Crisis porn vs. the news – November 2015 edition

453173Don't date a girl who reads the news

The last couple of weeks would have had Aunt Cassandra reaching for her smelling salts, had she not given up the extreme sport of “reading the papers” long ago. If the reputable English-language media are to be believed, young Greek girls are selling favours for the price of a sandwich, before going to the cemetery to dig up their parents because they can’t afford the burial plot (according to the Greek press, the biggest domestic stories are the various shades of name-calling within the official opposition and between current and former ministers in the coalition government).

The foreign stories brought back memories of the heady days when the Greek crisis was at the top of the news cycle and every day served up dozens of column inches of crisis porn in the global media. Remember, before the refugees restored the phrase “humanitarian crisis” to its correct usage, before ISIS turned Europe into their sectarian backyard? On closer reading, one of these stories turned out to be hyperbole heaped upon a real problem (there has been an increase in Greek women entering the sex trade, but the main source for the story distanced himself from some the more sensationalist claims); the other was a perfectly good human interest story probably given an editorial crisis angle for “relevance” (exhumation has been the default solution to cemetery over-crowding going back decades before the crisis, but people are increasingly looking for alternative solutions because their priorities have changed.

The problem is that while we are distracted by this “news”, there is a whole herd of restless elephants in the room. The real issues are not terribly exotic, they are technical and boring. They simply wouldn’t sell as much copy, or attract enough clicks in our out of Greece, so they have received almost nil coverage. To illustrate my point, I have picked two vitally important stories about Greece that were sidelined, and one exception that proves the rule.

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Story the First: The real “sale of the century” this week was not an anecdotal €2 hand-job from a possibly invented starving Greek student, but the recapitalisation of the Greek banks. I am not a banking insider so I have spent the last two weeks scouring both the Greek and foreign media to find a clear explanation of the story in layman’s terms. I thought I would share with you what I managed to find – hardly any of it from mainstream media sources, mostly published in Greek.

It has long been known that the Greek banks would need to raise new capital in order to come off life support and become at least part-functioning zombies that will (a) not threaten to appropriate depositors’ funds in order to survive, (b) allow customers to access their money and perform transactions without capital controls, and (c) possibly even return to performing their core function of lending again. In order to meet some of the capital requirements without relying wholly on Eurozone lenders, it was agreed that the banks could first seek to raise the money from the markets. Somehow in this process, the four systemic Greek banks, which are in poor shape but between them still hold assets in excess of €300 billion, were reduced to penny stocks (quite literally: €0.02 for National Bank of Greece, €0.0003 for Piraeus Bank, €0.04 for Alpha Bank and €0.01 for Eurobank). At these prices, Piraeus Bank, with €80 billion in assets, almost 20,000 employees in over 1,000 branches and 5.7 million customers could be acquired with €177 million (millions, not billions!). This deal effectively wiped out the banks’ existing shareholders who had paid much dearer for their shares: they effectively now hold a much thinner slice of a much smaller pie, with little chance of recouping their losses even if the banks bounce back to health.

While this process was unfolding, the political debate focussed narrowly on one term on the other side of the banking equation, namely the protection from foreclosure of homeowners who are in danger of defaulting on their mortgage payments to these very same banks. “Not a single home in a banker’s hands” had been an election promise of the governing parties, and indeed the 25% of mortgage holders deemed to be most vulnerable were fully protected by a compromise reached on the “red loans”.

“Hurrah!” you might exclaim. “A minor triumph for the little man, at the expense of the fat cat bankers and their capitalist masters!” Right? Wrong! Major and minor shareholders lost out from the recapitalisation deal, but the biggest loser by far is the Greek public who had bailed out the banks originally by taking majority stakes in them, TARP-style, in 2013. Those stakes, originally purchased for €25 billion (plus €19 billion in deferred taxes), reduced in value to between €12-18 billion by 2014, are now worth almost nothing (around €0.5 billion to be precise). This represents a loss to the public purse of tens of billions of Euros at a time when it has been frantically searching frantically behind the sofa cushions to find €0.4 billion a year from VAT (first schools, then wine, then gambling). What’s more, it is a loss that it is unlikely to recoup in the event of a recovery, because its ownership share has been drastically diluted (at 24% for NBG, 2.4% for Eurobank, 11% for Alpha and 22% for Piraeus, it is now a minority shareholder). The gains for bank customers (improved deposit protection, partial foreclosure protection) are in no way commensurate with the cost to Greek society.

How was this allowed to happen? Firstly , it is unclear whether any other options were seriously considered, other than to offer private investors first dibs; the bailout deal signed in July already provided for funds of up to €25 billion to refloat the banks if required. With markets being the chosen path, the share offering didn’t take place in the best of conditions; but even so, the prices resulting from the deal are way out of line with the market price for the banks’ shares. As an example, NBG shares were trading on the Athens Stock market at €0.32 on the eve of the recapitalisation deal (much lower than the €4.29 that the state paid for them in 2013, and also reflecting a near-halving in prices through November while the capital raising was being negotiated). Even so, the €0.02 price agreed represents a whopping 93% discount on the market valuation.

