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.

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.

Nov 092017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

People carry a large Puerto Rican flag as they protest looming austerity measures amid an economic crisis and demand an audit on the island's debt to identify those responsible, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, May 1, 2017. Puerto Rico is preparing to cut public employee benefits, increase tax revenue, hike water rates and privatize government operations, among other things. (AP Photo/Danica Coto)

People carry a large Puerto Rican flag as they protest looming austerity measures amid an economic crisis and demand an audit on the island’s debt to identify those responsible, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, May 1, 2017. Puerto Rico is preparing to cut public employee benefits, increase tax revenue, hike water rates and privatize government operations, among other things. (AP Photo/Danica Coto)

Part of the problem with the colonized mentality is that the one who is colonized begins to believe the lies that have been told by the colonizer: that we are inferior, we are backward, that we would be poor, that we would have no hope if it were not for a more developed, more civilized, more powerful entity.

ATHENS, GREECE and LAS PIEDRAS, PUERTO RICO – Until recently, the similarities were stunning. Puerto Rico, mired in a deep economic crisis for the past decade, has often been dubbed “The Greece of the Caribbean.” While there are a great many similarities in the “debt crises” both Greece and Puerto Rico have been experiencing, this superficial description hid a deeper truth: that colonial Puerto Rico, under the control of Washington and a Washington-imposed “fiscal control board” or “junta,” strongly resembles neocolonial Greece, under the thumb of the “troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), on many levels above and beyond the economic difficulties both nations are experiencing.

This all changed after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. While the hurricane itself left a trail of destruction all across the island, the real catastrophe is the perfect storm of colonialism, bureaucracy, cronyism, and disaster capitalism that has followed. Almost two months after the hurricane, much of Puerto Rico remains without access to electricity, water, or telephone and internet service.

As the humanitarian crisis on the island continues to deepen, Puerto Rico’s colonial governing regime, and its U.S.-imposed “fiscal review board,” could be accused of sabotaging recovery efforts on behalf of monied interests.

Déborah Berman-Santana is a retired professor of geography and ethnic studies at Mills College in Oakland, California. Now permanently residing in Puerto Rico, she was fortunate enough to be in Greece when Hurricane Maria struck the island. Part One of the interview with Berman-Santana that follows was recorded in Athens in early September and broadcast on Dialogos Radio.

It largely focuses on the colonial similarities between Puerto Rico and the nominally independent country of Greece. Part Two of this interview occurred with Berman-Santana safely back in Puerto Rico, describing the destruction Hurricane Maria left behind and how recovery efforts are actively being stymied by colonial and U.S. authorities.

MPN: Puerto Rico has been facing a severe economic assault across multiple fronts. Just as Greece has the so-called troika, Puerto Rico has the so-called junta, which of course is also a historically loaded word in Greece. Describe the austerity measures and cuts and reforms that the junta has been imposing, or attempting to impose, in Puerto Rico.

DBS: The United States Congress imposed a fiscal control board, which in Spanish is “junta de control fiscal.” It has been in place for a year. Basically, when they do not approve of something in the Puerto Rican government’s budget, they say no, this is not acceptable, you need to cut this, this, this, and this.

They do not necessarily have information on how best to operate — for example with the university, the public university of Puerto Rico, they want massive cuts. They do not even have information on the university, they have not asked for information to see if there must be cuts, where might be the best place to cut. It’s just basically taking a machete and chopping it up. However, they have also increased the budget for themselves.

A protester holds a sign that reads in Spanish, “We didn't take out a loan. We didn't see a dime. We're not going to pay” during a protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 15, 2015.

A protester holds a sign that reads in Spanish, “We didn’t take out a loan. We didn’t see a dime. We’re not going to pay” during a protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 15, 2015.

The U.S. Congress bill, the PROMESA bill that we talked about last year, directed Puerto Rico to pay $2 million per month for the expense of the junta. The new budget the junta inserted said that they must be paid $5 million per month! And of course they use this for all their expenses; they use this to hire dozens of contractors for publicity, for legal fees, for lobbying, for who knows what. These are all their friends.

They have also created a new entity, which is basically in charge of seeing how we can privatize and sell off public resources. I believe that [German finance minister] Schauble, last year or two years ago, created some fund in Greece, basically the privatization fund. Well, this is basically what they inserted into our budget just now. And of course, they’re saying that the pensions must be slashed and there must be more furloughs of public workers.

The government of Puerto Rico is going through a theater; they’re saying “oh, we’re not going to cut.” We all know that the government of Puerto Rico is not going to really fight this. This is just a theater so that their supporters think that it is fighting the junta.

MPN: A big issue during the hurricane, of course, is the proposed privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy utility. How have the junta and proponents of privatization attempted to use the hurricane and its aftermath to make a case for the privatization of the electric company?

DBS: Interestingly, the case was actually made before [Hurricane Irma], for years now. Also, the government lackeys who are the managers of the [energy] authority — not the actual workers of course — have been cutting and cutting and cutting and not re-hiring and re-training enough people to work, and trying to get contractors to work for less money. And so, the infrastructure has been deteriorating — and of course, when people get upset, they say that it’s because it’s public and if it were privatized if we had more competition, it would work out better.

The interesting thing is that the only reason we are recovering much more quickly [from Hurricane Irma] is that [the privatization argument] is a complete lie. For example, before the hurricane hit, the government head of the [energy] authority said that it can take five to six months before we can put [the grid] together because the electric energy authority is so bad.

Well, here we are a week later, almost all of Puerto Rico is back online. San Juan is, interestingly, not completely, although the mountain towns are, and the union of workers are claiming that they are being deliberately impeded from finishing in San Juan, so that people will still be angry and demand privatization.

This is the most militant union in Puerto Rico, and they’re wonderful. They are really our best union that’s left, and they’re of course “left.” They’re working 16-hour shifts — unbelievable photos if you saw them — and they are working, doing heroic things to get Puerto Rico back online. So the interesting thing is, Irma has actually not been good for the arguments for privatization.

MPN: Just as in Greece, Puerto Rico is being sold the promise of foreign investment and large-scale, critical infrastructure projects that supposedly are meant to foster economic growth and development and recovery on the island. What sorts of projects are being proposed and what would their actual impact likely be?

DBS: Part of the PROMESA bill is for “critical infrastructure energy projects,” not for the distribution infrastructure but for [combustible] energy — gas or coal. That’s not what we actually need. If they actually wanted to do something, maintenance, and reconstruction of the transmission infrastructure, that might be helpful — but that’s not where the money is, that’s not where the profits are.

The critical-infrastructure energy projects basically say “we want to streamline the permitting process.” There are many processes — of course, we are a colony of the United States, so we have their laws and ours; and the process of permits takes years for any massive project because there are the environmental issues, there are land use issues, there are public hearings you have to do. They want to streamline it to, I think, 90 days — which means that we have a project and we don’t want to tell the public, we want to get it done as quickly as possible. Also because they want to avoid protests.

For example, the popular protests have stopped two projects for gas ducts. This is over the past years, not just now. These would be gas lines that they would start from natural gas [fields] in the south and they would blast through the mountains — remember that Puerto Rico is very mountainous — and go to the northern side where San Juan is. We have had civil disobedience; we have had legal teams basically challenge these in the courts; we’ve prepared testimony for all the public hearings. Well, they want to bring [the pipeline proposals] back, but without the public hearings, and the local government has passed laws to criminalize civil disobedience.

So this is how they intend to do this: they have an energy-generating project, burning garbage to create energy, and we don’t even have enough garbage! And they don’t say this, but what the project really is, is to burn the garbage [from] all around the Caribbean. But of course, it doesn’t matter what happens to us because they’d like us to emigrate anyway.

We have managed to stop it, but they have just contracted a coordinator of the critical energy projects. He is a Puerto Rican-born — I’m not going to say he’s Puerto Rican — U.S. military man whom they’re going to put in charge of putting this together. I have seen him interviewed several times. He knows nothing! He is completely ignorant —  he is just there to facilitate this [project], the gas ducts.

I am sure they have other things that they are planning, things that they have tried to do before that they could not do because of protests. If they get rid of the protesters, then they can just shove it all through. Of course, gas projects, coal projects, maybe mining. We have copper, we stopped the copper mining plans 20 to 30 years ago. Maybe that’s coming back again.

MPN: Recent big news in Greece is the sudden departure of Canadian mining firm Eldorado Gold from the Skouries gold mine in northern Greece (since postponed), which has been a hotbed of activist activity in recent years, owing to its environmental impact and dubious economic benefits, despite its being described as the biggest foreign investment in Greece. We are seeing something similar in Puerto Rico, with the controversy over a privately-owned coal-powered plant and the dumping of the coal ash from this plant. Tell us about this issue.

DBS: Even though our electric energy authority is public, we do have a few private plants, and of course some of the energy-generating implements are private. For example, we do have a couple of projects of windmills from Siemens. They’re looking at Puerto Rico, I guess, as Greece in the Caribbean.

In the 1990s, Applied Energy Systems (AES), which is a multinational corporation based in the United States, proposed a “clean coal” plant in Puerto Rico that was supposed to give more energy generation capacity for Puerto Rico. And of course there’s a myth that Puerto Rico does not have enough energy-generating capacity, and that is [supposedly] why our energy bills are so high. So that was their argument.

I actually participated in the campaign to stop it from getting built. So what they did — this was on the south coast — was to bring the local community to one of their clean-looking plants in the United States, and they took them out and basically told them we’ll give you many jobs and it’s very clean and you shouldn’t listen to these “radicals,” like me, who don’t even live in your community, since they’re against everything.

So they finally did get the permits to build, because they promised that they would not dump the coal ash in Puerto Rico. They finally built it — starting in 2004 — and they were dumping the coal ash in the Dominican Republic. What happened in the Dominican Republic, people started getting sick and launched a campaign against AES. There was a trial, they had a settlement, and part of the settlement is that they would stop dumping in the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, they have other types of plants; they don’t have coal plants. But they still had the contract [which said] they could not dump in Puerto Rico. So there were some illegal dumps.

A coal ash mountain, part of the AES Guayama plant in Puerto Rico. (Photo: CPI file photo)

A coal ash mountain, part of the AES Guayama plant in Puerto Rico. (Photo: CPI file photo)

Finally, they also had another idea — that they would take some of the ash, you put water on it and it becomes something called “agrimax,” and you can use that as a building material, and they built roads in Puerto Rico, they built homes in Puerto Rico. This is the asbestos of the 21st century. [Agrimax has been used] in many, many communities, mainly in the south of Puerto Rico, and San Juan is in the north. In San Juan [the prevailing attitude] is, what happens in the provinces stays in the provinces.

So in 2014, the government of Puerto Rico did a secret amendment to the contract, which allowed AES to dump the ashes in two of the landfills in Puerto Rico. One of them is actually not far from where I live, and the other one is in Peñuelas [in the south], in an area where we had the old petrochemical complexes, still dealing with a legacy of pollution.

So they filled up the one near where I live and they couldn’t dump there anymore for a while. They started dumping in 2015 in the one in Peñuelas, but that community has been dealing with the legacy of contamination for many years, and they started the protest camps, they started doing civil disobedience. It became an issue. With this government, the government agreed because there was a lot of pressure, and we’ve had a lot of arrests, a lot of civil disobedience.

[Recently] there was a trial, in San Juan, of the last group of people arrested there. At this point, the government of Puerto Rico had said we’re going to pass a law that prohibits the dumping of the ash, but they inserted a little amendment at the last minute, written by the company, that said that the ash is only what’s dry. If you put water on it, it becomes Agrimax. And so, they started again with the dumping. They’ve had to dump at night with four hundred police [officers] to protect them, and there are still people protesting, so this is a big deal.

Of course, they couldn’t do anything during [Hurricane Irma]. We found out that they did not even bother to cover the mountain of ash that they have next to the plant. Who knows where this ash is right now. It’s everywhere! And so the struggle continues. That is the story, and they’ve also said “Oh, you need our generating capacity,” because they have a plant. But they only generate maybe 11 percent of what we need.

They close every time there’s a problem. The public plants never close. We don’t even need their plant because Puerto Rico has twice the generating capacity that it needs, and if we maintained everything we would never need them. In fact, we don’t need them now.

MPN: In yet another similarity with contemporary Greece — where there is an activist movement that has sprung up surrounding the case of a student by the name of Irianna, who is facing charges under Greece’s anti-terror laws for participation in a terror group — in Puerto Rico there is the case of political prisoner Nina Droz. Why has she been imprisoned and what in your view are the similarities with the Irianna case?

DBS: I think the main similarity has to do with using a test case to see if you can turn the public against such a person — and also to scare people, to make them afraid to protest. Specifically in the case of Nina Droz, [she] was not really involved in any organized critical activism; she’s a student, a model, teaches also. She is a party girl, lots of tattoos, so there could be a lot of prejudice against her because of how she looks.

[On] May 1, we had a massive demonstration in Puerto Rico against the junta, against austerity, and, for most of us, against the [colonial status], because some of us know that the real problem is not the junta. The problem is that we’re a colony.

It was a massive protest. On one side there was a group of masked students or masked people — who knows who they were! — all dressed in black. Many of the banks were actually boarded up and protected, except for our most important bank, Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. The nephew of the head of Banco Popular is the president of the junta, to give you an idea. They did not cover up their windows, and there was a moment where all the police withdrew, and there was a group of people in masks who broke the windows. No police around.

According to some of the TV coverage and some photos, there was a young woman who has since been identified as Nina [Droz] who was with an unidentified masked man. They are on the sidewalk next to one of the windows that’s been busted. It looks like perhaps they’re trying to light a piece of paper, and nothing happens.

But one of her feet is inside the bank, and based on that, the U.S. federal government says—there were some other people arrested but they were processed in the Puerto Rican system—they said Nina is in the U.S. system, because she is inside the bank and the bank is involved in interstate commerce and it’s [covered under federal law]. So she has been charged in the media and by the federal court with conspiracy, attempted terrorism, for trying to “blow up” this building with a little piece of paper which may or may not have had some fire on it.

