebook and Twitter for my journalistic endeavors and was declined without explanation.)

Going even further still, Twitter in recent days has forged ahead with a purge of numerous Twitter accounts, purportedly stemming mostly from far-right or neo-Nazi groups — an effort that even Rolling Stone called out for being inconsistent and with no discernible logic. This encompassed the removal of accounts that may be politically reprehensible to many but that, in the words of one such user who was targeted, never engaged in “trolling or suggesting violence.”

Nor are trolling and threats of violence the exclusive domain of the far-right or “alt-right,” seemingly the target of this latest purge. What’s more dangerous though is that the “extremist” label could be used to justify the stymieing of any politically inconvenient voice, regardless of ideology.

If this seems far-fetched, consider what the very first line of the Wikipedia entry titled “Censorship of Twitter” states: “Censorship of Twitter occurs in many countries and is approved of and supported by Twitter.” Then consider why a Wikipedia article titled “Censorship of Twitter” even exists in the first place.

Further illustrating the point, journalists and bloggers who have espoused politically sensitive positions — far removed from the globalist, neoliberal orthodoxy but also far removed from any semblance of an association with far-right groups or advocates of violence and other illegal activities — have increasingly become the target of such crackdowns by social media outlets or, at the very least, abuses of systems in place to flag and report postings.

Andrew Korybko — a geopolitical analyst with Sputnik News, Oriental Review, and other outlets — is one such example. A prolific writer on topics ranging from Russia’s strategic maneuverings in the Middle East and Eurasia, to China’s “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, Korybko has been repeatedly barred from posting on Facebook, or posting to Facebook groups, in recent months. His most recent ban came after he posted a recent article of his, published by Oriental Review, challenging the mainstream and politically-correct narrative regarding the arrest of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi.

Ironically, Tamimi’s own Twitter account has vanished and is rumored to have been removed by Twitter itself. Similarly, Facebook, citing “hate speech,” recently removed a page titled “Crimes of Britain,” which provided details of crimes perpetrated by Great Britain during its colonial, imperialist past.

Meanwhile, obviously fake accounts on networks such as Facebook and Twitter that are used for trolling go unpunished and operate with impunity, even when reported by multiple users for what, in fact, are flagrant violations of each site’s terms of service. And even when espousing violent, hateful, or racist speech. Behind a purge of far-right accounts though, it does seem that speech that is frequently targeted for censorship more often than not coincidentally seems to align itself with voices of many different political stripes that have in common that they are opposed to globalism, neoliberalism, and imperialism.

Such arbitrary actions on the part of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have two consequences: they deprive those who are being banned or otherwise suppressed from freely engaging in speech and expressing their opinions and viewpoints; and they deprive the rest of that social network’s community of members from having access to such speech. Instead, the universe of Facebook users and the Twittersphere is expected to take comfort in the fact that it can freely access speech and opinions already deemed by those respective networks to be politically acceptable for the public.

Social networks such as Facebook also suppress speech through more innocuous-seeming methods. For instance, postings of Facebook pages — long a means for individuals and groups and organizations without deep pockets to freely deliver their message to a wide audience — have for a while now been significantly throttled by Facebook. The social network’s algorithms ensure that any posting made by a page appears on the news feed of only a small percentage of the page’s followers — individuals who have actively chosen to like that page, presumably for its content! How can a page administrator increase the audience for its postings? By paying Facebook to “boost” each individual posting.

In other words, page administrators have to pay for preferential treatment of their material. Exactly what we are told will be a consequence of the abolition of net neutrality. And while Facebook and Twitter and Google engage in such practices, each in its own way, they publicly cheerlead for an “open internet.” In turn, the crème de la crème of the neoliberal media world, outlets such as the Amazon-owned Washington Post, have absolutely no qualms about denouncing alternative websites (including MintPress News) as being purveyors of “fake news” while, in the same breath, proclaiming their unwavering support for an “open internet.” The hypocrisy is astounding!

But net neutrality has champions in Congress, elected representatives that stick up for the little guy, correct? The lip service in favor of an “open internet” may be there, but not the action. Case in point: Bernie Sanders, who is calling upon the public to petition the FCC to “protect the open internet.” Not included in the fine print, however, is that Sanders was the number two recipient of donations from Comcast — yes, the very same ISP that places data caps on household internet usage — amongst elected officials and candidates for public office in 2016. Hillary Clinton was far and away the top recipient of donations from Comcast, while Trump did not crack the top 35 (not entirely free of such dependencies, he was 36th) — which consists of a bipartisan Who’s Who, including Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Patrick Leahy, Kamala Harris, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

It can be argued that it is the right of private companies, such as Google or Facebook or Twitter, to determine what speech is or is not allowed on their platform or to lobby for or against regulatory regimes such as net neutrality. Fair enough. However, if they choose to make that argument, then they cannot with a straight face argue in favor of an “open internet” as well. It’s either one or the other. Either they will tolerate free speech and the open exchange of ideas and only intervene for the most severe, egregious violations (such as truly credible threats of violence) without any political bias; or they will operate as they do now, and openly contradict the principles of the open internet that they claim to support.

Furthermore, if such companies truly believe in an open internet, then they should believe in the open internet’s ability to self-police and self-filter. A global community of internet users, weeding out what is truly fake from what is real. But is that not precisely what they are afraid of?

 

Is bridging the divide enough?

Top censored 2017

Proponents of net neutrality have recently pointed to the United Kingdom, where it was announced that by 2020 the ability to access high-speed internet will be a legal right for all households and businesses. This is indeed an excellent policy objective for any government. But, what internet will households and businesses have the ability to connect to? Only a few months ago, the very same government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, stated its intention to openly censor content on the internet — including what can be posted, published, and shared — purportedly in the name of combating terror.

In other words, universal access for all who want it — but access to a network where speech and content is tightly regulated and controlled by the government and subject to its whims.

What this all illustrates is that there are two issues at play that are of equal significance. The first is the right of individuals, households, and businesses to enjoy equal footing on the internet (commonly thought of as “net neutrality” — even if, in a regulatory sense, “net neutrality” as it has been implemented in the United States has primarily referred to the net’s classification as a utility). The second is the right of individuals, households, and businesses to have equal access to the network infrastructure itself. In other words, it is both a matter of free speech and a matter of technology. Both are equally needed for a truly open internet to exist. “Net neutrality,” at best, only provided one of the two — and that not fully or consistently across all providers and platforms.

The question that ultimately must be asked is this: What’s in it for Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other major players who are so openly championing net neutrality and the “open” internet in words, even if not in deeds? Despite Google’s famous “don’t be evil” slogan, my best guess is that their lip service in favor of an “open” internet has nothing to do with altruism, and everything to do with the bottom line. The likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook are responsible for large swaths of internet traffic. The elimination of Title II rules may be placing these companies at risk of having to pony up significant monetary sums to ISPs. This argument is most often heard in connection with Netflix, but it is entirely plausible that it is at the root of the support for an “open” internet by these other major players as well.

The future of the current brand of net neutrality may well be at risk, at least in the United States. Or it may very well be that consumers and end users do not notice any significant changes and ISPs instead decide to go after the major originators of most of the traffic on their networks, rather than (further) alienating consumers. It may also be the case that the FCC’s repeal of Title II net neutrality, said to be based on shaky legal footing, could be delayed or struck down in court. Time will tell, and the public has a responsibility to do its part. In order to claim, though, that we are losing an open and equal internet, we would have had to have one in the first place.

Dec 302017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Outgoing Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is surrounded by media as he tries to leave on his motorcycle, after his resignation in Athens, Monday, July 6, 2015. Greece and its membership in Europe's joint currency faced an uncertain future Monday, with the country under pressure to reach a bailout deal with creditors as soon as possible after Greeks resoundingly rejected the notion of more austerity in exchange for aid. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Outgoing Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is surrounded by media as he tries to leave on his motorcycle, after his resignation in Athens, Monday, July 6, 2015. Greece and its membership in Europe’s joint currency faced an uncertain future Monday, with the country under pressure to reach a bailout deal with creditors as soon as possible after Greeks resoundingly rejected the notion of more austerity in exchange for aid. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

SYRIZA gained popular support and came in with a program that was really radical. They said we will socialize or nationalize the Greek banks and put in practice a very radical fiscal policy and increase the taxes on the rich, the Orthodox Church, and the oligarchs. They wound up doing just the opposite.

ATHENS, GREECE – For years, throughout the severe economic crisis that has plagued Greece over much of the past decade, the international media and financial press have held Greece up as a striking example of financial folly and mismanagement. Greece’s debt, we have been told, is the product of fiscal irresponsibility, of “lazy” and “unproductive” Greeks living beyond their means and spending recklessly. Moreover, Greece has been chastised for not emerging out of its economic doldrums despite being the recipient of hundreds of billions of euros worth of “free bailout money.” In short, Greece has been presented as an example for other countries to avoid at all costs.

Éric Toussaint, the spokesman of the Brussels-based Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM) and scientific director of the Greek Debt Truth Audit Commission, adopts a radically different view.

In an interview that initially aired on Dialogos Radio in December 2017, Toussaint describes the findings of the commission and describes the legal avenues available to Greece for the repudiation of a significant portion of its debt, which he describes as odious and illegitimate. He also criticizes claims made by economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in his recent book regarding the supposed lack of options available to Greece in its negotiations with its lenders in 2015.

Toussaint illustrates the capitulation of Varoufakis and current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, resulting in further harsh austerity measures and no solution for the issue of the Greek public debt.

MPN: You recently wrote a three-part series of articles looking at the actions of, on the one hand, the SYRIZA-led government in Greece under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and, on the other hand, the actions of Yanis Varoufakis, the well-known economist and Greece’s finance minister under the SYRIZA-led government in the first half of 2015. Your critique comes following the publication of Varoufakis’ recent book, Adults In The Room, in which Varoufakis gives his account of the Greek crisis and his actions in supposedly standing up to the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). We’ll use this as a starting off point for our discussion. What were your general impressions of the book?

Éric Toussaint: The book really should be read, because it’s a very useful testimony about what happened. I disagree with the orientation of Varoufakis, but it’s a unique presentation of what happened before the Greek parliamentary election of January 2015 and what happened in the first six months thereafter — leading to thecapitulation of the SYRIZA government in July 2015, following its overturning of the result of the July 5 referendum rejecting a new German-backed austerity plan.

MPN: In Adults In The Room, one of the claims apparently made by Varoufakis is that Greece was bankrupt in 2009 and that this set the stage for the so-called “bailouts” and austerity that followed. You dispute this claim, however. What do the facts show?

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)

ET: In reality, the main problem was on the side of the private debt, the debt of the Greek banks, but also other businesses and households. There had been a process of huge growth of the private debt just after the integration of Greece into the Eurozone, because the big French, German, Dutch, and Belgian banks wanted to lend money to Greece, knowing that there was no risk of devaluation because of the monetary union.

They had a surplus of liquidity before the crisis of 2007 – 08, and after the crisis because, as you will remember, the Federal Reserve of the U.S. and the European Central Bank injected a huge amount of liquidity into the banks. These banks used that money to lend where they were having the better profits, and the countries of the “periphery” — like Greece but also Portugal, Ireland, and Spain — were more profitable than countries like Germany, France, Benelux, the U.K. or the U.S.

So the main issue was the problem of the bubble of private credit, but the main problem of the Greek government of George Papandreou in 2009, and the problem of the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy and the government of Angela Merkel in Germany, was that it was impossible to tell voters that we have to once more bail out the private banks. Therefore, it was necessary for them to build a fake narrative of what was happening in Greece, telling the public that the main problem was the huge level of public debt and the incapacity of the Greek government to keep on financing its public and external debt. In reality, they created this fake narrative to convince public opinion about the need to give money to the Greek government to “bail out” the Greek private banks and the French and German and Dutch and Belgian private sector, mainly the banks.

So, I disagree with the dominant narrative and I disagree with Varoufakis, who wrote in his book that the Greek government was bankrupt. I think the main problem was the banks, and the Greek government had the choice to either bail out the private sector or to “bail in” and socialize the banks (forcing the banks to take losses). It ultimately decided not to socialize or to expropriate the private banks. It was an error of the Greek government, and the other European governments were accomplices, along with big financial capital.

In summary, there is a difference between what Varoufakis is saying and what I am saying, and the conclusions are also different. I would say that what the Greek government should have done would have been to suspend the payment of the external debt, including the public debt. Varoufakis is saying the Greek state should have recognized itself that it was bankrupt and should have sold public assets to the foreign private sector, including selling to the other European countries and investors, and to the Greek banks. Do you see the difference?

MPN: Much has been said about Greece falsifying economic figures to enter the Eurozone, but you point out in your articles that Greece’s debt and deficit statistics were falsified by the Papandreou government in 2009 and 2010 and by IMF employee Andreas Georgiou, who was placed in charge of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) by the Papandreou government. How were the Greek debt and deficit figures falsified, and is this something that Varoufakis addresses in his book?

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, right, arrives at the special Paris court, France. (AP/Thibault Camus)

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, right, arrives at the special Paris court, France. (AP/Thibault Camus)

ET: No, he says absolutely nothing about this falsification. But this falsification is evident. There is the case of Andreas Georgiou, the director of ELSTAT, who was sued, and at the beginning of August 2017 was found guilty of falsification by the Greek courts.

What happened? Papandreou met with the leaders of the European Central Bank — at that time it was Jean-Claude Trichet, very linked to the French banks — and the IMF, whose general director at that time, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was also very linked to the French banks. The Papandreou government asked the director of ELSTAT to add some debt to the official public debt. At the first step, Eurostat, the European organization of statistics, told ELSTAT that it was an error to add this debt, but Eurostat was afterward also convinced by Trichet and by José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, to be part of the falsification of the Greek public debt.

I would estimate they increased the debt more or less 15 to 20 percent in relation to the Greek GDP, so that the official figure reached the huge ratio of 125 percent of GDP for the public debt, and the budgetary fiscal deficit reached something like 13 percent. So with these figures, the troika could say there is an emergency, we have to intervene to “help” the Greek government, with 110 billion euros of loans to Greece. So in this case, I would say that it was a conspiracy. I am not a conspiracist, but in this case we really now have the proof of a huge level of falsification and of the building of the fake narrative to misrepresent what was the real situation.

MPN: You point out that Yanis Varoufakis, despite his radical and leftist profile, maintained friendships and close contact with such figures as the head of the Greek conservative party, Antonis Samaras, who was prime minister of Greece between 2012 and 2014; Yannis Stournaras, who was the finance minister under the Samaras government during that period and who is the current governor of the Bank of Greece; and George Papandreou, who led Greece into the austerity and memorandum regime in 2009 and 2010. Describe the nature of Varoufakis’ relationships with these figures.

ET: You know, Varoufakis is very happy to share that he has developed and maintains many relations with the traditional political class in Greece. In some ways, when you read his book you see that he is trying to convince world leaders that what he was proposing was a better solution for everybody, including for the leaders of the world. And so he insisted on stating that [then-leader of the Greek opposition] Antonis Samaras called him one evening after [Varoufakis] publicly criticized what Papandreou was doing, with Samaras telling Varoufakis “I don’t know you but I like very much what you said on Greek television and to Greek public opinion.”

It shows that Varoufakis has a very complicated personality, because he says he wants to be at the side of the oppressed people, and he’s promised to his voters not to betray them, but at the same time he wanted to convince world leaders and to maintain very good relations with everybody — with Stournaras, with Samaras, with Papandreou, with Christine Lagarde, with [then-German finance minister Wolfgang] Schäuble, with [German Chancellor] Merkel. And in the U.S., if you read the book, he says he was very happy to maintain a very good relationship with Larry Summers and Jeffrey Sachs.

People in the U.S. should know who these guys are. Larry Summers was in charge of the U.S. Treasury in the Clinton administration at the end of the 1990s and he was responsible for the revocation of the Glass-Steagall Act [that had been a way of protecting the economy from unduly risky behavior by banks]. After that he was the president of Harvard University and was totally [chauvinistic] in his declaration of the difference between men and women. He can be fairly described as a right-wing Democrat. Sachs, who was also a friend of Varoufakis, was responsible for the first economic “shock therapy” [harsh and sudden economic austerity policies] imposed on Bolivia in 1995, and the “shock therapy” imposed on Russia and Poland in the early 1990s. So it’s really problematic to see this contradictory posture of Varoufakis.

MPN: In his book, Varoufakis goes on to say that he convinced SYRIZA to depart from its policy platform of 2012 and the Thessaloniki platform of 2014. Instead, Varoufakis convinced SYRIZA to adopt his own set of economic proposals. For instance, Varoufakis seems to have proposed advocating for a debt restructuring instead of a debt reduction. What was SYRIZA originally proposing; what were Varoufakis’ proposals which were ultimately adopted; and why were Varoufakis’ proposals, in your words, doomed to fail?

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015 file photo, a man walks past street art depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Athens, Greece. Tsipras' decision to sign off on a bailout led to many in his left-wing Syriza party to quit in protest.

A man walks past street art depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Athens, Greece. Tsipras’ decision to sign off on a bailout led to many in his left-wing Syriza party to quit in protest.

ET: In the electoral campaign of 2012, SYRIZA succeeded in increasing its popular support. In the election of 2009 SYRIZA received 4 percent of the vote, and in June 2012 26.5 percent of the vote. So it was very clear with the election of June 2012 that sometime in the future SYRIZA would become the government of Greece. And they gained such popular support in 2012 with a program that was very radical.

They were saying that if you elect us as government, we will suspend the payment of the debt and we will audit the debt to identify the illegitimate part of the Greek debt. They also said we will socialize or nationalize the Greek banks. And they said that they would put in practice a very radical fiscal policy and increase the taxes on the rich, the Orthodox Church, and the oligarchs who are active in the shipping industry. So it was a radical program, and they also said that we will not make any more sacrifices for the euro.

Varoufakis was opposed to this orientation, and in his book he explains how he succeeded in convincing Alexis Tsipras and his inner circle to moderate, to soften the program and to say that it was not necessary to suspend the payment of the debt — that it was possible to convince the creditors to restructure the debt without reducing the debt and without a suspension of payments. Varoufakis also wrote that he convinced Tsipras that it was important not to increase the taxes paid by the private sector, the Greek corporations and financial industry, and foreign corporations based in Greece.

What I can say as a comment on Varoufakis’ book is that Tsipras, after the election of June 2012, was also looking for people like Varoufakis, who could help Tsipras to soften the program of SYRIZA while not openly confronting the rest of SYRIZA’s leadership. So I would say Tsipras and Varoufakis organized something like a shadow cabinet within SYRIZA to prepare another official platform. Varoufakis explains that actually they did this against the official line of SYRIZA. For me, at this level, Varoufakis has a huge responsibility for the capitulation that happened at the beginning of July 2015.

MPN: One of Varoufakis’ proposals to the leaders of SYRIZA was to accept a primary budget surplus of up to 1.5 percent of GDP. For those unfamiliar with economics, what is a primary budget surplus and why is it harmful for a country whose economy is in a depressed state, as is the case in Greece?

ET: To achieve a primary budget surplus, you need to cut expenses, and it is clear that the type of expenses to be cut are social expenses and infrastructure investment. A primary surplus is achieved prior to paying the debt. When you say that I will guarantee as a government a primary surplus, it is to use this surplus to pay the debt. You will not question the payment of the debt when you guarantee a primary surplus.

The alternative would have been to say, as a legitimate leftist government, we should have a fiscal deficit, because we should use the money of the government to stimulate the recovery of the economic activity and we should improve the quality of life of the population — and to accomplish this we need more money for health, for education, to create jobs. And so, the proposal of Varoufakis was at odds with a truly radical negotiating position on the part of the Greek government.

MPN: Yanis Varoufakis and Alexis Tsipras have spoken, for instance, at the Brookings Institution, the well-known neoliberal Washington think tank. Can such actions, in your opinion, be reconciled with their supposedly leftist and radical image?

ET: I would say it is not really shocking. Personally I don’t like to do such things, but we can understand that certain people want to be in government and are therefore willing to give some speeches to different publics. But at the same time it is absolutely clear that Tsipras prioritized his being invited by institutional authorities who are neoliberal, and he did that and he has kept on doing that because he wants absolutely to be recognized as a political leader, one who is very responsible to the markets and to the stability of the financial system.

In the case of Varoufakis, he wanted to create, I would say, a more complex image — in some way provoking but in some way saying yes, we need to reach a compromise, an agreement. And he also gave an absolute priority to invitations from right-wing or systemic institutions. It’s very clear, for instance, that he liked very much the conservative leadership in the U.K. and accepted several invitations from them; and he also accepted, precisely at the beginning of his tenure as finance minister, an invitation to go to London to give a speech to foreign investors. It showed, in this way, that he and Tsipras were the main interlocutors with creditors and capitalists. In Varoufakis’ book, he also writes a lot about the good relations he tried to build with China and Chinese authorities investing in Greece.

MPN: You have been the scientific coordinator of the Greek Debt Truth Commission since it was established in 2015. Has the SYRIZA-led government shown any intention of adopting the findings of the commission, and was there any point during your participation on the commission when you realized that perhaps the SYRIZA government’s policies were going in a different direction from the work that you were doing?

