“Comrade Tsipras, say something left-wing…”

CarracciHercules

What follows is a translation of an op-ed article published in Ephemerida ton Syntakton, a left-leaning independent newspaper, on the 21st August 2016. The author is Dr Stelios Stylianidis, Professor of Social Psychiatry at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. Stylianidis is a campaigner for mental health reform in Greece, and commented extensively in the media on the spike in suicide rates during the economic crisis, which became a rallying point of the anti-austerity movement that ultimately brought Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza to power (twice) in 2015*. The article presents a critical perspective on Greece from within Greece that is not often given an airing outside the country,  where much of the commentary, particularly from the left, falls back on the overly simplistic and ultimately unhelpful story of an unequal contest between externally-imposed austerity policies and internal suffering, resistance and capitulation. 

I only know the author from his published writings. I have taken the liberty of inserting clarifications [in square brackets] where I felt they were helpful, and adding hyperlinks to previous posts and external sources where they illustrate the arguments put forward. My interjections do not necessarily express the the views of the author, and vice versa.

“On the 29th June 2013, on a well-known political programme on Italian TV, the left-wing film director Nanni Moretti [of Caro Diario fame] addressed the then secretary of the Partito Democratico [the Italian centre-left party whose current incarnation is governing Italy under PM Matteo Renzi] with a phrase that became etched on the thwarted world of the Italian Left: “Comrade d’Alema, say something left-wing, or at least say something[in fact, the iconic outburst in which Moretti shouts at his TV screen where d’Alema is being steamrollered by a bloviating Silvio Berlusconi, first appeared in Moretti’s 1998 film Aprile, as recounted here].

After eighteen months of government by the “first time Left” [as Syriza refer to themselves, despite being preceded by several years of Socialist government under PASOK, and governing with the support of the right-wing nationalist party ANEL], and coming from the ranks of the Reformist Left, I would like to put forward three basic questions regarding this brief but historic experience for our country.

My questions do not claim to evaluate the totality of government, but set out in outline certain matters that are connected with historical culture of the Left.

1. Does the Left really have the moral advantage over its historical rivals?

A basic distinction between the anomie, corruption and clientelism of the old political system and the new one should be one of values, what [the influential Italian Communist Party secretary] Enrico Berlinguer termed in 1981 the “moral superiority of the Left”, with reference to the capture of the state.

I often hear friends and members of the governing Left put forward the fundamental argument that if we do not replace the old cadres and mechanisms that resist all progressive reform with our own people, then the imperative for change that the Left represents will remain unfulfilled.

However, to the extent that the age-old means of clientelism are being reproduced toward another end, that end itself is cancelled out. Some illustrative examples:

  • The “war on oligarchy” is being fought selectively and piecemeal, through a replacement of the old entangled establishment with a new generation of market players, who are not themselves distinguished for the transparency of their business dealings nor for their independence from government.
  • The replacement of many high-ranking civil servants of proven technocratic experience and a track record of effective delivery with officials whose CVs are limited to party titles is a strong indicator of a corruption of conscience through the voluntaristic capture of the state. The traditional cultural affinity of the Left with meritocracy and progress is replaced by a vulgar contest of party cliques.
  • The imperative of social justice, of redistribution of wealth and the protection of the impoverished victims of the neoliberal onslaught is not well served by the uncritical over-taxation of the middle class (the salaried and the pensioners, the self employed and the small businesses), which leaves intact the shadow economy, black marketeering and parasitic practices which are still entrenched in the state.

2. Why is the Left afraid of knowledge and innovation?

With the advent of the third Memorandum [the creditor agreement signed by the Syriza-ANEL government in July 2015], we see the continued absence of a national plan for the productive reorganisation of Greece, the encouragement of islands of innovation, the creation of a benign environment for new investments, the creation of research institutions connected to the development needs of the country.

What is it that prevents the Ministers responsible and their teams from creating a broader circle of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that would enable them to set targets and assessment mechanisms, and develop an alternative national development plan?

How can one explain the institutionalised distrust towards a multitude of innovative proposals that are being put forward (for example with regards to the use of EU structural funds) to every relevant government department, and which could transform the recessionary climate as well as our country’s credibility in the eyes of foreign partners? From what possible credible working hypothesis on the improvement of education can we draw the sly argument for the abolition of university entry standards that would boost acceptance rates into low-demand university departments?

Is it possible that the wariness towards any form of public-private partnership that might benefit state universities and support our collapsing educational infrastructure is based purely on an ideological dichotomy of public = good, private = bad?

Can tackling of the humanitarian crisis (a central campaign slogan of Syriza) possibly be limited to the support of food banks and social clinics in local authorities, without the existence of a national plan to improve healthcare, mental health policy and welfare?

The international knowledge-sharing on offer, and our own accumulated experience in higher education establishments from participating in international research networks, cannot possibly be leading us to reinvent the wheel in the year 2016.

Islands of innovation and good practice do exist in our own country, and are recognised by our international partners, but are obscured domestically by the guardians of party-political correctness.