The new share price was agreed not on the open market, but using an opaque process called “book-building”, typically used in hard-to-value IPOs like Facebook, where investors are invited to bid privately for large blocks of shares. The precise terms of this process were agreed by the Greek government with the creditors, and passed into legislation by the Greek parliament. Critics point out that they were entirely one-sided and effectively gave all power to the bidders to determine the price: there was no minimum or back-stop; the Greek state agreed to accept the “book-building prices” even if they did not reflect market value; Greek investors were excluded from bidding, as was the Greek state (this by a “midnight amendment” to the governing legislation). The Greek state therefore not only had to stand by and watch the lowest bidder erase the value of its holdings, but was also unable to buy in at the low price to prevent the dilution of its ownership stake. Rewind to the last capital-raising exercise by the banks in April 2014, when the state was again excluded but banks were able to name their asking price at discounts of (only!) 15% and 35%. This deal was hailed at the time as a success, but there were critics on left and right, one branding it a “big fat Greek privatisation scandal” – it is clear from this latest development that no lessons were learned. The irony of this happening under a majority left-wing coalition who had spent their time in opposition railing against the selling-off of Greek assets to “vultures” and “speculators” is not lost.

The deal was further sweetened for potential buyers by government’s insistence on homeowner protection, as the state (i.e. the taxpayer) has agreed to part-guarantee the protected 25% of “red loans”, so that they wouldn’t have to be entirely written off at a loss to the banks and their new owners. Ultimately, it can only be described as a big transfer of wealth from the Greek state to foreign (as yet unnamed) private investors, in the course of which the creditors and the bankers were allowed to promote their own agendas, the Greek government proved woefully inadequate at negotiating for the public interest both as a borrower and as a majority shareholder, and parliament dropped the ball, too distracted by posturing not note the fine print.

Bottom line? Last week €2 could have bought you an expensive tyropita (a cheese pie, not a sandwich – the real measure of debasement used in the article), a few moments of miserable sexual relief – or it could have bought you 100 shares in the National Bank of Greece, if you knew the right people. On the other hand, if you’re one of those (possibly fictional) students who has gone on the game to pay your rent, you are also effectively subsidising someone’s mortgage so they don’t have to. The banks, meanwhile, are already running TV ads celebrating the “confidence” that foreign investors have shown in them.

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Story the Second: The real intergenerational strife story is not exhumation, but pension reform. Pension reform is the next big bill that needs to pass through parliament to satisfy Greece’s commitments to the creditors, and it may yet be this government’s undoing. But the politically unpalatable truth that won’t get much of an airing is that the pension system needs to reform not just because of the crisis, or because our arm has been twisted by unscrupulous lenders in a moment of weakness, but because despite numerous piecemeal reforms over the yearsit simply isn’t viable, and hasn’t been for decades. It is therefore tragic that once again it has been turned into a political football, as the government is belatedly asking for consensus, while the opposition parties smell blood in a paper-thin majority and are digging their heels in.

There will no doubt be a lot of hot air about plundering and mismanagement of reserves, and particularly the losses from PSI, the debt restructuring programme which imposed a 50% haircut on government bonds held by the state pension funds. A brief but very informative exercise published recently (unfortunately only in Greek) demonstrates why this populist blamestorming is completely bogus. Firstly, because most of the 90+ separate pension funds that comprise the state-run system have been operating a deficit since the 1980s: they not only lack reserves, but need to be propped up on an annual basis by substantial public funds in order to be able to pay out pensions. Where reserves exist, their returns on investment only contribute between 3-5% of inflows to the funds’ operating budget to supplement workers’ contributions (as is the norm) and state contributions. Therefore, even the 50% reduction brought about by PSI has had a negligible effect on current pension payments, and is definitely not the reason for any pension cuts that have or will come into effect. The same study also estimated that the last two decades of rollercoaster investment of reserves in risky assets – including the inflation and bursting of the Athens stock market bubble, the purchase of dodgy structured bonds and the effects of the infamous PSI “haircut” – have brought reserves to approximately the same level that they would have been had they been invested in safe but low-yielding German government bonds!

So, aside from the correcting the obvious distortions in the system (e.g. hairdressers retiring at 50) and flushing out the abuses (e.g. deceased claimants), the pension system is still far from self-supporting and needs substantial overhaul. This was the unequivocal conclusion of the “committee of wise men” which reported to the government last month, and whose recommendations are already being cherry-picked for political expediency. A brief critical unpicking of the larger structural issues behind the Greek pensions crisis can be read here (in English). This year the country counts 1.3 workers (pension contributors) for every one pensioner, because of a combination of high unemployment, increased emigration and a surge in voluntary pension applications driven by the anticipation of reform. Even if employment were to rebound to pre-crisis levels, Greece is brewing one of the more extreme versions of the “demographic time-bomb” which is forcing much healthier economies worldwide to rethink their pension system (by 2020, 20% of the total population of Greece will be over 65, rising to 30% in 2030 according a recent report by the European Commission). All of this means that workers will have to work longer and contribute more for less generous pensions. In the immediate future, despite political grandstanding to the contrary, some pensions will have to be cut to meet a reduction in state spending of 1% GDP that Greece has already committed to.