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

ET: I would say that frankly, since the beginning, when I spoke with the then-president of the Hellenic Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou on February 16, 2015, I told her that I came to you, came to the parliament to make a proposal to you to launch an audit commission, and I can convince people from 10 different countries to work with no payment in favor of the Greek people and in favor of the truth about the debt. Telling that to Zoe [Konstantopoulou], I added that I was convinced that Alexis Tsipras would not be enthusiastic about that proposal. She told me, “No problem, I will do that, I will call Alexis and I will convince him.” She immediately issued a press release regarding our meeting on February 16, 2015. She also called Tsipras, and Tsipras officially told her “do it, it’s part of our program in 2012; do it and do it with Eric Toussaint.

We held the first meeting of the commission on April 4, 2015 in the Greek parliament. Alexis Tsipras came at the beginning of the inaugural session. The president of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, came also, and so officially they showed their support. Almost all the members of the government also attended, including Varoufakis. But it was clear to me that Varoufakis was not in favor of freely supporting the commission, and the same from Tsipras. Zoe Konstantopoulou was convinced, because she was a political friend and a friend of Tsipras, that he was sincere when he was telling her that he wanted to support our work.

Several weeks later, it was very clear that neither Tsipras or Varoufakis were open to publicly, in front of the media, mentioning the work of the commission. They never — you know, they traveled a lot to Brussels and Varoufakis traveled a lot to Washington to meet Christine Lagarde, the general director of the IMF — and they never questioned the legitimacy of the debt. So for me it was very clear that they were in some way forced by the president of the Greek parliament to express official support, but at the same time it was very clear that they didn’t want to radicalize their position.

I performed this work with the 13 members of the commission. The work done by the commission, I would say, consists of more than 1500 or 2000 hours of work performed over eight weeks among 13 persons. We worked day and night to produce a very efficient and rigorous report, and my expectation was that there was some possibility that several ministers of the SYRIZA-led government — ministers of the then-SYRIZA faction “Left Platform,” jointly with Zoe Konstantopoulou and the pressure from the streets and from the other radical-left groups and the trade-union left — could pressure the government to use our work. But I was not really very optimistic because I was very well informed about what Varoufakis was doing with his team of advisers. I was receiving clear information about the concessions that he was ready to give to the creditors.

But I don’t regret having done this work, and people who participated in the commission — people from France, Spain, Greece, Ecuador, Brazil, the U.K., Belgium — these people are very proud to have done this work. They are convinced that because we have done very serious work, it will be useful in the future — in Greece but also in other parts of the world, because in Spain, in Portugal, in Italy, in Slovenia, in other countries, people are reading our report, are asking us a lot of questions, trying to implement the same methodology to the specific case in their own country. I’m sure it will be useful.

MPN: Describe the findings and conclusions that were published in your report, and also the recommendations made by the Debt Truth Audit Commission.

ET: In the first two chapters, we analyze the building of the Greek public and private debt before the crisis. We explain what happened in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century. We showed that the accumulation of debt was linked to huge amounts of military expenses encouraged by the U.S. government and the French and German governments, which are the main sellers of weapons to Greece. We showed also that interest rates paid by Greece at the end of the 20th century increased the debt, as also happened with the peripheral countries.

Additionally we showed the responsibility of the previous PASOK and New Democracy governments in giving tax gifts to the rich that reduced the government revenue and forced the government to finance its budget by debt. And we showed also that the debt increased after the addition of the Greece to the Eurozone, because a lot of money came from the German and French investors.

Following that, in chapters 3 and 4, we showed the transformation of the debt from the troika’s first memorandum, when the private lenders were replaced by public lenders — the troika, the European Commission, 14 different states of the Eurozone, the IMF and the European Central Bank. We showed that they did that to bail out the private banks — foreign and national — and not in the interest of the people. We demonstrated that the lenders added conditions to the new loans, conditions that violated international treaties on economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights.

In other words, we demonstrated that the debt to the troika was an odious debt, meaning a debt accumulated against the interests of the people, and that the creditors or lenders knew that they were giving loans against the interests of the people. And, in the case of the troika, this was absolutely evident, because the troika was dictating to the Greek government the terms of the loans — which laws to change, which new laws to adopt, what wage and pension reductions and privatizations to enact. The troika were not only accomplices but they were direct commanders — they were the initiators of these violations.

After that in the report we demonstrated the clear impact on the quality of life of the Greek population. In chapter 5, we named concrete international treaties and which article is being violated by the conditions imposed by the troika. And in the last two chapters we explained in legal terms why the Greek debt to the troika should be rejected as illegitimate, odious, illegal, and unsustainable.

Our conclusion was that the Greek government fully has the right to suspend the payment of the debt, to question the debt, and also to repudiate the part of the debt identified as odious. Notable lawyers helped us, as members of the commission, to write the conclusion based on international law and Greek domestic law. It is clear that should Varoufakis and Tsipras have used this report, they would have had very strong arguments against the creditors, instead of capitulating in front of them in July 2015.

MPN: Is the Greek Debt Truth Audit Commission still active today? And, by extension, how is the CADTM active today on the issue of the Greek debt?

A pedestrian passes anti-austerity graffiti in front of Athens Academy. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A pedestrian passes anti-austerity graffiti in front of Athens Academy. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ET: The Debt Truth Commission was dissolved by the new president of the Greek parliament, Nikos Voutsis, in October 2015. We were opposed to its dissolution, and so we decided collectively to transform ourselves into an independent organization with the same name. We are active now as the Debt Truth Committee, recognized by Greek law, and we have met several times in the past two years.

We met once in the European Parliament, invited by several members of the European Parliament — French, Greek, German and Spanish European MPs who are supporting our work. We held several meetings in Greece, not in the parliament because we are no longer invited, but in the office of the Greek Association of Lawyers. There were many Greek citizens who attended the public part of our meetings.

Several of us have published different articles. I published a book in Greek last July with new material about the Greek debt. We also produced several videos and a documentary, “Audit,” a 26 minute film. It is very interesting, I recommend to you to view it. I have to check, but I think that very soon it will be available with English subtitles. So we are keeping on with our work. It is clear that we are not supported by the government. And the right-wing press maintains silence about our work — but we enjoy significant support in the Greek social movements and radical-left organizations.

MPN: In looking at Greece over the years of the economic crisis, we’ve often heard that Greece has been given all this money by the troika, insinuating that the money was simply given away to Greece. In reality though, where have most of the so-called “bailout” funds ended up?

ET: It’s absolutely clear that more than 90 percent of the loans given to Greece went back outside of Greece to pay back the private banks and public creditors, or to bail out the Greek banks. Less than 10 percent has been used by the regular government as an input to the budget, but they used even that to promote the neoliberal policies! So this money also was used against the interests of the Greek people, because it was used to finance privatizations, to finance the layoffs of thousands of public servants, et cetera.

MPN: What options does Greece have available to it under domestic law, European law, and international law today — with regards to the public debt, and also with regards to the potential abolition or overturning of the austerity measures and memorandum-related policies, such as privatizations, that have followed?

Riot police clashes with protesting farmers outside the greek Agriculture Ministry, in Athens, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Police fired tear gas to prevent farmers from forcing their way into the ministry building, while protesters responded by throwing stones. No injuries or arrests were reported. Protesters are angry at increases in their tax and social security contributions, part of the income and spending cuts Greece's left-led government has implemented to meet bailout creditor-demanded budget targets.(AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Riot police clashes with protesting farmers outside the greek Agriculture Ministry, in Athens, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Police fired tear gas to prevent farmers from forcing their way into the ministry building, while protesters responded by throwing stones. No injuries or arrests were reported. Protesters are angry at increases in their tax and social security contributions, part of the income and spending cuts Greece’s left-led government has implemented to meet bailout creditor-demanded budget targets.(AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ET: There is something very concrete that could be done with the Greek bonds owned by the European Central Bank. The ECB bought Greek bonds in 2010, 2011, and 2012 at a discount price, a discount of 30 percent. After that, after the “haircut” [downward revaluation of Greek bonds] of 2012, the ECB refused to be part of the “haircut.” Now the ECB is demanding that Greece repay the full amount of the Greek bonds the ECB bought at a discount price. It is demanding the full nominal value of the bonds — and with a very high interest rate, 6.5 percent — at the same time that the ECB is lending money to the private banks at zero interest.

What the Greek government could do is to change the legal status of the Greek bonds, because they are still covered under the legal jurisdiction of Greece. The Greek government could say we are enacting a haircut of 50 or 80 percent on these bonds, to reduce the payments, because we want to use the money in favor of the Greek people’s interests. It would be possible to do that. Tsipras can do that or a future Greek government can do that.

What should complement this, what a government that would like to really help the Greek people’s interests could do would be to, on the basis of our audit, enact another unilateral, sovereign action of repudiation of other parts of the debt. It is clear that this would provoke a huge verbal reaction. But for the past seven years, since the first memorandum of 2010, the creditors have criticized the Greek government and the Greek population, shown the Greek population as “lazy” and as “delinquent” at the level of tax payments. I think that they cannot, as creditors, inflict more pain on the Greek people than they already have.

A legitimate government can affirm the popular sovereignty in the interests of the Greek population, can resolve an issue in favor of the general interest of the population — and not only the Greek people’s interests, but humanity, I would say. We need justice, and if there is no justice for the Greek people, there will be no justice for all the people in Europe and the rest of the world. We have to launch and to expand the struggle to oppose illegitimate and odious debt all over the world.

MPN: Debt, as you say, is not just a Greek or European problem. Total world debt is said to surpass $230 trillion dollars. Is the current global economic model sustainable under such conditions, in your view?

ET: No, it’s not sustainable. As you certainly know, recently the IMF but also the Bank of International Settlements — it is a bank of the big central banks based in Basel, Switzerland — have been saying there are new financial bubbles. These bubbles have been provoked by an inflation of the price of assets, with a massive injection of liquidity decided by the big central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England.

In the next months or years this will provoke a new financial crisis. Exactly when it will happen we don’t know. It can happen in one week or in six months or in one year. Certainly it will happen with a stock exchange crash, and a crash on the market of obligations emitted by private corporations and also sovereign debt. Where it will explode — Wall Street, Paris, Frankfurt — we don’t know. Maybe Beijing. But it will explode in the near future.

This model of huge global debt, which is accumulated in favor of speculative activities and to enrich the richest, will end via a new general crisis. Not a terminal crisis of capitalism, because the structure of capitalism has survived such financial crises since the beginning of the 19th century.

But these types of crises generally deliver a huge amount of pain to the majority of the population, so we should be conscious of what capitalism is preparing for the population of the world. We have to combine a struggle against illegitimate debt with other demands about private banks, about taxes, against climate change, in favor of social justice. We need to chart a radical turn opposing the capitalist model.

Dec 052017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Andreas Georgiou...Greece's new statistics agency chief Andreas Georgiou, who took up his position on Thursday, July 22, 2010, talks outside the entrance of the Statictics agency,in Piraeus, near Athens. After years of false reporting by Greece, the countries new Greek statistic agency chief promised clean financial data.The agency now has been placed under parliamentary oversight and not under direct government control.Serious errors in Greek deficit data, revealed last year, helped trigger the European government debt crisis rattled world markets and confidence in the euro.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Andreas Georgiou…Greece’s new statistics agency chief Andreas Georgiou, who took up his position on Thursday, July 22, 2010, talks outside the entrance of the Statictics agency,in Piraeus, near Athens. After years of false reporting by Greece, the countries new Greek statistic agency chief promised clean financial data.The agency now has been placed under parliamentary oversight and not under direct government control.Serious errors in Greek deficit data, revealed last year, helped trigger the European government debt crisis rattled world markets and confidence in the euro.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

This furious effort of all Georgiou’s supporters to prevent his case from being brought to trial reveals their panic as well as their guilt, because they know that in the forthcoming court hearing all the evidence will be revealed proving their involvement in the great national betrayal of Greece.

ATHENS, GREECE — The mainstream narrative regarding the cause of the severe economic crisis Greece has experienced is that the Greek people and Greek state were irresponsible with their finances, lived “beyond their means” at the expense of EU taxpayers, and provided overly generous social benefits and pensions to an underproductive, uncompetitive, and lazy populace.

These characterizations have then been used to justify the successive memorandum agreements, or “bailouts,” and the austerity measures that have been imposed in Greece since 2010, as the country’s “just deserts” —  the “bitter medicine” that must be prescribed to correct Greece’s previous ills.

A different view exists, however — one that is based on allegations that Greece was driven into the memorandum and austerity regime not by economic incompetence and cultural deficiencies, but by a fraud that was perpetrated against the Greek people and the country of Greece.

In this interview, which aired in November on Dialogos Radio, Nicholas Logothetis, a former member of the board of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), describes allegations that have been made against Andreas Georgiou, ELSTAT’s former president, and against EU statistical authority Eurostat, regarding how Greece’s deficit and debt figures were illegitimately inflated in 2010, providing the rationale to drag Greece under a regime of austerity and extreme economic oversight.

Logothetis details how debt swaps and other questionable financial dealings were added to Greece’s debt and deficit, as well as the consequences of these actions, the criminal and civil convictions against Georgiou, and the court cases that are still pending.

MPN: Let’s begin with a discussion about Andreas Georgiou, the embattled former president of ELSTAT, who oversaw the augmentation of the Greek deficit and debt. Describe for us Georgiou’s background prior to taking on the role of president of ELSTAT. Was Georgiou even a statistician?

NL: No, he wasn’t. The operation of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), as a continuation of the initial National Statistical Authority, as we called it, officially began in late June of 2010. This was the time that the members of ELSTAT’s management board were selected and approved by the conference of parliamentary presidents, with the required supermajority of four-fifths.

Georgiou has been working at the International Monetary Fund since the late 1980s. For a few years before he came to Greece, he was deputy head of a division of the IMF’s statistics department, the financial institutions division. However, the Greek Ministry of Finance announced the appointment of ELSTAT’s board of directors through a press release to all Greek newspapers. In that press release, it presented Georgiou as deputy head of the entire IMF statistics department, a very big department in the IMF and a very important one, hiding his actual organizational position in the IMF, a position of an economic nature rather than a statistical nature, in a subordinate division of the statistics department.

Obviously, the objective of the Greek Minister of Finance was to present Georgiou as an experienced statistician with a significant management position at the IMF, who supposedly left America and came here to “save” Greece by putting in order all of its statistics. In fact, this gentleman was not only unable to run an important institution such as ELSTAT, with over 1,000 employees, but he wasn’t even a statistician, with no academic publications and no knowledge of statistics.

Moreover, for at least six months after assuming the ELSTAT presidency, Georgiou still held his organizational position at the IMF, something that was explicitly forbidden by ELSTAT’s founding law.

MPN: What were the actions undertaken by Georgiou as president of ELSTAT? In other words, how were the Greek deficit and debt figures manipulated and in what other ways were Greece’s official economic figures altered?

NL: First of all, Georgiou’s first moves were to remove from the other members of the board any ability and initiative to propose discussion topics or to be involved in the calculation of the deficit or the debt. They were forbidden even to communicate with the remaining staff of ELSTAT! This behavior of Georgiou was not only due to his inability to act as a manager but also due to the fact that he understood from the very beginning, even from the second meeting of the board in September 2010, our refusal to adopt the deficit and debt calculation procedures he wanted to follow. He knew that eventually, the majority of the board members would not approve his deficit figures to be officially published before the end of October 2010.

Andreas Georgiou, stands outside the headquarters of the Statistics agency, in Athens, Greece. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Andreas Georgiou, stands outside the headquarters of the Statistics agency, in Athens, Greece. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Shortly after the last meeting of the board in early October 2010, the final silencing of the whole board followed and we were never convened again, thus leaving the way free for Georgiou, always under the auspices of senior Eurostat executives, on the one hand, to change the founding law—as he always wanted, to turn ELSTAT into one-person authority—and on the other hand, to inflate the 2009 figures. Exactly how he did this became clear later, but we had suspected soon enough what he was going to do.

My first disagreement with him was when I realized he would add to the deficit figures and to the national debt of Greece the Simitis swaps — that is, the swaps that former Greek prime minister Costas Simitis had made use of in 2001 in order for Greece to get accepted to the Eurozone. Allow me to briefly explain what these swaps are, as they indicate clearly an activity typical of the statistical mishandlings that had always been used and are still taking place in our country, every time the government’s leaders want to achieve something with communication or financial benefits for themselves or for third parties. Swaps are a type of a bond, a banking derivative or simply a stock exchange bet, a currency exchange bet. Many countries do it, even now they are doing it, converting their existing debt into currencies of other countries, say in Swiss francs or Japanese yen, betting that the value of that currency will rise and at the maturity of this debt, the owner will gain from the difference in the value of currencies.

In a way, what happened in 2001 is that much of Greece’s debt was converted into yen, but at the value that the yen had in 1995, which was higher than that of 2001! Remember, the swaps were made in 2001, but the price of the yen in 1995 was the one used for this swap. We can put a big question mark here because I don’t know how legitimate this was, to consider as valid the exchange value of the yen of six years ago. But anyway, this was what happened.

From this action, Greece was theoretically gaining an amount of 2.8 billion euros, which theoretically reduced our debt by this amount, and also reduced the annual deficit below 3 percent, thus meeting the requirement of the Maastricht Treaty for Greece’s entry into the Eurozone. But let us not forget, however, that this was a bet. It’s not unlike, say, a bond that matures and is redeemable after 30 years: at the time of the swap, there was no applicable European regulation allowing the “bond” to be cashed in prior to maturity, and therefore the swaps were of indeterminate value.

However, Walter Radermacher — at the time the general director of Eurostat, the EU’s statistical authority — decided only for Greece and only for that time and while the value of the yen had collapsed, that this swap value had to be included in our total debt, thus raising our national debt by 21 billion euros because of the losses of the yen. So we found ourselves with an additional fiscal debt of 21 billion euros.

Radermacher’s additional act was to instruct Georgiou to divide this amount by four and to include what came out of it in the deficits for the years 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006. So eventually, for 2009 and all the three previous years, we found ourselves with an additional deficit of about 5.5 billion euros. But I’m pointing out again that swaps should not be used in any way before their maturity, in order to manipulate negatively or positively the fiscal debt, let alone the yearly deficit.

Another illegal augmentation of our deficit made by Georgiou included the addition of 3.6 billion euros in hospital costs that were not even approved by the Court of Auditors. The Court of Auditors is one of the three institutions of Greek justice, along with the Supreme Court and the Council of State. With regards to this cost, as it turned out later, no one committed to it and no one was paying for it. And finally, the major swelling of the budget deficit was accomplished by the overnight inclusion of the deficits of 17 public utilities, violating many Eurostat criteria and rules. That alone added 18.2 billion euros, equivalent to 20 billion dollars, to the fiscal debt of Greece.

As a result of all the above, Greece ended up with a huge deficit for the year 2009 — 36 billion euros, or equivalently, 15.4 percent of gross domestic product. This legitimated the first memorandum, paved the way for the second and worst memorandum, and justified the imposition of these cumbersome austerity measures, such as the pension cuts, social insurance and healthcare, and the tax increases — huge tax increases — measures that we are still suffering today.

MPN: Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself, the former president of the International Monetary Fund, has gone on the record as saying that he met with George Papandreou to discuss an IMF “bailout” of Greece in April 2009. This was several months before Papandreou was elected as prime minister and at a time when Papandreou was saying, while campaigning, that plenty of money existed to fund the social programs he was promising to Greek voters. Do you believe that the economic “crisis” in Greece was pre-ordained or pre-planned?

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, right, shakes hand with the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, during a joint news conference in Athens, Dec. 7, 2010. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, right, shakes hand with the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, during a joint news conference in Athens, Dec. 7, 2010. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

NL: Yes, I do. In my opinion, joining these medieval memorandums, which have brought about this economic crisis that Greece is still experiencing, was beyond any doubt pre-planned and predetermined. This arises not only from Strauss-Kahn’s own admission that the IMF had been preparing every detail of this with Papandreou, it also arises for other reasons that subsequently became known — that Greece was chosen by the designers of the European Union to become the guinea pig for the implementation of harsh austerity and other forms of economic punishment, set up for all as an example to be avoided, in the context of a new EU economic policy for handling the member countries with fiscal problems.

Indeed, the policy of the memorandums gave the opportunity not only to the IMF to put a foot in Europe — until then its activities always were, with devastating consequences, limited to developing countries in Africa and Latin America — but also gave the opportunity to the French and German banks to get rid of their so-called toxic bonds, that were loaded onto the Greek people by turning a private debt into a state debt.

In order to achieve all of this, of course, they had to plant the appropriate person in ELSTAT at a time when certain statistical adjustments were required, in order to support their treacherous plan. Where did this lead eventually? To the bankruptcy of the Greek state.

MPN: Andreas Georgiou is no longer in Greece, despite the fact that various legal cases and judicial decisions are outstanding against him. Where does Georgiou find himself today and what is he presently involved with?