3. Can left-wing populism truly offer a rational means of analysis of our reality and its pathologies?

The proclamations of a return to the pre-memorandum state of being, the excitation of collective sentiment, the rewarding of simplifying and primitive thinking, the manifold divisions, the shallow courting of the crowd by the leader, are these really left-wing imperatives?

By accepting that the international balance of power was weighted against the Left, trumping their original self-deception, they nevertheless let it be implied that the maturity and wisdom of the people will eventually triumph through some muscular guidance from the Left.

This narrative of the Left obscures the basic observation of many scholars that the country not only faces an enormous accumulation of problems, but is itself a begetter of its problems.

A devastated society, inundated in self-delusions, denials, ignorance, self-centredness, depression, despair and passivity must once again be educated through new types of populist delusions.

Is it really possible that we can continue to protect special interest groups, party politics, and clientelism, and promise growth without radical change, without deeper self-awareness of our collective failures, and without acknowledgment of individual responsibility?

I am deeply convinced that there can be an agenda of progressive, left-wing reforms, even in the midst of economic hardship, that would signify the new exemplar of government that this country so badly needs.

Sadly, Massimo d’Alema never did respond to Nanni Moretti’s entreaty.”


* More recent evidence thankfully shows the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among the Greek population to have retreated to pre-crisis levels as early 2013, however the broader crisis in mental health provision continues.

IMAGE: “The Choice of Hercules” by Annibale Caracci.

 

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“Comrade Tsipras, say something left-wing…”

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

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One of Aunt Cassandra’s few remaining luxuries in life is getting her hair done twice a year in her favourite posh hair salon in the old money enclave of Kolonaki. Fortunately, Uncle Aristos’s prudent financial management left her with enough pocket money to allow her the occasional indulgence. So she nearly required a dose of the smelling salts this time, when she called up for an appointment to be told by an equally perplexed sounding receptionist that the business was closing down.

Gosh, she thought, things must be really bad if such an august institution is forced to close its doors, a real humanitarian crisis for the french polish and blowout set… But as is generally the case, there is more to this tale of financial woe than meets the impeccably kohled eye. After a bit of detective work among her more worldly friends, Aunt Cassandra was able to track down her favourite stylist to his new establishment just a few streets away from the old place (AC does not use mobile telephony, and so had not received the text alert that had informed her cronies on the duplicated client list of this new development).

Sitting in the gleaming white space of the brand new salon, AC was soothed by the parade of familiar faces that greeted her (stylists, colourists, manicurists, waxers, pluckers, threaders and juniors) as she dispensed with the preliminary chatter about how Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be, the list of empty addresses that used to house luxury brand stores, and how no-one who is anyone will be seen dead in Mykonos this summer, now everyone of taste and substance is Airbnb’ing on Patmos. Her stylist, the proud new proprietor with his own name now etched in calligraphy on the frosted glass doors, greeted her like an old friend and made sure she was well looked after (he even managed to get her name right, unprompted).

He didn’t need much prompting to spill the beans. The old salon, he said bluntly, had been sunk by greed and mismanagement. In the bubble years, the founder, by all accounts a charismatic rogue well-loved by the society pages, had plundered the business to fund his “hair-raising” (sic) lifestyle, then taken out bank loans to keep it solvent. At the same time he expanded the already over-leveraged business and spent millions on swanky new premises in premium locations.

The first time the salon went bust was in the credit crunch of 2009, when the banks reined in their lending and the boss couldn’t refinance his loans. The stylist described his predicament paraphrasing in a slightly more earthy way Warren Buffet’s observation that “when the tide goes out you can see who is swimming knickerless (ξεβράκωτος, xevrákotos)”. Undeterred, the boss declared the company bankrupt, moved premises, and reopened under a new company registered in his son’s name (a classic λαμογιά in the modern Greek style). The staff who were already owed several months’ wages were coaxed to stay by the promise that this would be a clean slate, and they would be paid what they were owed if they stayed on.

Things did not improve. It was common knowledge that the staff were owed months of back pay, and the owner was not paying their social security contributions. They still turned up for work, but it was clear to the observant eye that they were not engaged in their work. The business could still have succeeded, the stylist felt: it had a strong brand, a loyal and growing customer base, even in the crisis. But as the wear and tear became evident and customer service deteriorated they were deterred. He hoped that his boss would learn from his past failure, but he was disappointed to see the same mismanagement repeated. He had spent the last year in a state of constant anxiety, dreading the day when he would turn up for work to find the shop shuttered. When (not if) this happened, he would find himself at a mature age (how mature? a lady never asks for fear of impugning the quality of the dye job) having built a career from scratch, having to beg for work as a jobbing hairdresser, worrying whether he would ever accumulate enough pension credits to retire on (a far cry from the quasi-mythical Greek hairdresser of peak crisis reporting, qualifying for early retirement on a full pension).