[As of the time of this interview], Nina has not had a trial. She was assigned a federal defense attorney, a public attorney. There is a gag law against her attorney, so they cannot respond to anything in the media, and she’s been demonized in the media. She is in the federal holding court — she originally pled not guilty to all charges. After about two months she agreed to a plea deal to conspiracy, which is very vague, in exchange for reduced time.

Alejandra "Nina" Droz Franco, 37, pleaded guilty to "conspiring to commit an offense against the United States," during the May 1 protest, she is accused of trying to set fire to a building that housed Banco Popular and other interstate businesses. (Josian E. Bruno Gómez/EL VOCERO)

Alejandra “Nina” Droz Franco, 37, pleaded guilty to “conspiring to commit an offense against the United States,” during the May 1 protest, she is accused of trying to set fire to a building that housed Banco Popular and other interstate businesses.
(Josian E. Bruno Gómez/EL VOCERO)

But she still [as of the time of this interview] has not been sentenced, and there have been issues such as, for example, her birthday. Some of us were going to [organize] something outside the prison with a sign, “Happy Birthday,” just a little thing, and the prisoners can normally see that. Right before that, there was some “infraction,” who knows what, and they put her in solitary, and she was in solitary for almost a month. She was not given the reasons for it — because there’s a process, everything was delayed — and now they say she cannot even have visitors, not even her mother, if you can imagine that.

The sentencing [was] supposed to be at the end of October, and even the prosecutor has suggested two years [imprisonment]; her attorneys have suggested one year, but the judge could give her more. You never know what can happen. Evidently, she is not as obedient as they’d like, and she has complained about things, and the only reason we know anything about what’s happened is that she can send and receive letters. I myself have received a letter from her. And, there is a friend who is an attorney — not her attorney but able to visit her and able to talk a little bit about the situation, with a lot of care. She’s very careful.

Actually, I’ve talked to [theattorney] before I came here [to Greece] to discuss what she thought I could talk about here in Greece. So when I heard about the Irianna case, it struck me — I know there are differences, but it nevertheless struck me — that the system criminalized her for supposed associations, alleged associations that may or may not be true. And it used these charges to justify a very long sentence for a young woman who basically, if she has to serve a whole sentence, it’s a terrible thing. The same thing with Nina [Droz].

Nina, her letter is wonderful to read; it made me cry when I received it, and she says:

We should never be afraid to speak up for justice, to speak up for what’s right, and to give a voice to those who have no voice, and you can count on me to give my voice until the end of my days.”

So I just wanted to share that. People are writing to her and we want her to know that she’s not alone. This is a little different situation from some of our early political prisoners, who spent many years in organizations and they had a very strong political formation which enabled them to survive many years in prison. Nina doesn’t have that background, but she’s one of us.

MPN: Continuing this theme of parallels between Greece and Puerto Rico, in Greece the current U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt was until recently the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. In Puerto Rico, an individual by the name of Natalie Jaresko, who herself attained infamy in Ukraine, is now the executive director of the junta in Puerto Rico. What is Jaresko’s background and what is her role now in Puerto Rico?

DBS: Natalie Jaresko was born in Chicago of Ukrainian parents. She has a graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago, which is infamous for its economics department, widely views as the birthplace of neoliberal economic theory. She has worked in the State Department, she has worked with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], and we think she is a CIA asset. She’s also a fellow at the Aspen Institute, and you can even see pictures of her with “Open Ukraine” behind her — and that may ring some bells to some people, anything that’s “Open Society.”

She is definitely accused of enriching her own company in Ukraine from the privatization and sale of the telecommunications network there. She was only there for a couple of years. They gave her Ukrainian citizenship, I think, within one day. She was named to be the finance minister right after the coup, so she was basically put in as Ukraine’s finance minister by the United States, and the little minor detail that she wasn’t a Ukrainian citizen [was overlooked], so they gave her Ukrainian citizenship.

Natalie Jaresko, executive director, with the financial oversight and management board for Puerto Rico, speaks during a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing to examine challenges in Puerto Rico's recovery and the role of the financial oversight and management board, on Capitol Hill, Nov. 7, 2017 in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Natalie Jaresko, executive director, with the financial oversight and management board for Puerto Rico, speaks during a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing to examine challenges in Puerto Rico’s recovery and the role of the financial oversight and management board, on Capitol Hill, Nov. 7, 2017 in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Natalie Jaresko, she still goes back and forth to Ukraine, and part of her contract with Puerto Rico is we pay for business-class trips once a month from Puerto Rico to Ukraine. She was named by the junta to be the executive director. She is of Ukrainian background so she at least speaks Ukrainian, but she knows nothing about Puerto Rico — zero. She is there to do the same thing or worse in Puerto Rico as she did in Ukraine.

When I write about her, I always say Natalie “Carnicera de Ukrania” Jaresko — that’s Natalie “Butcher of the Ukraine” Jaresko. I just have to give you some of the terms of her contract. Her annual salary, which we are paying for, [is] $625,000 a year. That is more than $200,000 more than the president of the United States earns. And she has all of her expenses [paid for]; she has a private suite in a luxury hotel; she has an entire security detail and all of her communications, and she has her nice business trips to the Ukraine and anywhere else she wants to go.

In exchange for that, she comes in and says well, you need to cut and slash — for example, the university budget: the University of Puerto Rico needs to be more like the United States’ public universities. In other words, we should slash the government’s share of the budget to the university and students should all go into debt and become debt slaves, like they are in the United States. It’s [currently] relatively inexpensive.

The University of Puerto Rico is an excellent, excellent university. It is the best university system [on Puerto Rico], with 11 campuses (of course, they want to slash, cut all the campuses, maybe two or three left). Much better than the private universities, and it is the vehicle for people — the best students in Puerto Rico, especially if they’re poor — to get an education and to contribute to the future of Puerto Rico. They’re an incredible resource, and it is also a very militant university.

The students have had many strikes. They had one a few months ago — they shut it down for two months, and the issue was the cuts. It was interesting, they actually had a personal meeting with the junta, face-to-face, that lasted all day, which is something that the government of Puerto Rico has not even had. The students managed to do that and actually had a list of demands, none of which have been fulfilled, but just to give you an idea.

Natalie Jaresko has also said that I am here to help Puerto Rico, you need to listen to me, I’m going to cut everything. By the way, the government of Puerto Rico said we are not going to hurt the most vulnerable. Of course, they never identify who are the most vulnerable. The PROMESA bill says “essential services” must be protected. Of course, they are never defined, what “essential services” are.

They also have hired a special security detail and they are lobbying to expand the new criminalization law to further criminalize protests against the junta. So this should give you an idea of what the “Butcher of the Ukraine” wants to do in Puerto Rico.

MPN: Let’s turn now to the hot-button issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. A few months ago we saw a nonbinding referendum on statehood take place — an issue that, from what I understand, remains extremely divisive in Puerto Rico and parallels the debate that we see in Greece regarding continued membership in the European Union. Describe for us the current state of affairs regarding the island’s political status and the political divisions in Puerto Rico.

DBS: As I have noted in speaking with you before and have published before, Puerto Rico is a colony, is an “unincorporated territory belonging to but not part of the United States.” That is its official designation according to the U.S. Supreme Court. We do not even have the limited sovereignty of a Native American tribe, just to give you an example. In the United Nations, we’ve been trying for many years to get the issue [of Puerto Rico’s colonial status] on the agenda of the General Assembly, but have not managed to do so.

It has been extremely divisive because the advocacy of independence has been demonized and criminalized for many, many years in Puerto Rico. There have been many, many imprisonments; there have been many deaths; there have been many disappearances, many people who were unable to find work. And so, many people, most people in Puerto Rico are either very afraid of [independence], or they believe we have no chance, we need to depend on the United States. Most Puerto Ricans are not quite knowledgeable about our own history.

A woman photographs a burning U.S. flag set on fire during protesters in favor of Puerto Rico's independence after a referendum was held on the island's status in the financial district, known as the golden mile, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, June 11, 2017. The U.S. territory overwhelmingly chose statehood on Sunday in a non-binding referendum held amid a deep economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of islanders to the U.S. mainland. Voter turnout was just 23 percent. (AP/Carlos Giusti)

A woman photographs a burning U.S. flag set on fire during protesters in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence in San Juan, Puerto Rico, June 11, 2017. (AP/Carlos Giusti)

At the present time, one of the major parties is a party that says our current status is okay if we can increase our autonomy. The other major party, which is currently in power, says no, we need equality, we need to become a state, the 51st state of the United States. And then there’s a smaller party and many people who do not vote at all, who say that without independence we cannot even begin to have this conversation because we don’t have control over our own affairs.

Puerto Rico has had five referendums since the 1960s about our political status. None of them was binding. The U.S. Congress has never committed to respecting the results. The last one was in June, and I actually wrote an article that was published in Greece in March, highlighting the interesting thing about that particular proposal, that there would be only two options: one was statehood, and the other was some kind of sovereignty.

Now, that’s kind of a loaded term, not always understood, but many independence supporters thought that this might be an opportunity, if we can actually have a very good showing of people who reject statehood and want some kind of sovereignty, then we might be able to push something. So many people who don’t even ordinarily vote were going to register.

Well, at that point the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, said to the governor of Puerto Rico that in order to have this referendum, you also need to include the current status. Now this is a referendum for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, that’s the name of it, and he said one of the options has to be to remain a colony. So one of your options to “decolonize” is to stay the way you are. The government said okay! And with that, all of the pro-independence, pro-sovereignty people said forget it, we’re boycotting. Then the other major party, the one that wants the current status with autonomy, also boycotted.

You had, in June, only one party [that] was represented, the pro-statehood party. No more than 23 percent of the voters even voted — and, because there was no oversight by the other parties, it may have been even less than 23 percent. Ninety-seven percent of voters voted in favor of statehood.

With that, the government went to Congress and said “97 percent of the voters want statehood.” They were completely ignored! Then they chose seven people and said “here are our Congressmen and we’re sending them anyway,” and they’re completely ignored, but they’re spending Puerto Rican public money that we supposedly don’t have, and they’re all sitting in Washington.

I’m not sure what they’re doing there, probably eating well and staying at a nice hotel, but Congress is completely ignoring them. They said “we’re going to meet with President Trump.” As far as I know there’s been no meeting. So we have not solved any problem — everything is exactly the way it was, except they spent $10 million of money that we don’t have on the stupid referendum.

MPN: Within this context of the broader economic crisis that Puerto Rico is experiencing, has the independence movement been able to gain any traction?

DBS: That’s always an interesting question. It’s not really easy to answer. One of the problems is that the independence movement, the left in general, is extremely divided. We have many, many little groups. People spend a lot of time, for example, on Facebook attacking each other. It’s very tiring. Sometimes when we have a meeting or protest people do show up together.

The interesting thing is, it’s not easy to say if we have support for independence or more support for independence. What I can say is, maybe there is more understanding that the United States is not going to help us — as if they ever did — that perhaps we need to figure out some way of not waiting for them to “rescue” us or to give us more power or to give us statehood.

A woman holds a sign up to police that reads in Spanish "The people are awake. Today we'll make history" during a May Day protest against looming austerity measures amid an economic crisis and demanding an audit on the island's debt to identify those responsible in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 1, 2017. Puerto Rico is preparing to cut public employee benefits, increase tax revenue, hike water rates and privatize government operations, among other things. (AP/Danica Coto)

A woman holds a sign up to police that reads in Spanish “The people are awake. Today we’ll make history” during a May Day protest against looming austerity measures amid an economic crisis and demanding an audit on the island’s debt to identify those responsible in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 1, 2017. Puerto Rico is preparing to cut public employee benefits, increase tax revenue, hike water rates and privatize government operations, among other things. (AP/Danica Coto)

The other thing is, because of what’s visibly happening in the United States — it’s always been happening, but the visible attacks, the visible oppression that is now getting a lot of media attention throughout the world — people are starting to believe that well, even if we became a state, we’re still Spanish-speaking, we’re still to a large extent of African descent.

How is it for the Blacks and the Latinos who live in the United States? They have statehood, do they have equality? So it’s beginning to open up things a little more.

The problem that we had is a question of getting rid of our own colonized mentalities, our colonized minds. I think that’s probably our biggest challenge. And to not just speak to ourselves, the people on the left, but to speak to our neighbors, to talk about this, and I constantly am talking to many of my neighbors, none of whom are independence activists, but they always want to ask me what I think about what’s going on.

MPN: One of the biggest stories of the past few months in Puerto Rico is the release of Oscar López Rivera, who was imprisoned in the United States for 34 years and was granted clemency by President Obama in the last days of his administration. Oscar is now back in Puerto Rico. What has the response to his release and repatriation been and what has he been doing since his release?

DBS: Oscar is now physically free — he has been spiritually free for a very long time, freer than many people I know, but he has been physically free, without restrictions, since the 17th of May. There has been a tremendous, overwhelming response among Puerto Ricans to his release, to basically being around. To be around him — I’ve been around a lot of political prisoners, and many of them, it takes a long time to adjust. His adjustment — he may have some adjusting to do that you don’t see, but you meet him in person, the smile, the hugs, he is very, very physical with everyone, for very good reasons.

He is constantly talking about unity, he is talking constantly about the decolonized mind, he is constantly asked to speak. So he has been not only speaking at many activities in Puerto Rico, but also elsewhere,  for example in the United States. He wants to thank communities all around the world for supporting him and for campaigning for him, so he’s been in many, many activities

Puerto Rico's activists show a picture of independence fighter Oscar López Rivera, center, jailed in the United States, during an event celebrating Revolution Day in Santiago, Cuba, Sunday, July 26, 2015. Cuba marks the 62st anniversary of the July 26, 1953 rebel attack led by Fidel and Raul Castro on the Moncada military barracks. The attack is considered the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution that culminated with dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Puerto Rico’s activists show a picture of independence fighter Oscar López Rivera, center, at the time, jailed in the United States, during an event celebrating Revolution Day in Santiago, Cuba, Sunday, July 26, 2015. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)

He also went to Nicaragua, was at a conference, and President [Daniel] Ortega gave him the highest recognition of Nicaragua. He is scheduled to visit Cuba in November, and of course they were very, very active in working for his release, as well as release of earlier prisoners. So he is making a lot of the rounds still.

