Any archaeologist will tell you that rubbish is a great source of information. The more of it, the better. How else would we have a hope of understanding what makes societies tick if they didn’t leave the detritus of their daily lives lying about the place? We know from digging through our own landfills and battling the paparazzi and the identity thieves to go through household rubbish bins that we humans are unreliable witnesses of what we consume, and how much of it. Nothing speaks more directly than actual rubbish.
Unfortunately, what it is telling us at this precise time stinks.
As the result of a nationwide strike by municipal sanitation workers, the rubbish is piling up on the street corners across Greece.
As one newspaper report pointed out this is hardly the first time the bin men have summoned up their command of the smelly stuff to protest over their working conditions. Over the last forty years, they have taken this particularly potent form of industrial action over a dozen times (and this is not counting more frequent local protests and work stoppages which can last for months), the result of successive governments’ reluctance to address the chronic misallocation of resources in local government. Over the years, it had been common practice to keep the number of permanent local authority employees low and supplement them with seasonal contractors. The fixed-term contracts were then routinely converted to permanent positions as a way of bestowing political patronage. This latest strike was sparked by a ruling by Greece’s Court of Audit, which declared such contract conversions unconstitutional, contradicting ministerial assurances to the workers, who number 6,000 in total, that a healthy portion of them would be hired through the “traditional” channels.
The archaeologist of the future might conclude that there is something ritualistic about this periodic build-up of domestic waste within the urban space, this cyclical departure from the routine purification of the demos of its rubbish and its deposition outside the city walls. There is certainly some form of non-verbal communication evident in the accumulation of putrid piles of the stuff, a material call and response that never seems to reach resolution.
Given the time of year, it is not just the bad odour and the potential health hazards that are creating distress. As news crews station themselves by the most spectacular accumulations, we are also starting to hear the seasonal cry of “What will the tourists think?”
Well, the foreign media are always quick to seize on an exotic photo opportunity, especially when it can used to enliven a boilerplate “anti-austerity protest” story. But we now know that even celebrity visitors cruising by our remote beauty spots in their superyachts can’t get away from the rubbish. Unrelated to the strikes, Willow (alliterative offspring of Hollywood actor Will) Smith sent this holiday snap from the Ionian islands to the world on her Instagram.
Fortunately, other foreign visitors were less perturbed. The EU’s Environment Commissioner showed a gift for timing, paying a scheduled visit to the Athens just as the strike was coming to a head, with rubbish high on the agenda. Hosting him, the head of the regional authority of Attica dutifully recited the latest European statistics which show that Greece sends a disappointing 81% of its waste to landfill, compared to a European average of 31%. She could easily have added that Greece has racked up tens of millions of Euros in fines for breaking EU regulations on waste management over the years by allowing dozens of illegal landfills to continue operating, while only the financial crisis has had a serious impact on reducing the amount of waste sent to them – a reduction of up to a third according to one recent estimate.
According to the Greek state news agency, the Commissioner praised the the new waste management strategy designed to encourage recycling, leaving us to ponder whether to admire his steadfast focus on the big picture – or to question whether he ever left the airport.
“A little tiny cockroach, little Tereza / stepped on the Teza / and… teza! (dead) / Out came her family to get Tereza / they stepped on the Teza / and… teza!”
So went the jingle from a 1980s Greek TV ad for Teza brand cockroach spray. It was so catchy that it runs through my head regularly, over 30 years later, particularly since Theresa May became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It’s not Mrs May’s fault. I don’t wish an untimely death on her, least of all death by chemical weapons. All the same, I can’t help reflecting that she came to power much like the proverbial cockroach in the nuclear holocaust, after all her rivals had dropped, er, out. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her hoist by her own opportunistic petard – though sadly I doubt that any electoral upset will be big enough to prove even figuratively terminal.
Bravo, then, to the makers of the Teza ad, for creating a message that truly resonates across the decades. I don’t know how long the ad ran for, for all I know it might still be running (Teza is still available in exciting new formulations for all your roach extermination needs, a great success of Greek chemical manufacturing). Its longevity is clearly down to its high irritant factor (the ad, one hopes, not the spray). Children quickly picked up the jingle and repeated it at every occasion. New words were adapted to the tune, often riffing on the twin themes of prostitution and cockroaches (sex and death). Boys and girls impersonated the handbag-twiddling streetwalking cockroach Tereza. Miming the twiddling of the handbag and the swinging from the lamp post while whistling the jingle became a playground shorthand for prostitution. No parent had a hope in hell of undoing it.
The semiotics of the ad are puzzling, too, but whichever way you look at it there is no politically correct interpretation. Is the ad saying that streetwalkers are like cockroaches? Or does the cockroach deserve to be zapped because she is a streetwalker? Is she even a streetwalker? When she is zapped, her anthropomorphic cockroach family come out after her and get zapped too – so maybe she is just a good girl-cockroach, maybe a touch over/underdressed, on her way to a girls’ night out. Or maybe the whole family was relying on her for income? Will we ever know?
Whatever is going on here, the warning is from 1980s Greek adland clear: Mind your step, Theresa!
Over a million refugees and migrants passed through Greece since 2015 using the sea route from western Turkey; around 62,000 remain stranded in the country at the time of writing. We are all familiar with the portrayal of the humanitarian crisis in the international media, but certain aspects of the story have been overshadowed by the deluge of arresting images.
