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A Focus on contemporary Greece

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A general strike paralyzed Greece for the second time in February, as public and private sector workers protested announced austerity measures by the socialist government, as well as the forthcoming wave of sterner measures by the European Union, ECB & IMF to curb Greece's $420MEur deficit and to stem the financial crisis plaguing the eurozone, as more and more member states face similar predicaments. An estimated 40,000 marched in Athens in a mostly peaceful rally, although police reportedly kettled and provoked protesters, and attacked them with teargas, in violation of the Minister of Citizen Protection's pledge to ban chemical warfare after the brutal crackdown of protests last December. The Thessaloniki rally, with less than 4,000 marching in two distinct groups (the communist workers' block weaving around the main body), was markedly more subdued and peaceful, and dissolved when met with a downpour at its ritual end, in front of the former Macedonia & Thrace Ministry.
Photo credit: 
Asteris Masouras / Flickr
The Europe Center puts a focus on Greece, and the concern for its fiscal vitality, vulnerable citizens, potentially fragile democratic institutions, and its role in the EU and global economy. In this latest essay, Ruby Gropas offers her insight on the contemporary Greek situation with special research focus on the place of popular protest in democratic dissent, and examples of civil society filling in for the incapacity of political institutions.

Resilient citizens in times of crisis

Resilience involves the capacity to deal with change and to recover. It is the potential of  a system, of organisations or individuals to adapt to changing circumstances in the face of risk and adversity. Just as importantly, it is the ability to recover after a disaster or a crisis. As such, it is both about resisting shocks and using such events to trigger renewal, innovation and address the ensuing challenges and difficulties through creative solutions. 

It has been increasingly evident over the past couple of years that Europe is undergoing its deepest existentialist crisis since the project of European integration kicked off in the early 1950s. The crisis is deep and does not only concern Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy or Ireland. It goes well beyond the confines of the Eurozone and presents a resilience challenge that has to be addressed well and truly at the European level. It is just as important however that this resilience challenge is also met at the local, societal level.

Crises are transformative; along with the risk of deterioration and disintegration, they also offer an opportunity for growth. The challenge that is therefore posed by the current crisis is not only how much we can expect the European system to be able to absorb before it transforms into something fundamentally different, but also who will be the driving force of change or the game changer in these conditions? Identifying the factors that will be able to drive change and demonstrate resilience to the crisis is necessary for the EU and it is even more fundamental for Greece.

As the crisis has been unraveling in Greece, the focus has been on the negative effects it has been having on citizens’ life, on the country’s public services, on the welfare state, on the political system and on expectations for the future. Without a shadow of a doubt, these negative effects have been tragic and painful. In a country of approximately 10.1 million people, 350,000 jobs have been lost in the past year alone. Unemployment has risen over 23% in the general population, while youth unemployment in particular has soared to over 52%. GDP has declined by 20%, and austerity measures have wrung the middle class dry. In Athens, there was up to 60% fall in revenue for businesses directly associated with the Indignados sit–ins and the consecutive riots during 2011-2012; the commercial centre of Athens has become increasingly derelict, shops are closing, buildings on main streets are no longer repairing their facades from the damages incurred in weekly demonstrations. Suicide rates have increased, along with violent criminality and homelessness, while soup kitchens have made their appearance again - and the lines are growing longer every day. Public hospitals are lacking in many cases even the most basic supplies while public schools and universities are preparing for a tough academic year ahead expecting to have even less of a possibility to afford the heating bills than they did last year.

There exists a sense of pervasive breakdown. There is a feeling of disorientation and lost identity that comes with the collapse of the assumptions people lived by until just a couple of years ago and the expectations they had for their future. The grim picture does not end here. Young Greeks are emigrating in increasing numbers as this crisis’ harshest toll has been on their dreams of a better tomorrow in their home country that until recently appeared consolidated within what the EU jargon referred to as ‘core Europe’. Greece’s democratic institutions are being systematically undermined: the media are more often than not mouthpieces of the political parties; the judiciary is distrusted and degraded; the Parliament and the party system are discredited.

Yet in all this, encouraging signs must be sought out, emphasized and supported. They are necessary if the resilience challenge is to be met.

The Greek state with all its failures, weaknesses and mishaps is retreating, and as it retreats it is leaving a number of voids. Rather than see this as a zero-sum game, it can be seized as an opportunity by new forms of civil society. Greek civil society has traditionally been significantly under-developed, poorly organized with limited influence and even more limited independence. Yet it is maybe this sector that has the widest scope for independent action at present. As the state and private sectors are being hammered by the economic and political crises the country is undergoing, the non-governmental and not-for-profit sectors that have been long under-performing, have perhaps the best opportunity to be creative and offer novel solutions and be a true agent of change in the present conjuncture of circumstances.

As economic conditions have severely deteriorated, there has been an unprecedented mushrooming of initiatives and efforts to cater to the needs of society’s most vulnerable groups. Radio stations have paired up with supermarket chains and civil society organizations to collect donations and contributions in kind; medical networks such as ‘Medecins du Monde’ and ‘Medecins Sans Frontiers’ have dynamically responded to the health needs of migrant minorities and homeless citizens particularly in downtown Athens; voluntarism has bounced back (the Athens 2004 Olympic Games had constituted a unique eruption of voluntarism that fizzled out shortly after the games ended) and is becoming the last level of support that many humanitarian and philanthropic NGOs can count on given that the state has not only frozen all funding to NGOs but has also cut back on basic social services. New networks bringing together young Greeks rely on the internet and social media platforms to mobilize citizens in environmental protection initiatives. Similarly, media outlets and artists are mobilized to support events aimed at promoting human rights, tolerance, and respect for cultural and religious diversity in a vibrant effort to fight back against the electoral rise of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party.

Tuesday, July 24th marked the 38th anniversary of the restoration of democracy in Greece after a seven-year military dictatorship (1967-1974). If this anniversary constitutes an opportunity to reflect on why the post-dictatorship era, known as the metapolitefsi, is ending in such socio-political anxiety and anger, it should also be approached as a milestone from which to spark a fundamental shift in public mentality in Greece and for citizens to express their democratic resilience.

As has been often argued, social innovation tends to thrive in the most challenging, unsettled times and seemingly restrictive conditions. In effect, in times of crises, the ability of citizens to develop resilience is fundamental for their country’s democratic life. This social activism may become the platform upon which Greek civil society can develop and strengthen its credibility as a socially responsible sector that will seize this momentum to contribute dynamically and creatively to addressing the weaknesses that characterize democracy in Greece. The scope for action is wide: multiculturalism, religious diversity, racism and xenophobia, gender equality, anti-discrimination, protection of the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, protection of the environment, governmental accountability are but a few of the core sectors that urgently need to be addressed.

 

Ruby has presented at the Europe Center, and is Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and Lecturer at the Democritus University
of Thrace.