His plan, actually, is trying to set up a foundation to give him a little bit of [financial] independence, so that he can work in Puerto Rico. He was a community organizer before his imprisonment. He wants to do it in Puerto Rico, and he says he specifically wants to work on community-based alternatives, which already exist, but to unify them. He wants to unify the various activists, unify the people of Puerto Rico, speak to the people who are not necessarily activists and to break through this division that we have. He has the stature to force people to at least listen.

I can’t wait — I mean, some of us are a little impatient, we want to do this already, but he’s still speaking on many occasions. Sometimes it’s difficult to contact him — he has some people helping him because he will never say no to anybody, so some of the people who are helping him are trying to shield him a little bit. It’s a little bit of a coming out process, so to speak.

MPN: A famous quote from Oscar López Rivera concerns the struggle for independence and the anti-colonial struggle, which according to Oscar, begins with the decolonization of the mind. How are his words relevant in the present day, both for Puerto Rico and also for Greece, even if the country is nominally independent?

I think part of the problem with the colonized mentality is that the one who is colonized begins to believe the lies that have been told by the colonizer: that we are inferior, we are backward, that we would be poor, that we would have no hope if it were not for a more developed, more civilized, more powerful entity — for example, the United States, and in parallel, Northern Europe and Germany for the European Union. That we need to be developed, we need to be more advanced, we need to be more like them and less like the Global South.

I mean, Puerto Rico is without a doubt part of the Global South. But you get that idea, that we need for them to help us because we cannot help ourselves. We should not depend on ourselves because look how advanced they are, how happy they look, how well off they are, even if it’s not true. And if we believe that, it’s very difficult to do any of this. We won’t believe that we can make decisions on our own. We won’t demand our sovereignty, because we will think that we’re not capable of making those decisions by ourselves.

For many years we were told that if we were independent, Puerto Rico would be like Haiti. That, of course, completely ignores that Haiti, although nominally independent, is under military occupation, which benefits a very small oligarchy and keeps everyone else poor. If Haiti really could take sovereignty for itself, you would see a different Haiti. But that’s what they say to us.

There’s also the issue of our not being a European people — we have some European ancestry from the colonizers, but we are mainly not a European people. We are a Latin American-Caribbean-African-indigenous people with a very long history. We didn’t start our history when Columbus came. We have a history that goes back 7,000 years, and we have a lot of information about it. So we could draw on that and also our own history as Latin American people.

We’re in a lot of isolation. Everyone knows about the blockade the United States has against Cuba, but we have one also [the Jones Act]. It’s different, it’s very difficult for us to have direct contact, direct trade with the rest of the world. We have to do everything through the United States. And so we’re isolated.

I’ve heard many people in Greece say “I don’t know this story, why haven’t I ever heard this story?” I respond that you haven’t heard this story because it’s a blockaded story, it’s blockaded history. It’s one of the reasons that I’m here [in Greece]. And I think that the colonized mind is our biggest obstacle. I have seen that when we work together and we fight against the oppressor, the oppressor cannot stand against that. So that’s our biggest problem — I think it’s a bigger problem than U.S. military might or anything else that they can threaten us with.

MPN: The anti-colonial and independence movements that we’ve seen across the world, including those of the 1960s and 1970s, were by and large nationalist movements. Today though, we see arguments from many who associate nationalism with fascism, with racism, with xenophobia. How do you view the issue? Do you believe nationalism can be compatible with internationalism and a more cooperative worldview?

DBS: This is a very interesting question. I’ve had this conversation with many people. I know that in people there is a specific historical context of nationalism and fascism. I understand that. But the interesting thing, particularly in Latin America, is that the issue of nationalism has to do with national sovereignty, of controlling our own destiny, making our own decisions and not allowing the imperialists or neo-imperialists to make those decisions — whether it’s a European power or whether it’s the United States or whether it’s another country.

So in the context of Latin America, there is a nationalism that is called “anti-imperialist nationalism.” There is a tremendous amount of literature. It is not a nationalism that says we are better than everyone and we want to control others. We want to control ourselves.

Pro-independence demonstrators march demanding the release of political prisoners in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, June 14, 2011. Obama's trip marks the first visit to Puerto Rico by a sitting U.S. President since John F. Kennedy's 1961 visit. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Pro-independence demonstrators march demanding the release of political prisoners in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, June 14, 2011. Obama’s trip marks the first visit to Puerto Rico by a sitting U.S. President since John F. Kennedy’s 1961 visit. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Puerto Rico has had a very long history with the Nationalist Party. It’s very small right now, not very active. It was tremendously repressed. Our great martyr, Dr. Albizu Campos, was martyred, really, literally. He was the leader of the Nationalist Party. His politics, his economics, you could say were social democrat, more or less. But one of the main leaders was also Juan Antonio Corretjer, who was a communist. There are some revisionist historians who want to say that he was fascist, [but] there is no evidence for that.

I just want to share something very interesting: only a few months ago I was in Cuba, and we had this conversation because I had my conversations in Greece in mind when we had this conversation [in Cuba]. The people with whom I was talking said:

Of course, you will never find people more nationalist than Cubans. We love our country. We want to keep our culture. We want to defend our country against outside control, but we are internationalists. We want other countries to be able to defend their own sovereignty as well. We want to have relationships of mutual respect.”

And that, for them, is nationalism. And they also said, we understand there is a different history in Europe, but I think we need to rescue this word.

Now I am seeing with the very open racist attacks in the United States, I have heard some European friends say “oh, fascism is coming to the United States.” I say “No, that’s not it exactly. You’re seeing white supremacy, which is the founding principle of the United States, because it’s a European settler-colonizer regime that destroyed many indigenous nations and it maintains power through white supremacy.”

That’s not necessarily the same as fascism, and I believe the word “fascist” is thrown around a lot, but we are not talking about the actual alliance of the state and the private industry and the oligarchy. That seems to be lost a little bit.

So that’s a conversation that I think is very important also in Puerto Rico, because sometimes there are people who have read a lot of literature from Europe and they start saying “I don’t care about independence because it’s nationalist, I care more about socialism,” and I say “okay, but if we’re not independent, how are we going to be socialist? As a colony or as a state of the United States, are you expecting to be socialist? Are you expecting the communist ideal this way?” It’s less likely, I would say, and so I think it’s important to have this conversation in Greece as well.

MPN: This is the third consecutive year that you have visited Greece. What has brought you back to Greece for the third time, and where will you be speaking?

DBS: I’m very happy that I [was] invited back to speak at the Resistance Festival, which [occurred on the] 29th and the 30th of September at the Fine Arts School [in Athens]. I’m very, very happy to be working together with Dromos tis Aristeras, the wonderful weekly which I’ve also been able to send some updates on Puerto Rico and which was very, very active in the campaign to free Oscar.

I have a lifelong interest in and affinity with Greece. I even have some Greek ancestry — this is going way back. but it’s been a lifelong interest, a lifelong appreciation of the popular culture, the music And of course, with the issue of the austerity, with the resistance, and what’s happened with the troika, I immediately saw the similarities with what was happening in Puerto Rico.

And then they started calling Puerto Rico “the Greece of the Caribbean.” It’s a very superficial way that it’s used in the news, but there is a deeper truth there. Sometimes in my writings, I’ve talked about Greece as the “Puerto Rico of the Mediterranean,” because I think that we can learn from each other.

I’m hoping to increase the solidarity, increase learning about each other. At first, it was really just me, I kind of had this idea; now there is starting to be more interest. There are a couple of organizations in Puerto Rico that have contacted me to try to bring some people to speak from Greece, and there is more interest here. There are a number of different organizations [here] that are now trying to make contact with me.

I am open to speaking anywhere, with anyone, in English, in Spanish. I’m learning Greek — I’m still not speaking very well, but I’m reading more and I’m hoping at some point to be able to speak well enough to be able to present. If we have someone come [to Puerto Rico] from Greece who does not know Spanish or English, I hope I’ll know enough to help with that.

But I am hoping that we can continue this collaboration, continue solidarity. Maybe we can have young people from both countries visit each other, cultural exchange with the idea of helping each other’s struggle for a just society, for the ability to take care of ourselves and to stop this continued bleeding of our countries — the continued bleeding of our people, where our young people feel the need to leave.

I don’t want to see a Greece without Greeks. I don’t want to see a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans!

Part Two of Michael’s interview with Professor Berman-Santana, conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, will be presented in an upcoming article.

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.

Sep 082017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

A pro-remain supporter of Britain staying in the EU, wears an EU flag mask whilst taking part in a protest to coincide with politicians returning to work after the summer recess, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP/Matt Dunham)

A pro-remain supporter of Britain staying in the EU, wears an EU flag mask whilst taking part in a protest to coincide with politicians returning to work after the summer recess, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP/Matt Dunham)

The unflinching support for the EU and its institutions is not about preventing European countries from becoming “Afghanistan.” Not about preventing collapse. Not about the inconvenience of long lines at passport control. It is about promoting an ideology, a specific worldview, a vision for the way the world should work.

ATHENS, Greece & LIMASSOL, Cyprus (Analysis) It was way back in the ancient 1990s, when protesting crippling economic austerity measures, the economic imperialism of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and free trade deals such as NAFTA and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), was a mainstay of the progressive or left-wing political agenda and worldview.

Today, that same worldview apparently makes one a “nationalist” or a “fascist,” in the eyes of self-described leftists and progressives. Oh, the irony!

Opposition to free trade agreements or open borders is now a surefire way to be branded with the modern-day scarlet letter, that of being a “nationalist.” Opposing unchecked migration—and the war and conflict that spur mass waves of migration in the first place—apparently makes one a “xenophobe.” Standing up to the crippling austerity prescribed by the open-borders project known as the European Union towards some of its own member-states makes one a “fascist.” Independence and sovereignty are bad, open borders and unrestricted free trade benefiting certain industrial powerhouses and large multinational corporations are good.

In another irony, the anti-colonial independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s were by and large nationalist movements, and were supported by many progressive forces around the world. But at the time, the “n-word” (nationalism, of course) was not the dirty word that it is today.

Back in the distant 1990s, the United States was described by western commentators as the leader of the free world, the beacon of liberty and democracy. This worldview continued unabated up through the end of the term of President Barack Obama. The election of President Donald Trump in November on a populist platform — on the heels of the British referendum result in favor of Brexit, which also drew heavy support from populist political elements — put an end to this worldview.

In yet another irony of ironies, it is now the “iron lady” of one such industrial powerhouse, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is widely viewed as the global beacon of liberal democracy and freedom. According to Politico, it is Merkel who is now the “leader of the free world,” anointed as “global savior.” Online feminist publication Jezebel has dubbed Merkel the “last pillar of liberal democracy in Europe.” And Kati Marton, wife of the late U.S. Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, described Merkel as “the last real democratic leader standing” and “the most powerful woman in the world,” in a highly laudatory profile piece written for fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue.

The aforementioned sources are quite varied in style and substance, but they all adhere to the same worldview: neoliberalism, or if you prefer, globalism. And it is “free” trade, “open borders,” and the dominance of supranational institutions such as the EU that are some of globalism’s basic tenets. In the eyes of Politico, Jezebel, Vogue and their ilk, leaders like Merkel — among the staunchest supporters of open borders, and of economic austerity for suffering EU member-states such as Greece, towards which the EU supposedly displays “solidarity” — epitomize the ideal global leader, in the mold of other globalist favorites such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This tacit, blinding acceptance of institutions such as the EU, the World Bank, and the IMF and their policies and practices is a slap in the face to all those—whether they are in Greece, Mexico, Argentina, Tanzania, Indonesia, or elsewhere—that have suffered as a result of the economic doctrines that these institutions have imposed upon their countries. And no criticism or opposition shall be brooked by the purportedly tolerant supporters and backers of such institutions!

Case in point: Naomi Klein. The out-of-nowhere celebrity author and “activist” with a hazy biography first became widely known in the late 1990s for her anti-corporate globalization treatise No Logo, though the pinnacle of her anti-economic globalization work is her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine. Following the election of the supposedly “radical leftist” SYRIZA in Greece on January 25, 2015, Klein could barely contain herself, gushing like a teenage schoolgirl over its victory in social media postings that now seem to have been scrubbed—although some evidence of Klein’s enthusiasm still remains. As SYRIZA and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have sold Greece and its people down the river, overturning the July 5, 2015 referendum result and enacting a third (and since then, a fourth) memorandum agreement, Klein has remained conspicuously silent.

To be clear, this is not an argument in favor of political figures such as Trump (more on this later). Instead, using the EU as a case study, neoliberal doctrine and the prevailing orthodoxy observed in the overwhelming majority of the world’s mainstream media outlets—and in such sectors as business and academia—will be deconstructed. By examining what a supranational institution such as the EU actually is, how it was created and how it operates today — as well as by analyzing why so many entities have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and how they attempt to discredit any opposition to it — readers will (I hope) come away with a clearer understanding of the purpose such institutions serve in the global order today, and why they are not quite what they seem.

A Case Study In Neoliberalism: What The EU Actually Is

The signing, March 25, 1957, of the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community, forerunner of today's European Union. (AP Photo)

The signing, March 25, 1957, of the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community, forerunner of today’s European Union. (AP Photo)

The EU’s not so humble beginnings:

The EU’s innumerable backers in government, the press and mass media, academia, the intelligentsia, and the general public describe the supranational institution as a force for peace, indeed as the sole and exclusive reason why there supposedly has been no war or conflict—itself a false claim—in Europe since the end of World War II. The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 based on this argument, that “for over six decades [it had] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

For its proponents, the EU signifies the beginnings of a “brave new world” without war and indeed without borders, a force for peace where capital—including “human capital”—can travel freely. An entity where millennials hop aboard their favorite budget airline and travel from Berlin to Milan to enjoy some prosecco without having to lose precious minutes standing on line at passport control or to exchange currency.

