Thursday, May 21, 2015

Walking North - Europe's crisis of conscience.

Refugees in the park, taking a break before continuing their journey north.

Today it was lentil and tomato soup, some bread and cheap chocolate croissants for the kids. As welcome as the home cooked food was, what most of the refugees that have chosen a park in the northern port city of Thessaloniki were interested in was Wi-Fi passwords and a place to charge their smart phones. We live in a schizophrenic age when people are forced to walk halfway across the European continent as if in a 1940's newsreel yet are guided by the latest Google apps and can tell family and friends back home that they are safe via Facebook and Viber.

At a time when flying from Greece to Berlin, Oslo or Rome can cost less than the price of mediocre restaurant meal the EU's draconian immigration regulations and the ever coarsening attitudes of northern European nations to refugees means that thousands are trekking across the Balkans, hiding in forests, sleeping rough in parks in the hope of escaping the wars Europe has been so eagerly fostering directly or indirectly in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Along with groups of young men now the parks in Thessaloniki and other cities across the Balkans are playing host to entire families, some with young kids also making the same arduous journey north. Hence the food my friend and I have been distributing, along with the advice on internet access. Not much compared with what they have face in the coming days and weeks but something, a remainder that Europe is not just home to frightened xenophobes, happy to forget their own horror stories of war and dislocation every time political carpet baggers and publicity hungry media bigots want to grab votes and headlines.

Refugee kid goofing off in the park

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Greeks celebrate run up to Lent

In the run up to Lent there are a kinds of festivals and celebrations in Greece, usually accompanied by some delicious dish. Tsiknopempti or "Ash Thursday" was no exception as the country turns into a huge barbecue pit and people gorge themselves on soulaki, sausages and steaks all liberally washed down with ouzo, retsina or wine. As this is also the carnival season people need little excuse to put on fancy dress and head for a party often held in the streets.

Bell ringers in Thessaloniki, Greece

As well as the run of the mill, we're all going to lose our saving, be kicked out of the Eurozone, EU (even Eurovision if the Germans have their way say some wages) life went on remarkably normally. There was an international festival of  "bell-ringers" in which people from communities all over Greece and beyond once more celebrated Balkan - wide rites of Spring traditions in the run up to lent.

Updating the blog

A retrospective update of my blog. What between tweeting about Greek elections, taking photographs and fighting off a chest infection straight out of the Contagion B-roll I haven't done much here lately.

Greece held elections on the 25th January and despite all predictions to the contrary, the world did not end not did global economy implode, but Europe being Europe, this simply meant the same threats were rewarmed and served up again and again and again, over the following weeks as Athens and its creditors played hard ball the possibility of a new deal.

For the first time I can recall, the central squares of Greece's major cities were filled with pro not anti-government protests.

In Athens the fact 20,000 people had gathered outside parliament in support of the Syriza-led government caused no end of cognitive dissonance to the riot police units on duty. Here in Thessaloniki Greeks from across the political spectrum came in support of the government's stance, echoing the start of the Indignant movement in 2012.,

Sunday, February 01, 2015

2015 - The Year We Fight Back

We're barely into February and already Syriza, a  radical left government has been elected in Greece in the face of fierce media resistance, their victory challenging the prevailing pro-austerity narrative that has wrought such destruction in southern Europe. Soon it seems the same feat is going to be repeated elsewhere as Podemos gains popularity and takes on Spain's corrupt political elite.

Orwellian economics - The insane dilemma at the heart of the Greek debate.

For those unfamiliar with Europe's unique take on macro-economic theory, here is a primer that attempts to explain Greek government's dilemma in dealing with its creditors; But let us put the problem in its context through the use of an extract from the end of George Orwell's 1984; O'Brien, Winston Smith's torturer and now mentor lectures him on the relationship between numbers and political reality;

“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”


“And if the Party says that it is not four but five—then how many?


The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out an over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

“How many fingers, Winston?”


The needle went up to sixty. “How many fingers, Winston?”...

“Five! Five! Fivel”

“No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?”

“Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!”

In essence these are the two choices that Greece's newly elected Syriza administration is being offered by the Troika (as it is known locally) made up of the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Either Athens tells its creditors that with the current terms and conditions the debt load is unsustainable and that any chance of paying back in full the 317 billion euros borrowed since the first bailout deal in 2010 is, in practical terms, impossible. In which case Greeks face the possibility of being unable to access further credit and so goes bankrupt with who knows what consequences for the national economy.

Alternatively Syriza accepts the current status quo, caves into creditors demands knowing that the terms and conditions imposed are impossible to meet in the long term and in the meantime is forced to impose yet more crippling austerity measures which have gutted the economic base.

More and more serious analysts, economists and observers consider the nation's debt cannot ever be repaid yet the Troika and many of the top EU players continue to insist there can be no serious renegotiation of the debt and certainly no debt relief.  Thus Europe, like O'Brien in 1984 has created an insane dilemma in which the protagonist has not only to submit no matter what logic and common sense dictate but also truly believe that this madness trumps reality.

If Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufaki fails to pull off a Kobayashi Maru style game changer and resets the parameters of the debate as now set down then whatever Syriza chooses, their fate will be the fate of Winston Smith in 1984 and the people of Greece, like Smith will be made to suffer for believing that financial reality is more important than ideology,

Let us leave Orwell with the last word(s).