One day he woke up with his mind made up (“as if I had seen a vision”), he moved heaven and earth and managed to find a way to start his own business. With impeccable (lucky) timing, he made his move as his old boss exited stage left pursued by creditors and tax collectors, more than likely planning his comeback. AC was too discreet to ask how he managed to scrape together the means for the gleaming new premises and equipment. She was nervous enough to notice out of the corner of her eye a nervous looking man in a black puffa jacket pacing the street outside with a mobile phone glued to his ear, and feared that her hard-working stylist had made a deal with the devil. It turned out that the man was waiting for one of the clients, whether as a friend or a security detail was not clear. Still…

Why are we even talking about Aunt Cassandra’s posh hairdresser? Surely there are more important things to worry about at the moment, as another round of austerity measures is about to take effect, and words like “Grexit” and “drachma” make a comeback in anticipation of another summer of discontent.

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“Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be”, November 2015.

It struck me while listening to the story that it was a variation on a theme that one encounters repeatedly while going about one’s daily business in Greece. It is perhaps no exaggeration to think of it as one of the dominant narratives of the ongoing boom and bust cycle; but it is one that is consistently ignored in the reporting, perhaps because it lacks the spurious moral clarity of Greek victim vs. predatory lender, or lazy Greek vs. principled creditor.

Beauty salons, in common with most small businesses in the service sector, have always lent themselves to what are euphemistically termed “informal” employment practices, or the “grey economy” – casual employment, cash-in-hand payment and the associated tax evasion, non-provision of health insurance, pension contributions and other legally mandated employment benefits – as well as being ideal conduits for outright money-laundering. Both before and during the present crisis, Greece has ranked well above the European average in terms of the size of its shadow economy relative to its GDP and the size of its undeclared labour market (although by their nature, quantifying both of these is very problematic). Recent workplace inspections and surveys suggest that the shadow economy is expanding its reach, as employers find themselves squeezed by lower margins and higher contributions (or claim to), but are also able to demand their own terms from increasingly desperate prospective employees. With the highest unemployment rates in Europe at 24.4% (and youth unemployment over twice that at 52.4%), many are searching for a job, but even those that hold one are not much better off in practice. It was recently reported that two out of three private sector employees are owed between two and fifteen months’ back pay.

While AC was being pampered in the comfort of the salon, trade unions marched through central Athens only a block away as part of five days of organised strike action against a pension and tax reform bill. The juniors sweeping up the hair and making coffees were regaling one another with their adventures trying to get to work by taxi from more affordable parts of town (paid for out of their own pockets, natch) because of the public transport strikes. Young, predominantly female, employed by small businesses, they are not represented by any of the strong interest groups in the labour movement and have been some of the earliest and biggest losers of the crisis.

Since 2008, Greece has lost almost one third of its businesses under a variety of circumstances (see reports in Greek and English). These headline statistics likely mask the number that followed the model of the salon’s founder, wiping clean the slate of an indebted business only to re-emerge in another guise. Some are even less subtle about it: a souvlaki shop in our ordinary residential neighbourhood shuttered overnight leaving cutlery on the tables and a delivery van falling apart in the street, and reappeared a few months later under the exact same name and branding only a few bus stops down the road. Further up the food chain, entire media conglomerates have been doing the same. A good portion of these may not have shuttered their businesses out of genuine desperation. Recent figures show that while more than half of outstanding bank loans to businesses or individuals in Greece are in arrears, the Bank of Greece estimates that about 20% of the money in these “red” loans is owed by “strategic defaulters”, i.e. borrowers who have the assets to pay, but choose not to.

Parables are found in the most unexpected places. The posh hairdresser’s tale puts a less stereotypical face on the dry macroeconomic statistics of Greece’s boom and bust years. We don’t yet know how the story will play out: it offers a hint of redemption and new beginnings for those who jump off the merry-go-round, but also a strong indication that some obvious lessons are being systematically ignored in favour of deceptively simpler narratives of villains and victims.

“Are you saying we are a nation of hairdressers?” asks Aunt Cassandra dubiously, her agile mind ready to pounce on a logical flaw with the alacrity of a thrifty widow spying an underpriced designer handbag at a liquidation sale. Not quite. But perhaps we have something to learn from their stories.

This story is mostly true. Names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the innocent and self-indulgent alike.

For more Aunt Cassandra, click here.

Images: pinterest, Atlantis Host.

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

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

Five steps to effective political communications

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If you want to put your views across to a minister or senior government official and you don’t have (a) a lobbying and entertainment budget, (b) a secret “commissions” slush fund, or (c) a relative in the ministry, you need to follow these simple guidelines to get your message across. At ¡Revolución! Communications your mission is our passion.

Commit to a brand identity. Many underestimate branding as a superficial exercise and an unnecessary expense. However, have a browse through a good branding handbook relevant to your business, and you will see that every revolutionary success story is underpinned by a great brand.

Be brief and to the point. Ministers and senior officials are busy people, and most of their correspondence ends up in a pile to be read by some junior flunky. No-one will read a turgid 40-page manifesto with your sophomoric musings on Marx or Bakunin unless you plant a bomb. At ¡Revolución! Communications we believe that non-violent forms of expression can be just as effective. A few well-chosen words, suitably framed, are all you need to get your point across. A slight verbal tick (e.g. brackets or random capitals) might help to suggest that you are slightly unhinged, but don’t go overboard.