The EU’s beginnings, however, are hardly as benign as the official propaganda. Indeed, there exists significant evidence indicating that, at the very least, the foundations of the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was first known, may have been inspired by Third Reich plans for European “integration” and German hegemony.

At a public meeting at the British House of Commons on February 26, 2008, author, political economist, former British Ministerial Adviser and then-lecturer at Germany’s University of Mainz Rodney Atkinson described the backgrounds of Nazis and fascists who became key founding members of the EEC. In this speech, Atkinson highlighted the backgrounds of such prominent figures as Walter Hallstein and Walther Funk.

Who were Hallstein and Funk? Hallstein was one of the twelve signatories of the Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the EEC, and was the first president of the non-elected European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, between 1958 and 1967. EU proponents describe Hallstein as a “visionary,” while mainstream biographies of Hallstein note that while he was a member of some “nominally” Nazi organizations, he was not a Nazi Party member or part of the SA.

Let’s look at these “nominally” Nazi organizations. Hallstein was a member of the Association of National Socialist German Legal Professionals, which later morphed into the National Socialist Association of Legal Professionals (or “Law Protectors”), membership in which was restricted to only those who displayed the most unwavering and active support for Nazi ideology. Indeed, in 1933 Hitler purged Jews and socialists from the organization. Hallstein, in a memo to Nazi administrators, confirmed in 1935 that he was a member of both of these organizations.

Following Hitler’s official state visit to Italy and meeting with Mussolini in May 1938 in the lead-up to World War II, a bi-national commission was established to create the framework for the European dictatorship that was to be achieved. Soon thereafter, the first meeting of this commission’s legal team was held, with Hallstein representing Nazi Germany.

The following year, just before the outbreak of the war, Hallstein gave an infamous speech—the handwritten manuscript of which is available online. In this speech Hallstein referred, among other things, to “the creation of the Greater German Reich” and “legal Germanization of the new territories,” via the “link up” of Austria and much of Czechoslovakia with Germany and creation of a “unified legal system” for this new territory — citing the failure to create such as system as one of the “unfinished tasks” of the Second Reich. Most egregiously, in this same speech Hallstein also advocated in favor of a “law for the protection of the German blood and the German honor,” or what were to become the Nuremberg Race Laws.

On to Walther Funk. Funk served in the Nazi Propaganda Ministry under Goebbels, and later as Nazi Germany’s minister of economics, president of the Reichsbank, and president of the Bank of International Settlements, he was responsible for dispossessing Jews of their assets, for which he was later convicted at the Nuremberg trials. Released from prison in 1957—the year the Treaty of Rome was signed—he served in Lower Saxony’s ministry of education between 1957 and 1960. To state it differently, just over a decade after the war, one of the founding member-states of the EEC offered a significant position in public administration to a convicted Nazi criminal.

Funk’s direct relevance to the EEC, however, is evident through a report produced in 1942 under his watch as economics minister and president of the Reichsbank, titled “Europaische Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft,” or “European Economic Community.” Indeed, this term was apparently first introduced by the Nazi regime. This report presented a plan for how Germany would administer the economies of conquered post-war Europe, and encompassed sections on currency, trade and economic agreements, agriculture, industry, and more. More specifically, the report called for the “harmonization” of Europe’s currencies. A uniform planning and management system that would erode the economic sovereignty of individual European states—shades of the EU and such things as the “Common Agricultural Policy” today—was foreseen. And, foreshadowing today’s “identity politics” and “freedom of mobility,” national sovereignty was to be displaced by the so-called “sovereignty of the people.”

When Gerard Batten, a member of the European parliament with the UK Independence Party (UKIP), referred to Funk’s past in a posting on his blog, Labour Party MP Chuka Umunna described these claims as “crackpot conspiracy theories.” But are they? “Europaische Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft,” with Funk as one of the co-authors, is readily locatable today. Daniel J. Beddowes and Flavio Cipollini, who together authored a book titled The EU: The Truth About the Fourth Reich – How Hitler Won the Second World War, argue that Funk put the finishing touches on the plans for what is today the EU.

According to Beddowes and Cipollini, “[i]t was Funk who predicted the coming of European economic unity. Funk was also Adolf Hitler’s economics minister and his key economics advisor.” The authors indicate that Hitler’s post-war plans foresaw a federalized, economically integrated European Union free of “the clutter of small nations,” and that these plans were themselves based on a belief held by Lenin, that “federation is a transitional form towards complete union of all nations.” Therefore, argue the authors, it is not by chance that the EU closely resembles Hitler’s blueprint for a unified Europe, and that most EU member-states are getting poorer while Germany is continuously getting richer.

An alleged U.S. military intelligence report, EW-Pa 128 — also known as the “Red House Report” and said to have been written in November 1944 — describes the proceedings of a secret meeting that took place earlier that year where Nazi officials, recognizing that defeat and the end of the war were near, ordered German industrialists to plan for the post-war future and to lay the groundwork for a new “strong German empire.” The secret report was said to have been copied to British officials and to have made its way to the U.S. Secretary of State. The industrialists, including representatives of such companies as Volkswagen, were joined by representatives of the German Navy and the Nazi ministry of armaments.

This report, if indeed legitimate, describes a post-war Europe that would eventually come to be dominated by Germany, but with this domination being economic rather than military. The economic reserves of German front companies located abroad would be exploited, and this money would later be funneled to German industrialists via other front companies in “neutral” Switzerland. These overseas front companies would maintain a direct line of communication with the top political echelons of Germany, with the goal of eventually reasserting their dominance over Germany—and over Europe.

This report dredges up memories of the infamous Merten affair, involving Dr. Max Merten, who had been installed as a Nazi administrator in the city of Thessaloniki. Infamous for having looted Thessaloniki’s substantial Jewish community of their wealth and jewels in exchange for protection—before betraying their trust—Merten maintained close ties with prominent Greek politicians, particularly the inner circle of Konstantinos Karamanlis, who in the 1950s became Greece’s Western-supported prime minister.

Merten, wishing to recover his hidden booty, returned to Greece in 1957 under the assumption that no warrant existed for his arrest. Merten was arrested, however, and served some months in prison before being amnestied by Karamanlis. Merten had been threatening the Karamanlis government with evidence that Merten was said to have in his possession, proving that Karamanlis and key ministers of his government had collaborated with the Nazis during the war.

One of Karamanlis’ closest allies, Konstantinos Gertsos, appears in the declassified intelligence files on the Merten affair. Gertsos headed a German front corporation, landing a lucrative mining concession on behalf of German businessmen. He later became Greece’s ambassador to Switzerland, where he participated in investment schemes with Karamanlis, and later was named honorary ambassador of Greece. Serving again as Greece’s first post-junta prime minister, Karamanlis himself oversaw the negotiations for Greece’s accession to the European Community in the late 1970s. His nephew, also named Konstantinos Karamanlis, served as prime minister between 2004-2009, the years that led up to Greece’s catastrophic economic crisis.

On the topic of industry, there is the example of Hermann Abs, founder of the pro-integration European League for Economic Cooperation (still in existence), a board member of Deutsche Bank, and also a board member of I.G. Farben, a union of German industrial titans such as BASF and Bayer. This consortium sought to obtain control of the global marketplace in such sectors as pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. In 1933, it also became the largest financier of the Nazis’ rise to power, and continued to collaborate with the Nazis thereafter, to the tune of over 80 million Reichsmark during the war. In exchange, I.G. Farben took over key industries in each Nazi-occupied country.

What was I.G. Farben’s endgame? A letter presented at the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal, which had been written by I.G. Farben director August von Knieriem and addressed to the Nazi government, foresaw a common European currency, legal system, and judicial system—not unlike today’s EU and Eurozone.

The Nazi foreign ministry itself crafted a draft blueprint for a “united Europe,” which—in shades of today’s hysterical anti-Russian sentiment in the West—called for a European mobilization against the USSR through the implementation of a “European image of German foreign policy” and the formation of a confederation of 14 European states that would be led by Germany and ultimately promote German interests.

None other than celebrity economist and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis himself has pointed outseveral quotations that could fairly describe today’s EU, including: “There must be a readiness to subordinate one’s own interests in certain cases to that of the European Community;” and “The solution to economic problems … with the eventual object of a European customs union and a free European market, a European clearing system and stable exchange rates in Europe, looking towards a European currency union.” Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, these striking similarities with Nazi rhetoric do not lead to any hesitation on Varoufakis’ part to wholly and enthusiastically support EU institutions.

“There is no alternative”

A protester take part in a rally against the proposed privatization of the state-run water utility, in the Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Greece’s highest administrative court has ruled against the sale, arguing that the sale could affect water quality. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

A protester take part in a rally against the proposed privatization of the state-run water utility, in the Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Greece’s highest administrative court has ruled against the sale, arguing that the sale could affect water quality. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

Just as with opposition to international “free” trade and the policies of institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, there was a time where the left and progressive forces were opposed to the politics of TINA—“there is no alternative,” exemplified by the original iron lady, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Today though, we are told by a wide range of voices, including purported leftists such as Varoufakis, that for countries such as Greece there is no alternative to EU and Eurozone membership, categorically ruling out any thoughts of departure.

But Greece lied by presenting false economic data to enter the Eurozone, did it not? And therefore it must accept “bitter medicine,” should it not? That’s what many “well-meaning” leftists and progressives retort when the topic of the EU and IMF’s cruelty towards Greece is brought up. But this also exposes what could, depending on one’s perspective, be described as either the EU’s incompetence or its insidious nature. If Greece lied and the EU did not perform due diligence and was fooled, then it is incompetent. If it knew what was going on and went along, then it is complicit in what has followed.

Furthermore, Greece wasn’t alone in its “creative accounting:” countries like Italy and Spain also brokered deals with the likes of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan to massage the numbers in order to meet the Maastricht criteria to qualify for Eurozone membership. Even Varoufakis, in a 2012 Dialogos Radio interview, has suggested that many other Eurozone members fudged the numbers.

Membership in the EU and the Eurozone provided an ephemeral economic boom and a period of false prosperity for Greece. The negative impacts, however, are more long-lasting, if indeed not permanent, in nature. Privatizations, which began in earnest in the early 1990s and did nothing to prevent the crisis, resulted in the wholesale sell-off of strategic state assets, resources, and public utilities that were often profitable. Introduction of a “hard” currency, overvalued for the Greek economy, made Greek exports and tourism uncompetitive compared to lower-priced alternatives in the region. Greece’s previously modest industrial base was decimated while agricultural production has dropped sharply since 1981, the year Greece joined the EU, due in large part to the EU’s common agricultural policy.

Greece, as did several other countries, may have presented questionable data in order to enter the Eurozone. In yet another biting irony though, similarly “fudged” numbers may have been presented, very much on purpose, in order to drag Greece into the IMF-EU austerity mechanism. Whistleblowers such as Zoe Georganta have made allegations and presented evidence indicating that Greece’s debt and deficit figures were purposely worsened in order to drag Greece under the austerity mechanism.

Fueling these allegations is the revelation that former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had met with then-opposition leader George Papandreou in April 2009, months before Papandreou was elected as Greece’s prime minister. The allegedly augmented deficit and debt figures were revealed soon after Papandreou’s election, signifying the start of the economic crisis.

We might ask, why sabotage a national economy? The corrected question, though, should be, why not? The austerity regime enabled the EU and successive subservient regimes in Greece to impose unpopular and socially harmful measures that would never have had a chance of being enacted under ordinary conditions — including harsh cuts to social services, wages, and pensions, plus fast-tracking the privatization of key national assets.

Notably, the Greek economy was subject to EU audits and oversight during the 2004-2007 time period. For some unexplained reason, this oversight did nothing to prevent the crisis that followed. And while the international press has habitually focused on Greece’s falsifying of its economic data to join the Eurozone (without focusing on other countries which also engaged in this practice), any discussion of the allegations made by whistleblowers about the alleged augmentation of Greece’s deficit and debt figures is denounced as conspiracy theory. Indeed, the chief statistician who oversaw this possible falsification of the data is lauded in the press.

The EU’s democratic deficit, hypocrisy, and the human cost

A man looks on a pile of trash as he walks behind a flower pot in Kaminia neighborhood of Piraeus, near Athens, June 27, 2017. Striking garbage collectors who fear job losses from EU-imposed regulations governing short-term contract workers in the public sector, were on the 11th-day of protest that left huge piles of trash around Athens. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)The austerity regime in Greece has been far from victimless. Repeated reports from the United Nations and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) have found that the austerity measures imposed in Greece are in violation of international law and the basic human rights of the Greek people, who have increasingly been impoverished during the crisis as a result of the successive pension and wage cuts and reductions to social services that have been imposed.

For a while, the “European family” demonstrated “solidarity” with Greece and its people. Such “solidarity” movements cropped up in early 2015 in particular—movements that were fully supportive of the SYRIZA-led coalition government, notwithstanding the signs that were evident from the very beginning that SYRIZA was not the leftist, anti-austerity force it was portrayed as being. Instead, their “solidarity” protests in European and North American cities, replete with SYRIZA flags, and their accompanying social media hashtag #ThisIsACoup, gently chastised the “bad Europeans” for “blackmailing” the well-intentioned “leftist” government of Greece.

Peculiarly, these mild protestations against the “bad Europeans” were never, ever accompanied by suggestions that Greece consider a departure from the EU or the Eurozone, even as a negotiating tactic. Instead, the Greek people have, by the very same people who displayed “solidarity,” often been lectured about Greece’s responsibility towards the rest of the “European family” and chastised for such matters as the petty corruption of not issuing a receipt for small purchases.

Indeed, it has often been Greece that has been called upon to display “solidarity” without reciprocation. With Greece beset by many dozens of destructive forest fires in recent weeks, the EU obliged Greece to send two firefighting airplanes to Albania—itself not a EU member-state—but France refused a request to send planes to help Greece’s overextended fire brigades extinguish the Greek blazes.