Bottom line? You may want to be mean to your parents after reading this, but please reserve your ire for the politicians for stalling and promising the stars once again, and the media for not holding them to account.

Story the Third: The Greek shipping myth may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Reuters deserves an honourable mention for getting the coals out of the fire once again, on at least the second occasion I have noted in my non-scientific survey (the first being its 2012 report on Greece’s “triangle of power” which licensed us all to use the pimping metaphor in public discourse). This latest report questions the statistics used to calculate the value of shipping to the Greek economy, and offers some support to voices calling for a rethink of the exceptional tax breaks given to the industry.

Maybe Aunt Cassandra is right, the coffee cup is your best counsel, and at least saves money on healthcare. But I hope this has been informative.

Images: thecitizen.inlarissanet.gr (yes, that image again), BBC

 

Crisis porn vs. the news – November 2015 edition

Black December, red pen

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ATHENS TECHNICAL SCHOOL (TEI): COURSEWORK COVER SHEET *

Department: Business Administration

Module: Introduction to Marketing

Grading period: Winter Semester 2015

Submitted by: Nikos Romanos, Panayiotis Argyros

Project: Write the copy for a marketing campaign to introduce “Black Friday” into the Greek retail calendar. “Black Friday” is a 24-hour period of sales held the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, but now extended to online retailers and traditional retail venues outside the U.S. where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. It has become common for shoppers to camp overnight outside the retail venues to queue for cheap consumer goods. Violence, injuries and even deaths have occasionally resulted from poor crowd control.

Grade: B-

Detailed Comments: Some sparky stuff in here, but 2,571 words is really excessive. You need to work to a 250 word limit – maximum! In my markup, I have suggested ways to improve and shorten your copy. Detailed comments follow.

Concept: I LOVE your idea of a month day of revolution, and I also love how you are able blend it with an anapologetically nostalgic appeal (“let us remember”): you’re saying “it’s new and radical but also familiar and comforting”. I can immediately see the cross-platform potential of spontaneous street actions: “direct action groups”, “public interventions” (flashmobs in downtown Athens and in the shopping malls, a social media campaign, we can Astro-turf the hell out of this one). Paint the town red, explosions of colour against the grey concrete! Very “Apple Mackintosh 1984”, classic!

Style: You have got the authentic touches here, you really seem to have studied your Bakunin, and absorbed that rich yet stilted language. You have a kind of vintage, steampunk thing going on. But we need to remember our audience. I think here we need to focus on the dynamic elements: “Youth!” “Spontaneity!” “Impetuous!” “Revolution!” “Explosive!” Short sentences! Punchy!

Content: I have picked out some of my favourite quotes which I think really capture the spirit:

“We are living the beginning of the end of the world as we know it” – I love this, it really highlights to momentousness of the occasion (and it would be momentous, in a country where “never on Sunday” is still a slogan in the retail space).

“Black December Friday is more than just a date” – I paraphrase slightly, but again, MOMENTOUS!

“The only possible alliance is with the world of probabilities” – a world of probabilities: how optimistic, how ASPIRATIONAL!

You really have a gift for evoking the joy of shopping: “the consumption of bliss”, “the windows of abundance” – really had me reaching for my credit card there.

I suggest you avoid describing violence and oppression directly. The tyranny of the current retail calendar can be implied quite powerfully using visual cues. Study how that Apple ad does it: they reference George Orwell and show riot police on American TV, during the Super Bowl. No-one bats an eyelid, no-one ends up in jail! That’s cojones!

Also: you quote several “alternative” poets to illustrate your points. In a multi-media context we can do this with musical cues. Nirvana would be my go-to music for this type of message: grungy yet “safe” for consumers; instant appeal for Generation X demographic, rebels with a healthy disposable income.

Logistics: I suspect a month of steep discounts would be too much even for a healthy retail client, hence I suggest we stick to the original “Black Friday”, but I give you points for thinking big.

Conclusion: Please don’t be discouraged by the red ink or the grade, this is one of the most promising pieces of work I have seen this semester. When you become available for work, I will be delighted to introduce you to my good friends at ¡Revolución! Communications, who are always on the lookout for talent – they have an interesting client list and your experience will be relevant.

 


* All external links are 100% genuine, everything in between in a fabrication.

The original text used in this exercise is a proclamation issued on the 11th November 2015 by Nikos Romanos and Panayiotis Argyros from prison, calling for a “Black December” of mayhem, vandalism and bomb attacks. The original Greek text can be found here, and translation was done for expediency by Google Translate – the surreal mash-up of nihilism, exuberance and half-digested jargon is mostly preserved. A time-bomb which detonated in the early hours of Tuesday 24th November outside the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises in central Athens, causing significant material damage, may or may not have been linked to this proclamation. The Christmas lights were lit 50 metres away in Syntagma Square that same evening by the Mayor of Athens.