Pick a distinctive logo. We are big fans of the red star. Some say it is over-used but we think it has an elegant timeless simplicity. It says “I’m a left-of-centre revolutionary” but without too many specifics (for this reason we advise against the hammer and sickle which lost its freshness long ago).

Spend some time picking a signature. You may wish to preserve some mystery around your identity. This may be necessary for security purposes, but it is also a useful way of implying that you are a movement rather than a lone nutter. We recommend this revolutionary name generator as a starting point. NB: It is essential that you check that your chosen name isn’t already in use – you wouldn’t want some young punk taking credit for your righteous actions.

Say it with a gift. Always accompany your letter with discreet gift that helps you to communicate your message. Make sure you comply with your own corporate gift policy and that of the recipient. As a rule, it is good to pick something inexpensive so as not require an entry in the gifts register. In your case, we recommend something punchy – like a bullet (not to be confused with bullet points, remember “powerpoint is evil”). Also: as with words, so with bullets. One is enough to make your point. This is not a Cretan wedding.

Image: Letter received yesterday by the Greek Deputy Finance Minister in charge of taxation, accompanied by a single bullet. The letter reads: “TRYFON ALEXIADIS, COLLECTOR OF THE WERMACHT… UNTIL THE HOUR <0> YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHAT FEAR MEANS, YOU AND YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS… RED FACTION.” A similar letter, also accompanied by a bullet, was received last week by the Chair of the the advisory committee on pensions, the so-called “Committee of Wise Men”. Taxation and pension reform are two of the key areas where the government is pushing forward with further austerity policies as part of the latest bailout agreement.

Five steps to effective political communications

I want my MTV… What does the media bill mean for me? 

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The draft media bill has been trailed as a game-changer for TV in Greece, but will it rock your TV world? We strap on our hazmat suit and wade through the crap and the hot air so you don’t have to.

This week the Greek parliament will be voting on a fast-tracked bill on the issuing of TV broadcast licenses. The new legislation has been a key element of the Syriza manifesto, which framed it firmly within its battle with “diaploki” (entanglement, corruption). To quote PM Alexis Tsipras back in May: “We are embattled by the oligarchs and the print and electronic media which foresee disaster for the country. The time has come for the oligarchs of Greece to put their hands in their pockets and pay for the frequencies that they hold for free, what they haven’t paid all these years. However much propaganda they produce, we will not change our position because the people are on our side.”

The people are on their side to a certain extent. Hardly anyone in Greece trusts the private media. In the 25 years of their existence, private TV channels have done their best to degrade standards and hone the nation’s appreciation for bling, celebrity and superficiality that arguably fuelled the bubble that we are now paying the bill for. Greece currently has the eight private TV channels that broadcast nationally , in addition to four state ERT channels and the Vouli (parliament) channel (this list is a little out of date). The existing licensing regime is governed by legislation dating back to 1995, which has never been comprehensively enforced, so that for example all private TV stations still operate on temporary licenses, making them fertile ground for political interference. Several of the channels are majority owned by large conglomerates, some of which also own newsapapers, bid for public works and hold large outstanding loans from Greek banks (there is a good academic summary of the regulatory and commercial background here,  in Greek). This arrangement is referred to as the “triangle of power” but is also described in less flattering terms, and these entities are the targets of the Syriza/ANEL sabre-rattling. The new bill is designed to reset the conditions for terrestrial broadcast licenses, and make private broadcasters apply for them afresh. It is likely to pass substantially unchanged, as MPs are expected to vote largely along party lines. But how will the new legislation address the ordinary viewer’s concerns?

Below I answer the burning questions, based on way too many hours of viewing of Greek TV (motivated mainly by morbid fascination), a reasonably educated interest in media regulation, and an insight into the economics of the media markets (the latter courtesy of our contributor koutofrangos).

Do the new rules mean I will have to do without innovative programming like… “My mamma can cook better than yours”? 

Fear not. Game shows, chat shows and studio-based reality TV are just about the cheapest programming you can make, and ideal for product placement. Greek formats like “My mamma” are even cheaper because, unlike shows like “The Voice” or “Your face sounds familiar”, they don’t require paying to license the format from a foreign company. With the Greek market in the state that it’s in, cheap TV is all that can be guaranteed.

Let me walk you through it. Private free-to-air TV is funded by advertising revenues (in some countries the state subsidises independent broadcasters , but not in Greece). Companies will only spend on advertising if they are in a reasonably healthy state themselves and have a realistic prospect of reaching a market that can purchase their products. Between 2007 and 2015 individual wealth in Greece shrunk by 40%. Net advertising revenues by TV stations halved between 2008 and 2012 and have not recovered since. Since the new legislation is still talking about commercial TV licenses, the same economics will apply, and this will be the determining factor of your viewing experience.