This mentality has made its way into the Greek political psyche. Prime Minister Tsipras’ victory speech on January 25, 2015 was full of pro-EU zeal, featuring many references to saving Europe, but none to saving Greece. The main opposition party, New Democracy, has helped organize several “remain in Europe” rallies since 2015 and has repeatedly positioned itself as a “responsible” and “outward-looking” alternative to the “leftist” SYRIZA.

Nary a word is mentioned, however, about the EU’s apparent disdain for democracy. As mentioned earlier, its executive branch, the European Commission, is wholly non-elected. Nor, for that matter, are the EU commissioners themselves. One such commissioner, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström of Sweden, has said quite accurately that she “does not receive her mandate from the European people.”

The non-elected president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, himself embattled by the LuxLeaks scandals in the recent past, has stated that “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” Sadly though, he hasn’t addressed the hypocrisy of lecturing Greece about “reform” whilst being embroiled in scandals of his own.

In turn, Germany’s apparent finance minister-for-life, Wolfgang Schäuble, who apparently also acts as finance minister of Greece and Spain and Italy and Portugal, has said “[e]lections change nothing. There are rules.” The sovereign judicial institutions of an EU member-state have also been openly questioned when decisions don’t go the EU’s way, as was the case recently in Greece. Solidaridad!

This author received an in-your-face taste of the EU’s brand of democracy in a 2013 visit to EU institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg. During this visit, a succession of technocrats shed all pretense and demonstrated their disdain for democracy and the very concept of the nation-state. Their talks were peppered with such quotes as “The labor force should be ‘flexible’ and should ‘diversify;’” “Mussolini dealt with the situation;” “There are regions of Italy which we wish Brussels could govern directly;” and “We believe in a single European consciousness.” Compare these with the Nazi quotations presented earlier in this piece.

During this series of talks, the technocrats and their partners in academia arrogantly attributed the EU’s economic perils to three simple factors: “Bad design. Bad luck. Bad decisions: Greece.” Revealing the EU’s possible endgame, we were further told that “the nation-state is a 19th-century construct, and nothing lasts forever.”

Further demonstrating the utter lack of democracy and accountability in the Nobel Prize-winning EU, it should be noted that the European Central Bank (ECB), which holds the economic fate of the EU’s member-states in its hands, has only one mandate in its governing documents: maintaining price stability — reflecting a longstanding German aversion to inflation of any sort. Nothing in the ECB’s constitution requires it to enact policy with social mandates, such as full employment, in mind. Indeed, the ECB itself does not lend directly to member-states but exclusively to private banks, from which states are then obliged to borrow at higher interest rates.

Perhaps best demonstrating the contempt with which the EU elite and its supporters view democracy and popular will, numerous parliamentary votes and referendum results that have not gone the EU’s way have systematically been subject to re-dos and overturned. For instance, Ireland rejected the EU’s Lisbon Treaty by referendum in 2008. A “relatively small member state” daring to “hold up” attempts at further EU integration was considered intolerable by the powers that be, and a new vote was called. Amidst tremendous pressure, voters wilted and accepted the treaty in the new referendum.

Similarly, Irish voters rejected the EU’s Treaty of Nice in 2001. This surprise result was also deemed unacceptable. A new referendum was scheduled in 2002, the usual pressure on voters piled on, and the Treaty approved by Irish voters the second time around.

In 2013, Cyprus’ newly-elected government of President Nikos Anastasiadis rejected an EU-proposed “bailout” that would have resulted in a “haircut” of bank deposits ranging from 6.6 percent to 9.9 percent. Indeed, not one vote in favor was cast in parliament. De facto EU boss Germany was not impressed. Under stifling pressure and amidst threats of “imminent” bankruptcy, the parliament caved and passed a modified, but still onerous, “bailout” bill and haircut in a second vote.

In Greece, of course, the “leftist” SYRIZA government felt no obligation to even pretend to show resistance, despite the absurd “#ThisIsACoup” rhetoric that it tacitly supported behind the scenes. The July 2015 popular referendum overwhelmingly rejecting the EU’s austerity proposals was swiftly overturned and replaced by an even more severe austerity package, all in the name of keeping Greece “in Europe” (as if it would float away to Antarctica otherwise).

Following the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, elitist, pro-EU scholars from such “safe space” institutions as the London School of Economics recoiled in disgust at the “tyranny of the majority.” Clearly, voters were not as well-informed as pro-EU ivory tower intellectuals. This sentiment is not a recent phenomenon, however: similar views were expressed over a decade ago following the rejection of the proposed EU “constitution” by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Therefore, it is no surprise that in the EU today, non-elected authorities are the ones who, for instance, tell countries what to grow and what not to grow (EU common agricultural policy), or whether or not a state-owned national air carrier can be allowed to continue to operate. A private and high-cost quasi-monopoly (Aegean Airlines) along with a smattering of low-cost airlines with a limited range of destinations has replaced Greece’s Olympic Airlines, which undoubtedly had been mismanaged but nevertheless connected Greece to North America and Australia.  In neighboring Turkey, Turkish Airlines—unimpeded by EU “competition” regulations and half-owned by the Turkish state—flies to the most countries and fourth most destinations in the world.

Why the fear of losing the EU?

A man looks up at a model of a pigeon on top of a banner as anti Brexit campaigners gather at Hyde Park Corner in London, March 25, 2017, before they march towards Britain's parliament. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

A man looks up at a model of a pigeon on top of a banner as anti Brexit campaigners gather at Hyde Park Corner in London, March 25, 2017, before they march towards Britain’s parliament. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

For some of those who favor the EU, their support often approaches levels of blind dogmatism. The main issue to contend with here though is why do such large segments of the political, business, and media elite so strongly support the EU, the Eurozone, and all of its associated institutions and policies?

In a word, the reason is neoliberalism. Based in part on “third way” politics, which burst to the political forefront in the 1990s with the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, it is the idea that capital, including “human capital,” should be able to flow freely across borders—or better yet, that borders should be abolished altogether. It is an idea that pays lip service to democracy and social justice but that preserves the primacy of international financial capital and so-called “free trade” über alles.

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras, defending his government’s policy of maintaining Greek membership in the Eurozone, argued in a recent interview that Greece would turn “into Afghanistan” if it left the common currency bloc. However, as evidenced by Tsipras’ aforementioned victory speech, the end goal is preserving the idea of “Europe”—as conceptualized by today’s European Union—at all costs, even if it means breaking campaign promises (or outright lying, if you prefer) and implementing policies that are toxic for the country and its people.

Some of the more laughable defenses that have been heard in favor of EU membership—as exemplified by the heated pre- and post-Brexit referendum rhetoric, concern such awful inconveniences as having to wait on line at customs control or at currency exchange. Somewhat more serious arguments concern the loss of the right to seek employment in other European countries. Doom-and-gloom scenarios, such as the one put forth by Tsipras and also much of the press and mass media, predict economic failure and catastrophe for those who dare depart from the Eurozone or the EU.

This unflinching support for the EU and its institutions, though, is not in reality about preventing European countries from being transformed into “Afghanistan.” It is not about preventing collapse. It is not about the laughable inconvenience of waiting on long lines at passport control. It is about promoting an ideology, a specific worldview, a vision for the way the world should work.

How exactly does this new, visionary world work in reality? What is the end goal? Let’s take the “free movement of labor” as an example. The positive spin that is often placed on this issue points out the advantages of being able to seek work in 28 EU member-states, increasing options for those seeking jobs and the pool of potential workers for employers.

In actuality though, such policies promote a “brain drain” from poorer EU member-states towards those that are wealthier. This perpetuates a spiral of impoverishment in countries such as Greece, from which an estimated 600,000 people have emigrated just during the years of the economic crisis, draining the country of a significant percentage of its educated professionals, the know-how and innovation they could provide, and the contributions their employment would make to the national tax base and pension system–further perpetuating the vicious economic cycle.

Indeed, it can be surmised that a portion of the still significant levels of support for EU membership in Greece stems from individuals who do not view EU membership in terms of the country’s best interest but in terms of self-interest — such as the opportunity to escape the “hellhole” that is Greece and to move to other, wealthier countries that are deemed more “civilized.” Motivated self-interest can also be seen in certain professional categories, such as academics for instance, who fear losing such benefits as EU-provided or EU-supported financial grants.

On their end, employers do not wish to lose what amounts to a pool of surplus labor. This has nothing to do with meritocracy, competition, or finding the best candidate to fill available positions. It has much more to do with increasing labor supply and lowering wages accordingly, essentially pitting labor against itself. As an ancillary benefit, the impoverishment of EU member-states such as Greece creates an internal bloc of countries with educated working populations, proximity to the rest of Europe, free trade and the same currency, and labor conditions and wages rapidly approaching third-world levels. This leads to “investments” (including the aforementioned privatizations) in these nouveau-poor nations, while “free” trade allows cheaply-made imports from economic powerhouses such as Germany to be dumped on local markets.

The same holds true for economic migrants and refugees, for whom we are often told there must be “no borders.” But what this influx of peoples actually represents from an economic point of view is further surplus labor, including labor willing to perform undesirable jobs at pitifully low wages. It represents a new labor pool which is, in essence, pitted against the domestic labor of European countries, suppressing wages across the board. As an additional bonus for employers, those migrants and refugees who are undocumented are far more likely to be amenable to long workdays, extremely low wages, and employment without insurance, benefits, or union membership — essentially held hostage by fear of deportation or starvation.

In other words, these migrants and refugees are exploited, and this exploitation occurs under the guise of “open borders” and “solidarity.” As this exploitation takes place, the true causes of the mass waves of migration and outflows of refugees from these countries are ignored. These, in turn, are closely related to the geopolitical ambitions and activities of Western actors, including the EU and Brussels-based NATO.

While many of those who are opposed to unchecked migration are indeed racist and xenophobic, there also exist those who oppose such migration on the aforementioned grounds, while further recognizing that states already battered by domestic unemployment are in no position to absorb a new labor pool. There are obviously non-racist and non-xenophobic grounds for  opposition to the destruction, impoverishment and exploitation of these countries in the first place There are then equally sound and benignant grounds for further opposition to the exploitation of the migrant workers and the suppression of wages and elimination of jobs for the domestic workforce, especially at a time when double-digit unemployment already officially exists in much of Europe and the Eurozone.

The way this induced “free” movement operates, a significant percentage of the labor force within “united” Europe is exploited or driven out of work and forced into internal migration within the “common market,” while migrants from outside Europe add to the pool of surplus labor and drive down wages even further. Both categories of workers are exploited by the “big fish,” namely economic and industrial giants such as Germany, and by international financial capital, which together benefit quite handsomely from this situation. This is as far from a xenophobic argument as one can get.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider the following remarks made by British Labour Party MP John Reid on the BBC’s “Sunday Politics” television program on April 14, 2013: “The Treasury insisted in having a free flow of labor because they thought it would have brought down the cost of labor.” Reid further noted that he was attacked by members of his own party for suggesting that it was not racist to discuss the issue of immigration.

This is the prevalent ideology: “open borders” under a veil of “humanism” but with the goal of the economic exploitation of workers and entire countries alike. War and conflict is fomented in some countries, economic oppression in others. The migrants fleeing these countries in search of survival and employment are then exploited by the wealthier countries, which benefit and profit off of their work and very presence in these countries, such as through the broadening of the tax base. Conversely, the countries that raised these individuals and invested in their education are left largely empty-handed, at best awaiting remittances from abroad. And all of this is couched in pseudo-humanitarian terms: open borders, free movement, and “free” trade.

Discrediting the EU’s opponents

Guest speaker British politician George Galloway makes a speech at a rally held by the Grassroots Out (GO), anti-EU campaign group at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, held to coincide with the EU summit in Brussels, Feb. 19, 2016. (AP/Matt Dunham)

Guest speaker British politician George Galloway makes a speech at a rally held by the Grassroots Out (GO), anti-EU campaign group at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, held to coincide with the EU summit in Brussels, Feb. 19, 2016. (AP/Matt Dunham)

As I conclude this piece, I find myself at a fascinating conference on journalism and digital media taking place on the divided island of Cyprus. Notably, Cyprus, just like the United Kingdom, is not yet part of the Schengen Zone, which allows for passport- and visa-free travel. This means long lines at passport control—the horror! Interestingly enough, despite the U.K.’s having been exempted from participation in the Schengen Zone, “freedom to travel” was one of the arguments put forth to oppose “Brexit.”

But back to the conference: I’ve attended fascinating panel discussions and talks by brilliant academic colleagues from all across the world. But there is one problem: the prevailing viewpoint seems openly in favor of all of the institutions and beliefs that are shared by those who could be described as proponents of neoliberalism: pro-EU, anti-Brexit, vilification of the type of so-called “fake news” (i.e., news that does not fit a globalist agenda) allegedly practiced by outlets such as MintPress News, as well as heaps of shock and horror at the election of Donald Trump in the United States. All of this reflects prevailing viewpoints in the media, in the business world, and in academia.

So, Trump and Brexit. These electoral results have been blamed, sometimes in their entirety, on racism and xenophobia and “nationalism” and the ever-evil “populism.” But academia, and particularly the liberal arts and humanities, for all of their lofty talk of “interrogating hegemony,” do not question why populism is successful, and whether there are factors other than poorly-informed and racist voters taking advantage of democratic processes to, believe it or not, vote for their preferred candidate!

Earlier, the example of voters in Missouri counties that had previously voted solidly in favor of Barack Obama but who supported Trump in last year’s election, was used to question the idea that all voters who perhaps supported “populism” or who wished to “make America great again” were racists and xenophobes. Similarly, while the mass media has heaped attention on the racist and xenophobic element of the Brexit referendum result, left-wing campaigns for Brexit, such as “Lexit” and “Left Leave” and prominent left-wing and decidedly non-racist, non-xenophobic figures such as Tariq Ali, are habitually ignored—by journalists, by the media, by academia. In turn, any political development that contradicts the long march towards further neoliberalism and globalism is conflated with the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen among others.