Nikos Romanos is serving a 16-year prison term for armed robbery. He was a key witness when his teenage friend, Alexis Grigoropoulos was shot dead by a policeman in the Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia in December 2008, an incident which resulted in extensive rioting in the centre of Athens. After the incident, Romanos went underground, believed to be hiding with various anti-authoritarian groups, until he was arrested in the course of an armed bank robbery in northern Greece in February 2013. He is also suspected of involvement in a number of non-fatal terror attacks. While in prison, he sat his university entry exams and gained a place to study Business Administration at the Technical School (TEI) of Athens. In 2014 he went on hunger strike to demand permission to attend classes on day release rather than by remote study.  His demand was not met. Sympathetic views hold that Romanos is torn between a genuine desire to learn and his ties to anarcho-terrorist groups in prison. This latest proclamation suggests that any rehabilitation effort is losing ground. This post imagines a more optimistic scenario in which the text has been misinterpreted, and where it is in fact a testament to the redemptive power of Business Studies.

Panayiotis Argyros is a member of the anarcho-terrorist group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (Συνωμοσία των Πυρήνων της Φωτιάς, or SPF), one of the latest generation of domestic urban guerilla groups which have been active in Greece since the 1970s. SPF have been responsible for a number of terror attacks and attempted attacks involving time-bombs and parcel-bombs against political and business targets since 2008. Argyros was arrested in November 2010 after a parcel bomb addressed to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy detonated in the hands of a courier company employee causing his injury. He is serving a 25-year term for his involvement in the organisation and a number of bombing attacks on political and business targets. Recently, a former Citizen Protection Minister in the previous Syriza/ANEL government initiated a judicial investigation by alleging that senior Syriza officials were being lobbied by imprisoned members of the SPF group, and that his life was under threat as a result of his non-cooperation.

Images: Daniel Acker: Bloomberg; seleo.gr via stoxos.gr

 

 

 

Black December, red pen

Anonymous, ISIS duke it out in Greek Sunday spectacular

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Hackers’ collective Anonymous and apocalyptic Islamic death cult ISIS are vying for responsibility for the software glitch that caused the postponement of today’s leadership elections by Greek opposition party Nea Demokratia.

Earlier this week, Anonymous, the “hacktivist” group known for their cyber-attacks on political targets, Youtube messages in broken voice-synthesised English, and fondness for the Hollywood-inspired Guy Fawkes mask, declared war on ISIS in reprisal for the the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris. An Anonymous cyber-attack earlier this week is claimed to have taken down thousands of ISIS Twitter accounts and compromised the terror organisation’s 24-hour help desk, leaving thousands of jihadis at a loss with urgent queries as to whether to “cut the red or the green cable” or “is it halal to use Miss Piggy as a Twitter avatar if she is wearing a hijab”.

It is believed that the two global disruptors agreed to duke it out in a bloodless battle in cyberspace today, choosing as their target a noted fortress of internet security, the online voting system chosen in a one-bid process by Nea Demokratia to elect its next leader. The ND leadership election is also thought to have been chosen for its momentous importance, as the vote will determine which of the four hapless candidates will be the one to finally put the once venerable centre-right party out of its misery. While security forces and media were focussing on a well-placed rumours by Anonymous of imminent physical attacks by ISIS on world waffle capital Brussels and that bastion of Western values, the WWE championship in Atlanta, the real battle was going on in cyberspace.

As the news was announced in Athens, Babis and his group of track-suited pundits assembling for their regular Sunday brainstorming session over a frappé and the sports papers, let out a collective sigh and expressed their regret that the otherwise rich Greek language lacks the equivalent of “couldn’t organise a p*ss-up in a brewery”. They then proceeded to dissect the real controversy: last night’s cancellation of the Panathinaikos-Olympiakos football derby in a storm of flares, teargas and flying stadium fittings; before moving on to a game of “how many bank shares do you give me for this half-eaten sandwich?”

Anonymous, ISIS duke it out in Greek Sunday spectacular

“Adios, bro”: That resignation message in full

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Earlier today, Syriza MP and former government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis submitted his resignation, under pressure from PM Alexis Tsipras after he had made it know he would not be voting in favour of the latest bundle of measures going through the Greek Parliament tonight. The development is considered significant as Sakellaridis has been considered a member of Tsipras’s inner circle. The following message was left on Tsipras’s voicemail*.


“Bro (κολλητἐ)

Don’t worry, I’m gonna go quietly, dignified, like. I’ll make some sh*t up about principles, “irreconcilable differences”, “inability to implement” etc., like we’re gonna keep it civilised for the sake of the kids. Anyone who knows what’s what will know that’s lame… Like, we all knew there was a sh*tstorm brewing when we got behind you in September, but I’ll let you handle the tricky questions, boss.