NL: He’s away, because he knows what he’s faced with, with trials and legal cases. Georgiou is currently in hiscomfortable villa in Maryland. He left Greece in the summer of 2015, one month before the end of his five-year term as ELSTAT chairman. Coincidentally, this was shortly after the call from the House of Parliament to testify before the examination committee that had been formed at that time to investigate the reasons for our accession to the first memorandum. He never came to the examination room, pretending to be in the hospital with “pneumonia.” Who on earth has ever heard of a pneumonia case in the middle of the Greek summer?

Anyway, immediately after his “discharge” from the hospital, he left for America. I repeat, one month before the end of his term and without requesting a renewal of the chairmanship position for another five years. He could have done that, but he didn’t, apparently having realized that he could not have avoided the imminent court hearing on the prosecutions for breach of duty and for the felony of inflating the deficit figures — which in the legal language is expressed as “felony of false certification at the expense of the state” together with the “aggravating order for public abusers,” a very impressive legal phrase. This is a legal category that leads to life imprisonment.

I presume that he’s engaged at this time in preparing his defense, through statements via his lawyers in Greece, while he remains absent, missing from every trial that has taken place regarding him.

MPN: A few months ago Georgiou was found guilty by the Greek justice system. What were the charges for which Georgiou was convicted and sentenced?

NL: There are two convictions Georgiou had this year. In March, in a criminal court, he was convicted for libel and for written defamation, and he was given one-year imprisonment with a three-year suspension. He appealed through his lawyers, but the Penal Court of Appeals condemned Georgiou again, giving him the same sentence.

Georgiou’s crime was that, in an official ELSTAT news release, he accused former ELSTAT board member Dr. Nicholas Stroblos of being a statistical swindler, obviously trying to divert guilt from himself for statistical fraud. I’m pointing out here that Dr. Stroblos is the former director of the national accounts department of ELSTAT, whom Georgiou illegally replaced with one of his now co-defendants. Consequently, Stroblos sued him in both criminal and civil courts and, apart from the one-year imprisonment imposed by the criminal court, the civil court fined Georgiou 10,000 euros for damages resulting from libel.

Georgiou’s most recent conviction is concerned with one of the three accusations included in the prosecution for breach of duty. The first accusation was related to the fact that he was in parallel for several months, from July to November 2010, as head of the statistical authority in Greece but also as an employee of the IMF, a duplication of employment explicitly prohibited by ELSTAT’s founding law 3832 of 2010. That law required him to work exclusively and with full employment in the ELSTAT board. Georgiou deluded the Greek parliament about his ongoing post with the IMF — and note that the IMF is one of the lenders of Greece — while at the same time he had accepted the post as president of ELSTAT’s board. He would not have been selected as ELSTAT president, not even as a simple member of the board, had the parliament known about his double post.

The second accusation concerned the fact that Georgiou did not convene the ELSTAT board for a whole year, violating the law that required meetings at least once a month.

The third accusation, and the most important of all three, concerned the fact that the decision to endorse the revised figures for 2009’s deficit was taken only by Georgiou, without the agreement of the other members of the board — which had been selected, I remind you, and approved exactly for this purpose by the conference of the parliamentary presidents with a majority of four-fifths. For this accusation, he was convicted in the context of breach of duty, and this had to do with the publication of deficit figures without our approval, as required by law. Georgiou appealed this conviction to the Supreme Court, and we are waiting to see what the Supreme Court will decide.

Georgiou was acquitted on the charge that he did not timely convene the ELSTAT board, although this is intimately interconnected with the non-convening of the board for the approval of the data, for which he was convicted. So we ended up with a paradoxical situation here. He was also acquitted of the charge that while he was a member of the IMF — that is to say, a servant of the lender — he was also chairman of ELSTAT — that is, a servant of the borrower — something that is inconceivable worldwide and yet happened in today’s occupied and economically enslaved Greece.

Naturally, the people who were present in the courtroom were annoyed and protested these acquittals, but when they heard the announcement of his conviction on the third charge they were relieved, of course, and for this charge he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with a three year suspension — without being granted, of course, any mitigation.

I, together with fellow whistleblower and former ELSTAT board member Zoe Georganta, filed an objection against the court judgment for the two accusations for which he was acquitted, and we expect a Supreme Court decision as to whether or not Georgiou will go to a new trial for these new accusations. At the moment, the two acquittals cannot be considered irrevocable. But it is true that the most important accusation, for which Georgiou desperately wanted to be acquitted, was the one for which he got convicted.

Indeed, the fact that Georgiou published the inflated elements of the deficit without approval by the ELSTAT board not only proves his guilt of the second accusation, of not convening the board as he should have, but it also implies a deception, because he knew that his swollen deficit figures would never be accepted by a majority of the board members. He further recognized that such a disagreement would sooner or later become public and reveal the irregularities he used with the help of Eurostat itself. Such a revelation would result in the failure of the plan to legitimize the first memorandum and thence to impose onerous austerity measures on Greece. That was not acceptable by the initiators of this plan, who I believe had to use Georgiou and instructed him to silence the rest of the ELSTAT board.

MPN: Following the guilty verdicts against Georgiou this past spring, a barrage of positive coverage and PR in favor of Georgiou appeared in the Greek and international media — including Bloomberg, the Washington Post and Politico. We also heard numerous statements of support from major political figures in Greece, the European Union, and elsewhere. These statements criticized the supposed lack of independence of the Greek justice system in the verdicts against Georgiou. How would you describe or characterize Georgiou’s network of support within and outside of Greece, and these arguments made in his favor?

NL: Yes, indeed, various statements have been heard and continue to be heard in support of Georgiou, trying to sanctify him, to elevate him as a serious personality and as an honest scientist. All this in order to justify everything he did illegally as ELSTAT president. All that has been said rests on myths that have been circulated by the domestic and foreign supporters of Georgiou, who are desperate that the case not be brought to the court of justice — the major case of the inflation of the deficit figures.

But this also proves their own guilt in the matter. If they really believe that Georgiou is innocent and that we are the slanderers and the liars, why don’t they let Greek justice do its job and prove his presumed innocence in a court hearing? I would even expect Georgiou himself to be the first to grab this opportunity to be redeemed. This furious effort of all his supporters to prevent the case from being brought to trial reveals their panic as well as their guilt, because they know very well that in the forthcoming court hearing all the evidence will be revealed proving that Greece has suffered the greatest national betrayal since the time of the Thermopylae treason, 2500 years ago, when Efialtes betrayed the Greek army which was fighting the Persian invasion.

The participation of all those major political figures in Greece and the European Union in the betrayal perpetrated by Georgiou will also be revealed. Indeed, the core of this support network includes first and foremost Eurostat, whose senior staff advised Georgiou on how to inflate the 2009 deficit and also how to change ELSTAT’s founding laws in order to neutralize the rest of the board.

Imagine therefore what impact Georgiou’s conviction would have on Eurostat’s image! Eurostat’s political chief is the European Commission, Brussels — that is, one-third of the troika — with all that implies, of course, for many high-ranking political figures in the European Union and beyond. So one can clearly understand why high-level managers from Eurostat and major political figures from the EU itself are continuing to build a wall of protection and support for Georgiou — in the hope that the government and the Supreme Court of Greece will believe all these myths they are promoting.

Greece's Statistics agency employees walk past the logo of the agency in Piraeus, near Athens. Serious errors in Greek deficit data, revealed last year, helped trigger the European government debt crisis rattled world markets and confidence in the euro. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Greece’s Statistics agency employees walk past the logo of the agency in Piraeus, near Athens. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

The first myth is that in recent years Georgiou was acquitted many times but the persecution against him continues. That’s what they say. The supporters of Georgiou claim again and again that Georgiou was acquitted, but it’s not true. The acquittal may occur only after the irrevocable final judgment in a court trial, or after an exonerating court order is accepted by the Supreme Court. As appeals against all rulings in Georgiou’s case have been filed with the Supreme Court, he has not been acquitted irrevocably for any charges brought against him.

On the contrary, he has had an irrevocable conviction for defamation, as I said before, and a conviction for one of the three accusations for breach of duty — regarding which the Supreme Court decision is awaited, whether or not it will become irrevocable. But the other two accusations for breach of duty for which he has been acquitted, as I have already said, for these we have filed a complaint and they cannot, therefore, be considered irrevocable or a final acquittal. So it’s in keeping with due process that the prosecutions against him still continue.

The second myth goes as follows: Georgiou took over the presidency of ELSTAT after the first memorandum. He cannot, therefore, be regarded responsible for the memorandum and the economic crisis that followed. Well indeed, when Georgiou took action in ELSTAT, we were already under the first memorandum. If you remember, our entry into the first memorandum was announced by George Papandreou in his speech made on the Greek island of Kasterllorizo in April 2010, and the reason for this was allegedly the high level of the 2009 deficit, which was put by Papandreou at 13.6 percent of GDP. That’s equivalent to about 30 billion euros.

However, it was not the actual deficit, but the prediction by Papandreou of what it would be after all relevant calculations took place. Papandreou did not have the right to take such an important decision, one that would affect Greek society so much, based only on a prediction that had not even been approved by the Court of Auditors. We would be the ones, as ELSTAT’s management board, to supervise the calculations of the actual deficit, to approve it and publish it in October 2010, six months later.

Actually, if we had been given the opportunity to do that and found these deficit figures to be less than 10 percent, we would have been able to denounce the first memorandum and cancel it! And of course, the rest of the memorandums that followed. But obviously, this would not be something that the designers of the first memorandum wished to happen, and so the appropriate person must be found who, with specific statistical adjustments, could make the deficit of 2009 “confirm” the “validity” of Papandreou’s deficit “forecast” in April 2010, and fully justify our entry into the first memorandum. This is what they wanted.

Furthermore, in order to avoid any controversies with the rest of the board that could endanger their plan, it was decided to neutralize not only the dissidents on the board but the whole of ELSTAT’s board. As a result of all these unlawful actions, the first memorandum was legitimized — and the door opened for the second and worst memorandum and obviously the rest of the memorandums that have followed, and for the austerity measures that have been imposed since then. Therefore, it’s perhaps wrong to say that the first memorandums was due to Georgiou. It’s more appropriate to say that all memorandums and their related medieval austerity measures that we still have on our backs are actually due to Georgiou!

The third myth: since Eurostat has approved Georgiou’s practices and figures, they must be right, they must be correct. But would it have been possible for Eurostat not to approve these statistics, provided by Georgiou, and the methods of administration that he was using? It was Eurostat’s director himself, Walter Radermacher, who gave orders to Georgiou as to what data to add to the deficit. Correspondence has been revealed, from Radermacher to Georgiou, that shows how to add this amount of debt that was incurred by the Simitis swaps, how to add it into four years’ deficits until 2009 — prior to the expiry date, as we previously explained, and although no European regulation existed at the time that would allow this.

Also, it was the permanent representative of Eurostat at ELSTAT, Hallgrimur Snorrason, who — with the assistance of Eurostat’s legal adviser, Per Samuelson — advised Georgiou on how to change ELSTAT’s founding law in order to transform ELSTAT into one-man authority. It’s hardly surprising therefore that Eurostat approved the practices and the deficit figures of Georgiou. Of course, that does not mean that they were correct.

The final myth that I want to mention is that his proponents are saying Georgiou applied all proper European regulations. On the contrary, most European regulations and Eurostat’s own criteria for the deficit and debt calculations were violated by Georgiou and his advisers from Eurostat, in order to justify the unjustifiable integration of deficits of many public utilities into the 2009 deficit — a decision that would require a thorough study of several months for each public utility. You can’t just decide to include the deficit of a utility in the public debt; you need a thorough study, for several months, six months. So what kind of European regulations did Georgiou actually apply, I wonder? No one knows.

MPN: What is plainly evident is that there is a very extensive and very powerful network of support for the likes of Andreas Georgiou, a network that includes powerful media voices, major politicians and political figures, major centers of power and influence and decision-making. How can such a powerful and seemingly unified network of political and media forces even be countered by the Greek people?

NL: Indeed, Georgiou’s support network, composed of high-ranking political figures — domestic and foreign — is powerful. But no matter how much influence this network can have on political affairs in Greece, I think that it is not in a position to influence the Greek justice system, which I consider impartial. The fact that the case has reached up to the level of the Supreme Court, which so far has justified many of our objections and appeals against Georgiou, gives us hope that ultimately the systemic power network that exists supporting Georgiou can be successfully dealt with.

At the end of the day, our justice system, perhaps the only irreproachable institution in our country, seems to have borne the burden of this matter. I believe that the truth will soon be revealed, no matter how many powerful political and media forces try to force an acquittal of Georgiou.

MPN: What are the judicial cases still outstanding regarding the ELSTAT case and Andreas Georgiou? What are the charges which Georgiou is still facing? And what is your expectation regarding the outcome of these cases?

NL: Most importantly, the cases of the false inflation of data and of the breach of duty by Georgiou, involve crimes of public document forgery and violation of ELSTAT’s founding law. As I have already said, Georgiou was convicted of one of the more important accusations related to the breach of duty — that of the publication of the 2009 deficit figures without the approval of the ELSTAT board. He has been acquitted on the other two charges — the duplication of his appointment in the IMF and ELSTAT and the non-convening of the board — but we have appealed these two verdicts, and we hope that the Supreme Court will decide to repeat the trial for these two related charges.

If this affair is remanded back to the trial courts, we certainly expect Georgiou to be convicted, because the evidence we have against him is rock solid and undeniable. This is what Georgiou’s supporters know. That’s why they push as hard as they can to prevent the case from reaching the high court of justice.

MPN: In what way do you believe the verdicts that will be reached by the Greek justice system concerning the ELSTAT and Georgiou cases impact the future of Greece, particularly with regard to the austerity policies and memorandums that are being imposed and the non-serviceable public debt of Greece?

NL: I agree with you that Greek debt is non-serviceable. Even if we get away from the memorandums, we don’t get away from the related loan agreements, and we will continue to be under supervision by the EU until we pay 75 percent of our debt, something impossible for the next 60 years!

If, however, as we hope, there is an irrevocable conviction of Georgiou for the act of inflating the deficit figures, this will prove that all these medieval memorandums were imposed on the basis of false figures — which gives Greece the right to claim compensation from the European Union for the damage we suffered in the last seven years of the financial crisis.

Article 340 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union gives us the right to claim this compensation, and we have even estimated the financial loss since Georgiou set foot in Greece, a cost that may well exceed 210 billion euros. A compensation of this magnitude would certainly overturn the disgraceful economic situation we are experiencing today. However, I emphasize again that a necessary condition is an irrevocable conviction of Georgiou regarding the felony of inflating the deficit figures.

And what about these instigators who used Georgiou to carry out their treacherous plans? Even Grigoris Peponis — the impeccable investigator who proposed the criminal prosecution of Georgiou in the first place — has suggested that the possible existence of certain instigators within the Greek and European political systems, who directed Georgiou on what to do, has to be taken into consideration. These are the ones who do not want the case to reach an open court hearing — the ones who are so desperate for the acquittal of Georgiou as early as possible, in order to cover their own involvement in the above crime, because they’re well aware that we have evidence of their unlawful intervention in inflating the deficit and also in transforming ELSTAT from an independent authority into one-man authority.

If the Supreme Court sends Georgiou to trial in the high court of justice, all his supporters know that this will mean a likely conviction for him. The support network will then collapse, and they will find themselves accused for their betrayal of their homeland and crimes against its citizens. Our country will then pass from an underprivileged position of a beggar, to the strong position of a challenger, on the basis of specific articles of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union itself.

Protesters hold a banner during a rally in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. A nationwide 24-hour general strike called by unions against austerity measures disrupted public services across Greece on, while thousands marched in protest in central Athens. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

Protesters hold a banner during a rally in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. A nationwide 24-hour general strike called by unions against austerity measures disrupted public services across Greece on, while thousands marched in protest in central Athens. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

As far as we are concerned, we do not really care about the strict or non-strict punishment of Georgiou, who is now a pensioner of the IMF. What interests us is to prove his guilt and thereby to remove the injustice that has been committed against Greece through the false inflation of the public debt and deficit of 2009, and also prove the criminal involvement of the European Commission and Eurostat. This will only be done when the case is referred to an open court hearing, in which Eurostat and Georgiou will have to be present, in order to testify under oath whether or not they have falsely inflated the statistical figures of Greece, and the reasons for doing so.

I do not know when and if this will happen, and how many battles we have to give from now on in order to achieve this. Some tell us that there’s no point in continuing to fight, as it seems that with such a front of support for Georgiou by strong decision-making centers, the battle has already been won against us. We reply by saying that if we stop fighting, there will simply be no other battle — something we don’t want, because let’s not forget what Bertolt Brecht said once: “He who fights, can lose. He who doesn’t fight, has already lost.”

MPN: Looking at the situation in Greece today and the economic claims that are being made by the Greek government — that the country has returned to economic growth, that Greece has turned a corner — do you believe that the Greek statistical figures today are credible, or are they perhaps still being manipulated?

NL: Unfortunately, the statistical figures have already been exploited by any government in power so far in Greece. We have seen this happen with the alchemies of swaps in order to get into the Eurozone. By the way, I wish that we had never gotten into the Eurozone in the first place! Our economy was not in a position to handle such a strong and competitive currency. We saw another exploitation of the statistical figures, of the deficit, this time. They became the reason for an economic crisis of the past seven years.

I cannot say what is happening these days with the statistical figures, as I am not in ELSTAT. But we will find out sooner or later what is happening. The truth always comes out for any case of mishandling of statistical figures. We’ve seen this happen. But unfortunately, as long as there is no reliable team to correctly manage the handling of the statistical data in the Greek Statistical Authority, I’m afraid we should again expect irregularities and alchemies of the data.

Dec 032017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Greece's Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis answers questions as he leaves his office in Athens, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. About 1,000 bank branches around the country were ordered by the government to reopen Wednesday to help desperate pensioners without ATM cards cash up to 120 euros ($134) from their retirement checks. Eurozone finance ministers were set to weigh Greece's latest proposal for aid Wednesday. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis answers questions as he leaves his office in Athens, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. About 1,000 bank branches around the country were ordered by the government to reopen Wednesday to help desperate pensioners without ATM cards cash up to 120 euros ($134) from their retirement checks. Eurozone finance ministers were set to weigh Greece’s latest proposal for aid Wednesday. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

There were specific economic decisions that created the Greek crisis. It needn’t have happened if it weren’t deemed useful by the powers-that-be in Europe. The crisis was real, but it was largely manufactured by people who were creating distractions from Europe’s real problems.

ATHENS, GREECE — Greek-born economist Yanis Varoufakis, who served as finance minister of the SYRIZA-led Greek government from its election in January 2015 until July 2015, has regularly been afforded rockstar status by the international mainstream media and by such personalities as Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange.

In the aftermath of Greece’s July 2015 referendum, in which voters resoundingly rejected an EU-supported proposal for further austerity, Varoufakis resigned from his ministerial post (but retained his parliamentary seat) when it became evident that the SYRIZA-led government was preparing to betray the will of the voters.

But had the Greek people already been betrayed by SYRIZA and by Varoufakis himself? Journalist Dimitris Yannopoulos, who served as Varoufakis’ press adviser during the latter’s term as Greece’s finance minister, argues that this is the case.

For Yannopoulos, the true betrayal of the Greek people came not in July 2015 when the referendum result was ignored, but in the first weeks of the SYRIZA-led government in February 2015, when Varoufakis, as finance minister, agreed to the continuation of all previous austerity agreements with Greece’s creditors, while attempting to spin this agreement as a “victory.”

In this interview, which aired on Dialogos Radio over a series of broadcasts in September and October 2017, Yannopoulos describes the fateful proceedings leading up to the February 2015 agreement between Greece and its creditors, and how these agreements set the stage for the harsh austerity that continues to be enforced in Greece today.

MPN: Describe your experience as the press adviser to Yanis Varoufakis during his tenure as finance minister of Greece.

DY: Broadly speaking, my experience was exciting at first and hopeful, but it gradually became hectic, grueling, and ultimately disappointing and anxiety-ridden. In the end, it became depressing.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis attends a news conference about the launch of a new left-wing pan-Europe political movement called 'Democracy in Europe Movement 2025' in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

Yanis Varoufakis attends a news conference about the launch ‘Democracy in Europe Movement 2025’ in Berlin. Feb. 9, 2016. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

That’s because the first two weeks following SYRIZA’s election in January 2015, some 80 percent of the Greek population supported the Greek government in its effort to make a cause of rescuing the Greek people from their predicament.

It was a fair one, it was a just one — and even right-wing people, conservative people, were acknowledging publicly that the government was, for the first time, making the hopes and the grievances and the complaints of Greeks known abroad, after some five or six years of an oppressive “memorandum” regime.

“Memorandum of understanding” is really the code name for a regime of economic discipline and supervision, and surveillance — and after those two weeks of hope and excitement came some grueling weeks of hectic efforts to follow Varoufakis’ communicative strategies. It was really a publicity campaign, one in which Varoufakis believed that he could overturn the negative agreements that he had himself made, both in public and privately with the troika, consisting of the European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund.

That was really the problem of those four or five months, that the agreement of February 20, 2015, between Greece and the troika was an agreement that paved the way for a kind of chicken game, a theatrical kind of negotiation in which both sides were speaking through each other and waiting for the end of the extension that was given to Greece, in order to crash. That’s what happened in the end and it was disastrous for Greece, as I expected at least two months before the fateful end in June-early July.