What seems increasingly apparent is that these aforementioned populist political figures are being used—though not entirely incorrectly—as weapons to discredit any policies that are not favorable to the neoliberal status quo. What isn’t clear is whether this was the plan all along — for the likes of Trump to be anointed for this purpose as a real-life “manchurian candidate” and for the Brexit referendum to take place smack in the midst of Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis — or if it simply represents a strategic response by the establishment to an inconvenient situation. But the disgust that has accompanied some of the few actual positive developments of the Trump presidency — such as the elimination of TPP and TTIP (also opposed by Bernie Sanders amidst censorship), the types of “free trade” agreements once vigorously opposed by progressive forces — perhaps elucidates the true nature of opposition to “populism.”

One of the end results of such a divisive and often extreme political climate is the occurrence of horrible, unfortunate, and tragic events that directly reflect this emerging polarization. The recent occurrence in Charlottesville is a case in point. Once they have taken place, such incidents — driven by extremists and pent-up anger on either side — are further used as weapons to discredit any argument against the prevailing political and economic order.

International cooperation and repairing what’s broken

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. 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 lack of willingness to question the aforementioned political and economic order may help explain why even those individuals who expressed “solidarity” with Greece—at least up until Greece and its crisis were largely forgotten following the July 2015 referendum—nevertheless refused to question the very core issues of the EU, its policies in Greece and other crisis-stricken countries, and continued membership in the EU and the Eurozone. Even during the “#ThisIsACoup” phase of “solidarity” towards Greece, the “bad” Europeans who were said to be blackmailing the Greek government were apparently never considered quite bad enough to necessitate “Grexit”—or to later support Brexit. At worst, the Greek situation could be said to be viewed by these elements as merely a momentary hiccup on the path towards a borderless European—or global—utopia.

It seems to be the case that questioning the project in purported European “unity” that is the EU is enough for ordinary individuals to be branded “racists” and “xenophobes,” “isolationists” and “reactionaries.” I suppose then that Tariq Ali, who also questioned SYRIZA when it was not yet fashionable to do so, is a racist and a regressive force—as are Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and George Galloway, who also adopted positions in favor of Brexit.

So why not simply fix the EU if it is broken? That’s what the likes of Yanis Varoufakis have repeatedly argued. But if Grexit is unreasonable and unrealistic, is it more reasonable and more realistic to presume that entrenched institutional structures — such as a non-elected European Commission, an unaccountable European justice system, and thousands upon thousands of regulations and directives dictating many aspects of life and economic activity in Europe, right down to the shape of bananas sold for human consumption (regulations which do in fact exist despite insistence to the contrary by the EU’s supporters) — can simply be changed or eliminated? Or that the issue of surplus labor and downward pressures on wages can be solved within such an institutional and regulatory context? I have not heard a satisfactory answer to these questions, not even from Varoufakis himself. Can an institution that is rotten and undemocratic to the core be salvaged?

Having mentioned Varoufakis, it bears noting that he has, on several occasions, openly praised Mrs. TINA herself, Margaret Thatcher (see also here, here, here, and here). This should come as no surprise, as it is Varoufakis who told us that There Is No Alternative to the euro for Greece, refused to even bring the Grexit option to the negotiating table as Greece’s finance minister, and accepted all of the EU’s austerity demands in the name of keeping Greece in the Eurozone at all costs.

It’s quite ironic that “anti-establishment” leftists and anarchists find themselves precisely on the same side as much of the establishment itself when it comes to the existence of institutions such as the EU, in the name of “open borders”—or no borders whatsoever. The very same establishment that praises one of the harshest prescribers of austerity, Angela Merkel, as a bastion of liberal democracy and as the newly anointed leader of the “free” world.

Those who do not conform to this orthodoxy often do not go unpunished. In various ways, three other purportedly “leftist” or “progressive” publications made it clear that this author’s contributions were no longer welcome. Ditto a radio station and Voice of America affiliate in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, which once carried my radio program. So much for tolerance.

Yet, in the name of journalistic integrity — and in the face of injustice, hypocrisy and intolerance — there are things that must be said, if we are to engage in the type of healthy, robust and open democratic dialogue that we’d like to believe we stand for. For this, and as I prepare to begin a professional career in my chosen field, shall I expect to be confronted with a dressing-down akin to that seen in the classic 1976 film Network, where journalist Howard Beale was kindly informed that he had meddled with the primal forces of nature and that he will atone? Perhaps!

The lecture to which Beale was subjected in Network, whether intentionally or not, was accurate: by and large there is no left or right. There are no Democrats or Republicans. There is a prevailing globalist, neoliberal worldview, and there is a smattering of various elements from a wide range of sharply different and often incongruent belief systems that, each for its own reasons, oppose this prevailing trend. And because of the actions of fringe groups that truly are racist and violent, anyone who even so much as simply questions the orthodox worldview is lumped together with such genuinely reactionary elements.

There is true beauty in diversity and cultural difference. But what is diversity and what is cultural difference? I don’t wish to see the same Starbucks in Los Angeles, Lisbon, Lima, and Lesotho. I don’t desire to see one global “lingua franca” prevail while “unimportant” languages (like Greek) die out. I would not like to see the same corporations and the same lifestyle imposed worldwide via the process of globalization. When I am privileged enough to travel, I’d like to enjoy the local food and music and culture, to hear the local language and learn a few words (or more), to appreciate a way of life and a worldview different from my own. That’s diversity, and it is endangered by the homogenizing process of globalization, which is itself brought further along by the elimination of national sovereignty.

If I am a Greek voter, I want my elected prime minister, whether it is Alexis Tsipras or anyone else, to talk about the country that they were elected to govern and to represent me, my children and my family, not to discuss some abstract entity known as “Europe” which he or she was not elected to represent. Democracy works at a local level, while imperialism and empire are what prevail at the global, supranational level. And if the price of that democracy is waiting in a queue to exchange currency (which preferably would be in physical form) then so be it.

The idea of unity is often treated as a zero-sum game with the idea of the nation, that only one or the other is possible. But is this truly the case? International cooperation and understanding can and does exist across nations and peoples in an astounding myriad of ways. These could include trade agreements that are not parasitic or based on exploitation, visa-free travel regimes across countries, and academic exchange programs that help foster cultural mixing and collaboration. Those academics who are also EU backers and are worried about losing, say, the Erasmus+ exchange program, may wish to consider that it is open to non-EU citizens, just as the United States’ Fulbright exchange program is open to participants from all around the world. Those are concrete examples of international cooperation and cultural bridging in action which can exist, should exist, and often times do exist without the necessity of a bloated supranational behemoth micromanaging every aspect of life and serving the interests of a select few.

Nation-states and borders do not necessarily mean isolationism. They don’t necessarily mean hatred, nor do they mean a lack of cooperation. Indeed these elements can and do exist even absent of borders, such as within societies or within supranational entities. We are told that the EU has served as a force for peace and that the nation-state as an institution promotes war. But the EU and EU member-states allied with NATO have participated in countless conflicts, both on the European continent and elsewhere, and have no problem allying themselves with oppressive, violent, authoritarian and genocidal regimes for reasons of economic or geopolitical expediency. War itself has existed since prehistoric times, long before the advent of the nation-state. It has also indeed contributed to the breakup of larger supranational entities. And as demonstrated earlier, whether due to conspiracy or coincidence, the idea of European economic and political unity is not necessarily incompatible with fascist and extremist ideology.

So what of the EU and Eurozone? A commonly heard retort is that no one has suggested any practical alternatives or a course of action that would allow a country such as, say, Greece, to depart from these institutions without a catastrophic meltdown taking place. This therefore raises the question: should a country like Greece depart and, if so, how can it accomplish this? What are the alternatives, and are they viable? Will Greece be transformed into Afghanistan, as Tsipras suggests? The next installment of this series will address these questions—and more—in detail. Stay tuned.

Aug 192017
 

By Michael Nevradakis, 99GetSmart

Originally published at MintPressNews

A resident tries to extinguish a forest fire at Kalamos village, north of Athens, on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017.  A total of 53 wildfires broke out in Greece Saturday and more have done so Sunday, including on the beach resort of Kalamos near Athens. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

A resident tries to extinguish a forest fire at Kalamos village, north of Athens, on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017. A total of 53 wildfires broke out in Greece Saturday and more have done so Sunday, including on the beach resort of Kalamos near Athens. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Selling a struggling nation to the highest corporate, oligarchic, and state bidders may be just the way things work in the world, but please stop trumpeting it as a great “success story.” Greece’s forests are burning, its economy sold out, its citizens struggling more than before they were “saved.”

ATHENS, GREECE — (Analysis) Exactly two years ago, on August 14, 2015, the “leftist” SYRIZA-led Greek coalition government — just over a month removed from a referendum that saw 62 percent of voters rejecting a new austerity plan proposed by the “troika” of Greece’s lenders, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — put the final nail in the coffin of the referendum result, passing the third, and most onerous to date, memorandum proposal, foreseeing ever-harsher austerity measures, cuts, and privatizations.

Today, the sweet smell of “success” is in the air.

If by success, of course, you meant the smell of charred forest, then you would be correct.

Greece is burning, and not just due to the high summer temperatures. Dozens upon dozens of forest fires throughout the country, which broke out in the space of less than a week, have covered Athens and much of Greece with a choking, smoky haze. Outside of Athens, huge forest fires have raged over a span of over 25 kilometers and, as of this writing, a period of three days, inundating the city with a smoky haze.

It could be said that this is the perfect complement to the winter atmosphere in the city, when Athens is blanketed by a noxious smog, the result of the burning of makeshift fireplaces and furnaces keeping many of the city’s residents warm; residents who can no longer afford absurdly-taxed heating oil or to run electric inverters.

In a 24-hour period between August 13 and 14, 91 fires broke out in Greece. On the island of Zakynthos alone, 22 fires occurred during this period, just a few weeks after earlier fires burned parts of the island, which is a popular tourist destination. Across the strait, the mainland region of Ileia—which was heavily impacted by destructive and large-scale fires a decade ago, in the summer of 2007—once again fell prey to fires that ignited in multiple locations.

Both a blessing—due to their capacity to moderate scorching summer temperatures—and a curse, Greece’s famed August winds, known as the “meltemi,” helped fuel many of these fires and aided in spreading them across large areas, igniting multiple fronts. But the outbreak of all of these fires and the scale of their intensity cannot be attributed to heat and wind alone.

The large fires in Zakynthos and outside of Athens, for instance, began along multiple fronts within minutes, hinting at coordinated arson attacks.

Indeed, evidence of arson, including gas canisters and large convex lenses, have already been discovered in Kalamos, the location near Athens where one of the blazes originated.

Two convex lenses placed next to a large canister of natural gas found near Kalamos, a suburb of

Two convex lenses placed next to a large canister of natural gas found near Kalamos, a suburb of Athens.

On August 15, a 62-year-old man, said to be an employee of the Labor Ministry, who was in possession of numerous tools with which a blaze could be lit, was caught and arrested near Mount Parnitha, which itself had been previously reduced to ashes following destructive fires in August 2007. According to Gianna Tsoupra, adviser to the SYRIZA-affiliated regional governor of the Athens region Rena Dourou, such fires are an unfortunate “natural phenomenon.”

Greece burns: who benefits?

Volunteers try to extinguish the fire outside a military base at the village of Varnava , north of Athens, Aug. 14, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Volunteers try to extinguish the fire outside a military base at the village of Varnava , north of Athens, Aug. 14, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

These fires could be described as a microcosm of much of what is wrong with Greece — as well as with the institution the country supposedly cannot survive without, the European Union. Greece today is the only European country without a national cadastre (forest registry). While areas classified as forestland are constitutionally protected, this classification is largely based onaerial photography dating back to 1945 or earlier. The results are often comical.

For instance, a portion of the site of Athens’ former international airport—slated for privatization and development by the same SYRIZA government which prior to its election promised to abolish these very actions—has beenclassified as “forestland,” due to the vegetation which existed on the site in the 1937-39 time period. Indeed, the lack of an actual complete registry has led to a number of unintentional — or perhaps intentional — consequences.

Burned land can, for instance, be sold to developers and then reclassifiedafter the fact. A 2011 study by the Athens Polytechnic Institute found that approximately one million structures in Greece were constructed illegally (including on land previously covered by forest). Flexible legislation, such as Greek Law 4014/2011, allows such illegal properties to be “legalized” upon the payment of a fine—a practice viewed favorably for its lucrative income-generating potential by both the Greek government and its “partners” in the troika.

In turn, this practice fuels—pun intended—more and more fires. According to GlobalForestWatch, over 150,000 hectares of Greek forest have been destroyed since 2000, one percent of the total land area of the country.

At the onset of the Greek economic crisis, former government minister Theodoros Pangalos—whose governments oversaw and tolerated many of the aforementioned practices—stated, in an attempt to ascribe collective guilt and blame to the entire populace for the causes of the crisis, that the Greek people “ate it all together,” implying that the citizenry collectively took advantage of corruption and graft for its own benefit.

As with many attempts at stereotyping, there is a grain of truth in this statement. On the island of Crete for instance, the “Residents Outside Town Planning” club represents approximately 45,000 illegal homeowners.

However, the beneficiaries of such practices extend beyond just a certain segment of the Greek populace. “Ex-pats” who have relocated to Greece from countries considered by many self-loathing Greeks as “civilized” and “law-abiding” have taken advantage of such laws to purchase properties constructed illegally. Indeed, “ex-pats” looking to purchase property in Greece are even advised as to how an illegal property can be legalized. These very same “ex-pats” — reflecting arrogant, time-honored colonial habits that die hard — are known for lecturing the clearly lazy, wayward, and corrupt Greeks for engaging in such terrible practices as “tax evasion” through the withholding of receipts for small purchases.

Meanwhile, Greece continues to reap the benefits of its membership in the “European family”—where, we are told, in a position supported by the entirety of the political representation in the national parliament, the country must remain “at all costs.” With Greece in flames, the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism obliged Greece’s fire service, already stretched thin due to fires at home and EU-supported economic austerity, to send two firefighting planes to Albania to battle forest fires in that country.