Now that the dust is settling, some high-quality investigative reporting is beginning shine a light on some of the grubbier corners of the refugee crisis in Greece. A picture is gradually emerging of how institutional inadequacy and lack of accountability combined with a toxic mix of political opportunism and petty corruption to exacerbate the suffering of the refugees, while allowing those responsible (international agencies and NGOs, Greek politicians and government agencies, private contractors and the worst elements in the European and global leadership) to shun their responsibilities and in some cases even benefit from the situation. Clues to this story have been reported as they emerge – mainly by small, independent media sources, freelancers and bloggers on the ground in Greece, primarily in Greek, but occasionally also in English or German (in this respect I would single out the blogs of Apostolis Fotiadis and Fotini Rantsiou for providing well-informed and even-handed coverage). In the first major departure from the human interest-focussed reporting, a meticulously researched long read, The Refugee Archipelago, was recently published by News Deeply – a relatively young, independent media organisation. The article presented a long catalogue of well-substantiated failings underlying what the authors called “the most expensive humanitarian response in history”. It is well worth reading in full.
But the devil is often in the detail. More recently, an investigative report was published by the Greek online magazine insidestory.gr, focussing in forensic detail on just one of the areas plagued by mismanagement: the procurement of catering services for government-run refugee camps. Hidden in plain sight, in the virtual forest of public service contracts and ministry statistics, they uncover some suspicious discrepancies. I have translated the article here in full, with the permission of the publishers (the original is in Greek and requires a subscription).
“I thank the Greeks, because every day the bring us something to eat. We eat from them, not from the company.”
Farez is a refugee from Syria. In the hosting facility of LM Village in Myrsini in the district of Ilia in the Peloponnese, where was when staying he said these words, he was known as “the Wise Man.” Food for the camp was provided, as it still is, by a company called Korinthian Palace. According to Farez, his large family cost the Greek state over €60 a day. “When we get the food, I am sure that it is not worth more than €15. They cook once a week for the whole week, it is unacceptable. The first four months they never gave us vegetables once. I imagine that Greek families do eat vegetables, as they are cheap,” he said, adding that the food ended up in the rubbish.
Many like Farez have complained periodically to the local authority, to volunteers and to NGOs about the quality of the food. Direct responsibility for catering lies with the Greek Armed Forces. This is where the problems begin, and they are not limited to the flavour of the food. Let’s take things from the beginning.
Prices and conditions
With refugee camps across the country under the responsibility of the Greek authorities, the responsibility for procuring catering services has been assigned to the Armed Forces, as set out in laws 4368/2016 and 4412/2016. The budget for daily catering per head comes to €4.78, which translates to €5.78 after the addition of 24% VAT. 19% of the budget is allocated to breakfast, 39% to lunch and dinner, and 3% to water. The criterion by with the contracts are awarded, after meeting the specified conditions, is the percentage discount on the budgeted price.
Following the outcry which broke out when the specifications were seen to favour large catering companies, the minimum turnover threshold for bidding companies has been reduced, and only the following conditions apply: “The winning bidder can cater to up to 4 camps, totalling 4,300 people in total,” and “interested parties must provide certain quality certificates (ISO, HACCP) with their bid, which are assumed to fulfil the criteria of the tender.”
The case Myrsini camp
“All of Greek society is watching the humanitarian tragedy with the tens of thousands of refugees…,” begins the official document titled “Information dissemination – decision relating to LM Myrsini” issued by the Minicpality of Andravida-Kyllini on the 28th March 2016, which records the decision of the Council of the Municipality of Andravida-Kyllini to support the effort to manage the refugee crisis. As 99% owners with 50% rights of usage of the resort of Myrsini LM Village, the Municipality decided to make available 19 houses for hosting families from Syria. The resort, which is shared with the Municipality of Fyli, is located in a picturesque seafront spot, but had fallen into disuse in recent years and had been subjected to extensive looting. Very soon, the remaining 14 bungalows were also secured, and by the time the refugees arrived by bus a few days later the necessary repairs were already underway.
The unit given the responsibility for managing the facility was 117 Combat Wing of the Greek Air Force, which in turn assigned the catering to a company named Korinthian Palace. This is a particularly active company, not only in Corinth, but across the whole of Greece. Its services include catering for the police force, schools and universities, as well as organising events, receptions and carnival concerts featuring popular artists.
Towards the end of August 2016, a scandal broke out in Serres in the north of Greece, when a Syriza MP revealed that the catering for the local camp had been awarded to a local Syriza party official. Korinthian stepped in to manage the Serres camp on a temporary basis. At the time of writing, it has also been active in two more camps in Attica, to which we will return below.
When the numbers don’t add up
Reading through the catering contracts for LM Village over its one year of operation, one feature stands out: the contracts almost always appear to cover the provision of food for roughly 60 people more than are actually housed in the facility.
Giorgos Angelopoulos, a volunteer coordinator at the Myrsini centre over a period of 12 months, told inside story that the maximum number of individuals hosted in the facility at any one time was 338 people. However, the contact for April 2016 is for 400 people. Even if we were to exclude April from our calculations on the basis that relates to initial period of the camp’s establishment, we should note that the award of the contract published on the 5th July 2016 also relates to 400 people. The price per head, €4.72 before VAT, and €5.85 with VAT, is only a few cents less than the maximum allowance, a fact that can be readily explained, in light of the fact that Korinthian Palace was the sole bidder in this particular tender. Even if we accept that on the 5th July the headcount was 338, the maximum number of people ever hosted at the camp, we have to conclude that the catering company received €292.64 more per day than was necessary, with the Greek armed forces paying €362.70 more a day once VAT is included.