MPN: In a recent article of yours, you referred to the first major development that took place under the watch of Yanis Varoufakis as Greek finance minister, namely the Eurogroup agreement in February 2015. This was presented at the time as a major victory for Varoufakis and the SYRIZA-led government. You, however, have described it as the first major defeat of Varoufakis and that government. What exactly took place leading up to that agreement?

DY: The irony is that the word “defeat” was first used by Varoufakis himself in an interview with Paul Mason, back in September 2015 after he resigned when he said that of course the February 20 was a big success for the government, but four days later we were defeated. That was the first time I started suspecting that something happened four days later that proved the February 20 to be a defeat from the start.

It’s somewhat complicated — let me say what the February 20 agreement basically involved. It concerned an extension of the so-called debt loan agreement that was valid at the time — the loan agreement that was first signed in March 2012 by Antonis Samaras, the conservative former prime minister. The incoming SYRIZA government inherited from Samaras a two-month extension that was expiring at the end of February. So on February 20, 2015, the government was seeking an extension of that extension, and the February 20 agreement gave it four months.

But what the February 20 agreement said was that the Greek government was going to present a few reforms, which would be in accordance with the current arrangements. Here, “current arrangements” refers to the memorandum agreements, signifying that those memorandum agreements were still valid.

So if the troika — renamed the “institutions” by Varoufakis — agreed to the proposals for reforms listed by the Greek government, then the negotiations would start in order to complete the current assessment. Of what? Well, of the government’s performance in complying with the current arrangements, which is, of course, the memorandum. But what I mean is that the agreement was phrased in such a way as to allow a very tenuous interpretation that really there was no memorandum anymore, that the government will propose reforms and all the troika would do is to accept or reject or amend these reforms.

Well, it wasn’t like that, Varoufakis’ positive interpretation notwithstanding. The troika used a ruse, a very clever trap in order to force Varoufakis to concede that all that they would be negotiating was the same memorandum of understanding that Samaras had left unfinished.

On February 24, 2015, during a teleconference in which the troika was supposed to accept the list of reforms that Varoufakis had presented, the troika said this list was okay, but would not be a replacement for the memorandum of understanding. At that point Varoufakis, according to his own later memoirs — and I’m referring specifically not only to his book but also interviews made after he resigned in July 2015 — protested that position of the troika, saying that this was counter to the logic of the February 20 agreement.

But because the expiry date was only four days away — because there would be a rupture, as he called it, if the government did not abide by or allow the February 20 agreement to be validated by the troika, the institutions and the Eurogroup — he retreated. And he retreated in a way that allowed him to say, “Well I didn’t actually retreat in writing, I retreated just in words and that was my mistake, of course, because the government was then going to split.” In essence, Varoufakis said yes to the troika terms of reviving the memorandum of understanding without admitting that it was a binding agreement.

How did it become binding? Well, three days later, Varoufakis was forced to sign two very specific formal documents. The first was the extension of the master financial assistance agreement, which was really the loan agreement of March 2012, and the second was the memorandum terms. It was the same document that the troika later presented to the government, to Alexis Tsipras through Jean-Claude Juncker, on June 25, 2015. Nothing had changed. For the troika, these were the terms that remained to be complied with after Samaras had failed to complete his obligations.

Basically, the whole four months of later so-called “negotiations” amounted to a very dramatic and almost manic attempt by Varoufakis to overturn this situation by a kind of media blitz, a publicity campaign. He believed that by turning public opinion to his favor — global public opinion, that is — he would be able to force either German Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Obama to interfere, to intervene with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and the Eurogroup and to say give him some crumbs, some concessions, so that we can go ahead and not have another Greek crisis in our midst. That was basically it.

The troika, having secured Varoufakis’ signatures and his silence regarding this particular secret agreement, had no reason to negotiate. All it had to do was wait for the Greek economy to crumble — as it did with a continuous capital flight, flight of deposits as well as flight of businesses abroad — and, in a situation of financial credit asphyxiation, the Greek government was losing support both in Greece and abroad. That was the situation, and all this dramatic effort by Varoufakis only served his own image abroad, rather than Greece’s.

In fact, there were instances where he was losing public support not only in Greece but also abroad — instances like the Paris Match interview, where he was shown to be a bon viveur living in expensive houses and having expensive food, or the other interview with a German TV network, where they showed him giving the finger to Germany in 2013, I think. But anyway, the point is that throughout these four months that followed what I call the defeat of February 24, the government was unable to overturn the situation in its favor.

MPN: In your opinion, what should the SYRIZA-led government have done during this crucial period in February 2015, when this supposedly major negotiation and political battle was taking place?

DY: From the start, it should have refused to negotiate anything with the Eurogroup and the troika at gunpoint, under threat of either a forced “Grexit” or credit asphyxiation and closure of the banks.

It is not a negotiation when an economy is in dire straits; is constantly strangulated through the lack of funds because it has no control over monetary policy and cannot finance banks to finance the market; cannot borrow short-term in order to pay dues; and has to draw funds from the public purse and effectively freeze payments to the private sector. The state stopped paying its arrears to the private sector. That was all the result of being unable to counter the main framework of the situation that the new government had faced, which is a situation of economic blackmail.

The first instance of economic blackmail was when the president of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, arrived in Athens to meet Varoufakis on January 30, 2015, where Dijsselbloem said you either sign up to an extension of the memorandum or we’re going to shut down your banks. Now, at that moment of course, a government that was just elected had enormous political capital in its hand to reject that and to reject that in public — to say to him that, if you want to insist on this, you have to say it to the media people who are waiting next door, and I’m going to tell you that this government under no circumstances will take this blackmail anymore.

I am sure that if Varoufakis’ position had been spelled out on these terms behind closed doors, Dijsselbloem would have retreated and a new framework, a less extortionate framework, would have been developed and built between Greece and its lenders.

Then came February 4, 2015, when Varoufakis was meeting Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, and Draghi told him that he was withdrawing the waiver to Greek bonds that night. There was no reason for withdrawing the waiver after the Greek banks had passed stress tests in December and had a clean bill of health. There was no real justification for the European Central Bank to withdraw the waiver from Greek bonds being accepted as collateral for loans by the Greek banking system. Instead of storming out and protesting this decision, Varoufakis almost justified it by saying well, you know, Greek banks are bankrupt anyway and we’re going to arrive to some kind of an agreement later this week or the next week, and the waiver will be reinstated.

European Central Bank Governor Mario Dragh arrives for a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, Feb. 25, 2015. (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

European Central Bank Governor Mario Dragh arrives for a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, Feb. 25, 2015. (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Of course, nothing like that happened. Instead, the withdrawal of the waiver was finalized and the government was prevented from making new issues of treasury bills — short-term debt that is — borrowing in the short-term markets, as it had been doing up to that time.

So the Greek economy lost two sources of liquidity. On the one hand, the cost of money to the Greek banking system was raised because Greece had to rely on the ELA, the Emergency Liquidity Assistance fund that works through the Bank of Greece. And, on the other hand, the Greek public-sector could not finance its short-term liabilities with short-term loans, by issuing treasury bills that ordinarily the Greek banks would buy — on very good terms I must say, around 3 to 4 percent for six months, almost 10 times the going interest rate for short-term borrowing in Europe at that time.

Basically, right from the outset, the beginning of February 2015, the government was in a stranglehold. The way I saw things then and see them now is that if, at that time, the government risked something like a resignation, a threat to resign, or the launch of a campaign throughout Europe to protest the treatment of Greece like a protectorate — at that moment, when the political capital it had gained after its election was huge — the chance of the Eurogroup and the Eurozone people, Wolfgang Schäuble, making some concessions was far greater than it would be in June and July 2015. By that time the economy had effectively collapsed and the banks had to close and there was little, really, that one could do other than to call it a day with the euro and go back to the drachma — and of course, the Greek government being totally unprepared for that eventuality, the consequences would be dire for the Greek people and for the government itself.

So, I believe that by not sticking to its original position and by not refusing to be blackmailed in the beginning, the SYRIZA government ended up being blackmailed and facing an ultimatum in the end of the process, after the economy had suffered very severe blows in terms of capital flight, business flight, people withdrawing their deposits, youth leaving the country in hundreds of thousands, et cetera.

MPN: Regarding Varoufakis’ actions as Greece’s finance minister, and especially his actions prior to the finalized Eurogroup agreement of February 2015, you have remarked that Varoufakis is the next Andreas Georgiou, referring of course to the embattled former head of Greece’s Statistical Authority, ELSTAT. Do you believe that Varoufakis must face prosecution for his actions as finance minister of Greece?

DY: No, I never actually said that. I don’t believe that the truth is a blame game. This is, unfortunately, a stance that the Greek establishment has enforced in the Greek people’s minds, that any perceived wrongdoing requires a judicial witch hunt.

I never believed that Varoufakis needed to be taken before a court, because his actions were not the same as Andreas Georgiou’s. Georgiou colluded with the troika and Eurostat in order to falsify the deficit of 2009, which effectively pushed us into this disaster, whereas Varoufakis’ mistakes are really the government’s political errors that need to be understood as such in order to be rectified, rather than in order to send the culprits to jail. If they end up in jail that’s another matter. I don’t believe they should end up in jail because there are other priorities at hand — how to change the regime in Greece. You might want to give an amnesty to the people responsible, to help stop the catastrophe that they are implementing.

The point is that Varoufakis himself has encouraged this idea of being tried in court to use the courthouse as yet another public forum for his positions. Some critics of Varoufakis have implied that Varoufakis was somehow bent on pushing Greece out of the euro and preparing for the drachma, but this is absolutely not what he was doing. Varoufakis is a staunch European, he’s now become even more of a transnationalist and a federalist, and under no circumstances would he fathom taking Greece out of the euro.

MPN: Yanis Varoufakis has established a new pan-European movement, the Democracy in Europe 2025 movement or DiEM25, with the stated mission of democratizing the European Union — and indeed he has not ruled out the possibility that his movement will participate in national elections in Europe, including in Greece. How do you view this new movement, and do you believe that the EU in its current form can even be reformed or democratized?

DY: I think the fact that the same media networks that were lambasting and criticizing and vilifying Varoufakis during his tenure have suddenly become his main supporters — passing him off as something like the new Thucydides or the new Winston Churchill over his so-called memoirs, the book that he’s published now called “Adults in the Room” — shows that his new movement has got a lot of support from certain quarters that are unconcerned with democracy.

Without going further into this topic, I would say that if you are saying that there’s no democracy in any European institution and all of them need to be democratized, what you’re saying in fact is that the government, the EU and the Eurozone, in particular, are a sort of dictatorship, an authoritarian regime, an imperial force under the leadership of Germany.

But Varoufakis is not saying that. In fact, he is saying that the only reason why the EU needs to be democratized is in order to avert what he calls the rebirth of “monsters of the past” — meaning the fringe, far-right groups that have emerged out of the current crisis in Europe — which is complete nonsense of course. The real danger in Europe is a clear and present danger, the danger of an imperial regime that has different tiers or layers of oppression — with Greece being its most suppressed member, so to speak, but also the other countries facing one form or another of arbitrary rule by Brussels.

So, the movement is really not a movement — it is something of a hybrid, in my opinion. DiEM25 is a hybrid of a non-governmental organization and a Varoufakis fan club, and I don’t think he realizes or has any idea what the politics of democracy and democratization involve. You need to be active at every level of the apparatus you want to democratize. And if you believe that it can’t be democratized at that level, you have to fight it — you have to resist, you have to set up alternative mechanisms and institutions, not “revitalize” the current ones. I mean, how can you democratize the European Central Bank, which is really the enforcer of austerity policy and all the neoliberal policies that Europe under German guidance is currently following?

MPN: The SYRIZA-led government is now claiming that the worst is over for Greece, that the country is emerging out of the economic crisis, that unemployment is on the decline, that economic growth has been achieved. We have seen SYRIZA’s triumphant PR concerning the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Greece. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, in his recent annual speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair, said that talk of Grexit has been replaced by talk of “Grinvest” and foreign investment coming to Greece. How do you view the economic realities in Greece today?

DY: There are two sides to this. To say that the worst is over in general statistical terms may be right. Why? Because the Greek economy has crashed and lost 25 percent of its GDP, some 30 to 40 percent of its productive capacity in the space of four years between 2009 and 2013 — and since 2013 actually it has stopped crashing, it has stopped collapsing, it has stopped losing GDP by minus five, minus six, minus four, minus three. It has stabilized, but at a very low level that in the past four years it hasn’t managed to grow out of at all.

That’s because the Greek economy, in terms of structure rather than statistics, is an amputated economy, an economy that has seen strategic sectors like the banking sector, the social security sector, the housing sector, the construction sector being decimated, literally decimated. These are the sectors that make up most of an economy’s growth potential in bad or good times, and this is the case for the United States or Germany as well as small countries like Greece. These are the sectors that are moving an economy forward.

The rate of investment in Greece has been very very low. Foreign direct investment in particular — that’s the only investment at the moment that can push the economy to a modicum of recovery — is still extremely low. Of course through privatizations, there is capital coming in, so at least in accounting terms the current account balances are improving and showing investment rising —  but in reality, it’s just money coming in to replace previous state ownership. In the long term, this is going to be detrimental to Greek interests because the profits out of these so-called “investments” are going to go back to the countries where they came from — mainly Germany, France, Italy, et cetera.

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras greets attendants at the inauguration ceremony of Thessaloniki International Trade Fair, in Thessaloniki, Sept. 9, 2017. As the Prime Minister was delivering his speech, protesters held anti-austerity rallies outside the of the fair. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras greets attendants at the inauguration ceremony of Thessaloniki International Trade Fair, in Thessaloniki, Sept. 9, 2017. As the Prime Minister was delivering his speech, protesters held anti-austerity rallies outside the of the fair. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Really, the [economic] recovery that [Greek prime minister Alexis] Tsipras is talking about is a recovery to ground level or below ground level. The Greek economy is flatlined at the moment. It cannot be revived. Why? Because the major statistical fact most people have underestimated or ignored is the fact that Greek households are showing a negative savings rate of between 15 and 20 percent. This means that they’re consuming or paying out 20 percent more than they earn, which in turn means that there is really no domestic capital available for investment.

In fact, the major impediment to growth and recovery is not a lack of investment, but the fact that every single sector of the Greek economy — the state, the banks, and private household — is over-indebted. Households are over-indebted to the state; the state is over-indebted to its suppliers; the banks are indebted to the ECB. They’re stuck with non-performing loans to the rate of 60 percent of their assets — which is an enormous amount when considering that, before the crisis, non-performing loans in Greece were among the lowest in Europe, around 7 to 8 percent. Now they’re at 60 percent, and people are still saying “Oh, we spent so much in previous years and we should pay for this and be punished for this,” but nothing of that is true!

In fact, the Greek banking sector and household savings, and consumption as well as investment have plummeted, and this has had an effect of long-term stagnation that we are facing now — since 2013, a stagnation against which a growth rate of 0.5 or 1 percent is nothing. It’s a growth rate that will not even pay for the replacement of existing or remaining equipment in the Greek economy.

Quite frankly, I believe that unless there is a radical solution to the Greek debt problem — the Greek over-indebtedness problem which starts, of course, from the foreign debt, which is mostly in the hands of the ECB, the EU and the IMF at the moment — unless there is a very drastic cut or write-off of a very big portion of this debt — and this write-off would have to trickle down to the remaining sectors of the economy, so that there is some breathing space for genuine recovery — nothing is going to improve.

In fact, most Greek people don’t see improvement. Why? Because they are under a constant persecution from the tax authorities. Recently, the deputy minister of finance, Katerina Papanatsiou, said that they are going to “hunt down” 25,000 to 30,000 companies that have fled into the other Balkan countries. She said they fled for tax evasion reasons and their books have to be looked at, et cetera. Basically, the Greek state has become a predator of the Greek people.

The Greek state used to be an oppressive state, a largely undemocratic, corrupt and clientelist state. Now it’s become a predatory state, one that does not allow any kind of economic respite to Greek households. I’m not talking only about households that are now living in poverty; I’m talking about middle-class households that don’t know how to make ends meet from one day to the other, exactly because they don’t know what kind of taxes they will have to pay next month.

The latest news for Greek households is that the “ENFIA” — that barbaric tax against private property in Greece — is going to be due next year in March, rather than in July as it was this year. This means that once you stop paying installments for this year’s tax, you’re going to have to start paying next year’s tax. There’s no end to this, precisely because whatever the government does, there’s always a reduction of its tax revenues, as is happening now. Right now, I think even though there is a surplus of which the government is bragging, tax revenue is still below the target set by the troika in the second evaluation.

MPN: You have said that the economic crisis that has stricken several European countries — including Greece of course, and countries like Portugal and Ireland — is a crisis that has been constructed. How do you support this view, and how would you characterize the role of Germany and the major central banking institutions in creating this artificial, as you call it, crisis?

DY: I would say that, once the Greek and Irish situations were taken into account by the major European economic and political centers of power, it appeared useful to shift attention from the crisis of the banking sector that had erupted in 2008 to a so-called “European public-debt crisis.” The reason I mention Ireland is that Ireland was forced by the ECB, blackmailed by the ECB, to take over and recapitalize its bankrupt banks. That had the result of pushing the deficit of the Irish state up to 15.5 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 2010. Now how, from that year on, the deficit has disappeared is another matter. It has disappeared somewhere under the table of the ECB, the Bank of England, and the Irish central bank.

The point is that in order to not draw attention to the problem of Ireland —  because Ireland had already suffered a couple of years of very drastic austerity and there was no point in making it an example — they shifted the attention to Greece, and that was the main reason why the Greek public deficit of 2009 had to be blown up to something like 30 or 40 percent above its real level. That was done initially by the first finance minister under George Papandreou, George Papakonstantinou, who initially demanded that the Greek statistical office report back to him a deficit of 15 percent, when the statistical service said that was impossible, it’s nowhere near 15 percent. He said okay, then do it 12 percent. That’s when the game of pushing up, inflating the Greek deficit started. That was really the situation.

Of course, behind that there was political wheeling and dealing — George Papandreou with ex-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the IMF and requests for help from the EU — and the funny thing was that in late 2009, the EU had already decided to reinstate a regime of supervision that it had done before with Greece. But what happened in early 2010 was that the European Central Bank again — Jean-Claude Trichet was president of the ECB at the time — made a statement saying that Greece should not be confident that the ECB will accept Greek bonds forever as collateral, because its evaluation by the agencies was not going well.

Now, from that statement onward, of course, that’s when the real debt crisis in Greece started. Why? Because, of course, there was negative speculation, the CDS (credit default swaps) started rising, the Greek bonds’ cost skyrocketed, and of course, the country came near bankruptcy.

What I’m saying is that there were specific economic decisions that created the Greek crisis. It needn’t have happened if it weren’t deemed useful by the powers-that-be in Europe. I’m not saying it’s artificial, because from the moment the markets turned against Greece, of course, Greek debt servicing capacity would collapse. The crisis was real, but it was largely prodded and manufactured by people who were interested in shifting the blame or the attention of public opinion against Greece — and away from Ireland and the banking sector in Europe, which remains over-indebted, of course, but nobody talks about it in the past eight years.

For the past eight years, the major banks — Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, Credit Lyonnais, Credit Agricole, etc. — the major banking concerns are steeped in debt and liabilities, they’re over-leveraged by 30 to 40 times their capital. But because the ECB can fund them, finance them indefinitely, and by keeping their records or their accounts nominally in balance, nobody is talking about the real problem.

That problem is over-indebtedness in the European banking system, which is creating all this backlog of debt, especially in the weaker countries: Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and even France at this time. Of course, the rest of Europe may be going through some kind of a recovery, a very tenuous and low-level recovery, but that doesn’t mean that the problems have gone away. They’re constantly reappearing in different forms, as we see in Catalonia, in Eastern Europe, and with the problem of migration.

Really the situation is not very positive, and there are forces that have manufactured the crisis and transformed it from what it was originally — an international banking crisis — into a political, social, and even an environmental crisis.

MPN: There is a major wave of Euroscepticism throughout much of Europe, as exemplified by the referendum result in favor of Brexit in the United Kingdom. We have not seen a similar trend in Greece though, despite the economic crisis. Why do you believe this is the case?

DY: Personally I believe that Euroscepticism in Greece is going through the roof at the moment, but it is passive. It’s not expressing itself as a political imperative, the reason being that the Greek people have suffered a lot by hoping that they could overcome their predicament by changing their relationship, their unequal and oppressive relationship with the Eurozone and the euro, one way or the other. The disappointment of this hope is what creates a passive Euroscepticism.

That passive Euroscepticism, the last time that it was expressed was at the referendum of July 5, 2015. That referendum was to a tune of 62 percent against the troika. It was, in fact, a referendum against the European Union institutions, the way they had treated Greece. It was a vote and a referendum of defiance.

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

But of course, that’s where the great responsibility of SYRIZA lay at that time. It was completely unprepared to handle a clash or a rupture, as they called it, with the EU institutions. I’m not saying that they had to push for an exit from the euro, but they would have to push for the return of national sovereignty of one kind or another, some kind of equality that all the other countries of the EU enjoy. But the Tsipras government was not prepared for that. So it succumbed to the blackmail, it succumbed to the pressures, it succumbed to the strangulation of the Greek economy that the European Union had pushed in the preceding five months.