I think you and me both know what this is about, bro.

You’re hanging out with Fatty all the time, war-gaming with Fatty, letting Fatty pick the drinks order. You know he goes around telling people you’re his b*tch behind your back, don’t you? And when it’s not Fatty, it’s Nikos. Nikos gets the fancy ministry, Nikos gets to ride the chopper, Nikos gets to do the oligarch-bashing. And all the geeks that we used to take the p*ss out of, now they’re you’re best friends. Little Lord Fauntleroy with his crumpled professor’s jackets and his stupid accent. What a loser! At least Yanis had a big bike.

But you know what crossed the line for me? First, you take that uptight bint Olga with you in the jet instead of me. Then you go to the football game, VIP box and all. Then you get to tour the changing rooms. I know it was just Turkey, man, but the f*cking national team?! You know I would have given both my arms! “Who do you play for? Barcelona? My favourite team”. WTF?? Listen to yourself, dude, you sound like some stupid chick trying to fit in with the guys so she can score with the captain. Stick to volleyball man, that’s more your speed.

I never thought it would come to this, bro. You broke up the the Rat Pack, the Revolutionary Reservoir Dogs. For what? Just to fit in… Bottom line, you’re no fun anymore. One of these days you’ll lose a bet and have to wear a tie, and we’ll see who’s laughing then…

Seriously, though. I love you, man, and good luck with it all. You know where to find me when this is all over. We can crack open a beer, order a pizza, watch some “Jackass”, just like the old days, before you sold out.

Adios bro. ¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

Word.”

* Stories, tweets and Facebook posts linked to or reproduced are genuine. Everything in between is a fabrication.

Image adapted from ienimerosi.gr

“Adios, bro”: That resignation message in full

ISIS behind Greek firebrand’s return to politics

Exclusive to Dateline: Atlantis. [Warning: if you are not ready for humour, go here first].

Leaked transcripts from the interrogation of a recently defected Islamic State fighter have shed light on the covert tactics employed by the Islamist extremist group in Europe. The defector revealed that ISIS leadership hatched a plan to bankroll recently unseated Greek MP Rachel Makri in a bid to return her to mainstream politics, among a number of hand-picked extremist politicians to be used as weapons in a secret propaganda war.

The source claims to have been present at a meeting of a secret ISIS taskforce where the plan was discussed. Makri was one among several candidates discussed. ISIS commanders reviewed her cv, noting that she was first elected to the Greek parliament with far-right party ANEL (Independent Greeks), before being expelled for voting against the party line, and eventually bonding with Syriza amazon and former parliamentary Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou over protests at the closure of state broadcaster ERT. Propaganda chiefs discussed how her alliance with Zoi led her to join Syriza, and subsequently hard-left Syriza breakaway party Popular Unity in a suicidal bid to get re-elected in September 2015. When her bid failed, she announced her retirement from politics and her intention to spend more time scuba diving with her friends in the Greek Special Forces. ISIS’s digital marketing gurus also analysed her social media footprint, and were reportedly impressed by her ability to generate prodigious volumes of internet traffic as well as mainstream media coverage by aggressively disseminating a broad range of conspiracy theories, urban myths and half-baked opinions.

According to the source, ISIS chiefs were at first so taken with Makri’s love of soldiering skills, social media prowess and ability to switch seamlessly between mutually contradictory ideologies with unabated zeal, that they considered converting her to the jihadi cause. However their internal polling unit found that the brothers were more strongly incentivised by Bethnal Green schoolgirl brides, while the post of senior female social media recruiter was ably filled by existing “black widows” with stronger islamist credentials. It was then that the plan to harness Makri’s natural communication skills in the cause of the global caliphate was hatched, and the ISIS propaganda unit was formed.

The purpose of the unit is to provide covert support for extremist elements within western states in order to polarise popular opinion against Islam in all its forms and to stoke anti-refugee sentiment, thus creating a fertile recruiting ground for its forces, and ultimately bringing about the collapse of the West. Experts note that disinformation on all sides is crucial to this type of campaign, and therefore political alignment is less important than the ability to propagate half-baked rumour, conspiracy and innuendo with absolute conviction. Certainly, a campaigner for islamist world domination could not wish for a more willing dupe than Makri in a key gateway country to Europe, where it now appears that at least one passport found at a scene of the attack passed through en route to Paris. It did not go unnoticed among the ISIS task force that her former boss, Panos Kammenos of ANEL, had once threatened to flood Europe with migrants and jihadis if Greece were forced out of the EU – this they took to be an excellent example of the explosive factional dynamic that they wish to create among the infidels. The informant quoted one ISIS leader as saying, “this is genius, if Rachel didn’t exist we would have to invent her – and that would cost us a fortune in PR consulting fees”.

ISIS, with a robust economy funded by the illegal sale of oil and antiquities, is in a much better position to bankroll political campaigns than traditional funding sources in cash-strapped Greece or indeed other western nations with stronger controls on political funding. It is believed to have established a secret “black fund” specifically for that purpose. The first tranche of funding was to be presented to Makri as an anonymous donation handed to her by a female jihadi posing as an Orthodox nun.