According to our calculations for the month of July, the additional expense for the Greek armed forces runs to €10,881, while the catering company made an additional profit of €8,779. The same number of recipients (400) and the same price (€4.72, or €5.85 including VAT) appear again in the award of the contract on the 31st October 2016.
However, it is the most recent contract which is of special interest to this discussion.
The contract dated 24th February 2017
This time, there were two more bidders in the tender, and Korinthian Palace offers a discount of 28.27%, compared to the 17% discount offered by the runner-up. Korinthian was awarded the contract again, this time for 220 people. On the same day, however, in the press release issued by the National Defence General Staff, only 164 food recipients were recorded (these had been down to 154, and at the time of writing reached 161). In response to our question about how many portions the company must deliver on a daily basis, Korinthian Palace claimed that any information pertaining to their cooperation with the Ministry of Defence was classified, and referred us to the Ministry. However, Giorgos Angelopoulos told us that the number of portions delivered matched the actual number of camp residents, something that is confirmed by the Ministry’s figures.
One could speculate that the additional food portions are provided as a buffer, in case more refugees arrive at the camp. However, those responsible for the camp have assured us that coordination is pretty much seamless, and that although it is possible for more refugees to arrive, this will have been preceded by an equal number of departures. The very small fluctuations in the number of food recipients reported by the National Defence General Staff appear to confirm this.
Another interpretation we might consider is that the number of food portions in the contract is indicative, and that the actual number on any given day is smaller. Again, though, there is no clause in the contract, as there is in other instances (for example the catering contract for the Philippiada camp), to the effect that portions may fluctuate daily at the discretion of the contracting party.
In any event, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry about the discrepancy between the number of actual refugees and the number of food portions paid for was that “we are obliged to follow the terms of each contract to the letter,” while stressing that they were not responsible for the issue raised.
The two camps in Attica
Here, we will limit ourselves to the most recent contracts. On 7 March 2017, a contract was awarded to Korinthian Palace to provide “catering for 150 asylum seekers and vulnerable third country nationals” at the camp in Rafina. The National Defence General Staff press releases for the 3rd March and the 10th March respectively count 120 people. No big deal, someone might say; counting 30 people extra, at €4.80 each per day, represents a loss of only €144 a day.
However, in an official Air Force document dated the 3rd March 2017, we find the award of a catering contract for the camp of Aghios Andreas in Nea Makri. This contract is for feeding 200 refugees, and it was won by Korinthian Palace, who offered the greatest discount. On the same day, the National Defence General Staff press release records 109 food recipients, as it does again the following week on the 10th March.
We would be concerned with the loss of public funds from feeding 100-odd «invisible» people at a cost of €3.73 per head daily. However, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry is even more intriguing. It states that “for some months now, our company is not responsible for the catering at the Aghios Andreas camp in Nea Makri, Attica.” As a reminder, the last contract was awarded on 3 March, just a few days earlier.
So now that we have “warmed up”, let us consider a case where the sums are much larger.
A(nother) Corinthian catering firm goes north
The situation with refugee catering in Ioannina has several parallels with the examples we have already covered, not least because the refugees there have complained vocally about (among other things) the quality of the catering.
Five refugee hosting facilities have functioned up to the present time in the Ioannina district, located at Doliana, Katsika, Filippiada, Tsepelovo and Konitsa. One of the companies that has been active in this area is Pietris Estiasi AE. Like Korinthian Palace, this company is also based in Corinth and, like its neighbour, it boasts an impressive client list including public institutions and large corporations. There is also a local catering company covering the Ioannina region, called Anostro.
In June 2016, Pietris lodged an appeal against the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which is handling the procurement of catering services for a total of 1,700 at Doliana, Katsika and Tsepelovo camps. It succeeded in extending the bidding deadline by two days, allowing the company to participate in the tender. Petris eventually secured the contract for feeding the refugees at a price of €4.68 per person, including VAT.
Exactly one month later, on the 6th July, another appeal by Pietris was rejected as lacking merit. The catering for the refugees at Doliana and Katsikas, now counting 1,450, was awarded to Anostro. Their price per head is €4.51. At the beginning of September, Pietris was again awarded a contract for feeding 1,700 refugees for 30 days at a price of €4.86 including VAT.
However, when the weather turned cold, the two companies came closer.
When competitors collude
In the contract award dated 4th November 2016, Pietris and Anostro appear to have submitted a joint bid as a consortium. They were awarded a contract to cater for 1,300 people in Doliana, Katsikas and Tsepelovo at €4.72 before VAT (i.e. just 6 cents below the maximum).
On the 9th December, and again on the 28th December, the same consortium was once again awarded the contract to feed 600 refugees at Doliana and Katsikas for €4.73 per head before VAT – a discount of 5 cents.
The most interesting aspect of the December contracts is that during this time, one of the two camps, the one at Katsikas, had been closed. As confirmed to inside story by Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, the last 166 refugees left Katsikas at the end of December. Ms Nanou added that the refugees had been relocated to hotels in Konitsa, Patra and Grevena, and, as is common practice in such instances, the responsibility for catering was assigned to the hotels. The hotels have the option of providing their own catering, where the facilities exist, or sub-contracting it.
From the 5th January until the time of writing, according to the press releases from the National Defence General Staff, the number of food recipients at Katsikas was zero, while the portions at Doliana numbered 138 at the start of the period and 118 today. However, catering contracts continued to be awarded for 600 or 550 portions, as we shall see below.