That’s really the tragedy, because from then on the Greek people lost all hope. They couldn’t see any workable alternative — all they saw was a few slogans here and there but no real pathway, no tactics and no strategy of getting out of the crisis. They didn’t see the sort of demands that could mobilize popular resistance to the situation now. Basically, what they’re doing is fleeing the country. Seventy percent of the people say that if they had the chance or the means they would migrate to anywhere else but Greece: Europe, America, etc. And only the young can do that of course — and a portion of the young, not all of them.

This is the situation at the moment, a very difficult situation but not one that is devoid of Euroscepticism. Quite the contrary, I think the Euroscepticism that’s prevalent in Greece at the moment is much stronger and deeper than anywhere else in Europe, including Britain and Eastern Europe, where it’s rising at the moment.

MPN: Do you believe that the current SYRIZA-led government in Greece will complete its four-year term and hold elections in September 2019, or do you believe that we will see electoral developments in Greece sooner, perhaps sometime next year?

DY: That will largely depend on whether the EU is ready to risk setting SYRIZA aside or even pushing it to the parliamentary opposition. That is a very risky decision for the EU to make, because no other government would have applied and implemented the sort of measures that SYRIZA has implemented.

SYRIZA has virtually wiped out the Greek social security system. It is passing one taxation law after another with no parliamentary opposition. It is making all sorts of politically correct decisions on matters of immigration, naturalization of illegal immigrants, recognizing the legal choice of sexual identity, things that no other government would have passed.

It is a situation where the Greek parliament is totally subordinate to the troika, and this is a situation that defines Greece as a protectorate — even in de jure terms, not just de facto — because the third memorandum of understanding specifically demands that every legal bill has to pass through the troika, has to get approval from the troika before it reaches parliament. This means that Greece has completely lost its national sovereignty.

Nov 082017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Dear listeners and friends,

nikoslogothetis31This week on Dialogos Radio, the Dialogos Interview Series will feature an interview with Nikos Logothetis, former member of the board with the Greek Statistical Authority, also known as ELSTAT.
 
Logothetis will discuss the allegations that have been made that Greece’s deficit and debt figures were augmented fraudulently by ELSTAT and its former president, Andreas Georgiou, to provide the impetus to drag Greece under troika supervision and under the destructive austerity and memorandum regime. Logothetis will speak to us about these allegations, the recent judicial decisions against Georgiou, and the court cases which are still ongoing.
 
For more details and our full broadcast schedule, please visit http://dialogosmedia.org/?p=7216.
 
Best,
Dialogos Radio & Media
Oct 102017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

savvidis_0-1600x900To become a modern Greek oligarch, you don’t need a vast shipping empire a la Onassis. You just need some seed money, a sports team or two, some media properties, a curated public image, and some quid pro quo with the SYRIZA government that once promised to crush you.

ATHENS, GREECE — Greece is a country that is famously known for its strong tradition in the maritime sector, and for its many wealthy shipowners. Names such as Onassis and Latsis have become globally known and are synonymous with great wealth and with a playboy lifestyle of mingling with the rich and famous.

Greece is also a country whose language boasts a particularly rich and diverse vocabulary. There is seemingly a Greek word for anything and everything, and one such word is “diaploki.” A uniquely Greek word, diaploki neatly sums up the specific relationship and interplay that has developed in Greece among successive governments, politicians, and big-business and media magnates.

Prior to the initial election of the purportedly “radical leftist” SYRIZA party in Greece’s parliamentary elections of January 2015, one of the party’s main campaign promises was that it would “crush” Greece’s oligarchs, who hold preeminent positions in the country’s media landscape and in such key sectors as energy, infrastructure, insurance, and of course shipping.

After SYRIZA’s election, though, an about-face quickly followed across multiple fronts, including its stance towards Greece’s oligarchs. Today, instead of “crushing” them, it is actively favoring them. Following last year’s botched television licensing attempt, in which SYRIZA was apparently going to “crush” the oligarchs by auctioning off an artificially limited number of television licenses to the very deepest pockets — in other words, those of the oligarchs — SYRIZA is trying again. It is now planning to auction off television as well as radio licenses to the highest bidders — with no provision for any non-profit, non-commercial or community broadcasters of any kind.

A new breed of corruption and “diaploki”

CEO of media conglomerate 24 Media, Dimitris Maris (left) and Soviet-born businessman and former United Russia MP, Ivan Savvidis. (Right)CEO of media conglomerate 24 Media, Dimitris Maris (left) and Soviet-born businessman and former United Russia MP, Ivan Savvidis. (Right)

Amongst those who are flourishing under the reign of the SYRIZA-led coalition government, however, are not just the “old guard” of shipowner-oligarchs, such as Giannis Alafouzos (owner of Skai TV and Radio and Greece’s neoliberal newspaper of record, Kathimerini), the Kyriakou family (owners of the Antenna Media Group, including national broadcaster ANT1 Television), or the Vardinogiannis family (owners of national broadcaster Star Channel and extensive media and publishing interests). Now there is a new breed of businessmen-oligarchs who have risen to prominence under the SYRIZA regime, oligarchs who have quickly amassed holdings in the mass media and other industries, and who have access to and the ear of the current government and its personnel.

Two of Greece’s most notorious nouveau-oligarchs are Dimitris Maris and Ivan Savvidis. Maris is the CEO of one of Greece’s fastest-growing media conglomerates, 24 Media, which boasts a portfolio of numerous print, radio, and online properties. Savvidis is a Soviet-born businessman and former member of parliament with the United Russia party, who has turned his sights on his purported country of origin, Greece — amassing there, in recent years, significant business holdings across several sectors.

Using these two nouveau-oligarchs as examples, the following steps will describe exactly how one can become a Greek oligarch — and obtain the privileges and power that this position of status affords.

Step one: Build a business profile

In order to gain a foothold in the country’s political and economic system, the first decisive step for any budding oligarch-to-be is to construct a profile as a seemingly legitimate — or successful, at any rate — businessman.

In the case of Dimitris Maris, this successful — even if its legitimacy is arguable — business is none other than online gambling, as he is a shareholder in stoiximan.gr, one of Greece’s and Europe’s largest online gambling and sports betting operations. Founded in 2007 and based in Malta under the corporate umbrella of “Gambling Malta Ltd.,” stoiximan.gr is said to be operating in Greece with a “temporary” license (not unlike the country’s television and radio broadcast stations).

At the same time that the SYRIZA-led government is going as far as to confiscate pocket change from the already decimated bank accounts of newly impoverished Greek citizens, seizing monies owed in “back taxes,” stoiximan.gr and a few dozen other online gambling services operate in Greece with “temporary” licenses issued to offshore corporations, generating over 1 billion euros in revenue that is entirely tax-free. Indeed, in late 2016, allegations emerged that stoiximan.gr was being probed by prosecutors in Greece for tax evasion totaling over 35 million euros.

Nevertheless, stoiximan.gr continues to operate — and, as will be seen, Maris’ business empire has expanded beyond online gambling to the online- and mass-media landscape.

Ivan Savvidis took a somewhat different route to the top: he first became a Russian oligarch, before spreading his business and financial empire to Greece. Born in the former Soviet Union in what is now Georgia, Savvidis was employed in the Don State Tobacco Company in various positions. Following the collapse of the USSR, the company was privatized and Savvidis somehow emerged as its general manager. By 2012, he had entered the Forbes list of the wealthiest Russians in the world.

It was around this time that Savvidis expanded his business activity to crisis-hit Greece – a peculiar choice at face value, in light of the country’s economic instability and uncertain future, and also because there is some doubt as to whether Savvidis had ever visited or spent much time in Greece prior to this decade. As will be detailed below, his current business holdings in Greece – all acquired within the past few years – include media outlets, major infrastructural assets, tourist properties, tobacco, and soft drinks.

Step two: Purchase a sports team

Sports is politics and, in Greece, owning a sports club is a surefire way to snag power, influence, and a legion of fanatic supporters. All of Greece’s major football and basketball teams are owned by wealthy oligarchs, competing with each other both on and off the playing field.

Much more so than in North America, one’s affiliation with a sports team in Greece is treated with an almost religious fervor. This degree of support typically extends to the team’s management, ownership, and president, particularly when the team is playing well. In Greece, each major team is also affiliated with one or more sports newspapers (which have lost less of their circulation than the political press) and websites. These outlets provide not only “partisan” reporting of the team’s doings, but also full coverage of all of the owner’s other business activities. In this way, through ownership of these teams, the oligarchs in control inherit a ready-made “fan” base that will identify with and support all of the owner’s activities – support that is blindly reinforced in the athletic press.

Maris is the founder of 24 Media, which is the umbrella corporation of his various media endeavors and whose corporate website is only in English. One of Maris’ first media properties was the online portal sport24.gr, a site that — despite having been established later than other such websites in Greece, and lacking the “name brand” of the existing sports media outlets — has nevertheless managed in a short time to become perhaps the preeminent sports news website in the country.

Maris’ sports media holdings are buffered by contra.gr, a sports and lifestyle website that was bought out by 24 Media, and by radio station Sport 24 Radio, broadcasting in Athens and networked with stations throughout Greece. This, of course, is in addition to his aforementioned activity in the sports betting sector.

Savvidis followed the more traditional route, beginning in Russia, where between 2002 and 2005 he was the chairman of the FC Rostov football club, and since 2005 has been chairman of FC SKA Rostov-on-Don. In 2012 his presence in the sports world expanded to Greece, following the purchase of one of Greece’s major football clubs, PAOK FC. Having paid off the previously struggling club’s debts and enjoying the support of the pro-PAOK sports media of Thessaloniki, the city where the team is based, Savvidis inherited an immediate and automatically loyal fan base through his takeover of PAOK.

More recently, Savvidis has forayed into the world of Greece’s sports media, purchasing sports portal SDNA, while it is rumored that he is in the market to purchase another, more prominent sports website.

An additional bonus that comes from having control of or influence over the sports media is this: in Greece, such media outlets are well aware that their target audience, primarily younger adult males, are often unemployed or underemployed and wholly miserable and dissatisfied with their lives amidst the economic crisis. Largely apolitical, and wholly awestruck by the glitzy stadiums and high priced superstars of the foreign football leagues that they invariably follow, they do not miss an opportunity to put down Greece for all of its real or perceived shortcomings.

In turn, the sports media caters to this sentiment. For instance, one of 24 Media’s properties is the website oneman.gr, which exclusively targets young men with glamorous stories about life in “civilized” countries and heaps of sensationalist “only in Greece” stories — which are invariably negative. These stories are then heavily cross-promoted across 24 Media’s sports portals.

Step three: Establish or purchase media outlets

Once you’ve become a nationally known and perhaps notorious figure through your activity in the sports world, the next step is to enter the day-to-day lives of all Greeks through the purchase of or establishment of one or more mass media outlets. Having already inherited a base of popular support via the ownership of a sports club, the next step – ownership of mainstream, general-interest media and news outlets – affords oligarchs even more power and influence.

“Diaploki,” as mentioned earlier, refers to the corrupt interplay of politicians and the owners of major industries and the media. In Greece, a country that boasts a plethora of media outlets, most newspapers and broadcast stations are not profitable. Indeed, they are not necessarily intended to be profitable. The real value that they provide to their oligarch owners stems from the influence that these channels afford them. This encompasses influence over public opinion, cross-promotion of their own business and sporting activities and holdings, and, perhaps most significantly of all, influence over and pressure on politicians and the government of the day.

An old adage of those seeking or exerting influence in Greece was (and largely remains) “give me a [public works] contract or I’ll open a newspaper” – insinuating that the “dirty laundry” of the government or specific political figures would then “leak.” With most oligarchs entrenched in the construction sector, their co-owned media outlets have traditionally been employed for the purposes of pressuring governments for lucrative public contracts of all sorts. This tactic has been successful and continues to the present day, even with the supposedly left-wing SYRIZA-led government that at one time was pledging to keep the oligarchs in check.

In a sense, Maris breaks with this tradition. He did not develop, and as of yet has not turned to, holdings in sectors such as construction, banking, insurance, or heavy industry. His media properties began to grow largely in parallel with his activity in the sports gambling sector. Starting small, with a small number of online outlets such as sport24.gr and news247.gr, the 24 Media empire has dramatically grown during the years of SYRIZA’s governance of Greece.

In part, 24 Media’s strategy has been to import brand names from the United States, including launching the Greek versions of the Huffington Post, Dailymotion, and NBA.com. Following these intermediate footsteps, though, 24 Media has recently taken the big leap into radio — first through its launch of Sport 24 Radio and then, earlier this year, through the launch of news radio station “Radiofono 24/7” in the cities of Athens, Thessaloniki, Patra and Volos, with a network of affiliated stations in other parts of Greece.

Maris also expanded into the world of print in a rather peculiar fashion, through his ownership and management of the “populist-right” newspaper Dimokratia. Though, as will be shown below, Maris’ media outlets are staunchly pro-SYRIZA, Dimokratia maintains a populist-right facade while “protecting” SYRIZA and attacking its main parliamentary opposition.

In turn, SYRIZA, which at one time campaigned for social justice, looks the other way while 24 Media has earned a reputation among journalists for not insuring employees and for forcing unpaid overtime.

Aside from his influence over pro-PAOK sports media outlets, Savvidis’ first somewhat clumsy foray into the media landscape came through his participation in last year’s unconstitutional television licensing bid, touted by SYRIZA as a centerpiece in its “fight” against the oligarchs, but in which an artificially low (four) number of nationwide television licenses was auctioned off to the very highest bidders — oligarchs, in other words.

This licensing bid was struck down in late 2016 by Greece’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, while Greece’s existing television stations are on the air under a regime of temporary legality.

In this bidding process, Savvidis did not initially emerge as one of the four highest bidders, but after one of the winning bidders was disqualified, Savvidis inherited that license with the fifth-highest bid. Savvidis, however, did not actually own or operate a television station, television studios, or any other similar media property. This detail temporarily became moot when the bidding process for these licenses was overturned.

Savvidis re-emerged into the media forefront in Greece this year, initially through his purchase of 19 percent of the shares of the heavily indebted and struggling Mega Channel, formerly a powerhouse in Greece’s television landscape. Along with this purchase, Savvidis also obtained the Ethnos tabloid newspaper and the Imerisia financial newspaper. This buying spree concluded – for now at least – with the purchase of 100 percent of national television broadcaster Epsilon TV in August.

In turn, management of Savvidis’ new press holdings, Ethnos and Imerisia, was quickly handed over to — who else? — Maris’ 24 Media, a coming full circle of sorts for these two budding oligarchs.

Step four: Use these media outlets as partisan propaganda organs

Savvidis and Maris have more in common than just their management deal regarding the Ethnos and Imerisia newspapers. Both of these oligarchs are unabashedly and fanatically pro-SYRIZA, as evidenced by the political stance maintained by their respective media properties.

This was apparent, for instance, upon the return of Ethnos to newsstands on September 16, following an absence of many months and under the new management of Savvidis and 24 Media.

Ethnos front page on the day of its relaunch - September 16, 2017.

The Ethnos front page on the day of its relaunch, September 16, 2017.

The main front page headline of the relaunched Ethnos boasted, in large letters, of Greece’s “RETURN” to normality and its emergence out of the economic crisis under the stewardship of SYRIZA. This return to normalcy, crowed Ethnos, will be accompanied by foreign investments and by social benefits.

This banner headline was further accompanied by a front page editorial touting Greece’s turn “from fear to hope.” These headlines are, of course, laughable in light of the continued crisis Greece finds itself in and the austerity commitments the SYRIZA-led government has signed up for all the way through to 2060.

Indeed, all the outlets operated by 24 Media are notorious in Greece for their largely pro-SYRIZA tilt. On September 14 — with the SYRIZA-led government basking in the aftermath of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ triumphant State of the Union speech in Thessaloniki and French President Emmanuel Macron’s official visit to Greece — news of a “relatively small” oil spill in the Saronic Gulf, off the Athenian coastline, finally made its way into the news — even though the spill had occurred on September 10 — as the oil from the spill finally began to wash up on Athens’ shores.

For news247.gr, though, this environmental disaster played second-fiddle to an exultant story about the SYRIZA government’s fruitful efforts to bolster relations with Italy and form a “southern European front.” On the front page of the relaunched Ethnos, the oil spill story was buried in the bottom right corner, accompanied by a headline that was a play on a famous Greek proverb insinuating that the uproar over the spill was an overreaction.

The News247.gr front page on the afternoon of September 14, 2017. The story of the oil spill in the Saronic Gulf is downplayed, the headline concerns the SYRIZA-led government’s efforts to bolster relations with Italy and create a “Southern European front.”The News247.gr front page on the afternoon of September 14, 2017. The story of the oil spill in the Saronic Gulf is downplayed, the headline concerns the SYRIZA-led government’s efforts to bolster relations with Italy and create a “Southern European front.”

Such is the traditional modus operandi of media outlets in Greece: aside from exerting pressure upon governments and politicians for economic favors, these outlets are also used to shamelessly promote specific parties and particular political figures. Media outlets that “play ball” with the government of the day accordingly are afforded favors that go beyond lucrative contracts for their owners. For instance, state advertising expenditures traditionally were generously doled out not on the basis of circulation figures and audience size, but based on partisan favoritism. This practice continues today, even if outlays have dropped as a result of the crisis.

Therefore, it should come as no shock that Dimitris Maris is the founder and newly re-elected president of the Union of Online Publishers of Greece. Why is this significant? One of the highly touted initiatives of the current SYRIZA-led government is the formation of a “registry of online media outlets.” Maris, via the aforementioned Union, lobbied hard for the establishment of this registry, the primary purpose of which seems to be none other than establishing a formal structure for the allocation of state advertising monies to the online media. Those online outlets most favorable to the current government (such as 24 Media) stand to benefit the most, at least in the short term. Once again, diaploki comes full circle in Greece.

Step five: Leverage your influence to further expand your business empire

So you’ve gotten past your “entrepreneurial” stage. You’ve entered the sports world and made your presence felt in the media industry. And thanks to all of this, you have the government and key politicians in your pocket. What now? It’s time to put all that sweat and hard work to good use by leveraging your existing holdings and, even more so, your influence over the political system and over public opinion, to fatten up your business empire.

Maris has, for now at least, largely focused on feeding his online gambling operation, stoiximan.gr, which has begun sponsoring sports teams and entire leagues. For instance, stoiximan.gr is this season’s sponsor for Greece’s professional basketball league, one of the top leagues in Europe and home to perennial European powerhouses Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. And once again coming full circle, Maris’ stoiximan.gr is this season’s sponsor for Savvidis’ PAOK football club.

Savvidis, however, is quite the seasoned business figure. He got his start in the tobacco industry of the former Soviet Union – “taking over” a state-owned company that was privatized following the USSR’s collapse. This company then bought out Greek tobacco firm SEKAP, based in the northern Greek city of Xanthi, in 2013. That same year, Savvidis also took over management of the historic Macedonia Palace Hotel, with a prime location on the Thessaloniki waterfront. Earlier this year, Savvidis also took a controlling ownership share in Greek mineral water bottler Souroti. In another confluence of business and sports, Souroti is this season’s sponsor for the Greek soccer league, in which PAOK participates. And as reported by Maris’ sport24.gr, Savvidis launched a private aviation firm, Northern Wings, earlier in 2017.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Savvidis’ recent “investments” in Greece, however, derived from the privatization of the port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest port. Thessaloniki serves as a strategic gateway to the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, via the port’s road and rail connections to the north and the coast-to-coast Egnatia motorway linking Italy (via a ferry terminal) with Turkey.

The sell-off of Thessaloniki’s port is part of a package of privatizations imposed by Greece’s lenders in the “troika”—consisting of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—as part of their so-called “bailout” packages for Greece. These privatizations are faithfully being implemented by the SYRIZA-led government, which prior to its election had campaigned against the selling off of publicly-owned assets, infrastructure, services, and utilities.

And who purchased the port of Thessaloniki? You can probably see where this is going. The port’s new owner is aconsortium consisting of the German private-equity firm Deutsche Invest Equity Partners, Terminal Link of France, and Belterra Investments, owned by none other than … Ivan Savvidis. In other words, Savvidis, openly a SYRIZA supporter, is one of the main buyers of a critical piece of national infrastructure being privatized by the SYRIZA-led government at the behest of its European and international lenders – despite pre-election promises to abolish such privatizations!

Put differently, it pays to cozy up to the government in charge — which will ensure that leveraging the assets you’ve worked so hard as an oligarch to attain pays dividends, in more ways than one. “Radical leftist” rhetoric is merely for the consumption of the gullible voting public. Privatizations (now euphemistically referred to as “investments”) and business deals are for the big boys in suits (with or without ties).

Step six: Cultivate a public image

Now that you, as a full-fledged Greek oligarch, have established firm footing in the business world, it’s time to cultivate that public image. Ownership of a sports team and control over major media outlets is no longer enough. Positive public relations and a sterling public image are absolute necessities at this point to keep the whole operation running smoothly.