So whoever gets the new licenses, we can expect the same old rubbish but even cheaper.

Can we have Petroula back? 

Hope springs eternal for the return of the pneumatically-enhanced weather-girl-turned-roving-political-satirist-turned-discount-appliance-seller (Petroula stalking Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his IMF visits to Athens has to be one of the funniest and most prescient moments on Greek TV in recent years). The media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV) is such a lame duck that it only just finalised its decision to sanction Star TV for her suggestive weather reports this year, several years after she went off-air.

The new bill is specifically and narrowly about media ownership, not content. There is nothing in it to suggest that the regulator will be any more robust, independent or well resourced, leaving wide open the possibility that Petroula and her spiritual sisters could find a place again in the brave new media landscape, and in the nation’s hearts.

Will I have to do without shouty news and “windows”? 

Don’t be silly. After game shows, chat shows and reality shows, rolling news is the next cheapest way to fill airtime (only marginally less cheap because it would be too conspicuous to present the news with a big carton of cream on the desk). Greek news programmes resemble “Celebrity Squares” in their attempt to squeeze in as many talking heads in the “windows” (παράθυρα, paráthyra). Politicians endorse this as a public service, because they get to posture endlessly, away from the niceties of parliamentary procedure or the accountability of governing. Moreover, you can’t count on TV news progammes for information: a recent study showed that 4/5 of Greek news bulletins failed to distinguish news from editorial content, and 2/3 lacked investigative content (the dead tree media came off only slightly better, scoring 2/3 and 3/5 respectively), while they have been known to suppress negative news  relating to their busiess interests.

Take this endorsement from a leading mental health professional: I advise people to refrain from watching TV. Greek television isn’t exactly dominated by dialogue and information, it’s full of people who just scream at each other. By all accounts, Greek TV will continue to perform the same role as “guardian” of the nation’s mental health in the years to come.

Will the new law mean the end of infomercial magic? 

Of course not. Telesales is the only kind of programming that pays its own way. So you can continue to enjoy the educational benefits of your favourite more-or-less-thinly-disguised racist conspiracy peddlers, not just those who now sit in parliament. You may even be able to enjoy them on more mainstream channels, since it is hard to see how else they will fill their airtime.

I am the kind of shallow person who enjoys a well-made commercial. Will I get to see some real ads again? 

Unlikely.

In the bubble years, you would have trouble finding any programming in amongst the endless advertising “breaks” on both public and private TV stations. Nowadays, programmes run promptly and ad breaks on the private TV stations are dominated by a small set of players: banks, telecoms, big domestic food companies (a surreal parade of dairy, processed meat, and ironically these days, a certain German-owned supermarket chain). It is sometimes insinuated that companies which have financial ties to the TV stations (e.g. as their creditors) may not be paying cash to advertise. There is some incidental support for this hypothesis. In the same prime time slots you can also find extended infomercials for mail order firms selling “pretty bras”, “clever hose” and cheap costume jewellery, or pawnbrokers – it’s like a giant flashing neon sign that reads “advertising time is dirt cheap”. Meanwhile, the public service stations screen wall-to-wall embarrassingly bad public service announcements.

So, no. No one is willing to pay real money to seduce you into buying stuff you can’t afford.

Will I get public service TV like the BBC? 

If you have led such a sheltered enough existence as to think that ERT was ever anything like the BBC (even in the latter’s degraded present state) then yes, you will get public service TV “like the BBC”. However, if you expect your public service TV to serve you, the public, and not the government of the day, you will be disappointed. And if you expect it to educate, then I refer you to the next question.

But there is good news: you won’t get Fox News or Mediaset either. The Greek market is no prize for global TV companies and the Greek language audience segment globally is way too insignificant (commercially or politically) to justify their involvement.  So you’re safe from the polluting influences of a Murdoch or a Berlusconi, or any beast big enough to swing an election single-handedly. Though you might get a friendly second-tier Russian oligarch looking to boost his profile.

Speaking of kingmakers, though, the bill does grant one government minister the power to set the number of TV broadcast licenses and the starting price for the license auction.

Documentaries? Nature programmes? Cultural events? 

Don’t be silly. The bill pays lip service to the constitutional aims of “ensuring pluralism, objective and equitable transmission of information and news, reinforcing the social mission of television and supporting the cultural development of the nation, but there is nothing contained within that gives a clue how these noble goals will be achieved. This is first and foremost a bill on media ownership, which only requires a minimal 10 hours of “cultural” programming per month as part of the license condition.

More importantly, these things cost money to make and money to license from abroad. You might stumble on a gem of a documentary from the ERT archive or a seminal Russian art film buried on the Vouli channel, but even they get a bit old after the fifth showing… No, I refer you back to my first answer.

Sport?  

Oh stop it. You’re talking big money now.

In fact, in its previous term the Syriza/ANEL government removed the requirement for sports events of national importance to be broadcast on free-to-air TV, with the result that the Greek Football Cup final was only shown on a subscription channel.