“You are a slow learner, Winston,” said O’Brien gently.

“How can I help it?” he blubbered. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Greece wakes up to a different world.

By all rights the world, at least that corner of the world that is forever Greece should be in tatters, the the entire nation in ruins, or at last teetering on the edge of the abyss. Sorry for the hyperbole but that's what happens when you follow too much of the media coverage of Syriza's unprecedented election victory on Sunday. For those unfamiliar with modern Greek politics for the first time since the mid 70's neither the conservative New Democracy or the nominally centre-left Pasok party will be in government. It is as if USA had just elected a president who was neither Republican or Democrat or that the UK was now governed by the Green Party.

The electoral self-immolation of Pasok along with growing disenchantment with its right wing coalition government partner New Democracy drove away voters who in other eras would never have countenanced voting for a party as avowedly left-wing as Syriza. In doing so they have changed the political landscape more radically than at an other time since the fall of the military junta what ruled Greece till it was toppled in 1974.

Voters, sick of austerity and the endless succession of promises of recovery being just around the corner made by a political elite widely seen as out of touch abandoned the dominant parties to vote for Alexis Tsipras's Radical Left Alliance. Even the weeks of scare mongering by the government and its allies in the media proved insufficient to convince voters to give prime minister Antonis Samaras the mandate he needed to stay in power.The daily predictions by Greek and EU officials of a Grexit, bank runs and even the possibility of a collapse in the economy so dire that ordinary people would not be able to buy even basics such as toilet paper failed to win back lost ground.

However, this  switch in allegiances had less to do with a general surge in sympathy for radical leftist ideas than with a groundswell of disgust with the politics of business as usual which have left many Greeks jobless, poorer and without hope for the future. The siren call of stability which the PM promoted so hard during the short but divisive campaign cut little ice with those who desperately need to see real change and not just endless talk of improvement in the the nation's 10 year bond yield or its standing with credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poors.

Since the the announcement of Syriza's victory on Sunday evening, the political developments have been coming thick and fast. Lacking the 151 seats needed to form a government on its own Greece's new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras brokered a deal with the right-wing Independent Greeks party to form a coalition. The announcement, which was made at midday Monday suggests that neither side was surprised by the offer and that the groundwork had been laid in advance, so catching off guard the other opposition parties who had assumed that the search for a partner would be a long and convoluted process, or even the prelude to another round of elections.

The choice of Independent Greeks has surprised many observers, especially those abroad who find it hard to comprehend a partnership between a radical socialist party and a conservative nationalist one, Yet for Syriza this constitutes the least worst choice given the options available. The most obvious candidate for coalition partner would have been the Greek Communist Party (KKE) but anyone even vaguely aware of Greek politics would have known that such an alliance would have been impossible as KKE would never compromise on its own leftist principles which include leaving the European Union, the Eurozone and NATO.

Others may have considered a partnership with PASOK (well, the S does stand for Socialist) would have been a better fit, but once again the party's role in imposing austerity plus its identification with the country's corrupt political elite would have proven unacceptable to Syriza rank and file, not to mention the fact that it would have instantly damned Tsipras in the eyes of voters seeking change.

The other likely partner for many analysts would have been the recently formed Potami (River) party headed by ex -TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis who's attempt to carve  out a centre - left niche for themselves in the Greek political landscape made them a good match for Syriza, at least on paper. However, this was never really on the cards for a number of reasons. Theodorakis, whose party's funding and basic policies still remain a mystery is widely seen by the Left as a stalking horse for Greece's oligarchs, a front for the vested interests that have been forced to abandon the traditional parties of power. To give Theodorakis the political equivalent of a "kill switch" would have not been acceptable.

So, in the end Independent Greeks who are often painted as a collection of right wing conspiracy theorists and borderline racists (imagine UKIP a la Grecque) made the cut, a decision that has already been condemned by many on the Left, both inside and outside Greece (for an account of why this is so, I recommend this blog post). However, the party led by Panos Kammenos repeatedly made clear its opposition to Troika imposed austerity measures and its participation will perhaps assuage more conservative Greeks that issues such as defence and policing will not be solely decided by a bunch of "wild radicals". It's also an admission that much of Syriza's support is not from those who traditionally identify themselves as left wing, let alone radical socialists.

Above all, such an alliance allows Syriza to implement policies which will be popular with voters and build up a more solid base ahead of any confrontation with Greece's creditors who seem unwilling to back down on the issue of debt renegotiation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vote Right. Greek PM's message to voters

The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras leaving a campaign rally in Thessaloniki, after addressing the party faithful ahead of the national elections on Sunday.

Once more I happened to be in the right place at the right time, instead of being in a lesson which was a no-show I went to the Vellidio conference centre where the PM was due to speak. I managed to grab the last few few minutes of his speech and seeing he was about to leave via the central entrance I  waited outside for him to carve his way out of the place ahead of the flotilla of secret service guys.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza greets supporters at campaign rally in Thessaloniki, Greece

Greek opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras greets supporters at campaign rally last night in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. Come Sunday there is a good chance the party he leads, SYRIZA will win the elections and form Europe's most radical government in decades.