In building his profile, Savvidis has sought to tug at the hearts and emotions of the community of Pontic Greeks, whose roots hail from the Black Sea region. Among his other positions, Savvidis is president of the Federation of Greek Communities of Russia, president of the Association of Greeks of Russia, coordinator of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad of the Former Soviet Union, deeply involved with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, and a regular visitorto the autonomous Orthodox monastic community of Agion Oros.

For his apparent contributions to the cause of the Pontic Greeks, a community that faced genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1922, Savvidis was named grand marshal of New York City’s Greek Independence Day Parade in March 2017. More significantly, while Savvidis is no longer a member of the Russian parliament, since 2012 he has been a member of Presidential Council on International Relations of the Russian Federation. A promotion, one could say, for his exemplary work. It doesn’t hurt that Vladimir Putin had long been eyeing investments for Russian firms in Greece.

Maris, like Savvidis, has also looked outward. For instance, Maris and 24 Media have sought to foster “synergies” with the Hellenic Initiative, a Greek-American organization based in New York City, one of many non-profits that developed, around the time the economic crisis began in Greece, to “assist” in Greece’s “recovery.”

Former president Bill Clinton spoke at the Hellenic Initiative’s October 2013 banquet, while Maris and other executives and journalists from 24 Media and its outlets spoke at the 2017 Delphi Economic Forum, a mind-numbing conclave with a speaker list reading like a globalist Who’s Who. Included were the Hellenic Initiative’s executive director, Mark Arey, as well as countless politicians, journalists, academics, business figures and representatives of establishment “think tanks,” every last one of which could accurately be described as pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity — in a word: neoliberal.

To be more specific, what kind of crowd can you mingle with once you’ve made your way up the stepladder and established yourself as a bona fide Greek oligarch? A review of the Delphi speaker list reveals the many possibilities. These include:

  • High-ranking members of the current SYRIZA-led government that once claimed to be “anti-establishment.”
  • Politicians from former Greek governments who were largely responsible for laying the foundations for the present-day economic crisis (and some of whom have gone on to lofty posts in the EU or international NGOs).
  • Politicians from almost every “opposition” party represented in the Greek Parliament — all of whom though, notwithstanding their “opposition,” maintain the same pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity stance.
  • Academics and representatives of various think tanks, whose body of work also belies a definite pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity stance.
  • Representatives from such institutions as NATO, the World Bank, the European Central Bank, the Trilateral Commission, and Stratfor.
  • Executives from state-owned utilities, which are purportedly fiercely resisting privatization but mingling with those who wish to privatize.
  • Scandal-ridden current and former members of Greece’s regulatory body for broadcasters, as well as the government ministers overseeing this “independent” body.
  • EU favorites such as the former non-elected prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, and the former non-elected prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti; central bankers from various countries; and representatives from various well-connected NGOs.

And, last but not least, establishment journalists at media outlets that (surprise!) are also pro-austerity, pro-euro and pro-EU in their entirety. This impounds a full slate of journalists and executives from 24 Media, including a former government minister with the “center-left” Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), Petros Efthimiou, who is now acting as executive adviser for 24 Media.

Many of these same speakers were also present at the 2017 Thessaloniki Forum. Also present? Ivan Savvidis. Who else? Representatives of, you guessed it, 24 Media! In turn, Maris attended the Northern Lights Summit in Finland (covered hereby the Greek edition of the Huffington Post) earlier this year, a conclave with a stated agenda of “saving open societies and free markets” and featuring a full slate of current and past politicians, central bankers, prominent journalists, and corporate CEOs.

As is painfully (or pleasantly, depending on your point of view) evident, membership in the club of Greek oligarchs has many perks and benefits!

Step seven: Hold down the fort

You’ve made it. You’re mingling with politicians, foreign ambassadors, representatives of the EU and World Bank and NATO, and prominent journalists who gladly will do your bidding. What’s next for a Greek oligarch?

Toe the line. Hold down the fort. Don’t make waves. And make sure to strike the perfect balance between keeping the government of the day in check, and being favorable and even deferential towards it when necessary.

One way to accomplish this is to bring them on board with you, as with the previously noted example of Petros Efthimiou, formerly of PASOK (as is much of SYRIZA’s cabinet). Laudatory headlines, as seen in the aforementioned examples of Ethnos and news247.gr, are sure to score some brownie points as well.

Another way to accomplish this is through fluff interviews and profile pieces where no difficult or remotely controversial questions are posed, as seen in this recent example where Greece’s general secretary of press and communication, Lefteris Kretsos, batted softball questions, about the government’s renewed efforts to move ahead with the auctioning of television and radio licenses, out of the park. The interview, broadcast on the Maris-owned radio station Radiofono 24/7 — itself operating in violation of Greek law (unjust as it is) prohibiting news programming on a registered non-news station — was hosted by Kostas Arvanitis, formerly general manager of the SYRIZA-owned radio station Sto Kokkino.

As seen before with the issue of 24 Media’s uninsured workers and questionable labor practices, obeying the law is optional once you’ve reached this stage. It should further be noted that Radiofono 24/7’s sister station in Thessaloniki, also classified as a non-news station, went on the air on an FM frequency previously owned by SYRIZA.

On the flip side, as a self-respecting oligarch with a media empire at your disposal, you won’t waste all your airtime, column inches, or pixels only on promoting favorable governments and politicians. You now have in your hands a virtually unlimited opportunity for unchecked self-promotion without any worries about criticism or formalities such as objectivity.

Looking for a media outlet to write up a profile of yourself describing you as a “game changer” in the media sector? Look no further than your very own media outlets. Need to promote your football team’s superstar? Simply prominently emblazon the interview on the front page of your own newspaper, Ethnos. True, this is an unusual move for an Athens-based paper, as PAOK’s fan base is largely in Thessaloniki and northern Greece — and in constant rivalry with the “Athens-centric” establishment — but who cares? You’re the boss!

Need to promote your newly-purchased newspaper, as in the case of Ethnos? Look no further than a friend and partner, as seen in this sport24.gr write-up for the aforementioned Ethnos interview. After all, what are friends and business partners for?

There you have it, easy as pie. Just follow these seven simple steps and you, too, can become a Greek oligarch!

Oct 042017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Sunday, June 28, 2015. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the Bank of Greece has recommended that banks remain closed and restrictions be imposed on transactions, after the European Central Bank didn't increase the amount of emergency liquidity the lenders can access from the central bank. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Members of left wing parties shout slogans behind a burning European Union flag during an anti-EU protest in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Sunday, June 28, 2015. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says the Bank of Greece has recommended that banks remain closed and restrictions be imposed on transactions, after the European Central Bank didn’t increase the amount of emergency liquidity the lenders can access from the central bank. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

ATHENS, GREECE — In the second and previous installment of this series, which generated a great deal of consternation — reflecting the inferiority complex and pro-EU dogmatism prevalent in much of Greek society — the grim future Greece would face by opting to retain its protectorate status with the EU and eurozone was examined. It was shown to be a future of essentially perpetual austerity and almost no upside prospects. An array of good reasons for considering the Grexit alternative — departing those trans-national power centers and restoring a measure of cultural and currency independence — were presented.

Rumor still has it, however, that there is no practical pathway to that end, even if the end itself were conceded to be desirable. It is widely claimed that no one has ever presented an articulate departure plan.

The reality, however, could not be farther from that canard. The fact is that multiple economists, scholars, and analysts have presented a variety of plans regarding how Greece or other eurozone member states could leave the common currency bloc, or how a European Union member-state could depart from the EU entirely.

Existing plans for departure

A pedestrian passes anti-austerity graffiti in front of Athens Academy. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A pedestrian passes anti-austerity graffiti in front of Athens Academy. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Proposal “A”: Perhaps the most well-known of these EU/eurozone departure plans has been presented by British economist Roger Bootle, of Capital Economics in London. The plan developed by Bootle and his team, titled “Leaving the euro: A practical guide,” was awarded the 2012 Wolfson Prize in Economics, the second most prestigious prize in that field.

Bootle’s plan calls for preparations for a eurozone exit to be undertaken initially in secret and to be implemented swiftly. Debt would be redenominated into the new currency and would fall under the jurisdiction of domestic law. All bank deposits and loans would also be redenominated into the new currency.

Capital controls would be imposed to prevent capital flight resulting from a possible initial panic or bank run. The transition period until the new currency circulates would be mitigated by allowing continued use of the euro and by promoting non-cash transactions. Devaluations of the new currency would occur and a moratorium on government debt service be imposed under this plan, which would also include a potential for a haircut of the public debt and debt relief for private firms with substantial foreign exposure. The option of bank nationalization would be on the table if necessary. Bootle also makes recommendations for how the ECB and the EU can, in turn, manage the departure of a eurozone member.

Bootle’s plan is essentially what has been put forth by CNBC economist John Carney, who points out something seemingly obvious, yet apparently lost on Greek and EU politicians as well as eurozone supporters: that there is no realistic way to get around austerity within the eurozone. Similarly, bestselling author Greg Palast, trained as an economist, has described SYRIZA’s idea of ending austerity within the eurozone as “fantasy.”

Proposal “B”: Economist Warren Mosler, a known proponent of modern monetary theory (MMT), describes larger deficits as a solution for the economic depression in Greece. It follows that if the EU is unwilling to relax its deficit rules—a refusal that seems a virtual certainty in light of the agreement between Greece and the EU for the maintenance of budget surpluses through 2060—then exiting is Greece’s best, next, and only option.

Mosler’s plan calls for the introduction of the new currency via taxing and spending, meaning that taxes would be levied in the new currency and spending would occur in the new currency as well, including payment of public-sector salaries. The denomination of the new currency would follow that of the euro: i.e., one euro would become one drachma.

Initially though, the currency would exist only in electronic form. Euro notes and coins would remain in circulation. However, a process Mosler describes as a “short squeeze” would follow: with tax obligations due in the new currency and accepted only in the new currency, individuals and businesses will have to sell euro notes to purchase the new currency.

This will actually place upward pressure on the new currency, alleviating fears of a devaluation and the loss of value of deposits. Gradually, this process will lead to the withdrawal of euros from circulation. The supply of euros would essentially become a foreign reserve currency for the country, while the new domestic currency would gradually make its way into circulation.

Notably, even Yanis Varoufakis, famous for his opposition to Grexit or the abolition of the eurozone, presents essentially this very plan for leaving the euro, essentially as a “last resort” for fleeing “a sinking ship.” It is therefore interesting that Varoufakis refused to consider raising the prospect of “Grexit,” even as a “Plan B,” in his negotiations with the troika during his tenure as Greece’s finance minister. Instead, he agreed to continue 100 percent of the previous austerity agreements before putting on a final show of “defiance.”

Proposal “C”: An academic paper written by Yiannis Athanasiadis of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam puts forth yet another course of action for departing from the eurozone. This plan analyzes the breakup of several currency unions, including the cases of the problematic breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the somewhat more optimistic examples of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. It also highlights the examples of Iceland and Argentina as being more similar to the Greek case—and points to the more propitious outcome experienced by those countries as a further reason for optimism.

In his proposal, Athanasiadis calls for the suspension of debt payments, along with an audit of the debt and outstanding liabilities; introducing the new currency at a 1:1 conversion rate (meaning no devaluation); and introducing capital controls to prevent capital outflows.

Proposal “D”: A team of Finnish economists and mathematicians has also put forth a plan for eurozone departure. They highlight the many challenges that would face a country seeking to depart from the common-currency bloc–problems that nevertheless are not deemed to be insurmountable. The need for secrecy before the transition is also emphasized, as well as the necessity for maintaining a functioning system of payments. They also leave open the possibility of the devaluation of the new currency and the potential conversion of loans to the new currency.

Proposal “E”: Greek economist Spiros Lavdiotis, a former analyst with the Central Bank of Canada, recently presented his own departure plan. He highlights a six-month transition period during which a country like Greece would remain in the eurozone while negotiations are held with EU officials and creditors. He points out that putting the very real threat of an exit on the table would encourage creditors and EU officials to negotiate a deal beneficial for both sides in order to prevent an uncontrolled exit.

During this initial period, a stoppage of payments on debt and interest would be imposed. The money saved during this period would be utilized to finance an initial growth plan for the economy post-exit. The new currency would be ready to circulate after a few months, and a law would be implemented making it the exclusive legal tender. The exchange rate would remain at a 1:1 parity between the euro and the new currency. Loans would be redenominated but deposits would remain in euros while withdrawals would be in the new currency. Exiting the eurozone would also be accompanied by a departure from the EU.

Proposal “F”: Another Greek economist, Dimitris Karousos, has presented a blueprint for departing the eurozone. This twelve-step plan includes the immediate declaration of a stoppage of payments; disputing the legality of the public debt; canceling all existing memoranda and austerity agreements, and repealing associated legislation; and nationalization of the central bank and liquidation of existing commercial banks.

Imposition of capital controls would follow, as well as the development of a payment system to allow transactions to take place until the new currency is in circulation; maintaining some level of price controls to prevent gouging and abuse; restoring wages and pensions to pre-crisis levels; and debt forgiveness for households and small- and medium-sized businesses, mirroring debt forgiveness that actually was implemented in Iceland. This plan would also entail a departure from the EU.

Proposal “G”: Finally, in the United Kingdom, the Leave Alliance presented its blueprint for departure from the EU in the absence of any such plan from the country’s political parties. This plan identifies six phases of departure, covering such ground as trade negotiations, regularization of immigration policy and controls, breaking with Brussels-centric trade regimes, developing wider global relations, and implementing some degree of direct democracy for future decision-making.

What should be evident and obvious from this analysis of a small sample of the proposals that have been put forth is that, contrary to a common anti-exit argument that no one has actually developed a plan for how such a transition can take place, many such plans exist and have been developed by credible economists, based on reasonable economic assumptions as well as historical precedent and experience.

How to depart: some further thoughts and considerations

A tourist makes his way as youths make a transaction at an automated teller machine (ATM) of a Eurobank Bank branch in Athens, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. The European Central Bank says Greece's battered banks need 14.4 billion euros ($15.8 billion) in fresh money to get back on their feet and resume normal business. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

A tourist makes his way as youths make a transaction at an automated teller machine (ATM) of a Eurobank Bank branch in Athens, Greece. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

In order to better understand the intricacies surrounding a departure from the eurozone in particular, certain additional issues require examination. This analysis will demonstrate that a departure from the common currency is indeed feasible based on current conditions while introducing some additional thoughts and proposals to the discussion.

Foreign reserve assets: As mentioned in Part Two of this series, in the pre-euro days, European countries with weaker economies, including Greece, paid for imports of vital goods such as oil and medicine with foreign currency reserves. This is also how other countries without a “hard” currency import goods today.

It, therefore, should be noted that, according to official data from the Bank of Greece, the country’s reserve assets total 6.378 billion euros, including 1.731 billion euros in foreign exchange. However, to this figure we can add the outstanding loans of Greek banks to external borrowers (approximately 27.4 billion euros as of 2015); the long-term bond portfolio of the Greek banking system, exceeding 55 billion euros; and the foreign stocks and securities held by the Greek banking system, exceeding 9 billion euros as of 2015.

Furthermore, the total circulation of euro banknotes in Greece (an estimated 27.4 billion euros in 2015) would essentially be converted to foreign exchange, as these notes cannot be canceled. In all, this creates a supply of foreign reserve assets that, according to Karousos, can cover Greece’s needs for the next five years, even if no further foreign reserves were to enter the system.

Balance of payments and trade: As pointed out by both Lavdiotis and Karousos, Greece continues to maintain a trade deficit, totaling approximately 15 billion euros. However, the difference is covered by services, specifically shipping and tourism, which generate foreign reserve and income for Greece. In short, Greece has achieved a balance of payments and services.

What this means is that Greece will continue to be in a position to import necessary goods and services during and after a transition to a domestic currency.

To float or not to float: One of the fears that is often expressed regarding a eurozone exit is a potentially catastrophic or uncontrolled currency devaluation that may follow–though this presumes that the new currency will be floated on the international markets.

Flotation, however, is not a necessity, and an excellent example exists: China. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, with a gradual rollback that spanned until relatively recently, China maintained its currency at an artificially overvalued level instead of allowing it to be freely floated in the global markets.

What this did was allow China to import technology relatively inexpensively with a strong currency–using this technology to promote the country’s domestic industrial base and to promote domestic consumption at the expense of exports. Once China’s industrial machine was ready to take the next step, this import-substitution model began to be carefully rolled back, opening up Chinese products to the world and eventually anchoring China as a global export powerhouse.

Conversely, in adherence with the aforementioned proposal put forth by Mosler, it would be possible to allow the new currency to float on the international markets. The domestic “short squeeze” would then be likely to counterbalance any downward, speculatory pressures on the new currency from the international markets. Furthermore, Greece could threaten to redenominate its debt into euros. This could act as a check against devaluatory pressures on the new currency, as the debt would, in turn, be devalued.

To devalue or not to devalue, to peg or not to peg: There are pros and cons to both options that bear examination.

One option is to maintain a peg with another currency, such as the euro or the U.S. dollar. There are actually two separate issues here: the initial conversion rate of the euro to the new currency, and a possible peg of the new currency to another currency, whether the euro or something else.

Here I will argue that setting the initial rate of exchange between the old and new currency is simply a conversion–essentially an arbitrary arithmetic choice without objective (i.e., non-psychological) monetary implications. Therefore, it actually should not matter whether the conversion rate is, say, one euro to one drachma, or one euro to one hundred drachmas. Either denomination would still be equal to the initial one euro. This relates to an old economic idea, that of money illusion, coined in the early 20th century by economist Irving Fisher, who pointed out the tendency to confuse the nominal value of currency with its real value.

Here, I will posit that large denominations, such as those that Greece and Italy had pre-euro with the drachma and lira, actually are beneficial to weaker economies, as they serve as a check of sorts upon inflation. It’s much easier, for instance, to raise a price from, say, one euro to 1.50 euros (a 50 percent increase) than to, for instance, raise a price from 10,000 drachmas to 15,000 drachmas (an equivalent percent increase). The psychology of money should never be downplayed and, psychologically, a hypothetical 5,000 drachma increase has a greater impact than a seemingly minor 50 cent increase. So, following this view, the drachma could be redenominated back at the original exchange rate of 340.75 drachmas to one euro.

This line of thinking is similar to the ideas proposed by professors Priya Raghubir and Joydeep Srivastava. Their 2009 paper titled “Denomination Effect” found that people are less likely to spend larger units of currency than their equivalent amount in smaller units; while their 2002 paper titled “Effect of Face Value on Product Valuation in Foreign Currencies” found that tourists underspent when the face value of foreign currency was a multiple of the equivalent amount in their home currency, and vice versa. This rule, of course, is applicable not just to tourists: psychologically, one is less likely to spend, say, 1000 drachmas than the equivalent amount of less than 3 euros.

These rules of economic behavior were evident in Greece and some other countries immediately after the transition to the euro. Amounts that previously seemed significant, such as 500 or 1000 drachmas (denominations represented by banknotes), were the equivalent of loose change with the euro, with amounts up to 2 euros minted as coins. Furthermore, businesses across the economic spectrum took advantage of this psychological effect to round up prices while seemingly still keeping them low. For instance, a 100 drachma (0.29 euro) bottle of water was “rounded up” to 1.00 euros (340.75 drachmas). Inevitably, purchasing power diminished almost overnight.

A post-conversion peg can take place independent of the currency conversion rate. Here though, it is important to consider that a peg will tie the new currency to the fiscal policy being implemented for the foreign currency to which it is pegged. This was the case in Argentina, which led to the country’s economic collapse in 1999.

Pegging the new currency to, say, the euro, might have negative consequences: the euro itself might begin a downward spiral in the markets if one or more of its members depart. On the other hand, a peg could allow a country like Greece to essentially do what China did: maintain an artificial value of the currency for a period of time until the initial difficulties of the transition to a new economy have been surmounted.

Capital controls: In Greece, capital controls have been in place since June 2015, just prior to the July 2015 referendum. These restrictions have essentially limited withdrawals to an average of 60 euros per day–having changed during this period from a daily withdrawal limit, to weekly, to biweekly, to monthly, without significantly changing the bottom line rate.

The truth is that these capital controls have posed tremendous difficulties to Greek businesses in particular. However, in a post-transition period they might be a necessary evil until economic jitters have been overcome. If this is the case, what will be imperative is for a clear and reasonable capital control plan to be developed and to be communicated to the public, free of the uncertainty that exists with the current controls that are in effect in Greece, and with a clear forecast of when they will be loosened and/or eliminated.

Taxes: In a country like Greece, and with the economy in the condition its in, less is more when it comes to taxation. Greece’s sky-high tax rates have stifled consumer spending and have placed a chokehold on small- and mid-sized businesses, freelancers, and independent contractors. They have imposed a great burden on households and, ironically, they have encouraged the practice of which Greeks are stereotypically accused: tax evasion. For many in Greece today, it’s a simple choice between paying taxes or paying for bare necessities in order to survive.

Post-transition, a new tax regime must be ready to be enforced. One that is simple and easy to understand and fair to citizens and households, the self-employed, and to the small- and medium-sized businesses that have been a cornerstone of the Greek economy for decades.