In case you haven’t got the message yet, this isn’t about you, dear viewer, it’s about the politicians, their business friends, and their turf.

I do care about where my news comes from. Will this be the end of the oligarchic media? 

Unlikely.

The bill does specify conflicts of interest that would exclude certain potential bidders, though these are limited to TV research firms and advertising companies. It does not attempt to re-open the issue of conflict with ownership of state contractors, or the issue of borrowing from banks with links to the state; this harks back to the so-called “basic shareholder” affair (βασικός μέτοχος), when previous governments’ attempts to legislate on this front were controversially rebuffed by Brussels as incompatible with European law. Absent, too, is any restriction on cross-media ownership (where the same owner can have stakes in TV, radio and newspapers), a provision that was removed from the law by a previous government, and no-one seems willing to reinstate. So the “triangle of power” remains intact.

The bill mandates the disclosure of all shareholders down to the 1% holding level – however, the draft being debated includes a number of exemptions from reporting, e.g. companies listed in an OECD member jurisdiction, and lax reporting requirements around beneficial ownership, which open loopholes large enough for a luxury coachload of oligarchs, their lawyers and accountants.

There are the obvious prohibitions on individuals with criminal records etc., and there are minimum solvency and capitalisation requirements, which are presumably intended to exclude existing license holders who have racked up massive debts (see below). Again, anyone with a half-decent legal/accounting team would not find it hard to organise some kind of restructuring to meet the letter of the law.

Let’s assume all the existing license holders are excluded or choose not to take part in the bidding process. Who is likely to bid for a license? Applicants will need to meet two criteria: (a) have money or access to money (€2-8 million to capitalise the company, plus the minimum facilities that the bill also mandates, plus whatever the license ends up costing), and (b) not care much about making money from their broadcast activity (the old adage that “you can make a small fortune in this business only if you start with a large one” seems to apply here as much as it does in football). The economics of the Greek TV market are marginal at best. Take away the cheap money, lax lending practices and regulatory laissez-faire that have allowed the existing private TV stations to survive this long, raise the barriers to entry, and the legitimate commercial proposition is even weaker than it ever was.

Only political operators and vanity broadcasters need apply. Regional and municipal stations, even solvent ones, are positively put off by some of the provisions. Muck-rakers have already started compiling a roster of likely bidders for the new licenses, and it’s hard to get excited about their probity, public-spiritedness, and lack of “oligarchic”  credentials.

As an aside, it is unlikely that on purely commercial terms the new licenses will raise more than pocket money for the public purse.

And what will happen to the pimps who control the media now? Will the TV stations pay their debts? 

All the current private license holders owe large sums of money to the Greek banks, totalling close to €1 billion by a recent estimate, in the form of business loans.  These numbers have been repeated frequently in the run-up to the vote, but the bill does not address them directly. Now, if the indebted TV companies wanted to bid for a license in their current form they may have to do their bit to relieve the banks’ balance sheet of any loans that they aren’t servicing (loans that are not “red”, however large, remain irrelevant). But would they want to? It would not be the first time when a media company goes bust only to resurface in a new form scot free, leaving a trail of unpaid bills. That is more to do with problematic bankruptcy provisions than with media regulation.

However, the “old media” only need trouble themselves with this if they insist on bidding for a terrestrial digital license, which is the only type covered by the bill. In this day and age, though, terrestrial TV is pretty old hat, and there are plenty of other ways to reach an audience without being beholden to the government, paying special taxes, hiring unionised journalists, or having to respect any rules on content. There is a growing market for subscription-based satellite TV, some of the “old media” interests have already migrated online, while many of the newer media outlets have forged a path entirely on the internet. In one scenario, then, we could end up with a “new systemic” regulated media domain, alongside an unregulated shadow media space, with no guarantee of quality or trustworthiness in either.

However, we have previously aired a cynical view of all the political noise surrounding the fight against diaploki and what the endgame might be. This would imply a much less radical outcome. In brief, if the old “pimps” resurface, we will have to assume that some kind of settlement has been reached.

Will I finally get my dream job in the media? 

Now we’re talking!  The bill does set the minimum number of employees (between 50 and 400) required for each type of license-holder, throwing a bone to anyone concerned about the inevitable job losses (not enough of a bone as it turns out; the main journalists’ union has gone on strike, leaving no-one to report on the honeymoon of our latest private island dweller, or indeed President Hollande’s state visit).

Your dream job might be as a cleaner or a security guard, which would be the most cost-effective way to meet the quota.

Will I finally get good news?  

I see your sense of humour is intact. This is a media bill, not a magic lantern.

Oh, isn’t that your bill for the ENFIA, the property tax that was supposed to be abolished? Better get to that. Happy viewing!

Now read “I want my MTV… the sequel”.

Image: Vintage  TV ad from imgarcade.com

I want my MTV… What does the media bill mean for me? 

