The slogans on the street are about storming the barricades, but when you talk to Greeks about the financial crisis that has brought their country to its knees, their anger quickly gives way to resignation and despair.
With news on Monday that the recession will last at least a fourth year – and the government promising ever tougher reforms that will bring even more hardship – labour unions have vowed to call Greeks out into the streets.
They will turn out in their thousands, but despite escalating rhetoric and the prospect of unrest, Greeks express little hope that their public expressions of outrage can change their fate.
“What can you do? Throw stones? Throw oranges? Even if you spat on the politicians all day long it would accomplish nothing,” said Amalia Dougia, a 45-year-old single mother, resting wearily on a bench in downtown Athens, where she was waiting to see a lawyer to find a way out of debt.
She has been unemployed for two years since the economic crisis forced her to close down her shop selling household goods, leaving her with nothing but unpaid bills and a benefit cheque of €175 ($250 U.S.) a month.
Two daughters are at university studying cosmetics and project management, but these days they have little hope of a job in those fields when they graduate. The best they can find now is temporary work in the summer, waiting tables or handing fliers to tourists.
“The oldest wants to leave the country, but where would I get the money to help her out? I’ve given up planning for the future. I just accept life as it comes,” she said. “I’ve thought about suicide, but I have to look after my children.”
Three years into a recession that has seen wages tumble, unemployment surge and living standards eroded, the Greek government has little to promise the public but more pain.
To satisfy EU and IMF inspectors that it can sort out its debt, the government has imposed wave after wave of public sector wage cuts and tax rises but has yet to get its finances in order.
On Monday it announced that the deficit this year will be worse than expected, and the economy, once predicted to finally grow next year, will instead shrink by a further 2.5 per cent. The newest package of austerity measures – tax hikes, layoffs and pay cuts – failed to make a dent in this year’s deficit.
You can hear the pain articulated almost at random as you walk through the streets of Athens. At a busy intersection, nobody even glances up when an elderly man crossing the road shouts out, to no one in particular: “The 300 members of parliament have stolen everything!”
Yet there is virtually no support for abandoning reforms and turning back on membership of the euro single currency. Polls show four out of five Greeks want to keep the euro, although more than half expect Greece to default on debt within months.
Public sector layoffs, a headline part of the latest reforms, break a 100-year-old taboo in a country where the constitution guarantees state workers jobs for life. Labour unions have vowed to fight it, and the next few weeks will see at least two mass strikes.
The general secretary of public sector union ADEDY, which represents half a million Greek workers, told Reuters it expected a massive turnout in the next big strike on Wednesday.
“There is nothing people in despair cannot do. We’ve lost our jobs, our children are unemployed, we are outraged. This government is hurting the country and it must go,” said Ilias Iliopoulos.
HEROES IN SLIPPERS
The power of street protests to bring about political change is a revered part of Greece’s national mythology, perhaps more so than in any other country in Europe. Younger generations of Greeks lionize their parents, who took to the barricades in the 1970s and helped bring down a military junta.
Violence by militant leftist groups and urban guerrillas – deplored by most Greeks – has also been a perennial feature of the political landscape for decades.
Every day, protesters of one kind or another trundle through Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens. Sometimes it’s blackshirted self-proclaimed anarchists shaking fists in unison, sometimes uniformed military reservists.
On Monday it was the turn of about 300 high school students, who took a break from occupying their school building and boycotting classes to come to the square. They shouted “Cops, pigs, murderers!” and scuffled with a cordon of riot police.
Alex Stathopoulos, 16, said he did not know enough about economics to say whether Greece should stay in the euro and keep trying to pay down its debt, or declare itself bankrupt and set up its own currency. But he knew that crooked politicians had squandered his future.
“We need education so that we can have jobs and build the future of the country. And what have we got? If they cut our parents’ pay, how can they pay for university? Even if I go to university, I can’t find a job. I have nothing.
“I will study, for example, psychology. And I will be a pizza guy.”
More than 100 people were hurt in clashes between protesters and police on Syntagma square in June. But that violence paled in comparison with massive riots that took place before the crisis in 2008.
It is almost as if the crisis – rather than inspiring political ferment – has reduced it. The rhetoric has got hotter, but the scope for real political alternatives has shrivelled. Opinion polls show opposition parties have benefited little from anger at the ruling Socialists.
Katerina Grillaki, 40, a public sector worker shopping in central Athens, expressed a common sentiment: “This government must change, they must go home. The only problem is that there is no alternative.”
Greeks will probably accept reforms in the end, seeing no other way out, said Antonis Makrydimitris, a politics professor at Athens university.
“Greeks, in a general sense, are flexible people. They have suffered a lot in the past. They have encountered very tragic events in their history and they have survived,” he said.
“Greeks would be able to tolerate the dire measures of the day. But they have to be persuaded that the measures are just.”
Sitting on her bench, single mother Dougia said she didn’t care which party was in power. When she thought about politicians, she saw only greed. If she could have a cabinet minister’s salary for a single month, she could support her family for three years, she said.
“If we can survive just this year, I will build a statue of myself. I will put it in the middle of the living room and bow to it every day, because I will be a hero,” she said.
“We are the heroes. Heroes in house slippers: the ordinary people.”
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