I’m back in Greece to see how much worse things have gotten since last fall. During that reporting trip last October, I heard some grim stories. And since then, from my usual perch in Brussels, I’ve been trying to follow the latest from the country alternately described as “the epicenter of the Euro’s demise,” and “the country Germany is trying to turn into a colony.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where you are more likely to hear the former, and the latter.
Many Greeks are angry and sad, and for good reason. The country has been in recession for a few years now. Wages have been slashed, and new taxes have been imposed. Social safety-nets are, by and large, not there for the people who need them most. In a matter of months, Greece has gone from having the lowest suicide rate in Europe to having the highest. The crisis is, in fact, about the only thing people are talking about. And yet they are sick of talking about it.
“John,” who works at the very quiet hotel I’m staying at, asked me point blank when I got here: “So, what do you think of the Greek crisis?” I only got to “Well…” before he interrupted, and let loose.
John’s parents are Greek, but he grew up in Montreal. He returned five years ago to take over his parents’ home here in Athens. When he went to transfer the property into his name at the municipality office, he said he was shocked. None of the land records were digitized. Random papers, he tells me, were stacked all over the floor of the registry office. How, he thought, will I ever be able to prove I own the property if my paperwork gets “filed” like this?
Disorganization and above all corruption, he tells me, are now endemic in the Greek system. He’s not alone in feeling this way. A recent report issued by Transparency International (TI) in Greece notes that 98 percent of Greeks think that corruption is a major issue in the country. As Costas Bakouris, President of TI-Greece put it in the executive summary of the report:
“We all know about the debt crisis, but Greece is also suffering a crisis of values. It has the right laws in place but does little to enforce them. The law is being violated, the illegal is being legalized, and the international commitments to fight corruption are being ignored. The laws are there, and institutions already have teeth – they just need to bite.”
I interviewed Bakouris when I was here last fall. The picture he painted of Greek corruption was truly mind-boggling. Bribery, tax-dodging, and money-laundering are all rampant. And it’s not just among the rich, or among politicians. A whole generation of Greeks, Bakouris told me, have learned to game the system.
Case in point: it’s true that many Greeks work more than one job. However, one of those jobs is likely to be a state job, complete with pension and health benefits. A person might very well spend the morning working at that job, which is supposed to be a full-time job. The other job(s)? Well, those are often taken care of in the afternoons or evenings, possibly during work hours for the state job. Often, the income from those extra jobs is not reported to the tax authorities.
Or, as John from the hotel put it: “The kids here were taught to avoid paying the bus fare by entering the bus through the back doors, instead of the front.” And everybody was happy to let it slide, he told me, as long as the credit was flowing and everybody was living the good life. But now the bill has come due, he says, and no one wants to pay it.
Costas Bakouris told me last fall that it will take a generation to try to make Greeks understand that the system — the schools, the hospitals, public transportation — won’t work unless someone pays for it. That means paying taxes. It means believing in, and funding, the system.
Last night, I went for dinner with my fixer. He took me to a swanky part of Athens. The restaurants were full, the music was loud. It was hard to believe that there is a major economic crisis happening here, or that a large percentage of the population now lives below the poverty line. Looking around, it was especially hard to believe that the young people sipping drinks are truly prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to change “the way it’s been.”
When I put that to my fixer, he looked around, and then took a sip of wine.
“They’re playing the fiddle while Rome burns,” he said with a hint of a smile.