ATHENS – A side-effect of the rise of the Radical Left SYRIZA’s to Greece’s Premiership has been that it – not the ultra-nationalists of Golden Dawn – has made Greeks proud again after nearly five years under the boot heels of international lenders.
They might be in the Greek equivalent of the Alamo – or like King Leonidas faced the Persian might at Thermopylae in 490 B.C. – but Greeks are echoing his cry to demands and SYRIZA’s answer that they throw down their weapons: Molon Labe. Come and take them.
Since 2010, a succession of Greek governments controlled essentially by the once-dominant twin powers of the New Democracy Conservatives and the PASOK Socialists, together and in coalition, had ceded the country’s sovereignty in return for 240 billion euros ($272 billion) in two rescue packages from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB).
The lenders demanded, and got, humiliating austerity measures that created record unemployment and deep poverty and made many Greeks feel like beggars dependent on foreigners for their survival.
SYRIZA, under its leader and now Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, had fought ferociously against the big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings and got rewarded with a thumping victory in early national elections on Jan. 25.
While SYRIZA is locked in a struggle with the lenders over unfinished reforms, and Tsipras is backtracking on some of his promises to better social benefits, for now at least a lot of Greeks feel like someone is standing up to banks and foreign politicians.
In an analytical feature, the Reuters news agency pointed out the stark difference, even if warnings that the country will go bankrupt unless it buckles come true.
“The message of impending doom appears to have gone largely unnoticed on the streets of Athens, where a mood of hope and optimism bordering on euphoria reigns as Greeks see themselves finally shaking off foreign shackles to shape their own destiny,” it reported.
“Bankrupt but free” proclaimed a banner at a pro-government demonstration that drew thousands while hardliner motorcycle-riding Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis – compared to Bruce Willis in Die Hard – is drawing rave reviews from fans as he stands up to the lenders, particularly Germany, the biggest contributor to the loans and the demander of austerity.
“For the first time in years I feel proud to be Greek,” said Lena Dousiou, a 32-year-old who worked in a printing shop before being laid off two years ago. “We went to the Europeans with our head held high and told them ‘Enough is enough!’”
Another TV feature on Varoufakis had the pop hit “Can’t take my eyes off you” in the background while women from Spain to Germany swooned for his rebellious stance and tough guy talk even though he hasn’t materialized a deal.
Two polls showed that over three-quarters of Greeks support Tsipras line-in-the-sand position against the Troika and Eurozone even if it alarmed markets.
An opinion poll showed 79 percent of Greeks backed Tsipras’s policies and 74 percent believed his negotiating strategy will succeed, even though Greece has so far found not a single ally among the other 18 Eurozone countries.
It’s a far cry from the panic, despair and Jimmy Carter-like malaise that dominated under former PASOK Socialist Premier George Papandreou, hounded out of office by relentless protests, strikes and riots, and New Democracy Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ submission to the Troika.
Greeks felt since many had nothing, they had nothing to lose, and were enraged that politicians, the rich and tax cheats escaped austerity and prospered while workers, pensioners and the poor were punished and forced to bear the burden of generations of wild spending and runaway patronage by New Democracy and PASOK.
“We’d hit rock bottom,” Minas Kontogeorgopoulos, 59, who works in a key-cutting shop in a dimly lit arcade in central Athens where some shops are boarded up and others bear For Sale signs told Reuters.
“The Europeans have humiliated us. I don’t know if Tsipras will succeed but someone had to tell them enough is enough.”
PRIDE AND DIGNITY
In an emotional first speech to Parliament as prime minister, Tsipras mentioned the word “dignity” 11 times, a word buried since the Troika came to down and essentially ordered around Greek leaders who had to bow and curtsy, as Papandreou did when he first went to them hat-in-hand asking for money after he told voters there was plenty.
A skilled orator with a keen sense of the public mood, Tsipras has made restoring Greek pride after four years of “national humiliation” at the hands of what he paints as dogmatic foreign technocrats a cornerstone of his rhetoric.
“We declare categorically that we will not negotiate our history,” Tsipras thundered in parliament to rapturous applause. “We will not negotiate the pride and dignity of this people.” It was uplifting stuff to people who’d been forced to their knees by their leaders.
Greeks have long harbored conspiracy theories that foreign interests want to control the country, and particularly peculiar beliefs that the United States is lurking behind a curtain and trying to victimize Greeks.
It’s a sense that goes back hundreds of years to being occupied by the Ottomans and a bevy of other foreigners, right up to the Nazis and, more recently, the Troika, seen as an economic occupier.
Many senior SYRIZA officials have spent years portraying Greece as a victim of foreign interests. New Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias published a book a year ago titled Greece: Debt Colony. European Autocracy and German Primacy – and he studied and lived in Germany and speaks German.
“They are the only ones sticking up for the people,” Nikos Baltopoulos, a 47-year-old engineer told Reuters. “I didn’t vote for Tsipras because he seemed too radical, but maybe this is what we need. Austerity had numbed us all these years, we started accepting whatever we were told.”