Makri’s return to the political scene was announced in a series of tweets and Facebook postings commenting on Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris:

CTuroSlU8AAaFag

[Translation: “They do not hesitate to sacrifice innocent people to execute their monstrous plans. Very convenient for Hollande and Obama the two people who are responsible for the destabilisation of the Middle East and the wars for arms sales. Those who nurture the tsihadists (sic) arm them and use them for the destabilisation and destruction of countries and peoples. And of course they have found a way to stop the flows of refugees that they led to become refugees.” – original post no longer available, but several in the same vein are].

Makri’s sub-Chomskian pronouncements align her neatly with Syrian President Assad, and are also rumoured to have made her a pin-up for the hardline clerical faction in Iran. The former ISIS source also shed light on a ditched propaganda plan in connection with the attacks, which would have seen ISIS leak a fraudulent “Memo to all Jewish metalhedz” to make alternative plans for last Friday night; however, it appears that this plan was abandoned on the grounds that “not even the Greeks would fall for that”. The Greek social media reaction to the attacks suggests that that decision may have been too hasty.

After using minor “fringe” politicians as a testing ground, security experts believe that ISIS plan to “supersize it” by moving on to more mainstream targets (including “alternative” media, opportunist Greek former ministers and European heads of state), the ultimate prize being the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, who is already responding according to script, but “could always use more encouragement” in the view of one senior ISIS commander quoted by the defector. The Islamists harbour dreams not only of funding the front-runner in the French presidential elections, but also, according to the confidential source, producing a “hot Nazi-on-Nazi sex tape” featuring female stars of the European extremes engaging in filthy haram activities, a secret aspiration of many of the western-bred leaders of ISIS, and reportedly the dying wish of “Jihadi John”.

Warning:

Stories, tweets and Facebook posts linked to or reproduced are genuine. Everything in between is a fabrication. The sentiment is genuine. The message is serious and it is this:

Rachel Makri and every opportunist idiot who jumps on the bandwagon to score political points even as events are unfolding are doing the terrorists’ work for them (and worse than is imagined in the scenario above, they are doing it for free). ISIS have a very sophisticated understanding of how social media work. They know that a moronic post using the #Paris, #ParisAttacks and similar hashtags on Friday night would be seen by friends and relatives searching for loved ones and add to their distress. Beyond the social media bubble, a key objective ISIS’s terror campaign in the west is to polarise, confuse and divide western society, and provoke the kind of knee-jerk reactions against Islam and muslims that ultimately justify their waging of a global “holy war”. If this also results in the persecution of refugees fleeing ISIS strongholds, so much the better – it only demonstrates the West’s inhumanity compared to the welcoming bosom of the caliphate. Again, there are many useful idiots in more influential positions than Rachel to do their bidding gratis.

Image from Huffington Post.

ISIS behind Greek firebrand’s return to politics

Beautiful day for a strike

strike

As I sit writing this, crowds with banners and loudhailers are marching towards Syntagma Square in Athens to take part in a demonstration as part of the first general strike against the Syriza/ANEL government. According to one of the main union confederations backing the strike, this is the “mother of battles”; according to The Guardian, “Syriza faces mass strikes in Greece“; according to Bloomberg, hardly a union mouthpiece, “Greece comes to a standstill as unions turn against Tsipras”.

So what is actually going on? Regular readers of this blog will know that we like to dig down into the cultural context and present a more nuanced picture of events in the headlines.

First of all, some background. Although Greek protests have featured large in the international press in connection with the anti-austerity movement, general strikes and the accompanying protest marches are not specifically a feature of the crisis. They are a proud tradition which has been upheld over the past forty years of democratic government, and one at which Greece excels on the international scene. A recent study found that between 1980 and 2006, Greece held 33 out of the 72 general strikes recorded across Western Europe (notably, the study performs two parallel analyses, one including Greece and one ex-Greece, such is the over-representation of this single country in the data sample). Given that Greeks hold more strikes and protests per year than they do national holidays, it is not surprising that such events also follow an almost equally ritualistic pattern, where the various participants seem to act out pre-determined roles within a circumscribed space, using a well-worn vocabulary of words and actions, call and response (for a level-headed description of what to expect, this handy Q&A is a good source).