Stability is key: in Greece, tax laws invariably change every year or even every few months, and retroactive taxation is often imposed! This makes it practically impossible for households and businesses alike to plan ahead or to make investments.

Furthermore, the Greek tax system unfairly presumes a certain level of income simply by virtue of owning a house or property (which may have been inherited), or owning a car or some other valuable asset—even if one is currently unemployed. This blatantly unfair practice must immediately be eliminated.

The value-added tax on goods–particularly vital necessities such as food, clothing, medicine, and heating oil–must also be abolished. Incentives could also be offered to lure back emigrants and businesses that have fled the country during the crisis.

Privatizations: The vast majority—perhaps all—of the privatizations that have taken place in Greece, particularly during the crisis, have been on blatantly unfair, vulture-like terms that have been completely unfavorable for the Greek state. Furthermore, many of the assets that were sold off, such as regional airports or the national lottery, were profitable—meaning that they provided income to public coffers each and every year. Many of these assets, such as airports and harbors, are also of high strategic importance.

Greece should, therefore, consider following the example of many other countries by re-nationalizing assets of vital national importance and assets that were profitable for the public sector. Other privatizations for non-vital and underutilized assets can and should be audited and reviewed–and canceled if need be. These assets can then be retained by the state as part of a public redevelopment plan, or tendered again at terms more favorable to the state, perhaps even as a long-term lease instead of an outright sale.

Red tape and bureaucracy: No matter what currency you use, your economy will be stymied if it is drowned in red tape and bureaucracy. Traditionally in Greece, this endless bureaucracy has been employed as a weapon to curtail any entrepreneurial initiative, such as the many attempts to develop an automotive industry in Greece.

Simply starting a business or forming a corporation in Greece can take months or years. In turn, the judicial system is, to put it mildly, slow as molasses. Simple “open and shut” legal cases are not “open and shut” in Greece, and almost invariably last a decade or more. This is not an environment within which businesses—particularly small businesses—or entrepreneurs can operate in an optimal fashion.

In other words, a change of currency is not enough. A change in public policy is also in order.

Legal changes: European Union membership meant that domestic law had to be “harmonized” with EU law. In order for an exit from the eurozone and the EU to be a true exit, these laws must be repealed.

But what about human rights? That’s a question that is often hysterically asked in Britain regarding Brexit. This is based on the silly assumption that human rights cannot exist without a supranational guarantor such as the EU. It also presupposes that the EU itself protects human rights. As has been determined by the UN and other bodies, this has not been the case in crisis-stricken Greece. Domestic law and international treaties are perfectly suitable for protecting human rights.

In the case of Greece in particular, what must be repealed are any and all laws pertaining to the memorandum agreements and austerity measures that have been imposed. A “clean break” cannot be considered to have been accomplished barring this. And if it is, for instance, determined that the economy is not in a position to immediately sustain a rollback to pre-crisis salaries and pensions, a clear road map for the process must be presented and communicated openly and clearly to the public.

Trade: No one is arguing that a country such as Greece should isolate itself from the world. But it is clear that EU-style “free trade” has not benefited the country, with agriculture being a case in point.

Outside of the eurozone and EU, countries are free to pursue trade agreements and partnerships with any other country in the world, without the need for approval from some other institution. Greece, which maintained strong agricultural trade with Russia, for instance, would no longer be hindered by EU sanctions, as it would be free to repeal them. Greece would be free to pursue trade relations with the BRICS nations, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, North America, and indeed even Europe. But it would have the ability to negotiate terms more favorable to its economic needs, rather than being covered by blanket EU trade rules.

One word of warning here: the BRICS, often touted as saviors, are themselves proponents of the neoliberal tenets of so-called “free” trade, including opposition to “protectionism,” which in the realm of economics has attained the same derogatory status as “nationalism” has in the political context. But what is protectionism? It’s merely the practice of defending domestic industries of vital or strategic significance from foreign competition. Especially for a vulnerable economy, the ability to protect key industries is indispensable.

Protectionism does not mean isolationism: While these two concepts are increasingly conflated, there is no argument for a country like Greece to isolate itself from Europe or the rest of the world post-exit. For instance, visa-free travel regimes can and do exist outside of a supranational context. International trade can continue. Tourism would still be welcome. And indeed foreign investment would be welcome, provided that it was on terms favorable to the local economy and domestic workers.

Protectionism can also be viewed as a means of protecting local culture from the homogenizing forces of economic and cultural globalization. Diversity and heterogeneity of course neither cause nor imply isolation.

Banking: This may be the stickiest issue of all. It is likely that, as part of a eurozone exit, commercial banks may need to be nationalized. In a sense this has already happened, as Greek banks have been recapitalized three times with taxpayer monies during the economic depression. These banks are essentially bankrupt and have been kept afloat using the tried-and-true logic of “too big to fail.”

Then there is the issue of the central bank to contend with. Greece’s central bank, for instance, is largely a privately-owned entity and 94 percent of its shareholders are not publicly known. Reforming Greece’s central banking system would seem to be the trickiest issue of all and larger-scale economic changes on a global scale would likely be a prerequisite for this to occur.

Economic development: In Greece, a mantra uttered all too frequently is that “we are a poor country” that “doesn’t produce anything.” This is not true. Greece is a land blessed with an incredible amount of natural resources; energy resources (including great potential for solar and other “green” energy sources); a rich culture and history; a large shipping fleet; an educated population and an innovative younger generation; strong agricultural capabilities and an excellent climate; and an entrepreneurial spirit—despite the culture of red tape and a supposedly “bloated” public sector. Greece has much to offer the world, and much to offer its citizens—if only its potential were to be tapped into.

To take just the example of tourism’s and the possibilities it offers: despite record tourist numbers now visiting Greece, there are many types of tourism that remain largely undeveloped or underdeveloped, including conference tourism, winter tourism (Greece has numerous ski resorts and chalets, for instance), natural tourism and camping, medical tourism, gastronomy tourism, sports tourism and sporting events that would utilize the country’s underused athletic infrastructure, and much more.

There’s a lot of potential in Greece, but the country must be free to tap into it. As long as it is not in control of its own economic destiny, this will not be possible.

Challenges real and imaginary: the impact of fear

Pro-Euro demonstrators, wearing t-shirts depicting the one Euro coin, sit on a sidewalk during a rally at Syntagma square in Athens, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

Pro-Euro demonstrators, wearing t-shirts depicting the one Euro coin, sit on a sidewalk during a rally at Syntagma square in Athens, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

An exit—and a post-exit transition—will not be easy. Nobody has claimed otherwise. But what Greece is currently experiencing–and what its government has committed to for the next four-plus decades–is also painful, with no realistic light at the end of the tunnel. Having committed to decades of austerity within the eurozone context and with no control over its fiscal or monetary policy or its economic destiny, it is hard to make a convincing argument that Greece’s economy can recover within the eurozone and the EU.

The main challenge though, as I see it, has nothing to do with the eurozone, the EU, or the obstacles that might be faced during the transition process. The primary difficulty Greece faces concerns its political class and the willingness of its people to move ahead with change—true change. To be perfectly frank, this author does not believe that any entity, any individual or any party or movement within the present-day political landscape–and particularly among those in parliament today–is competent or decisive enough to oversee a smooth transition to a post-euro and perhaps post-EU future, whether this transition were to happen by choice or involuntarily.

I do not believe a “Plan B” is in place even as a worst-case scenario, such as if there were to be a sudden collapse of the eurozone or Greece were to be forced out for other reasons. I also do not believe that the track record of Greece’s political class—replete with corruption, cronyism, irresponsibility and impunity—leaves much room for optimism. This is a political class that is most likely compromised as a result of its corrupt practices, and one that has proven that it places neoliberal interests and personal gain ahead of the public interest and well-being. And frankly, if such a transition were to be handled by a corrupt, compromised government with a poor track record, Greece might be better off standing pat for now.

It would not surprise this author, for instance, to see the current government or other so-called “leftist” forces like the DiEM25 movement of Yanis Varoufakis, if they were to ascend to power, introduce a parallel currency and sell it to the public and to the markets as “a return to a domestic currency.” The disastrous history of parallel currencies and bimetallism does not provide much hope that this would be a viable solution for Greece.

This means that it’s up to the citizenry of Greece to be the force that delivers change. This too seems something of a tall order, however. Learned helplessness and misery are deeply rooted in Greece, as has been demonstrated. It is not uncommon to hear, for instance, people react to suggestions not to vote for any of the existing political parties and to look instead to support new political forces or develop new political movements, by retorting “and who else is there to vote for?”

Another dangerously prevalent viewpoint is that Greece is “the worst in everything” and, by extension, that “Greeks are the worst people in the world,” a populace that brought economic disaster upon itself. In a climate of such helplessness, fear, misery and complacency, it’s hard to imagine any sort of motivation or clarion call that would allow the people to overcome these sentiments.

Such expressions are usually accompanied by fears of the “external threats” Greece faces due to its geopolitical location. As this line of thinking goes, Greece cannot afford to leave the “umbrella of protection” provided by EU membership (and also by being part of NATO). It bears noting though that EU membership has done nothing to stop Turkish aggression in the Aegean, including violations of Greek territorial waters and airspace. This has not been a victimless activity: for example, in 2006, Greek air force pilot Konstantinos Iliakis was killed in an aerial exercise near the Greek island of Karpathos, while attempting to intercept Turkish fighter jets.

EU membership has also done nothing to put an end to the Turkish occupation of nearly 40 percent of Cyprus. Indeed, the EU supported the UN’s “Annan Plan,” which would have granted permanent status to the Turkish military presence and the illegal settlers from the Turkish mainland on the island. All of Greece’s major political parties openly supported this plan.

Indeed, while the EU has recently been posturing against Turkey, with threats to put a permanent end to its hopes for EU membership, it is the EU that succumbed to the bullying of autocratic Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, his demands for EU money, and his threats to allow refugees and migrants to freely pass through Turkey into European territory. Turkey is the West’s favored son in the region (and increasingly Russia’s as well), and seemingly can do no wrong.

As for NATO, this author’s experience at NATO headquarters during an academic visit in 2013 sums up its arrogance and Greece’s second-class standing within the “alliance.” In a roundtable meeting with then-U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, and in response to an audience question regarding which countries were candidates for NATO membership, he asked whether anybody in the room was of Greek descent. When I raised my hand, he arrogantly retorted that because I was present, he’d make a reference to the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” instead of simply “Macedonia” — referencing Greece’s longstanding dispute with its northern neighbor over its usage and historical appropriation of the name “Macedonia.”

Greece’s geopolitical position and threats existed prior to eurozone and EU and NATO membership. Today, with membership in these institutions, these threats continue to exist. And yet the perception that Greece would be “destroyed,” not just economically but militarily, the moment it leaves the eurozone or EU, still persists.

Grexit a first step, not a cure-all

Greece

Credit: SOOC

Returning to a domestic currency isn’t a panacea or a cure-all. The right policies, and perhaps more importantly, the right attitudes must be in place. Corruption must be rooted out. The judicial system must be reformed and must work for its citizens for perhaps the first time in Greece’s modern history. Learned helplessness and dependency must be overcome. And the various banes of austerity, privatizations, and high taxation are all just as possible with your own currency as with the euro. To wit, privatizations in Greece began in earnest in the early 1990s, a decade before joining the eurozone.

Nevertheless, the debate must be opened. As evidenced by Varoufakis himself, even the staunchest pro-EU, pro-euro supporter would be foolish not to have a plan for a transition in place, for any number of scenarios that might make an exit inevitable. Yet these plans have been systematically excluded from the public discourse in Greece and internationally, and have never been used as a negotiating tool by successive governments. It’s time this discussion was introduced into the public debate.

Sep 232017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

Protesters hold a banner during a rally in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. A nationwide 24-hour general strike called by unions against austerity measures disrupted public services across Greece on Thursday, while thousands marched in protest in central Athens. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Protesters hold a banner during a rally in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. A nationwide 24-hour general strike called by unions against austerity measures disrupted public services across Greece on Thursday, while thousands marched in protest in central Athens. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

With the Greek psyche itself the victim of a relentless shaming campaign, the idea of Greece “going it alone” begins to seem outlandish and quixotic. It is not. But it is as much tied to a revival of spirit and self-esteem as to the nuts and bolts of economic transformation.

Eight years into the deepest economic depression that an industrialized country has ever experienced, we are now being told that Greece is a “success story.” Having accepted the “bitter medicine” prescribed by the “troika”—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—the storyline today is that Greece is on the road to recovery, firmly within the European Union and the eurozone.

This narrative was recently echoed by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in his annual speech at the Thessaloniki Trade Fair, Greece’s equivalent to the State of the Union address. In this speech, Tsipras triumphantly declared that talk of “Grexit”—or a Greek departure from the eurozone and the EU—has been replaced by that of “Grinvest.”

Within such a context, there is seemingly no room for discussions about whether it is in Greece’s best interest, even after so many years of implementing the troika’s austerity diktats, to consider a departure from the eurozone and the EU. Indeed, the narrative is that the people of Greece overwhelmingly have never supported the prospect of “Grexit.”

All throughout the economic crisis in Greece, it has been reported that polls have consistently shown clear majorities favoring the country’s “European trajectory” and rejecting the possibility of a departure from the eurozone and EU.

So the Greeks want the euro at all costs, even if it means more harsh austerity measures and cuts to wages, pensions and social services. Or so we are told. These claims would be believable if they were the product of robust public debate and deliberation on the respective pros and cons of remaining within the “European family” or departing. But in Greece, and in most of the global mainstream media, there is no such debate and never has been.

Instead, what has taken place in Greece during the economic crisis has been the complete elimination from public debate of opponents of the prevalent economic and political doctrines. Those who oppose the eurozone, the EU, or simply the austerity measures, are stamped with the “scarlet letter” of being “nationalists,” “xenophobes,” or “fascists.” Such rhetoric became even more polarized following the Brexit referendum result. The Brexit result and the rise of “populism” have themselves been demonized, while poll results that contradict the mainstream narrative are habitually buried by the supposedly “objective” major media outlets.

Following the first installment of this series – in which the less-than-democratic roots of the EU, the zeal with which the EU is lionized by the global media today, the EU’s present-day democratic deficit and hypocrisy, and the attempts to discredit opponents of the EU and neoliberalism were analyzed — this piece will focus on what has long been the “elephant in the room” in Europe: the possibility of departure from the eurozone and from the EU, and why it must, at the very least, be debated on equal terms in economically suffering countries such as Greece.

Fostering fear and lies

French president Emmanuel Macron, right, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Vlasia Pavlopoulou wife of the Greek President toast their drinks at the Presidential Palace in Athens, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Standing at a Greek site where democracy was conceived, French President Emmanuel Macron called on members of the European Union to reboot the 60-year-old bloc with sweeping political reforms or risk a "slow disintegration. (AP/Charalambos Gikas)

French president Emmanuel Macron, right, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and Vlasia Pavlopoulou wife of the Greek President toast their drinks at the Presidential Palace in Athens, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Standing at a Greek site where democracy was conceived, French President Emmanuel Macron called on members of the European Union to reboot the 60-year-old bloc with sweeping political reforms or risk a “slow disintegration. (AP/Charalambos Gikas)

Throughout the crisis, the austerity measures that have been imposed on Greece, the arguments in favor of the necessity of remaining “in Europe,” the mythos surrounding the “European dream,” and the horror that would result from “Grexit” have been propped up by a series of lies and scare tactics that have been repeatedly propagated by politicians and media outlets alike.

This has fostered a form of learned helplessness in Greece, a belief that the country is incapable of surviving outside the eurozone and EU and therefore must remain, even if the preconditions for doing so are harsh.

One such myth pertains to the idea that Greece “doesn’t produce anything” and is therefore reliant on imports. These imports must, of course, be paid for with hard currency; therefore, the conventional line of thinking suggests that Greece would be unable to import vital necessities with its own “soft” currency.

Case in point: a 2012 Eurobarometer survey found that 94 percent of Greeks were concerned about national food security, the highest level in the EU. In addition, Greece was the only EU member-state where a majority (61 percent) expressed concern with national food production. Moreover, 79 percent of Greeks expressed the belief that Greece does not produce enough food to meet domestic needs. Again, this was the highest percentage recorded in the EU.

The claim that Greece doesn’t produce anything and is not nutritionally self-sufficient is constantly repeated by the media and used to justify remaining in the common market, but is it true? As of 2010, the most recent year for which complete statistics seem to be available, Greece met, exceeded, or came close to meeting domestic demand for staples such as eggs, meat and milk derived from sheep and goats, olive oil, several crops (including oranges, peaches, tomatoes, cucumbers, apricots, potatoes, and grapes), honey, whole grains, and poultry.

Furthermore, according to data from 2012, Greece is second worldwide in the production of sheep’s milk, third in olive and olive oil production, fourth in the production of pears, fifth in the production of peaches and nectarines, sixth in pistachio production, and in the top ten in goat’s milk, chestnuts, cantaloupes, cherries, and cotton. It is also just outside the top ten in the production of almonds, cottonseed, asparagus, figs, and other legumes. Greece is third in the world in the production of saffron and sixteenth in the world in the production of cheese products.

Outside of food production, Greece is a strong producer of such resources as aluminum and bauxite (first in Europe), magnesium (meeting 46 percent of Western Europe’s production), second in the world behind the United States in the production of smectite clay, and is the only European country with significant nickel deposits. Greece is also a significant producer of laterite and marble, as well as steel and cement.

Outside of production, Greece possesses one of the world’s largest shipping fleets, ranking second worldwide in total tonnage, while the Greek flag fleet and merchant fleet rank second in the EU and seventh globally. In addition, Greece is fourteenth in the world in tourist arrivals (but twenty-third in tourist revenue).

It is these three sectors — agriculture, shipping, and tourism — that have traditionally sustained the Greek economy, alongside domestic small businesses, which themselves have suffered during the crisis under the weight of decreased spending and increased taxation. Prior to the euro, the agricultural, shipping, and tourism sectors provided Greece with the hard currency with which it financed imports.

Indeed, it is membership in the EU that has led to a sharp decline in the domestic production of numerous staples in Greece. In 1961, twenty years before joining the EU, “impoverished” Greece produced 169,200 tons of figs, 6,374 tons of sesame, 52,000 tons of dry beans, 13,365 tons of chickpeas, and 19,246 tons of quince. In 2011, the respective figures were 9,400 tons of figs, 33 tons of sesame, 22,744 tons of dry beans, 2,200 tons of chickpeas, and 3,432 tons of quince.

In 1981, the year Greece joined the EU, production of fresh vegetables was at 123,298 tons, lemon production was at 216,874 tons, apple production was at 337,091 tons, almond production at 73,181 tons, tobacco production at 130,900 tons, tomato production at 1,884,600 tons, and potato production at 1,056,000 tons.

Thirty years later, the figures for each of these crops had sharply declined: 74,393 tons of fresh vegetables, 70,314 tons of lemons, 255,800 tons of apples, 29,800 tons of almonds, 20,287 tons of tobacco, 1,169,900 tons of tomatoes, and 757,820 tons of potatoes.

A major factor in this decline is the EU’s common agricultural policy, which sets production quotas for each country and each sector of production, and dictates to each country what to produce and which crop varieties to cultivate, what not to produce, where to export, where not to export, how much to export and at what price.

For example, until 2005 Greece’s sugar production sector was profitable and met a large part of domestic demand. In a 2006 deal with the EU, however, Greece agreed to reduce its domestic sugar production and increase imports. In 1980, the year before Greece ascended to the EU, pork meat production met 84 percent of domestic needs, while beef production met 66 percent of domestic demand. Those figures have declined to 38 and 13 percent, respectively.

The decline in beef production has also impacted the dairy sector. The EU’s influence is evident here as well: in 2000, Greece was fined 2.5 billion drachmas (over 7.3 million euros) for exceeding EU-imposed quotas for the production of cow’s milk.

And yet the myth persists: Greece “cannot survive” outside of the eurozone and EU. And while the lack of production—whether imagined or real—is one of the main arguments used by proponents of remaining in the EU, the lies do not stop there.

Greece wants to stay in the eurozone and EU — or does it?

A man walks past a graffiti made by street artist N_Grams that read ''NO'' in German but also ''YES, IN'' in Greek language in Athens, June 28, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

A man walks past a graffiti made by street artist N_Grams that read ”NO” in German but also ”YES, IN” in Greek language in Athens, June 28, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

One of the most prevalent and recurring myths to come out of crisis-stricken Greece is that despite the austerity measures and cuts that the Greek people have been faced with, the overwhelming majority wishes to remain in the EU “at all costs.”

This exact wording has been used in numerous public opinion polls, such as one published on July 5, 2015, the day of the Greek referendum on whether to accept or reject a new troika-backed austerity proposal. According to this poll, conducted by polling firm GPO on behalf of one of Greece’s most notoriously pro-austerity TV stations, Mega Channel, 74.1 percent of respondents wished to remain in the EU at all costs.