The refugees move on, the contracts continue
Specifically, on the 27th January, a contract was awarded for feeding 600 refugees at the camps of Doliana and Katsika to the Pietris-Anostro consortium at a minimal discount (€4.73 before VAT, compared to €4.78) for 29 days. The same day, the press release from the National Defence General Staff reported 138 food recipients at Doliana and none at Katsikas.
On the 24th February, with Katsikas remaining closed, and Doliana feeding just 118 refugees according to the National Defence General Staff, the two companies were awarded a contract to cater for 550 refugees at the same price and for 30 days in March. We contacted the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade officer responsible for catering at the two camps for comment, but were no further explanation, other than a statement that “there may be more arrivals.” The number of portions in the last few weeks has remained steadily at 118. We contacted several departments National Defence General Staff for comment, each of which referred us to another department.
If 432 “invisible” refugees were fed daily, then the additional revenue for the Pietris-Anostro consortium would amount to €2,043 on a daily basis, which translates into €61,201 for March alone, for which the army paid €76,013 extra in total, including VAT. We did not receive a response to our enquiries regarding the number of food portions from Anostro. On re-contacting the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, we were informed that our questions had been referred to Pietris, however we never received a response from the company.
Meanwhile, back in Myrsini…
A senior aid official recently stated in an interview that “$70 out of every $100 that have been spent [on the humanitarian effort in Greece] have been wasted.” LM Village, which has been described as an exemplar of hospitality, operates without any financial assistance to the local authority and without the benefit of any of the thousands hired through the civil service.
It is able to function thanks to “filotimo”: the human decency of the unpaid coordinator, Giorgos Angelopoulos, the mayor and his wife who assist as doctors, the local Medical Association, the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, the local community, local and foreign volunteers, grass roots organisations such as Pyrna, who donated equipment so that Farez and his fellow refugees can cook their own food.
At the end of October, an 18-month-old toddler lost its life in the village, having escaped war only to drown in a swimming pool full of rainwater. Then, as now, there is no security, which may have been able to prevent this, as there is no interpreter or permanent medical unit.
We can only draw one conclusion: when it comes to the invisible refugees, the money exists; but there is none to cover the real and persistent needs of the rest. It goes without saying that the camps which we focused on are not the only ones where money is wasted with nothing to show for it in return. It also goes without saying that it would not exactly require a Sisyphean effort to improve the management of funds, so many months down the line. Sometimes, administrative “errors” have a cost, which can even be measured in human lives.
MAIN IMAGE: A volunteer prepares food for 157 refugees in April 2016 [Louise Gouliamaki/AFP].
At the time of writing, this blog has no connection to inside story other than a friendly rapport.
UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, 1 April 2017. Greek fugitive from justice Artemis Sorras has promised his followers that he will return “within three days, give or take a few, Zeus Almighty and the Twelve Gods of Olympus willing, if you pay me a just a modest administrative fee.” The bearded self-proclaimed financial alchemist has been on the run since a warrant was issued for his arrest, following his conviction for minor fraud earlier this month. From his secret hiding place, Sorras has issued numerous proclamations to his followers, including lengthy a YouTube video, and an interview with the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine.
Sorras is believed to have built a following of over 12,000 faithful in his organisation, Assembly of Greeks, based on the promise of settling their personal debts, as well as the national debt of Greece and Cyprus with bonds issued against his massive fortune, which he estimates at several trillion Euros. Members of the Assembly of Greeks are thought to have contributed several hundred Euros each to the organisation in joining fees, membership dues and administrative costs. Now, Sorras is calling them to march on the Greek parliament in his support.
Sorras attributes his prosecution to a vast global establishment (viz. Jewish) conspiracy against him and the Greek people. His rapid ascent since he first appeared on the scene in 2010 has certainly made him some powerful enemies. Father Lamogios, a monk in a remote monastery in the Peloponnese, spoke of the frustration of many in the Greek Orthodox church at was is seen as unfair competition from Assembly of Greeks. “Just the other day I was sitting down with a devout widow, who was poised to sign over her late husband’s estate to our humble institution – for what good are a few hectares of seafront property in this world, compared to eternal salvation for the departed’s soul?” The transaction came to an abrupt halt, according to the monk, when the widow asked him if the church would be covering her arrears to the electricity board and paying her back taxes. “I said of course not, my child, we are as poor as church mice… – at which point she said she had had a better offer from Sorras and walked out. Just like that.” The story has repeated itself across Greece with alarming frequency in recent years, according to church representatives, who admit they are seriously concerned about the impact on their flock’s souls, as well as their own property portfolio. The church has excoriated the apocryphal rituals of Sorras’s organisation, which include reciting a “warrior’s oath” pledging lifelong faith to the “benevolent Prince of Light” and imbibing a shot of “holy water”. “Only the blood of our Saviour drawn from the holy demijohn behind the altar has the power of salvation. We invite you to join us this month in celebrating His resurrection following His persecution by the Jews.”
There is also growing consternation in political circles, particularly since Sorras has been open about his political ambitions. “The man is a ruthless populist and a charlatan, he has no integrity,” said a senior member of the government under anonymity. “He is making all sorts of outrageous promises that he clearly cannot keep, and people are lapping it up. He has no place in politics.”