Who is striking? Strikes such as today’s are “general” in the sense that they are held against the government rather than a specific employer, or by workers in a particular sector – but not in the sense that they are universal, or even necessarily mass protests. This is because the unions and confederations that call for general strikes in Greece represent a diminishing minority and are unrepresentative of the total workforce. At the peak of union participation in 1980, 39% of the Greek labour force was unionised; by 2012 that number had almost halved at 21.3% according to the OECD (the numbers are roughly in agreement with those reported in surveys by the unions themselves). The two main trade union confederations behind today’s strike are GSEE (private sector workers, mainly in quasi-public bodies like transport and utilities) and ADEDY (civil servants), as well as PAME, a Communist-supported confederation which has distanced itself from GSEE. Also joining in this year will be pharmacists, the latest target of reform measures threatening their protected status, and representatives of small business. It is not just that union membership is small; Greek trade unions systematically and increasingly under-represent private sector workers, a large portion of whom (around 38% in 2014) are (or were) employed by SMEs below the the unionisation threshold, women, the young, precarious and immigrant workers. These under-represented groups are arguably the most vulnerable groups of workers in the best of times, and were first and hardest hit victims of this crisis in terms of both job losses and loss of income, benefits and bargaining power. So, in a sense this strike, more than ever, represents the most protected groups fighting to maintain their remaining privileges, privileges that the majority of the workforce have already been deprived of along with their basic entitlements.

Can we expect riots? Well, because they are part of the accepted ritual, there will almost certainly be some molotov cocktails and teargas somewhere today, if not in Syntagma then almost certainly in the unofficial anarchist capital of Exarcheia. In the course of the crisis, protest took a variety of forms, whether or not accompanied by union strikes. Broader participation was a feature of many anti-austerity protests, especially the earlier ones, as were violent pitched battles between smaller groups of rioters and police. In a typically Greek confluence of events, on the 5th May 2010 during a largely peaceful protest march attended by many young families, a firebomb was thrown by a small group of masked troublemakers into a bank with inadequate fire protection, resulting in the death of three employees. In June 2011, police clashed with rioters causing injuries among the more peaceful protesters, and many properties in the centre of Athens went up in flames. The violence around the protests became a regular feature on the global news cycle, making Loukanikos, a semi-stray four-legged resident of Syntagma Square and regular frontline participant, an international celebrity and TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011.  All of which has obscured the essential nature of the protests themselves. With the exception of the rallies organised around the July referendum which once again mobilised broader support, recent demonstrations have reverted to traditional form, with a core of activist marchers and a fringe of hooded troublemakers. Indicative of this fact, the Wikipedia page which meticulously recorded the anti-austerity movement in Greece with a clear partisan bias ends its account in 2012 (as of today’s visit). There is of course no Greek media coverage today, as the journalists’ union is also striking, but foreign press have been pursuing their customary breathless live coverage of the more sensational moments.

What is today’s strike and protest about? If one reads the slogans, this is yet another anti-austerity protest: it is about safeguarding jobs, social security and pensions, lowering taxes, saving homes from foreclosure. Many in fact expected strikes and protests to cease entirely when Syriza, the standard-bearer of the anti-austerity movement came to power in January, and again in September of this year. Things became more complicated when Syriza were forced to make an about-face and sign a third memorandum with Greece’s creditors in July. However, they were re-elected less than two months ago specifically with a mandate to implement the additional austerity measures specified in the memorandum. In practice, according to September’s election results, 18.5% of the Greek electorate affirmatively voted for this government to implement the specific policies this strike is protesting against, another 21.5% voted for parties who said they would also support them in principle, and a further 53% effectively waved them through by abstaining from the vote. So it was not unreasonable to expect this to be a turnout for the last holdouts of the anti-austerity movement that lost September’s elections.

But here’s the twist. In a move that has in turns puzzled, amused, and worried observers, Syriza’s own labour section called this week for mass participation in today’s strike and demonstration. This strike then, whatever its origins, has been effectively co-opted by the governing party in a canny move straight out of the Andreas Papandreou-era PASOK playbook. This is now the government-endorsed escape valve for anti-austerity sentiment, while at the same time projecting outwards the image of a government embattled by a desperate populace, effectively giving Alexis Tsipras the “see what I am up against?” defence as he prepares to use the refugee crisis as a bargaining chip with the EU at today’s emergency summit in Malta. If past history is any guide, it will have little effect in changing the course of events.

None of this is to say that the majority of Greeks are for austerity, merely that today’s strike and march as a form of protest does not represent them, nor does it help their cause. The strike is of course causing massive disruption to transport and services. You can be sure that those in whose name it is being held have spent the morning wondering how they will get to their precarious job (those who have one) handing out advertising leaflets by the Metro station, or taking time off (most likely unpaid) to look after their children whose teachers are striking…

Beautiful day for a strike

Marathon Man

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Come election time, at dinner parties all across the western world (and perhaps beyond) it has become fashionable to speculate what ballots would be like if they were run like reality TV contests. Would young people be more engaged? Would voter apathy become a thing of the past? Would the outcomes be more representative of the popular will? Well, in the Greek municipality of Marathon, at the starting line of the eponymous race route, voters put this question to the test by electing a reality TV mayor in May 2014. This week the Mayor of Marathon fronted a commemorative reenactment of the battle of Marathon in typically flamboyant fashion (see above). Compared to the bombastic militaristic kitsch of the – otherwise superficially similar – battle of Salamis commemoration held last month, this was high camp, delivered with a hefty nudge and a theatrical wink.