A woman with a bucket walks among burnt forest land during a wildfire near the suburb of Kaisariani in eastern Athens, on, Aug. 10, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

A woman with a bucket walks among burnt forest land during a wildfire near the suburb of Kaisariani in eastern Athens, on, Aug. 10, 2017. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

Conversely, no corresponding mobilization seems to have occurred at the EU level to fight fires in Greece. France, for instance, felt no need to display “solidarity” towards its “European partner,” refusing a request to send aerial firefighting aircraft to Greece, citing its own difficulties with fires. It is unclear why Greece could not respond in the same manner to the EU’s demands to send planes to Albania.

In a tacit admission of who truly controls the purse strings in Greece, Giorgos Patoulis, the mayor of the northern Athens suburb of Maroussi and president of the Hellenic Union of Municipalities (KEDE), admitted in a radio interviewthat Greece’s limited resources to fight fires via aerial means are a direct consequence of the actions of those who control the country’s public spending. Since 2016, when the Greek Parliament essentially voted itself voteless, Greece’s annual budget has been determined by the EU itself.

Greece: Business as usual?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during their meeting in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city on Thursday, June 15, 2017. Under heavy security Netanyahu is in northern Greece to discuss plans to become a key supplier of European energy through an ambitious Mediterranean undersea natural gas pipeline project. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during their meeting in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city on Thursday, June 15, 2017. Under heavy security Netanyahu is in northern Greece to discuss plans to become a key supplier of European energy through an ambitious Mediterranean undersea natural gas pipeline project. (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, with a country in mourning, then-president George W. Bush famously uttered that America was “open for business.” The current government in Greece is apparently following the same playbook.

The SYRIZA-led government, many of whose members once participated in protest movements against apartheid Israel’s actions in Palestine, recently agreed to expedite efforts on the development of the EastMed pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Israeli gas fields to Greece, Italy, and Cyprus, in a project co-financed by the European Union and previously supported by the Obama administration.

Oddly enough, the proposed pipeline route includes a 600-kilometer overland route in mainland Greece, passing right through the Mani region of the Peloponnese that burned to the ground in early July.

Legislation currently being considered would officially declassify urban green spaces, such as parkland, that are currently considered “forestland” and protected by existing constitutional provisions. Loosening these protections would open the door to the economic “development” of the little remaining green space in Greece’s overcrowded, densely-populated, and haphazardly-planned cities. Meanwhile, in December the Greek Parliament passed Law 4442, Article 33 of which relaxes prior regulations on economic activity and the economic development of Greece’s archaeological sites. This law was passed at the behest of Greece’s so-called “saviors” in the troika.

According to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras though — as well as to the global neoliberal press that fawns over him and his commitment to the “bitter medicine” of austerity — all is well in Greece and the sweet smell of success, rather than that of smoldering ashes, is indeed in the air. In an absurd and comical interview published by the bible of “leftists” worldwide, The Guardian, on July 24, Tsipras described a reality in which apparently only he, his fellow government ministers and members of parliament, and his supporters in the press and the troika apparently reside.

In this interview, Tsipras claimed that “the worst is clearly behind us,” that Greece’s economy is “on the up,” and that his government “will extract the country from the crisis.” He excused his rejection of the referendum result of July 2015 as a “compromise” that prevented Greece from turning “into Afghanistan.” This statement reflects the same blatant fearmongering about the impact of a Greek departure from the EU and Eurozone that is practiced by the Greek and international mass media — which purportedly have fought the “leftist” government of Tsipras — and by the main Greek opposition, the neoliberal-right New Democracy party.

The “objective” Guardian could not conceal its support for Tsipras’ brand of neoliberal “leftism,” peppering the article with language excusing away the actions of Tsipras and his government. SYRIZA’s first-place finish with 36 percent of the vote in the September 2015 elections amidst record voter abstention is described as a “mandate,” while the austerity measures imposed by the troika are described as a “rescue programme” that may be accompanied by “much-needed debt relief.”

Tsipras himself defended his government’s position — to never consider an exit from the Eurozone and the EU — on the grounds that Europe would lose an important part of its history and heritage, an ironic statement when one considers that it is Greece that is losing its history, heritage, culture, language, and especially its sovereignty as a result of its membership in these institutions. This statement did, however, echo Tsipras’ January 25, 2015 victory speech that accompanied his initial ascent to power, a speech that contained constant references to “saving Europe” but no references to saving Greece, the country he was elected to govern.

One day after this puff piece was published by The Guardian, the SYRIZA-led government and the international media (including, you guessed it, The Guardian) triumphantly proclaimed Greece’s “return to the markets” — as Greece “successfully” held its first bond sale in three years, selling 3 billion euros’ worth of five-year bonds at a yield (interest rate) of 4.625 percent.

Compare this to the yields of other EU member-states as of August 15, including Belgium (-0.191 percent), France (-0.146 percent), Germany (-0.284 percent); crisis-hit countries such as Italy (0.7 percent), Portugal (1.089 percent), and Spain (0.217 percent); or even Romania (2.6 percent). It is evident that the idea of a common market and a common currency falls flat on its face. Greece’s 4.625 percent yield can also be compared to those in such economic powerhouses as Malaysia (3.622 percent), Botswana (4.2 percent), the Philippines (4.659 percent), and Vietnam (4.681 percent).

The government of EU and Eurozone member-state Greece is — in honor, it would seem, of Pyrrhus and his “victory” — celebrating its ability to once again borrow on the international markets, at rates comparable to those of Vietnam and the Philippines and worse than Botswana, in order to repay the “bailouts” (in reality, loans) received from its creditors in the troika — which were used to repay the debt that is blamed for thrusting Greece into its current economic predicament in the first place!

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, welcomes European Commissioner for Economy Pierre Moscovici at Maximos Mansion in Athens, July 25, 2017. Greece is poised to tap international bond markets for the first time in three years in a move the government claims will signal the country is ready to emerge from its bailout era. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, welcomes European Commissioner for Economy Pierre Moscovici at Maximos Mansion in Athens, July 25, 2017. Greece is poised to tap international bond markets for the first time in three years in a move the government claims will signal the country is ready to emerge from its bailout era. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Reality, however, must not be allowed to interfere with the sweet scent of success. Hence another one of the Greek government’s and troika’s recent success stories, the purported “loosening” of Greece’s capital controls, imposed under the watch of the supposedly “heroic” former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, which have restricted withdrawals from Greek bank accounts since June 28, 2015. Earlier in August, the Greek government announced a new limit on withdrawals from Greek bank accounts of 1,800 euros per month, replacing the previous limit of 840 euros every two weeks.

Simple math, however, demonstrates that the Greek government and its backers in the troika must consider the Greek people extremely stupid: an 840 euro withdrawal limit each two weeks amounts to a maximum of 21,840 euros per year, while a 1,800 euro monthly withdrawal limit equates to 21,600 euros annually — a reduction, in other words. The Guardian, however, joined the Greek government and most of the press corps in describing this as a “relaxation,” and further evidence of Greece’s “success story.”

Notably, this is not the first time that “fuzzy math” has been used to “loosen” Greece’s capital controls. When initially imposed, a limit of withdrawals of 60 euros per day was established. This 60 euro daily limit was “relaxed” in September of 2015 to a weekly limit of 420 euros, which again equates to 60 euros per day.

In July 2016, this limit was again “loosened”—by permitting withdrawals of 840 euros every two weeks, which again equated to 60 euros per day and 420 euros per week. The current annual limit of 21,600 euros comes out to a daily mean of 59.18 euros per day, less than when the capital controls were initially imposed in 2015!

Greece’s “success story” is indeed so great that Greek justice minister Stavros Kontonis, in interviews with Greek state television ERT and state news agency ANA-MPA, stated his belief that the recent spate of fires in the country is the result of an “organized plan to destabilize the country” hatched by unnamed elements who do not wish to see Greece’s economic “recovery” continue.

EU and media hypocrisy at its finest

On August 1, the former head of Greece’s Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), one-time IMF staffer Andreas Georgiou, was issued a two-year suspended prison sentence by a court of appeals in Athens on charges of breach of duty. Georgiou had been accused by whistleblowers such as Zoe Georganta, a former member of ELSTAT’s board of directors, of manipulating Greece’s deficit and debt figures to cause them to appear worse than they were in reality, thereby providing the political impetus necessary to drag Greece under the troika’s austerity and privatization regime. While the charges of breach of duty related to the lesser crime of having sent data regarding Greece’s 2009 budget deficit to Eurostat without consulting with ELSTAT’s board, this nevertheless represented a victory for those in Greece who have stood opposed to the austerity policies of the past eight years.

Opponents of “Brexit” and proponents of the European Union often hysterically claim that without the EU, human rights would somehow fly out the window. They must not have seen the reaction to the Georgiou case and the eventual verdict, on the part of the Nobel Prize-winning EU. European Commission coordinating spokesperson for Economic and Financial Affairs, Annika Breidthardt, expressed “concern” over the Georgiou ruling, claiming that ELSTAT’s independence was breached and that its members were not being “protected in line with the law,” further adding that the case would be examined by the Euro Working Group this autumn and that an appeal would be a possibility.

Prior to the verdict, Margaritis Schinas, the Greek-born chief spokesperson of the European Commission and former member of the European Parliament with the New Democracy party in Greece, again relayed the Commission’s disappointment and waning trust in Greece over the charges Georgiou was facing. Most damningly though, it was revealed that one of the requirements that the Greek government was obliged to enforce, in order to receive an 8.5 billion euro tranche of loan funds (which had already been earmarked for Greece due to the prior implementation of other troika demands), was to fully cover the cost of Georgiou’s legal defense. Coincidentally, of course, soon after these concerns were raised, a clause inserted into legislation pending before the Greek parliament provided for the full payment of Georgiou’s legal defense costs by the Greek state, via ELSTAT.

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)

Following the European Union’s lead, the press corps could not conceal their disappointment, seething over Georgiou’s guilty verdict. In an August 4 editorial, Bloomberg described the prosecution of Georgiou as “scandalous” and as “punishment” for “cleaning up” Greece’s finances. That same day, The Washington Post — owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon and CIA fame, and quick to label independent news sites such as Mint Press News as “fake news” — stated in an editorial that Georgiou was “scapegoated” and was “only doing his job.” The Financial Timescharacterized the Georgiou trial as a “farce,” warning that the decision would “drive a wedge between Athens and euro area creditors.”

In turn, a ludicrous Politico hit piece claimed that Greece “condemned itself” by “convicting an honest statistician” in a decision that “raises questions about the integrity of the country’s institutions.” The author of this particular article, Megan Greene, seems to have taken on the side job of being Georgiou’s public advocate on Twitter, where she also has publicly demonstrated comfortable relationships with editors from Greece’s neoliberal newspaper of record, Kathimerini, and with Greek politicians.

Interestingly, the “integrity” of Greece’s “institutions” was not called into question when, for instance, the Areios Pagos, Greece’s supreme court, ruled in early July that legislation rolling back Greek worker rights — which was implemented as part of Greece’s second memorandum agreement with the troika, and passed by the government of the non-elected technocrat prime minister and former central banker Lucas Papademos — was constitutional. According to the decision issued by the court, the laws in question had the purpose of increasing the “competitiveness” of Greek businesses and it followed that the resulting decrease in labor costs (wages) was therefore in the public interest.

Not a word of protest was uttered by the European Commission, the Financial Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Politico, Megan Greene, or Kathimerini over this decision. Nor was the integrity of Greece’s judicial institutions questioned when, later in July, an appeals court in Athens ruled that wage reductions of up to 45 percent were “legal and constitutional.” Again there was silence from the European Commission and its supporters in the press corps.

Indeed, instead of protest, the president of the Areios Pagos was rewarded: just days after the decision that found that the troika-imposed cutback in worker rights was constitutional, the president of the court, Vassiliki Thanou-Christophilou, was hired as the supervisor of the legal office of prime minister Tsipras, purportedly on a non-salaried basis. Notably, Thanou-Christophilou had also served as Greece’s caretaker prime minister for approximately one month, prior to the September 2015 parliamentary elections.

A “success story” – on paper only

Clearly congratulating himself on a job well done, Tsipras is now reportedly taking a vacation, while much of the country is up in flames, literally and figuratively. And why not? Tourism is said to be breaking records; unemployment is claimed to be on the decline; a primary budget surplus has been achieved; the current austerity program is claimed by Tsipras to be set to finish in 2018; the government is again claiming it will launch a television and radio licensing process to “go after” Greece’s oligarchs, and Greece is even reported to be launching talks to join the BRICS’ development bank. Sounds great, right? Let’s deconstruct these claims.

The August full moon has become an annual commemoration in Greece. Occurring during the peak of Greece’s tourist season, the night of the August full moon is a time when museums and historical sites throughout the country open their doors to the public, hosting free tours and live concerts.

This year, the August 7 full moon was accompanied by a partial lunar eclipse. And, this year’s crowds at museums and historical sites were larger than in previous years. This could be attributed, in part, to tourism. Greece is expecting to achieve record tourist arrivals, which this year are projected to surpass 30 million visitors.

The August full moon rises above the 5th Century BC Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, south of Athens, on Aug. 7, 2017. More than a hundred of Greece's ancient sites _ but not the Acropolis in Athens _ and museums were kept open until late Monday and concerts organized to allow visitors to enjoy the full moon, which is accompanied by a partial lunar eclipse. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

The August full moon rises above the 5th Century BC Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, south of Athens, on Aug. 7, 2017. More than a hundred of Greece’s ancient sites _ but not the Acropolis in Athens _ and museums were kept open until late Monday and concerts organized to allow visitors to enjoy the full moon, which is accompanied by a partial lunar eclipse. (AP/Petros Giannakouris)

There is another factor, however: while foreign tourists are arriving in Greece in droves, Greek residents are increasingly stuck at home — unable to afford even a brief vacation inside their own country and deprived of the opportunity to enjoy Greece’s beautiful beaches, islands, and countryside even for a few days. A 2016 study found that domestic tourism has decreased by 45 percent during the crisis.