As rumours rage about the whereabout of the fugitive Sorras, one intriguing scenario is beginning to circulate among the Greek diaspora. A number of witnesses claim to have seen a mysterious bearded figure among the VIP guests at President Trump’s White House reception to mark Greek Independence Day. The event, which was described by some participants as the Biggest Fattest Greek Wedding Ever, included a statement from Trump in which he repeatedly and enthusiastically proclaimed his love and admiration for “the Greeks”. Many are now attributing greater significance to the statements, which were perhaps naively interpreted at first as a transparent grab for the Astoria/Greektown vote. “My cousin’s girlfriend’s kouniados works in catering and he swears on his mother’s honour that when he was delivering the spanakopitta to the White House he saw Sorras meeting Trump in the basement,” we were told by one regular at Chicago’s White Tower Grill (“Saganaki opa! a specialty”). “He saw Trump bow down to kiss his hand and swear an oath to Hermes Trismegistus, I kid you not.”
In other news, President Trump is poised to break ground on the border wall with Mexico – a key campaign promise which has lacked funding ever since “the Mexicans” refused to underwrite the project – after an “anonymous patriot” is said to have offered to sponsor it “for a modest administrative fee.”
ΔΙΣΚΛΑΙΜΕΡ: While this story is a fabrication, the truth is much stranger. Click on any of the genuine links in the text and prepare to be amazed. If you read Greek, I also recommend this infiltration account.
Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is facing calls to resign after making what will perhaps come to be his most memorable statement, if not his political epitaph. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he had the following to say on the subject of the EU’s response to the financial crisis in the southern European member states: “You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Representatives of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Bulgaria were quick to object. And although there has been no official response from Greece, there has been plenty of unofficial commentary, ranging from bemusement to outrage. It is fair to say that up until this point, Dijsselbloem has run a pretty close second to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble as a hate figure in Greece, where he is seen as representing the hard line against any sympathetic treatment of Greece’s debt. But the statement wasn’t just a sexist, xenophobic and financially illiterate brain fart – it was also strikingly culturally inappropriate for a high level official serving in an international institution. By this I mean not so much politically incorrect (although it is that too), but way off-target, as any connoisseur of cultural stereotypes will tell you.
Why, only last week our own Finance Minister responded to opposition criticism of his negotiating prowess by confessing to his own, much more genteel, drink-and-women fantasy: “Mitsotakis said that he wants a primary surplus target of 2%. I, too, would like to go for cocktails with Scarlett Johansson, but…”, his point being that you can’t always get what you want. Euclid Tsakalotos, privately educated in the UK, foreign resident for most of his life and with heavily accented and halting Greek, is not your archetypal modern Hellene, and thus his comment was greeted with much hilarity by his fellow countrymen.
So what would be a more appropriate cultural stereotype to deploy against the Greeks, one that would actually make them feel the sting of reproach? It’s not that we are strangers to the evils of boozing and whoring. There is indeed a strain of popular song that laments how “cigarettes, drinks and late nights have closed the best homes”. It’s just that by being sung in the very disreputable establishments that it purports to deride, this self-reproach by definition ironic. So where did we blow our kitty? We undoubtedly spent some of it on status symbols like cars, with a particular penchant for German marques – though not as many, and not as luxurious as the tabloid myth would have it (that catchy line about “more Porsche Cayenne owners than taxpayers” proved fairly easy to debunk but harder to kill off, like most of the persistent myths of the Greek crisis). Some of us spent it on holidays and designer bling and even more of us on unwittingly inflating a real estate bubble. Much of it was financed by loans from European banks, ultimately paying interest to northern European savers.
When it comes to consumables, though, blowing it on drink is not such a southern European thing. On old professor of mine, an expert in the history of booze (among other substances) often observed that Europe is divided into north and south by distinct cultures of intoxication rooted in our prehistory – the grape in the south, the grain in the north, originally the function of geography and climate which in turn determined access to different sources of plant sugar. It is the grain-fermenting northerners who have traditionally binge-drunk themselves to oblivion, and it is them that felt the teetotal backlash of the protestant reformation, whereas the Mediterranean world used their fermented grape juice more sparingly and even made it “taboo” by ghoulishly turning it into blood in the Christian sacrament. It is said that you can still observe this divide by walking down the main street of any Mediterranean town hosting a Club 18-30 resort in high tourist season. Some might say, therefore, that Jeroen is merely projecting his own cultural inclinations. They don’t call it Dutch courage for nothing.
No, when it comes to consumables, another famous one-line aetiology of the Greek crisis comes to mind: “We ate it together” (“μαζί τα φάγαμε”,”Mazí ta fágame”), is what PASOK grandee Theodoros Pangalos poffered in 2010 in response to the question “where did the money go?”. A succinct description of the workings of clientelism, delivered by a true master of the art. The saying survives and thrives, in large part because it had a grotesque, evocative appeal in light of the speaker’s own well-fed physique, an apparent embodiment of gluttony openly admitting to the sin and beckoning us to join him at the trough. In the popular imagination it conjured up images of the Greek political class, bloated with greed both physical and metaphorical, sharing a well-furnished table with their clients, the ordinary voters. And although we, too, like to accuse our elites of eating Marie Antoinette’s cake and caviar (or perhaps the Greek pre-crisis equivalent, lobster spaghetti), the most appropriate fare loading down the table would be a cholesterol feast, most likely at Baïraktaris, the legendary Athens kebab house and political hangout. Not the starched white tablecloths of Washington’s Palm Grill, London’s private clubs, or the Michelin-starred chateaux of Gallic political intrigue, but oilcloth and stacks of paper napkins, the great equaliser, where we do indeed tuck in together in large, boisterous groups. You may recall Baïraktaris as the scene of another famous apophthegm, by another regular, former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, to the effect that “five pimps run this country”. And that is as far as I will go with the “women” element. Yes, we all ate a lot of souvlaki, most of it made with imported European meat, topped with yoghurt, more than likely made with European milk. And in the background, all this internal consumption was underwritten by state largesse in the form of public sector salaries and pensions, financed by public debt owned by our fellow European governments and institutions happy to pretend that Greece was Germany for the sake of a few extra basis points of yield.