It would be a grotesque understatement to describe Ilias Psinakis as the Greek Simon Cowell, though for a while he was the undisputed king of Greek reality TV. He is much camper, much ruder and much less touchy than his paler British counterpart. As his Instagram account attests abundantly, his teeth are whiter and he grins a lot to show them off, his permatan is a darker shade of mahogany, his hair is impossibly dark and luxuriant, his language is invariably x-rated, his lifestyle is more indiscreet. On the face of it, he is the embodiment of the Greek “bubble years”: bling, easy money, superficiality, celebrity worship, excess. And yet in the depth of the crisis, with only a few years’ experience in local politics behind him, he won the local elections outright on a platform of transparency and meritocracy, and the promise to transform Marathon into an Attic Riviera.

It helped of course that his predecessor had been fined for environmental pollution and was one of 105 elected officials investigated for fraud as part of a swoop on local authorities, while the last Mayor but one is also under investigation for undeclared earnings to the tune of €3.5 million and for fraudulent property deals relating to the construction of rowing venues in the municipality for the 2004 Olympics. “The party’s over,” he declared upon taking office, fully aware of the irony of the words coming out of his mouth, unusually free of a cigarette or a cocktail.

Psinakis may appear sui generis, but he is certainly not unique. It is hard to know what lies behind the surgically enhanced facade, but squint and you can glimpse in him parallels with such diverse political phenomena as Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump and, closer to home, the oddball Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris. The common theme is that they are all “outsiders”, whose appeal rests on the apparent lack of political taint, in an age when politicians are regarded with increasing suspicion. Their credentials lie in their accomplishments (real or spurious) in other areas, their entrepreneurial spirit which seems to sparkle against the grubby hide-bound world of career politicians, their “authenticity” versus the scripted political messages of the professional political class. These people are “doers”, or so the popular myth would have it, who can cut through the bureaucracy to bring real reform. They don’t need the money or the validation of office, therefore they are less likely to be corrupted. Plus, if you have seen someone on “Reality” TV and you take that description at face value, you feel like you already know them.

You only have to look at the examples named above to see that the outcomes from these electoral choices are not guaranteed.  A genuinely successful businessman who had the skill, the team-building ability and the persistence to see his stated vision through (whether or not everyone agrees with it or benefits from it); a blowhard whose main achievement to date has been to turn a potentially large inherited fortune into a more modest one, but could upset a national election in a global superpower; a wry, low-key eccentric who often seems to be better-loved outside his city than within. Elsewhere in Greece, celebrity politicians have had a less than impressive record, and nothing has deterred voters from selecting their champions from the even murkier world of infomercial politics.

With a background in modelling and music management (his most famous protegé is Sakis Rouvas, one of the most successful Greek pop stars of all time), Psinakis calls himself a “manager” not a politician or a mayor, but he is above all a relentless PR machine. He introduced a new civic honour, the Medal of the Legion of Marathon, which he travels the world ostentatiously by private jet to award to world leaders, diplomats and celebrities. He has been devoting a special effort to cultivating Sino-Greek relations, partly on the back of an existing twinning of Marathon with the Chinese port city of Xiamen, generating a lot of publicity for the Athens Marathon and the town itself.

His signature style though is confrontational, as many TV viewers will have encountered him as the nasty judge on “Greece, You’ve Got Talent” and “Idol”. One recent real-world example will suffice. When the national archaeological council (ΚΑΣ) refused him permission to hold a music festival around the site of the tomb of the Marathon fighters, he retaliated by calling the (female) archaeologists involved “sour”, “retrograde” and “unf*ckable” in front of the (female) interim Culture Minister, provoking controversy on all sides, while proceeding to accuse them of hypocrisy over the neglect of local monuments. While many of us have some sympathy with some of his complaints, it is hard to imagine that his approach advanced the causes of intelligent heritage management and public access to monuments!

The public verdict on Psinakis’s term so far is split. His prodigious social media footprint is thick with “likes”, ♥s, and comments exhorting him to run for Prime Minister (one imagines a good number of these may well be ironic, in keeping with the persona he has cultivated). Marathon locals are not quite as enthusiastic about his achievements on the ground, commonly referring to him as “fantomas” because of his tendency to disappear when anything needs doing. The streets may bear a closer resemblance to Naples than to Cannes, as the sanitation trucks are immobilised due to lack of fuel, while the Mayor prepares to host a VIP reception for Sunday’s race. “The party is not over,” as one jaded local resident remarked to me.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice the large numbers of Chinese visitors around Athens in the run-up to the Marathon, and feel the excitement of the family group (one runner plus three dedicated spectators) who rode the tram with us to the registration site, to experience the race and see Athens and Santorini. They may not have an immediate effect on the streets of Marathon, but in terms of their overall benefit you can easily do the maths. While central government appears to be building its inward investment policy on pipe dreams like the “Summer Davos” on a barren rock, this seems like more tangible vision.

One thing is for sure – the Marathon tourists will be seeing Greece at its best.

Image via Ilias Psinakis Instagram

Marathon Man