Athens neighborhoods that used to resemble ghost towns during August, were this year only moderately less vibrant than during the rest of the year. Unable to afford a vacation, many Greeks stayed home—and likely attended those free full-moon events in record numbers.

Of course, privatizations were supposed to “save” Greece, including Greek tourism, justifying the sell-off of 14 profitable Greek regional airports and the port of Piraeus, the largest port in Greece and one of the largest in Europe. The 14 airports were purchased by a consortium of investors led by Fraport, owned by the German state.

Proponents of privatization in Greece, conditioned over many decades to demonize anything and everything that is publicly owned or operated, argued that this investment was necessary to “improve” these airports and their “efficiency.” Those “improvements” are already evident, as complaints have been rolling in from travelers and employees alike: extremely long queues and a lack of air conditioning have been reported to be commonplace to a far greater extent than in the past, indeed the new normal, while parking privileges for employees at the Fraport-owned airports have all but been curtailed.

Quite fittingly, the final agreement that was reached between the Greek government and Fraport for the privatization of the 14 airports was based on a royal decree enacted by Greece’s “pro-western” post-war government in 1953 and signed by King Paul, of German lineage through the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.

Such privatizations have been touted as “investments” that provide far-reaching benefits and jobs to the Greek economy, and as signs of investor confidence in Greece. The benefits they have actually provided Greece, however, are dubious, as seen in the case of Fraport. This is also evident in the case of the Chinese-owned Cosco, which purchased a controlling share in the entire port of Piraeus from the Greek state in 2016, and which had previously purchased the container port of Piraeus in an agreement with the then-government of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in 2011. What Cosco seems to have actually delivered to Piraeus are Chinese-style labor conditions, under which workers are, for instance, encouraged to urinate into the sea instead of taking toilet breaks.

From a tourism standpoint, however, these privatizations are part of a larger negative trend that goes largely unreported: the profits from these airports and seaports, which previously entered public coffers, now go straight to Germany and China. In the meantime, the “all-inclusive” and cruise-ship models of tourism are those that have been most vigorously developed in recent years.

This means that foreign visitors often arrive in Greece via foreign-owned charter airlines or cruise ships, on vacations that are usually booked with foreign travel agents and tour operators. They then spend most of their time on the cruise ship or inside an all-inclusive resort, contributing very little spending to the real economy. This is evidenced by statistics showing that despite Greece’s record arrivals, spending per tourist is on a decline, at a mere 430 euros per visitor, 15 percent less than Greece’s nearest competitor in the region.

China, of course, is also a member of BRICS, and it has been reported in recent weeks that Greece has entered talks to formally apply for membership in the BRICS’ New Development Bank. Many opponents of neoliberalism around the world have touted BRICS as an alternative to the existing economic order. But is it really? China’s labor record, for instance, suggests otherwise — as does the Temer regime currently at the helm in Brazil, a favorite of Washington, which is currently enforcing troika-style austerity and is embroiled in corruption scandals. The same could be said of India, which is on board with much of the Western world’s efforts to eliminate cash and physical currency.

But what about Russia? Many in Greece believe that Russia and Vladimir Putin can “save” Greece—if only Greece would turn its back on the Eurozone, EU, and NATO. Throughout the crisis, it has been rumored that there were secret plans for Greece to turn to Russia if it could not achieve “bailout” deals with the troika, but there seems to be no real evidence that Russia ever had such an aid package prepared for Greece, or that it was ever willing to provide such assistance. What is clear, however, is that Russia,  like China and like Germany, sees fertile ground in Greece for its own investments.

In Febrary 2016, a series of economic deals were signed between Greece and Russia. At the time, the Russian government expressed its interest in a number of potential privatization deals in Greece. Flashing forward to April of this year, a majority share (67 percent) of the port of Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, which is viewed as a strategic gateway to the Balkans, was privatized. The buyer? The Deutsche Invest Equity Partners-CMA consortium, in which a major investor is a business figure by the name of Ivan Savvidis.

Who is Savvidis? Born in Georgia when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Savvidis was employed in a state-owned tobacco factory during the Soviet years, becoming its general director soon after the collapse of the USSR and subsequent privatization of the factory. Savvidis was previously a deputy with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, in the country’s parliament. He is also chairman of the SKA Rostov-on-Don football club in Russia.

Prior to the 2010s, he was unknown in Greece, and there is some question as to whether he had even visited the country. In recent years, however, he has made his presence felt in Greece—especially since SYRIZA ascended to power. It could be said that he’s followed the path to power and influence that is preferred by the Greek oligarchic class.

His first big splash was through the purchase of the PAOK football club in Thessaloniki, joining the ranks of other oligarchs who own football teams in Greece. His group of companies has made various investments in Greece, such as in the field of tourism, where he has bought out various hotels and established an aviation company.

More recently, Savvidis began his foray into Greece’s utterly corrupt media sector, first via his participation in last year’s licensing bid for nationwide television licenses — a process ultimately struck down by Greece’s highest administrative court due to constitutional irregularities. Unabated, he has purchased the major daily tabloid Ethnos and financial newspaper Imerisia, as well as a share in the financially struggling national television station Mega Channel. These purchases were followed by his buyout of another national television station, Epsilon TV, earlier this month.

These purchases have solidified Savvidis’ place in the Greek media landscape, just in time for the relaunch of the licensing bid for nationwide television stations by the SYRIZA-led government. Following the rejection of last year’s bidding process by Greece’s administrative high court, the government has set up a new bidding process, this time in conjunction with the purportedly independent national broadcasting regulator, but which repeats many of the same lies that were heard prior to last year’s bid.  These lies pertain particularly to the number of stations that the television spectrum can “fit” — a number that has now increased to seven national stations from four last year, but that is still far fewer than in other countries (such as Italy), and that all but ensures the continuation of an oligopoly controlled by a few powerful actors, namely Greece’s traditional oligarchs and more recent entrants like Savvidis.

For the SYRIZA-led government, however, this forthcoming television licensing bid—which is said to be likely to extend to radio as well, with onerous requirements that smaller and rural stations will likely be unable to fulfill—represents another part of its “success story,” via the “fulfillment” of one of its many campaign promises, namely to “restore law and order” to the broadcast landscape. In reality, though, whereas the main opposition party SYRIZA promised to “crush” the oligarchs once in power, it is now preparing to turn the media landscape over to them officially. It should be noted at this point that the entirety of Greece’s major media owners have maintained, throughout the crisis, a staunch and unflinching pro-EU, pro-Eurozone, pro-austerity line.

The puff piece published by The Guardian touted the drop in Greece’s official unemployment rate to 21.7 percent, from a peak of 27.9 percent in 2013, as yet another aspect of SYRIZA’s “success story.” Much is left unsaid, however: the long-term unemployed, who are not counted in the statistics; the 500,000-plus person “brain drain” out of Greece during the crisis years; the poor working conditions and paltry wages of many of those who are still employed; part-time jobs that are counted as “full” employment; the aforementioned rollback of worker rights; the job insecurity that workers face, including going months at a time without pay or enduring unpaid overtime, and their fear of leaving due to the uncertainty of being able to find any other job; and so forth.

Just the 500,000-plus person brain drain alone would be enough for Greece’s unemployment rate to skyrocket, had these individuals not emigrated.

Ah, but Greece has attained—and maintained—a primary budget surplus, which reached 3.05 billion euros in the first seven months of 2017. That’s good news, right? Not if one considers what a primary budget surplus actually is. Briefly, it means that the Greek state is spending less than it is taking in as revenue. While this may sound prudent, what decades and centuries of experiments in economic austerity have demonstrated is that for countries experiencing a severe economic depression, as in the case of Greece, maintenance of a primary budget surplus merely exacerbates the problem: money is sucked out of the real economy and not returned to it.

As spending continues to decrease in a cash-starved economy where taxes are increasing and wages are declining, more and more cuts have to be made to government spending in order to meet surplus targets, perpetuating a never-ending death spiral.

In the case of Greece, the SYRIZA-led government, in an agreement with the troika earlier this year, pledged to maintain a primary budget surplus of 3.5 percent of its GDP each year through 2023, and 2 percent annual surpluses thereafter until 2060. Tsipras’ claims, therefore,  that Greece’s austerity program will come to a close sometime in 2018 are laughable: the maintenance of primary budget surpluses is, by definition, the continuation of austerity—which Greece has pledged to continue for (at least) the next 43 years!

But nevertheless, the smell of success is in the air. Prime Minister Tsipras and The Guardian say so, after all. The problem is, that scent hasn’t been detected by ordinary Greeks or by small business owners. Just in the first half of 2017, more than 15,000 businesses shuttered in Greece. But while the SYRIZA-led government is preparing to “crush” Greece’s oligarchs — who, like oligarchs the world over, evade their fair share of taxes by shifting profits offshore — the state has gotten to the bottom of Greece’s supposed problem with tax evasion via other apparently more effective means.

In July, a man who has been unemployed since 2010 and whose income consisted of 24 cents in interest from his bank account, was issued a 4,470 euro tax bill, as the Greek tax system presumes that citizens have a certain income level if they have a bank account, home, or automobile in their possession—even if they are unemployed, even if the property was inherited, even if the citizen is in fact currently impoverished.

In another case, a 49-year-old man in the town of Almiros was arrested and fined for the offense of selling 20 watermelons and 12 cantaloupes without a valid license. Greece’s television and radio stations, however, have operated without official licenses for decades, without anyone so much as batting an eyelash.

In yet another example, if you are a property owner in Greece, rental leases must now be submitted electronically to the tax authorities, with the owner immediately taxed on a percentage of the foreseen rental income for the entire year—before that income has been earned for the year! If, as in the case of a neighbor of this author in Athens, a renter skips town without having paid rent, the owner is nevertheless taxed on this “income.” The deadbeat tenant’s inability to pay–and your consequent taxation on “income” never received–is apparently your problem, not that of the tax office or finance minister!

An uncertain future, not a “success story”

A house damaged by the forest fire stands among pine trees north of Athens, at Kalamos, on, Aug. 16, 2017.  (AP/Ioanna Spanou)

A house damaged by the forest fire stands among pine trees north of Athens, at Kalamos, on, Aug. 16, 2017. (AP/Ioanna Spanou)

As this piece is being written, the smoky smell of the fires raging outside of Athens still hangs ominously in the air, on a day that is supposed to be a national holiday in Greece. For the prime minister and the members of the SYRIZA-led coalition government — as well as for the unabashedly pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-austerity press corps — it is the sweet smell of success that is hanging in the air. Success that exists, if at all, on paper only, as far removed from reality as the government that is nominally in control of the country, and the European and international institutions that are actually at the helm — in Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere.

A decade ago, in the summer of 2007 and in the aftermath of the aforementioned destructive fires on Mount Parnitha and the Ileia region, an anonymous call went “viral” via SMS text messaging and bloggers, calling upon citizens to wear black and to descend upon Athens’ Syntagma Square, and other central points throughout Greece, for a “non-partisan” protestagainst the then-New Democracy government for its response to the blazes. This was perhaps the first such protest in the country’s modern-day history. Strangely, following the destructive fires of this summer and despite almost ubiquitous smartphone and social media usage, no such similar calls have been extended.

 

Were the 2007 protests an aberration? Possibly. In Greece, the “Indignants” movement disappeared, never to reappear again, after the summer of 2011 and a last hurrah in February 2012 consisting of protests against the second memorandum. In the weeks leading up to the 2015 referendum, a “Solidarity with Greece” movement emerged in major cities in Europe and North America, where academic leftists and ivory-tower activists who somehow were able to procure large quantities of SYRIZA flags, organized rallies against the “blackmail” and “coup” SYRIZA and the Greek people were facing at the hands of the European institutions — which were apparently not evil enough, however, to warrant advocating in favor of “Grexit.”

Following SYRIZA’s wholesale rejection of the referendum result though, an interesting thing happened: this “solidarity” movement largely disappeared — as did its rallies, though perhaps not the SYRIZA flags. Today, a key participant in these rallies, Irish author and “eurocommunist” activist Helena Sheehan, is shilling her recently-published book, Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left. Sheehan has taken advantage of the public catfight between Tsipras and Varoufakis to generate some extra publicity for her book, which she admits she was not the best qualified to write.

Nevertheless, Sheehan gently chides SYRIZA for its capitulation and its supporters’ broken dreams, but does not question the European path followed by SYRIZA and by its predecessors before it. The “European dream” and open borders are a good thing, whereas restoration of national sovereignty is “fascist.” Sadly, there was no word from Sheehan as to when the “solidarity” rallies would take to the streets once more.

Returning to political reality, opinion surveys in Greece, to the extent that they can be trusted, consistently show the former governing party, New Democracy, with a steady and sometimes overwhelming lead. Popular sentiment on the street is that whenever new elections are held again, New Democracy will emerge victorious—though it is likely that they too will fall far short of a parliamentary majority, even with the 50-seat parliamentary bonus undemocratically awarded to the winner.

Just in case anybody believes New Democracy will represent a change in direction for Greece though, they would be wrong. It was two years ago when, following the referendum that overwhelmingly rejected the troika’s new austerity proposal for Greece, the SYRIZA-led government turned its back on the result and rammed through memorandum agreement number three for Greece, upon which much of today’s continued cuts, privatizations, and austerity are based.

However, the third memorandum could not have been successfully passed in parliament without the votes of the members of former ruling New Democracy and “socialist” PASOK parties, as well as upstart pro-establishment party To Potami. New Democracy, like SYRIZA today, brought Greece back to the international financial markets via a bond tender in late 2013 with a similarly high yield — and, like SYRIZA, declared Greece a “success story” and claimed the end of the crisis was nearing.

For Greece’s “saviors,” there’s a scent of success in the air. But for the rest of the Greek populace, what’s in the air, literally and figuratively, is the scent of destruction. In a country where, over the past decade and more, Greece’s agriculture, industry, economy, the dreams of its people, and the country’s future have been methodically burned, why not the nation’s forests as well?