Trouble on the production line

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Greece is still managing to gain some revenue from its exports. Many of these are its natural products, lovingly cultivated and harvested by generations of Greek families according to traditional methods, and gaining well-deserved appreciation outside its borders. Many such products continue to provide income for the families and for the country. Notable examples are its olive oil, and two of its more exclusive items, mastic from the island of Chios and saffron from the crocus fields of Kozani.

At various points in its history, Greece has been renowned for its export of another natural product, also lovingly cultivated, fitting the description in the opening paragraph, namely its youth. The current crisis has resulted in an upsurge in the exodus of young men and women, many highly educated at great expense to the country and their families (calculated by the OECD at $23,701 per high school graduate, $37,429 per university graduate). It has been estimated that in the last 5 years well over 130,000 Greeks with university degrees have left Greece to work in other countries, and many others have failed to return home after studying abroad for a higher degree. Their talent is exploited, and their taxes are collected by their adoptive countries, and all Greece gains is an occasional accolade as a Greek scientist working abroad receives an award. This trend is likely to continue, but for how long can Greece keep up its production of this sought-after commodity to a sufficient standard?

Primary schooling starts at age six, provided by the state. Traditionally very young children in Greece were brought up at home with a large extended family ensuring that they acquired the skills needed to succeed and prosper. Even when young Greek women started working outside the home there was always a Yiayia, a grandmother, to take over. Then, with the passage of another generation, Yiayia was working, too, or was not geographically available as the wave of internal migration to the cities continued. Alternative forms of child-care had to be found, including baby-minders (native or “xenes” – how many foreign wives in Greece came originally to look after the children of Greek families?) and the “βρεφονηπιακός σταθμός” and the “παιδικός σταθμός” (vrefonipiakós stathmós and paidikós stathmós – literally “infant and child station”, respectively – nursery school), followed by νηπιαγωγείο (nipiagogío, kindergarten). In the beginning these were mostly privately run, although the larger cities had facilities for the children of civil servants, and some of the banks provided similar services for their employees. Eventually the demand was so great that the municipalities started subsidized preschool care, but with specific entry criteria. Kindergarten became part of the compulsory education for children between five and six in 2006.

All well and good – our budding scientists are headed on their course. The private sector burgeoned to cover the families not eligible for municipal childcare, or wanting something a little more imaginative for their children. The hours of state primary school often did not coincide with Mama’s work schedule, so a private school providing transport and additional “study time” was sometimes a necessity. And looking ahead, many parents started sending their children to language schools (frontistíria) in the afternoon, or arranging private tuition at home. A fragile balance seemed to have been forged, which ensured a steady stream of children to enter the next stage towards the “finished product” – high school – but that is another story.

Then The Wall came down and people from neighbouring countries were able to come to Greece looking for work and bringing their families. The Greek bubble economy of the turn of the century eventually attracted settlers from farther afield too. Their children, many born in Greece, changed the traditional nearly-all-Greek population of the schools and challenged the teachers who were not well equipped for a multi-cultural environment. The educational budget was being stretched. The private sector flourished further.

Come the crisis, and things really began to fall apart. Parents became unemployed. Mothers now find themselves in a Catch-22 situation where to enrol their children in the municipal preschool they need a letter from their employer, while to go looking for a job they need their children to be in preschool. Families whose earnings exceed a certain limit are excluded from municipal nursery schools, so have to spend a substantial proportion of those earnings on a private alternative. Or press Yiayia back into service.

Meanwhile the municipal facilities are in trouble. They are bankrolled largely out of European funds, but the austerity measures have entailed a pruning down of employees, including nursery nurses, preschool teachers, cleaning and security staff. The state kindergartens and primary schools find themselves in a similar situation, and the school year opened in September 2015 with no teachers at all in some kindergartens and schools, too few in others, and no special education specialists.

At the same time the possibility of a 23% VAT on private education brought the threat of transfer of thousands of children from private schools to a state system unable to cope with its present numbers. The government has now been forced to rescind the tax on preschool facilities and to reduce the VAT on other private educational establishments, to, for example, 6% for language schools and 13% for primary schools. So things do not look quite so bad (in a classic application of prospect theory we are so relieved to see our potential loss reduced that we treat it as a gain).

But we are not out of the woods yet. We must never discount the inevitable teachers’ strikes that will close down the whole system for days at a time throwing every family’s carefully juggled schoolday programme into disarray and playing havoc with the learning curve of the young brains.

It appears that the outlook for the continued successful cultivation of our prime national product is not sunny.

Image: Illustration from Greek primary school textbook c.1980.

Trouble on the production line

Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece

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Recently we have been talking a lot about taxes: tax increases, tax fairness, tax evasion. Today for a change we have some good news about the other inevitability: death, or rather, your options after death in Greece.

