I went down to Constitution Square–the epicenter of all Greek protests and political movements–today, in order to see what sort of opposition was being raised to the weekend’s crushing austerity agreement with the Eurozone. To my surprise, all I found was a handful of tourists watching the changing of the guard (above) and a bunch of journalists with giant satellite dishes looking for protesters. Maybe it was too early in the day for a protest–Greeks do tend to do things on a specific schedule and midday is certainly not peak protest time–but I was struck by the quiet.
On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised because the reaction to the dramatic events culminating in the agreement over the weekend has been very muted, as far as I can tell. I think the Greek people are in a sort of collective state of shock, reeling from the blows poured down from Brussels and from the whipsaw action of the last two weeks. In addition to shock, there is a palpable sense of relief that some resolution–any resolution–has come to the situation that has kept them on tenterhooks for weeks. Sort of like wondering what has happened to a loved one who has disappeared and finally learning that they are in intensive care in the hospital–the outlook is grim, but at least now you know what you’re facing.
The Greek people are also angry–rightly so, I think–at the Germans for insisting on not only a very hard deal, but a punitive one. References to the Versailles treaty, WWII, and even Auschwitz abound. “At least the world now can see the Germans for what they are–the dictators of Europe,” one woman told me today. Small comfort, I imagine.
Despite the shock and the anger, I think there are many Greeks who also see that contained within the reform aspects of the agreement are the potential seeds of some much-needed improvements to the functioning of the often dysfunctional Greek state. Almost all of the media attention on the deal has focused on the austerity aspects, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Greek who did not agree that the government bureaucracy is a disaster much in need of reform. Most Greeks I have spoken to in the last year are remarkably critical of their own country’s cultural and governmental shortcomings, often saying things that would quite literally cause riots in the streets if said by a Scheuble or Merkel. (In a casual encounter on the street the other day, a young man volunteered his view that “We Greeks are a really problematic people–we run through red lights, we park any old place we want, we don’t follow any rules…I don’t know what’s wrong with us!”)
The reforms contained in the agreement aimed at ending cronyism and corruption in the granting of civil service jobs, reducing bloated bureaucracies with a good deal of dead wood, simplifying and clarifying the tax system (which not even the tax attorneys here claim to understand), and improving the rate of tax collection might actually improve the lives of ordinary Greek people at some point in the future.
As I wrote when the Syriza government was first elected, improving tax collection will be the hardest nut to crack. In a country in which tax avoidance has become a universal practice, it will take more than passing a few laws or adding a few more tax inspectors to change this cultural norm. As my astute reader Greg D. pointed out, this practice goes back to the days of the Ottoman empire when Greeks refined the practice of hiding their wealth and income from the tax collectors of their Ottoman overlords and it won’t be changed overnight. (“You want to tax me on twenty sheep you say? But I swear I have only these four scrawny, sorry excuses for a sheep that you see in front of you,” I imagine it went in those days.) In fact, I don’t know how this can be changed. The people are convinced that the government does nothing for them so they don’t pay taxes, the government then raises taxes, people pay even less taxes, and so on.
Little is certain about the future of Greece except one thing–the country is in for another long stretch of very hard times. The only question is whether the country will come out better or worse in the end. Will we look back 10 or 20 years from now and agree that Greece should have left the Euro long ago?