You see, even the culturally appropriate stereotypes of southern loucheness contain an element of northern complicity. But Dijsselbloem may have more in common with Pangalos than he would like to acknowledge. Politically, Dijsselbloem was already a “dead man walking” before he shot his mouth off so spectacularly. In last week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Labour Party of which he is a member and by whose election he serves as Finance Minister at home and President of the EU’s informal but influential group of Finance Ministers, suffered what has come to be termed “Pasokification”: the term used to describe the annihilation of once powerful centre-left parties in European national politics. His days in office (both offices) are numbered, the timing of his departure determined only by the uncertainties around Dutch coalition forming. Ironically, had he released his populist bon mot a few days earlier, it may have won him a few more votes at home – now it is as irrelevant as it is embarrassing.
One final thought though, for those in Greece who are eager to see the back of the smug, hair-gelled wonder. Be careful what you wish for. In the horse-trading the follows his departure, the front-runner to succeed him is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a man routinely described as “one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis”. After a particularly gruelling round of negotiations in July 2015, he had this to tweet: “#Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the results of their ‘Greek Spring’ #eurozone”. If his prior record is any indication, there will be plenty more inflammatory statements (if not more grave outcomes) to look forward to.
The plush crimson seating, subdued lighting and formal monochrome attire frame a pregnant moment, reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola epic, in which dynastic ties, political power, money and religious authority weave a rich tapestry of intrigue. Among Greeks and Greece-watchers who have seen it, this photo seems to have provoked an instant gut reaction. As we have warned before, a picture, however eloquent, rarely tells “the whole story”. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is going on here and why the reaction?
The setting is the main auditorium of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens, a Renzo Piano-designed state-of-the-art cultural venue built to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In 2007, the Greek state and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation signed an agreement which was voted into Greek law: the state provided the land – the disused site of the old horse-racing track near the seafront in Faliro – and the charitable foundation managed by the family of the legendary shipping magnate funded and managed the construction of the building and the landscaped park around it. On the 23rd February, a ceremony marked the delivery of the venue to its new owners, the Greek people – at which the photo in question was taken (the webcast of the ceremony can be watched here).
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (standing) shakes the hand of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the last pre-crisis Greek PM (2004-2009). Karamanlis’s Nea Demokratia government was succeeded by PASOK in autumn 2009, followed within weeks by the discovery of a black hole in Greek government finances which marked the beginning of the financial crisis, now well into its seventh year. Since losing power, Karamanlis has kept a low profile; while still holding a seat in Parliament, he is understood to spend most of his time at his family home in the seaside town of Rafina, which reclusive arrangement, combined with his placidity and rotund physique, has earned him the nickname “the Buddha of Rafina”. In this rare public appearance, he is attending in his capacity as the signatory of the original agreement with the Niarchos Foundation. Within his own party, which was founded by his uncle and namesake, Karamanlis retains a near-inexplicable (but for blood-loyalty) hold on a distinct faction, which is rumoured to be more active behind the scenes than his own disengaged exterior suggests. In particular, some political observers suggest an underground, borderline-treasonous, rapprochement is taking place, between the Karamanlis wing of the Nea Demokratia and the current government, with the ultimate aim of providing a back-stop to the Syriza-ANEL coalition’s flimsy three-seat majority. An unlikely pairing, one might think, between the embodiment of the nepotistic political establishment and young firebrand who promised to wipe the slate clean of all that. Proponents of the rapprochement theory note the PM’s reluctance to attack the Karamanlis government’s notable contribution to ballooning government debt, Tsipras’s proposal of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former Interior Minister in the Karamanlis government, for his current post as the country’s president, and (more controversially) the government’s alleged support for the criminal prosecution of the former head of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) who restated the state finances to reveal the black hole. Viewed against this backdrop, this handshake is loaded with symbolism.
In the second row, a full two seats away from Karamanlis, current leader of Nea Demokratia and scion of the Karamanlises’ rival bloodline in the party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sits with Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Ostensibly a reformist, Mitsotakis has come to resemble a groom courting the daughter of a particularly god-fearing family in his eagerness to kiss icons and cozy up to senior clergy – a reflection of the continuing hold of the Church and traditional right-wingers on the levers of party power and its voting base’s values (Mitsotakis’s actual wife is seen sitting one row behind him, entertaining another church official). Ordinarily, an opening ceremony would be accompanied by a religious blessing complete with incense, basil and holy water (as is the opening of Parliament), however this was not part of the public ceremony in this case, possibly in deference to the non-smoking rules and brand new upholstery. However, the heavy clerical presence in the front row of a shipowner-funded asset is a potentially awkward reminder that both the Orthodox Church and the shipping industry have come under intensified fire for their preferential tax arrangements, which have shielded them considerably from the austerity policies that afflict the new “owners” of the Cultural Centre.
Out of frame
The aforementioned President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, aka. the missing link in the putative rapprochement, who was seen later seated next to Tsipras, and delivering an uncharacteristically brief address; former PM Antonis Samaras, and an assortment of the Great and the Good of Athenian society, seldom seen out together on social occasions these days. Of course, the handshake captured in this photo was one of a series of unstaged greetings (more photos and observations here), a sign of courteous and civil relations among the Greek political class, even those studiously presenting themselves as untainted outsiders. Even Mitsotakis, looking excluded in our frame, is captured in other photos having an extended cordial exchange with Tsipras. Thus, the picture is potentially less sinister and simultaneously more depressing as a reflection of the political realities of Greece in 2017. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, but none of the associations are positive.
The shipping money. In his address, the Director of the Niarchos Foundation and great-nephew of Stavros Niarchos, after delivering a hopeful message about the power of cultural renewal and reinvigorated national confidence, engaged in some barely concealed live trolling. Reading aloud from what he claimed were electronic messages he had received from nameless members of the public, he voiced (in third person) an alarming level of concern for the fate of the Cultural Centre in the hands of the Greek government (examples included: “The beginning of the end,” and “Why, my good people? Is this your first time in Greece?”), before returning graciously to his own stated message of hope and confidence. Embarrassingly for the representatives of the Greek governments past and present in the auditorium, there was as much applause for the anonymised messages as for the official one – a deafening vote of no-confidence in their ability to manage for the public good. Despite the remarkable success of the building’s completion on time and on budget (all the more notable when compared to similar cultural mega-projects the world over) the moment reflects pervasive public unease around the future running of the SNFCC and the institutions housed in it by a Greek government, and a cash-strapped one at that.
The Greek people. Aside from the seating gaps in the dignitaries’ section, the auditorium was liberally dotted with pockets of empty seats, despite this being a free public event. In typical Greek fashion, the day of the ceremony coincided with a strike on all public transport, leaving only the SNFCC’s limited shuttle bus service and private transport as a means of access to the Centre. “Soft-opening” events held at the Centre have, by contrast, been extremely well attended and the park has been well-used on a daily basis. But alongside the mistrust of political authority, there is a more quiet acknowledgement of mutual mistrust among the public. Will people pick up their own rubbish? How long will it take for the first piece of playground equipment to break? Will the Greek people embrace the opera and the library? What will happen when the inevitable graffiti tags start to appear? Will people rally, volunteer and protect the place or will they rail at the authorities?
Beyond the political handshakes, it will be instructive to see how it evolves, a high-tech laboratory for a political (with a small p) experiment of sorts.
Crime writer Petros Markaris’s latest novel, Offshore, starts on an imaginary premise: after six years of hardship the Greek crisis is finally over. The money is flowing, and Greeks are reverting to their old habits. The restaurants are packed, the streets of Athens are clogged with Mercs and Jeeps, the government is handing out pay rises, and people are talking about taking out mortgages from a new generation of banks that are lending generously. Nobody can explain precisely where the money came from. Some credit the latest government, a fresh-faced bunch who were elected promising precisely nothing and went on to implement a combination of tax reform, business incentives and privatisations. Others are more skeptical, but aren’t equipped to ask the right questions. Inspector Haritos’s wife, a Greek housewife straight out of central casting, puts it down to her prayers and fasting. Most are able to rationalise the miraculous recovery sufficiently in order to go back to spending like the crisis never happened.
As a counterfactual narrative, the miracle recovery is quite telling about Greece’s collective state of mind. What is interesting is that the picture it paints is not of a utopian future, as a much as a nostalgic return to the pre-crisis bubble days. It is a theme that seems to be emerging with increasing prominence, finding different variations in different areas of popular culture, even as Greece sinks further into depression and uncertainty, and the dreaded ‘Grexit’ re-enters the media vocabulary.
Markaris doesn’t have much truck with social media in his books. His central character is of a generation that uses an assistant to interface with a computer, for whom the world wide web is a cabinet of wonders, and Facebook and Twitter, apparently so central to modern life and politics, don’t seem to exist. It is on Facebook (real, not fictional) that another burst of nostalgia has been erupting. At the turn of the year, a Facebook community calling itself “Old PASOK The Orthodox” (“Παλιό ΠΑΣΟΚ το Ορθόδοξο”, let’s call it “Palió PASOK” for short) overtook the official page of the PASOK party in “likes”. The real PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), which governed Greece, alone or in coalition, for 24 out of the last 42 years, now languishes in fourth place in the Greek parliament. It scraped together a humiliating 6.3% of the vote in the last general elections, its reputation in tatters, having taken the brunt of popular anger for the crisis and lost both supporters and candidates to other parties, most notably Syriza. The “Palio PASOK” organisers promptly wrote an open letter to actual party leader Fofi Gennimata, calling on her to revive the old Movement by returning to “the pure values that led it to greatness”, inviting back all of its its “Great Old comrades”, and agreeing to have its Facebook page absorbed by theirs, which was “galloping ahead” and aiming to “overtake the accursed Right within 2017”. Gennimata demurred, but within a matter of hours she was very publicly mending bridges with her predecessor, George Papandreou, and convening a gathering of the PASOK tribes (or most of them). For some, this was too much of a coincidence; for others, it merely confirmed the party as a legitimate target for subversion.