At present, your after-death options in Greece are very limited. Basically, it’s burial or burial. The majority of Greeks are Orthodox Christians (as many as 98% though there are no official government statistics), and Orthodox Christianity is the country’s constitutionally guaranteed “prevailing” religion, meaning that its clergy are paid as civil servants, its institutions pay little tax relative to size of their estates (though the Church denies that it has preferential status), and Orthodox religious education is compulsory through primary and secondary school. By extension, the Church of Greece has de facto cornered the market in funerary ritual and disposal of the dead. What this means in practical terms is that the standard route out of this world is an Orthodox funeral and burial, followed by interment in a church cemetery, usually in a rented plot (perpetual plots do exist but they cost more than most houses). The standard rental period is three years, after which the remains are disinterred with considerably less ceremony than they were buried, and moved to a more compact stackable ossuary. If you are a Muslim, you can be buried in a limited number of dedicated cemeteries in northern Greece. If you belong to another religion, or are non-religious, or a slightly less dogmatic Orthodox Christian (for example, if you respect the Deity but distrust His earthly middlemen as many Greeks traditionally do), you’re on your own.

Greece is perhaps the only country in Europe that doesn’t offer the option of cremation of the dead, but over the last few years it has been edging slowly closer to making it a reality. To this day, there is no licensed crematorium in Greek territory even though campaigning started in 1987 and cremation was made legal in 2006 for those whose religion permits it. The Orthodox Church’s position, reiterated in a recent encyclical, is that since cremation is not part of its tradition, it does not sanction it; therefore priests are not allowed to perform a funeral service or a memorial for someone who is about to be cremated, though at the discretion of the local bishop a simple blessing might be arranged.

However it now seems that the final hurdle is being lifted that will allow the first crematoria to be licensed in Greece. Progress has been slow. In 2010, legislation was enacted setting out the planning conditions for operating a crematorium; however one of the conditions was that should be attached to a cemetery, which of course put it on church turf, both literally and metaphorically. In 2014, the condition linking crematoria to cemeteries was lifted, but restrictions remain which limit their operation to municipal bodies only. The mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, united by their progressive views but also facing the shared challenge of land scarcity in the most densely populated parts of the country, have been very outspoken in confronting the Church’s objections to establishing crematoria in their constituencies, and have been lobbying for gaps to be filled in the legislation. An amendment signed last week by the Environment Minister is now said to complete the licensing regime.

Meanwhile, this being Greece, we have found ways around the system, thanks to the availability of facilities in the neighbouring countries of the former Communist block, where state atheism ensured their development. Here’s how it works. Most funeral parlours, euphemistically known as “Ceremony Offices” (Γραφεία Τελετών) in Greek (I challenge you to find any that look like they do wedding planning, although some do have a flair for self-promotion) offer a cremation service. The closest and most popular destination is Bulgaria, where the office will arrange to transport the body, take care of the paperwork repatriate the ashes for prices starting around €1,900 (our local office recently quoted €2,500 for a dignified service: “we take them in a proper hearse, some of our competitors will just load them into a van”). It all has he makings of a great Balkan road movie (Valkanizater meets Little Miss Sunshine meets Due Date, perhaps?). Our own family itinerary specifies an additional orienteering challenge to disperse the ashes (Code name: Five Rivers).

If you want hedge your bets with your Orthodox Maker, the funeral organiser will also offer advice on how to handle the clerics so as to get a funeral. They line they favour is that “the deceased wished to be buried in his/her horió (χωριό, ancestral village)”; this ensures that after a “proper” funeral, the body is released, no questions asked. The moral acrobatics of lying to a priest in order to secure a Christian funeral does not appear to be a strong deterrent, and is in keeping with the general casualness of the relationship that most modern Greeks have with a religion that appears on the face of it so dominant and all-pervasive (Catholic friends both marvel at the pomposity of the ritual which is always performed in an archaic language by men who always wear frocks, and envy our relative freedom from guilt and the dread of eternal damnation). According to a recent report, the extra cost of a cremation has done nothing to dampen its popularity, even during the crisis. The owner of one funeral parlour was quoted saying that people are choosing to forgo the cost of a funeral service instead.

The economics of the final journey aside, there is growing impatience among ordinary Greeks with the institution of the Church. The financial crisis has been focusing attention on the Church’s own financial status, and particularly the lack of transparency around its relationship to the state and its involvement in major political scandals. A recent survey showed that 53% of Greeks favour the separation of Church and state, even though 82% do not believe that the Church would survive the separation financially (implying that they in fact believe it to be dependent on public finances). This, despite the prominent role the Church has taken during the crisis, in being seen to provide a social safety net of last resort through initiatives like soup kitchens in deprived areas.

The Church’s public charitable activities and financial clout may account for the fact that the Syriza/ANEL government has conceded on a number of fronts where it was expected to take a strong stance, including the continuation of compulsory religious education. Critics have also been quick to note the preferential treatment accorded to the Church under the continuing capital controls regime, and the recent ministerial decision to hire more priests ahead of badly needed schoolteachers. True, one partner in the coalition finds it hard to resist the opportunity to schmooze a bishop or kiss an icon; but even many political conservatives still harbour the hope that a left-wing government will do the dirty work of prising some areas of life out of the hands of the Church and into the modern age.

Ideally in this life as well.

Image: FIRE!! by Thomas’s Pics licensed under BY CC 2.0

Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece