Today’s Kathimerini on Sunday published an open letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras from the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris. I think this is worth translating it in full for a non-Greek speaking audience, because it captures the concerns of a lot of people in Greece, people who insist on looking for a silver lining in the current impasse. Much like Aunt Cassandra in her advice to young “Che”, Boutaris wants Tsipras to stop pussy-footing around and rise to the occasion because there are no real alternatives. While most of the international media have been heaving a sigh of relief that an agreement preventing Grexit was reached last week, in Greece the focus is on the next drama: the discord within Syriza, the possibility of a vote of confidence or snap elections, and the lack of focus on day-to-day government, including the poor handling of the refugee crisis. The fear is that while the crew on the bridge bicker, Greece is drifting toward the next iceberg.
Boutaris himself is an interesting character and a potentially influential voice (a recent profile in The Guardian makes entertaining reading). The heir of a winemaking family from Northern Greece, he has built a reputation for being unconventional. To the extent that he ever had a political affiliation, he was involved with the Greek Communist Party (KKE) in his youth. Since then, he has broken from his family to form his own successful wine company, battled alcoholism, and come into public service as an independent, at a time in life when most are settling into retirement, “as a businessman taking on a new project”. As mayor of Thessaloniki he has not been universally popular – he was elected at a time when blatant corruption created a political vacuum, and has made enemies right and left for poking at notorious political wasps’ nests like public sanitation. He has also controversially forged close links with Turkey in the name of culture and tourism, backed the Gay Pride parade in Thessaloniki in defiance of the conservative local bishop, and spoken openly about the tens of thousands of Jews from the city sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Usually a man of few words, his droll but erudite pronouncements guarantee him a hearing. When Syriza forced a vote for a new President at the end of 2014, he responded to press enquiries as to his possible candidacy, saying “Whoever heard of a Head of State with tattoos?” (he has several). Call him what you will, he can’t be accused of being part of the old political elite, and that is why his voice carries weight at the present time.
“It is clearer than daylight that the situation in the country is critical. But how critical is it, and what choices do we have left? Since 2009 and the outbreak of this unprecedented crisis we have already been governed, or attempted to be governed, by most of the parties who have elected representatives in the Greek Parliament (from the nationalist right to the radical left). But the situation in the country does not seem idyllic… People continue to feel hopelessness and despair. As long as the current “system” continues to fail – because everyone who governs eventually becomes “the system” – people will continue to look for anti-systemic alternative choices. However, not many of these remain. In reality, there are only two: Fascism, or Soviet-style totalitarianism. History has shown that the country must avoid such paths at all costs. But to be able to enter a safe path, the current government must succeed in its main goal: a basic agreement with our partners, which will continue to give us the ability to belong to what we call the civilized world, with all that entails. For a country like Greece, without well-functioning public administration, with weak institutions and a powerless judicial system, lacking a consensual political culture, it is absolutely necessary to continue holding a European compass in as many fields as possible. And the Eurozone is perhaps the most important of these. Because our continued presence in it is perhaps the only condition which can force us to one day build a healthy and productive economy.
It is important to understand that at this moment what matters is not whether the government is good or bad, adequate or inadequate. I am not alone in having found serious weaknesses and dysfunctions in this, as in the previous governments. Lack of coordination and a rounded vision has been a perennial problem of Greek governments. In addition, a reactionary and old-party, but well-organized minority in the present government is attempting to nullify any initiative for reconciliation and cooperation with healthy political forces. In the final analysis, they are undermining the people’s wish for a united internal front.
Whether Greece belongs in the EU, or the BRICS, or alliances like the old Comecon or the “Non-Aligned movement”, is not a matter for ideological or philosophical rumination but of vital importance. It is important that we understand that, despite our current mess, we must do everything to continue to be part of the civilized world, and not an imaginary utopia which only we invoke but no one else has discovered. This does not mean that we mustn’t have the right to hope and dream. Far from it! Not only the Greek people, but all people deserve the best possible future. The issue is how they approach it, with what means, what policies and what alliances. The be sure, the best solutions don’t come from theoretical arguments and paper exercises, but from confronting actual facts. Which countries have the highest standard of living, the EU members or Cuba? Where do we find the biggest wealth inequality, Spain or Brazil? Sadly, these questions that most of us until recently considered rhetorical, at the present moment seem to require a real substantive answer.
What is being signed off by the Greek Prime Minister in order to achieve an agreement with the EU will not all be pleasant. And of course he will not escape criticism – within and outside his party – for breaking his campaign promises on several counts. However, what he would have to put his signature to in the case of non-agreement and subsequent exit from the Euro, would be three times worse. The issue for a Prime Minister is to have the strength to decide for the best (or the least worst), and then have the strength to defend his decision. When the hour zero comes – and we are already there – you have to decide whether to take this path or that one. Neither is strewn with rose petals. At least, though, we avoided the thorns, because we would not have been able to bear them, being already barefoot.
The Greek Prime Minister has already shown himself smart and flexible. On top of this, he is the only politician who embodies hope for a better future. I believe that he must accompany his signature on the third memorandum with something more, if he wants to be judged by history as a leader worthy of Eleftherios Venizelos. He must persuade and inspire the Greek people to believe that their time has come, that the time has arrived for us to work systematically and with passion and real goals. He must convince the Greek people that there is not a conspiracy against us, that we are not being sprayed, or blackmailed by villainous foes, that we are not smarter than everyone else. As long as the Prime Minister says that he was forced to sign an agreement he does not want, he is working against this. The time has come for him to propose his own plan for national reconstruction, being truthful: “Yes, we are the Left, and we have come to power to make the great change. Let’s all come together to be a role model for all the beleaguered peoples of the world.” The priority for the country is to be built on powerful institutions, which will form the pillars of a credible edifice of state. A state that Ioannis Capodistrias envisioned, but was hindered by a system of clientelism, populism and corruption, which inoculated entire generations with these sorts of practices. Tsipras is the only one today who can inspire and change this climate that has established itself in the country over the years and is dragging us down. People are disgusted by the old party system and the current Prime Minister is the only one who has the popular mandate to get us out of this hole.
Now is Tsipras’s time. We should have started reforms ourselves back in 1981 when we entered the European Community. We have a unique opportunity now to believe in our values and our abilities, with you, Alexis Tsipras, as Prime Minister. This is now in your hands, and it is your job to succeed. It is your responsibility to cement this belief, and make it a flag for us all to march behind. And I believe what you yourself have said. That you are not the kind of person who shirks his responsibility.”
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Photo from Adore magazine republished in Greekreporter.com