Is this really the case? It is worth considering that in Greece, there are no polling firms which conduct public opinion polls independently. Surveys are conducted on behalf of large media outlets which are, without exception, favorable to the policies of austerity and continued membership in the eurozone and the EU. The polling firms themselves also belong to similarly entrenched interests. The aforementioned GPO, for instance, was co-founded by construction and publishing magnate Christos Kalogritsas, who is said to still maintain a close friendship with GPO’s main shareholder, Takis Theodorikakos.

Further limiting their independence, Greece’s major public opinion polling firms are all recipients of state funding. Between 2010-2013, Kapa Research received 3,126,900 euros, MRB received 877,423 euros, GPO received 395,003 euros, Metron Analysis received 273,574 euros, Marc received 82,650 euros, VPRC received 55,500 euros, and ALCO received 50,677 euros.

Despite this though, the question remains: are the polling results accurate? What has been evident throughout the crisis is that poll results have often been woefully inaccurate. For example, prior to the 2015 referendum, major public opinion polls showed “yes” and “no” in a statistical dead heat. In reality, over 61 percent of voters rejected the EU’s austerity proposal, even if this result was itself overturned by Greece’s subservient SYRIZA-led government, which itself seemingly wishes to keep Greece inside the eurozone and EU “at all costs.”

More evidence can be found from the results of the few relatively independent public opinion polls which have taken place in Greece in recent years. For example, in a pan-European survey conducted by the Gallup International polling firm in December 2014, 52 percent of Greeks favored a return to a domestic currency, while only 32 percent favored remaining in the eurozone. Notably, Gallup International’s respective 2016 end-of-year poll found less than overwhelming support in Greece for remaining in the EU: while 54 percent of respondents stated that in a hypothetical referendum they’d vote to remain, 46 percent would vote to leave.

Furthermore, a March 2015 poll by Bridging Europe—an upstart polling firm which has since openly and unabashedly supported SYRIZA—found that 53 percent of respondents favored a return to a domestic currency. Together, these results contradict polling results which claim that overwhelming majorities of Greeks wish to remain, and at all costs to boot. However, these poll results have never been reported by either the Greek or the international media.

What the mainstream public opinion survey results in Greece aim to accomplish is threefold. First, they seek to impact public opinion in Greece by making it seem like there is such an overwhelming majority in favor of continued EU and eurozone membership that resistance is futile—and the product of “fringe” elements of society. Secondly, it impacts the international media in their reporting on Greece and the crisis, as they regurgitate these poll results without question.

Third, it reinforces the pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity politics enforced by Greece’s current and previous governments, and the respective pro-EU and pro-euro positions of the entirety of the political spectrum that is represented in parliament.

Varoufakis: more blatant lies and pro-EU propaganda

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks during a parliamentary session in Athens, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP/Yannis Liakos)

When concealing inconvenient public opinion survey results isn’t enough, more blatant lies are employed. A characteristic example comes from the statements made by former finance minister and “heroic” celebrity economist Yanis Varoufakis, who in an interview with ABC Radio in Australia in 2015 stated that even if Greece wanted to return to a domestic currency, its printing presses were destroyed in 2000 prior to joining the eurozone. In reality, Greece’s mint is still in operation in the Athens suburb of Holargos and prints euro banknotes today.

In the minds of many Greeks, the old drachma is also associated with crippling inflation and economic instability, a perspective which the major media outlets have done nothing to dispel. Listening to certain Greeks discussing the pre-2002 era, one would think that prior to the euro Greeks must have lived in caves, without electricity, automobiles, or running water—and that such days will swiftly return if Greece dares to depart from the common currency.

Particular fears are expressed about inflation. However, this ignores the fact that from the 1950s through the early 1970s, inflation in “impoverished” Greece hovered at or below 5 percent. In the late 1990s, as Greece prepared to meet Maastricht criteria to join the eurozone, inflation once again fell into the single digits. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, other southern European countries, such as Italy and Spain, also frequently attained double-digit inflation levels similar to those seen in Greece.

When all else fails, stereotypes and collective guilt are employed to great effect. Greece lied in order to enter the eurozone, we are told, and therefore is reaping its just rewards. But as was pointed out in the first installment of this series, other countries such as Spain and Italy performed similar accounting tricks, but no similar calls to “punish” these countries have been heard.

What is heard though, by both the Greek and international media, is that the Greek people “lived beyond their means.” This viewpoint is consistent, whether you consult with the “leftist” Guardian, the right-wing Daily Telegraph, German finance minister-for-life Wolfgang Schäuble, or former EU economy commissioner Ollie Rehn. The head of the Eurogroup—the committee of eurozone finance ministers—and member of Holland’s Labour Party Jeroen Dijsselbloem stated earlier this year that Greeks spent their money on “drinks and women.” In turn, Dutch “eurosceptic” politician Geert Wilders claimed that Greeks spent their money “on souvlaki and ouzo.”

Never mind that Greece’s private sector debt has consistently ranked at the lowest levels among OECD countries and still does today. This has not stopped the Greek media and Greece’s politicians from repeating such claims, ascribing collective blame to the entire populace when it was a small cohort of politicians and crony capitalists who largely benefited from the public spending bonanza and augmentation of Greece’s public debt.

"Swindlers in the euro family:" A controversial cover has come back to haunt Germany's Focus magazine.

“Swindlers in the euro family:” The controversial cover of Germany’s Focus magazine.

Nevertheless, such statements are coupled with heavy doses of racism from Greece’s “European partners.” In 2010, the “reputable” German magazine Der Spiegel published, on its front cover, an image of the goddess Aphrodite, cloaked in a Greek flag, giving the finger to Europe, accompanied by the headline “Swindlers in the euro family.” Two studies, commissioned by the Hans Böckler Foundation and by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, have found that German media coverage of Greece’s crisis has been rife with stereotypes, bias, and superficial reporting.

The Feb. 13, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured a parody of ancient Greek art—now well-concealed on the Internet—displaying an ancient god begging for change. The Telegraph has referred to the crisis in Greece as the “ouzo crisis” while referring to the suffering economies of southern Europe as “Club Med.”

One of the many end results of this constant barrage of disparagement and insults towards the Greek people is that they have become ingrained in the national psyche. A common refrain heard in Greece in reference to anything negative occurring within the country is that “this is who we are.” Greece lied and therefore it must be punished. Greeks lived beyond their means and are now getting their just dues. Greeks were corrupt and “ate it all together,” in the words of ex-politician Theodoros Pangalos, and therefore collectively must share the blame.

Herein lies a paradox: on the one hand, Greeks are consistently ranked as among the unhappiest people in the world. Greece ranked fourth in this year’s Bloomberg misery index, and has been found to be the unhappiest country in Europe by both the Eurobarometer survey and by Gallup International. In such a toxic environment, the prevailing policies of economic austerity, cuts, and privatization are therefore met with tacit acceptance.

Collective guilt has set in for Greece’s supposed sins, and these painful austerity measures—and the misery they bring—are considered an inevitable result of these “sins.” On the other hand, the actors in large part responsible for the austerity that has delivered such misery, such as the EU, continue to receive support from a significant percentage of the population.

As for those who dare to openly speak out against austerity and in opposition to the EU and the eurozone? They are swiftly labeled. A favorite retort in Greece concerns the supposed existence of a “conspiracy of the drachma” in which diaspora Greeks and wealthy Greeks who have moved their money offshore favor a return to the drachma. As this line of thinking goes, these individuals would then move their money back to Greece and take advantage of a sharply devalued local currency, getting wealthier in the process.

Other attacks are simpler, often branding opponents of the prevailing European order as “fascists,” “xenophobes,” “nationalists” and “populists”—the latter two, of course, being rather dirty words in the present-day context.

When insults and labels don’t do the job, fear is effective. According to a European Commission adviser and as reported by Newsweek in 2015, Greece would promptly find itself out of oil and medical supplies once it leaves the eurozone and EU. In the lead-up to the 2015 referendum, both Greek and international media outlets, including the Washington Post—which later replaced the image on this article—circulated untrue and undated photos of supermarket shelves devoid of food. Greece’s Mega Channel broadcast images of senior citizens using ATMs in fear—images which actually were from South Africa.

Greek tabloid newspaper Press Star published a “heartbreaking” photo of an elderly man in tears while holding a solitary loaf of bread—even though the photo was actually from the aftermath of the Istanbul earthquake of 1999. The photo was shamelessly recycled one more time earlier this year, in the aftermath of an earthquake on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Another national TV broadcaster, Antenna TV, reported that in the 2015 referendum, Greeks were choosing between a future “as Europe” or “as Zimbabwe.” The same station, prior to the June 2012 parliamentary elections, circumvented a pre-election freeze on political broadcasts by airing, on the eve of the polls, a “documentary” on the (obviously adverse) impacts of “Grexit,” laughably insinuating that a SYRIZA victory would result in “Grexit.”

Never mind that Greek domestic production and industry have been decimated during the years of EU and eurozone membership. Never mind that the EU allowed for the debt of Greece’s national railway to be waived in order to facilitate its privatization—but refuses to allow the same for Greece’s national debt. Never mind that 92 percent of the “bailouts” (loans) Greece has received during the crisis have gone right back to its lenders. Never mind that even EU monies for major infrastructure projects often went right back to European contractors or consultants, in a process of crony capitalism described by former “economic hitman” John Perkins. Never mind that the austerity regime itself has been found to violate the fundamental human rights of the people of Greece. As the title of part one of this series suggested, for the Greek and international media and a substantial portion of the Greek populace, it is “EU über alles”—Europe or bust—even if Greece is the one that goes bust in the process.

The argument for leaving the eurozone and the EU

Pedestrians pass a poster depicting a map of Greece with the letter E being replaced by Euro symbols in Athens, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Pedestrians pass a poster depicting a map of Greece with the letter E being replaced by Euro symbols in Athens, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

If we truly support and believe in open and robust public debate, then the discussion as to whether Greece (or any other EU member-state) will be better served by departing from the EU or eurozone must be a part of that dialogue. So far, however, it has largely been excluded from the public sphere and from anything resembling equal footing in public discourse—whether that discussion is occurring in the media, in academia, or in the political arena.

Even if one is not a proponent of leaving the eurozone or the EU, the fiscally and politically prudent thing to do would be to have a plan in place for such a possibility. If, for instance, there is a collapse of the Italian banking system—which is presently teetering on the edge—or some other large-scale economic disaster in the eurozone, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a domino effect to impact the entirety of Europe, forcing out some eurozone member states or resulting in the collapse of the eurozone system itself.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following: there are several examples of currency unions breaking apart, such as that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or more recently the cases of the breakup of the Czech-Slovak union or Latvia leaving what was essentially a currency union with Russia in 1992.

While not exactly like the eurozone today, in the 19th and early 20th century, the Latin Monetary Union and the Scandinavian Monetary Union attempted to create a currency peg across multiple countries—which also occurred more recently in the lead-up to the launch of the eurozone via the creation of the European Monetary Union. For different reasons, both monetary unions ended up dissolving, with member-states eliminating currency pegs between them.

More recently, the United Kingdom departed the EMU in 1992 amidst doom-and-gloom scenarios highly similar to those heard today about departing the eurozone. Instead, what followed was one of the strongest periods of economic growth in the UK’s history.

Further precedent exists in the well-known examples of Argentina, which repudiated the IMF’s austerity diktats and declared a stoppage of payments on its public debt in 1999. What followed was over a decade of economic growth which exceeded the global average, and indeed even the eventual repayment of much of its previous debt at new terms that it negotiated with most of its creditors.

Iceland, following its banking collapse in 2008 which was, proportionally, the largest collapse sustained by the banking sector in a developed country in history, enacted policies which were in direct opposition to those being recommended by the IMF. Banks were allowed to collapse, foreign creditors were initially not repaid, bankers were jailed. The economy soon boomed, with GDP growthexceeding EU and eurozone averages and Iceland’s GDP eventually eclipsing pre-collapse levels. Meanwhile, a devalued currency led to a tourism and export boom. Eventually, creditors were repaid as well.

While Iceland and Argentina were not a part of a common currency bloc, their examples highlight how a nation can reject the austerity demands of institutions such as the IMF, can declare a stoppage of payments on its debt, roll back austerity, devalue its currency, and swiftly return to economic growth. Moreover, Argentina broke its 1:1 currency peg to the U.S. dollar — which, while not the equivalent to departing a currency union, had the result of restoring the Argentine government’s ability to enact monetary policy instead of being reliant on U.S. policy.

Therefore, even the most vociferous supporter of “remain” would be well advised to support the development of an exit plan in preparation for a worst-case scenario which may well emerge from outside the country’s borders. Unlike the “heroic” Yanis Varoufakis, who negotiated so fiercely as finance minister in 2015 that he openly stated he had no “plan B” and would not place “Grexit” on the table even as a negotiating tool, such a plan would be the most prudent option even for the most enthusiastically pro-EU regime.

The paragraphs which follow will outline why a country like Greece must consider leaving the eurozone and the EU, the various proposals which have been put forth as to how this could be accomplished, and how a departure could occur.

Why leave?

Protesting hospital staff sit in front of a wall that they built at the entrance of the Greek Finance Ministry with a banner depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Thipras , Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis and Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos wearing ties reading in Greek ''Ministry of broken promises" and " We drown in debt and bailouts" in central Athens. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Protesting hospital staff sit in front of a wall that they built at the entrance of the Greek Finance Ministry with a banner depicting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Thipras , Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis and Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos wearing ties reading in Greek ”Ministry of broken promises” and ” We drown in debt and bailouts” in central Athens, June 16, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

The euro is essentially a debt instrument: According to economist and former central banker Spiros Lavdiotis, the European Central Bank does not lend directly to its members—i.e. the member states of the eurozone. It instead lends to the private sector, at interest. In turn, the private sector lends to states who seek to borrow money, at higher interest. This perpetuates the debt cycle, while the higher interest is often financed in the form of budget cuts or higher taxes.

Restoring monetary sovereignty – external devaluation instead of internal devaluation: What has taken place during the years of the economic crisis in Greece is essentially a process of “internal devaluation.” This means that the cost of labor in Greece—that is, wages, insurance contributions and the like—have been slashed, purportedly in an attempt to boost the country’s competitiveness.

Traditionally, however, many countries have employed a different remedy for responding to an economic downturn: external devaluation. Instead of cutting wages and pensions at home, the value of the national currency would be devalued, immediately making the country’s exports, services, and labor cheaper and more competitive on a global level, compared to other stronger currencies.

External devaluation also helped foster much-vaunted foreign investment (as the cost of investment would decrease) in economic sectors such as tourism, as the country proceeding with an external devaluation would automatically become cheaper for foreign visitors. With domestic wages, pensions, and social services unaffected, quality of life was largely not impacted by an external devaluation.

The main disadvantage with external devaluation is that the cost of imports rises. This, however, was traditionally offset in two ways: paying for imports with foreign hard currency reserves (which can indeed increase if foreign tourism and investment in the economy increases), and by increasing domestic production, where possible, to alleviate the need for imports. This promoted domestic industry and a policy of full employment.

But today, countries such as Greece are saddled with a hard currency that is overvalued for the needs of the domestic economy, and where there is no level of control on monetary policy. If this seems like a mere unfortunate consequence of the euro, think again: Roger Mundell, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and architect of the euro, foresaw precisely this eventuality.

In Mundell’s vision, as eurozone economies were squeezed with the first sign of an economic downturn, all of the traditional monetary policy tools would be unavailable in their policy-making toolkit. Unable to devalue the currency or to increase deficit spending due to EU rules, governments would be left with one choice: austerity. Cut wages, cut pensions, slash social services to the bone. It’s a neoliberal wet dream—and it is the European “dream” today.

Escaping stifling EU fiscal rules: Currently, EU member-states must abide to strict EU fiscal rules as part of its Stability and Growth Pact. The main rules are that total government debt must not be more than 60 percent of GDP, and government deficits must not exceed 3 percent of GDP.

At face value, this sounds reasonable and prudent. However, the problem with these rules is that they eliminate many of the traditional tools that were available in the fiscal policy toolkit during times of economic recession. Deficit spending, for instance, has enabled many sputtering economies to get back on track, as cash re-enters the economy, encouraging consumer and business spending and private lending. Limiting this ability handicaps countries which are stuck in a recession.

Indeed, one of the primary ideas behind such rules is, quite cynically, to reduce the political cost of what would otherwise be unpopular policies: cuts to social services and pensions and the like.

A man stands in front of a banner during an anti-austerity rally by workers in the health sector outside the Labour ministry in Athens, March 2, 2017. Monitors from Greece's European Union creditors and the International Monetary Fund re-launched talks in Athens on Tuesday on the country's stumbling bailout program. The banner reads : "Medical Association of Athens, We demand the immediate withdraw of the pension bill". (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

A man stands in front of a banner during an anti-austerity rally by workers in the health sector outside the Labour ministry in Athens, March 2, 2017. The banner reads : “Medical Association of Athens, We demand the immediate withdraw of the pension bill”. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

It should be noted here that leaving the eurozone or even the EU does not mean an automatic green light to act recklessly. But it will afford a country like Greece the freedom to take control of its fiscal and economic policy. Notably, for Greece, the EU has determined that the aforementioned strict rules do not go far enough. Greece’s current “leftist” SYRIZA-led government, entirely subservient to Brussels and Berlin, agreed earlier this year to achieve a primary budget surplus of 3.5 percent annually each year through 2023, and primary budget surpluses of 2 percent annually through 2060.

This certainly contradicts Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ current rhetoric regarding the official end of the crisis coming sometime in 2018. A primary budget surplus means that the state spends less than it takes in. For a country with a stagnant or shrinking GDP such as Greece, this means spending an ever-shrinking amount of money. And as government revenues dry up, the surplus target is met by further cutting spending, creating a perpetual austerity death spiral. As of now, this is the economic future Greece faces, no matter what Tsipras, the EU, or the media claim.

Increased competitiveness on the global markets: Free of EU fiscal and monetary shackles, Greece will be free to enact its own policy, including future devaluations of its newly-restored domestic currency (more on devaluation below).

When a country such as Greece is ready to take this step and devalue its domestic currency, it will be able to better compete globally in its three cornerstone economic sectors: tourism, agriculture, and shipping. Greece will be a less expensive destination for foreign tourists, while Greek agricultural products and Greek services will be comparatively less expensive. And this will take place via a process of external devaluation, rather than cutting domestic wages and reducing the quality of life.

Greece has an educated and multilingual workforce, as well as lots of untapped or deprecated (due to EU) agricultural potential. Tourism, while increasing in raw numbers, has a lot of potential for growth, especially since average spending per visitor is far less than other countries.

An increase in foreign trade, exports, and tourism will, in turn, ensure that Greece will maintain the necessary foreign hard currency reserves with which it will import vital goods that it cannot produce domestically. This is how the Greek economy operated prior to entering the eurozone in 2002, and it is how even the poorest of states are able to import oil, automobiles, medicine, or other necessities.

Rolling back austerity: Every sector of the Greek economy has been impacted by the austerity measures that have been imposed by Greece’s lenders in the troika since 2010.

Free of a requirement to sustain a primary budget surplus, Greece would have the ability to increase spending in vital social sectors such as healthcare and education, to at least partially restore pensions and salaries that have been repeatedly slashed, and to cut taxes, such as the heating oil tax which has resulted in most Greek households not being able to afford to heat their homes in the winter. Other cuts could be applied to the value-added tax (VAT), which even for many staple items is a hefty 24 percent, as well as high business taxes that are choking the life out of Greece’s traditional economic base of small businesses.

Even without funding coming from the EU, the ability to increase spending could also allow the state to jump-start infrastructure projects or to continue existing public works. Measures could also be financed to reverse the country’s “brain drain” and to attract some of the 600,000 Greeks who have emigrated back to Greece.

Protecting and promoting industry: Free of the requirements of participating in the European common market, a country like Greece will be less exposed to unequal or unfair competition from industrial powerhouses such as Germany, which has flooded domestic markets with cheap imports, while domestic industries have been shuttered or bought out.

Furthermore, liberated from the requirement of enforcing production quotas under such policy frameworks as the EU’s common agricultural policy, Greece will be able to enact measures to return agricultural production to its much higher pre-EU levels, thereby alleviating many of the concerns regarding the country’s self-sufficiency and “dependence” on Europe for its survival.

Think people don’t want it? Think again: As was shown earlier, public opinion poll results which claim that overwhelming majorities of Greeks wish to remain in the eurozone and EU at all costs are likely “fake news”—meant to influence public opinion and marginalize opposition. What independent polls have indicated is that, at the very least, a departure from the EU and, in particular, the eurozone will not be nearly as unpopular as claimed—and may perhaps even enjoy the support of a small majority.

Leaving the “Hotel California”?

Yanis Varoufakis has famously uttered that the EU (and by extension, the Eurozone) are like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. It’s one thing, of course, to understand why a country like Greece—and its economy—may be at a disadvantage within the Eurozone and the EU. It’s another thing, however, to actually leave these institutions.

In the next and final installment of this piece, it is the very process of leaving that will be analyzed. Contrary to a commonly-expressed sentiment that no coherent plan for a country to depart from the Eurozone has ever been presented, the third and final part of this series will present some of the proposals that have been developed by economists and scholars for an orderly departure from the Eurozone–and how some of the challenges and obstacles, which will inevitably be faced, may be overcome.