Once you grasp the concept, “Palio PASOK” is as far from the po-faced seriousness of “official” Greek politics as you can possibly get. Its spokespeople never break character. Their posts, comments and press interviews show an impressive grasp of vintage PASOK-ese – a characteristic mix of self-consciously Demotic Greek and pompous left-wing political jargon – and they respond to any attempt at un-ironic commentary with profanity-laden accusations of treason (or worse). The page commemorates “great moments of Socialism” – primarily photos of various “Titans of the Movement” and party loyalists giving it their all in nightclubs and strip joints, and genuine moments of extreme popular adulation culminating in the cult of personality of party founder, Andreas Papandreou (“this is the church of Andreas”). They present themselves as the true guardians of the faith, while Gennimata, Papandreou and the current generation of self-proclaimed modernisers are unworthy inheritors; Syriza is a cheap knock-off of the Old PASOK, and Alexis Tsipras is the populist sorcerer’s apprentice, ruining it for the true believers. They organise parties where crowds wave faithful replicas of the old plastic flags with the party’s green rising sun logo and throw around 5000-drachma notes, kiss posters of Andreas and sing along to the old PASOK anthems: Manos Loizos’s rousing “Kalimera Ilie” (“Καλημέρα Ήλιε” – “Good Morning, Sun”) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. At a recent exhibition themed around the 1980s (the nostalgia again) they inspired a Playmobil diorama of the “historic” moment in 1988 when Andreas Papandreou, greeted by crowds at the airport on his return from a triple bypass operation in London, motioned to his new partner, the pneumatic former air hostess Dimitra Liani for whom he left his wife of 37 years, to join him on the steps (within a year, his government was collapsing under the weight of corruption scandals).
Some commentators criticise “Palio PASOK” as an apotheosis of trash culture (or just “trass” in the Greek vernacular). This is hard-core method spoofing, and even those close to the organisers can’t swear that everyone present enjoys it 100% ironically. There is certainly no shortage of people who believe that a return to the “good old days” is desirable and even possible, that there is a spigot of prosperity that was turned off and can somehow be turned back on again. The chant of “Férte píso ta klemména” (“Φέρτε πίσω τα κλεμμένα” – “bring back what was stolen”) was a rallying cry of the early anti-austerity movement that still haunts the popular consciousness. It implies that someone (corrupt public officials, tax-evaders, bankers) stole the peoples’ money and that if only their loot can be recovered the economy will miraculously revive (sadly the numbers don’t stack up – see for example our earlier discussion of the “Lagarde list” which still holds). A small but significant group of our compatriots are so desperate to turn back the clock by wiping out their own debts, that they are prepared to believe even more dubious claims. Thousands of them are thought to have joined a secretive cult-like organisation led by self-proclaimed multi-billionaire Artemis Sorras, swearing a “warrior oath” and paying a substantial “administrative fee” on the promise that he will underwrite their debts. With elections rumoured once again, and Sorras’s organisation seen as a credible political threat, court action is being pursued against him.
This is the dark side of Greece’s nostalgic turn. I won’t ruin the ending of Markaris’s thriller for anyone who intends to read it (unfortunately it is currently only available in Greek), but the seeds of doubt are sown from the outset. Regular readers will be familiar with the overarching narrative that dominates the Markaris canon. Before the Greek crisis was even a twinkle in the public eye, Markaris focussed on the dark underbelly of Greek prosperity. The crimes that Inspector Haritos solves take place on the fringes of wealth and political power. In a world of ordinary people struggling with everyday bureaucracy and low-level corruption, the villains are inevitably to be found in the inexplicably opulent homes of politicians and their “businessmen” cronies. In the Markaris narrative, the original sin of the metapolítefsi – the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1974 – was the corruption that the coming to power wrought in its champions. The networks of power and corruption created in the 70s and 80s, strengthened by EU subsidies, Olympic spending and easy credit of the 90s and 2000s, turned the idealistic students of the anti-junta struggle into shady plutocrats, abusing public funds and/or running people-trafficking, extortion, racketeering and money-laundering networks, sometimes cheek-by-jowl with their junta torturers. The real “old PASOK”, together with their tag team in Nea Demokratia and the rest of the political establishment of the metapolítefsi,are the real villains of the piece. The ordinary citizens have been taken for a ride, and the weakest in society, often immigrants, pay the biggest price. This is no rose-tinted flash-back.
Markaris and the jokers behind “Palio PASOK” both know that there is no going back (though the latter would no doubt contest the characterisation and the imputed ambivalence). It is going forward that is the problem – because the grip of nostalgia extends well beyond popular fiction and social media. Every government that has been elected since the beginning of the crisis essentially campaigned on a time-machine platform: ripping up the creditor memoranda, repealing austerity measures, restoring prior order. Their promises were not that far removed from those recycled by “Palio PASOK”, and no better explained than the source of the money in Offshore. Like the post-communist East-Berliners in the 2003 film “Good bye, Lenin!”, politicians on all sides have been trying to shield the electorate, as if it were their mother waking from a coma, from confronting the need for change. Meanwhile, advertisers appeal to an even more distant past, when children wore school smocks (a reliable chronological marker of the pre-PASOK era) and Greeks were happier with less, with dry biscuits, instant dessert mix and domestic-brand white goods – a vision shared, incidentally, by the more cavalier domestic advocates of Grexit. What do you do when you know that the future has to be different but you aren’t equipped to imagine it? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. Greece and the Greeks clearly lack funds, but even more debilitating is the lack of forward vision across all areas of public life. I am not a fan of fantasy fiction, but the situation seems to call for a healthy dose of it – a counterfactual, however whacky, that ignites a light at the other end of the tunnel, and drowns out the voices beckoning back down the wormhole.
IMAGE: Athens’s Syntagma Square in happier times (allegedly): PASOK pre-election rally, 1985.