Impressions and Reflections from Athens

"No" supporters, Syntagma, July 3, 2015
“No” supporters, Syntagma, July 3, 2015

Less than a week ago, I looked on as people in Athens’ Syntagma Square danced and proudly waved Greek flags in jubilation after voting no to Europe-imposed austerity. Polls confirmed that their side prevailed overwhelmingly nationwide in the historic referendum on whether Greeks should accept the most recent memorandum proposed by the European leadership. A collective sense of relief hung in the air as the no supporters savored a perceived victory against belt-tightening measures that have impoverished and humiliated ordinary Greek citizens.

The singing has quickly faded since that night, as the realities of shuttered banks and capital controls still linger, and the same people who stood up defiantly against austerity walked on feet tired from dancing to line up at ATMs. Just a few days later, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did an about-face as it became clear that the no vote might lead Greece out of the Euro, proposing a new bailout deal to Greece’s creditors that accepts tough austerity in exchange for desperately-needed financial aid. Meanwhile, the Greek economy, absent further funding from its creditors, verges upon complete collapse and the state’s membership in the Eurozone remains uncertain.

Crowds pack Syntagma during a rally in support of "no" on July 3, 2015
Crowds pack Syntagma during a rally in support of “no” on July 3, 2015

For me, a Greek-American who has been closely monitoring the events in Greece over the last five years, both at a distance through the international media and through relatives and friends who share their day-to-day experiences of life under dwindling wages, cuts to public services, and increased unemployment, bearing witness first-hand the progression of events in Athens the last two weeks was a revelation. Early on, in 2011, I remember feeling outraged, but helpless, as economists began decrying the austerity measures that caused a major contraction in the Greek economy which continues to this day. I felt disappointed not only at European leadership, which took an iron stance, but also at the Greek government, which continued to impose these cuts despite the suffering they caused the people and businesses in Greece. I felt saddened when I read about the humanitarian crisis that no one expected to encounter in a modern day European state, with news of increased suicides and hungry children fainting in school.

Soon prominent economists from across the world raised their voices against austerity policies that didn’t work in a country mired in a debilitating depression. But European leadership stood by, and continued to impose their neoliberal economic policies that were ravaging the country.

Earlier this year, finally, it appeared that the Greek people had had enough. They elected a new leadership that came to office on a mandate to end austerity. Mr. Tsipras’ government vowed to tackle corruption and make systematic changes that would bring the Greek economy into the 21st century. It promised to fight the clientele state, with its bloated public sector and rubber-stamp-happy ineffectiveness. I felt optimistic that a government without ties to interest that hindered previous administrations from imposing reforms could come in and shake things up for the better.

In the following months, however, it became clear that the structural reforms Mr. Tsipras and his Syriza party promised were wishful thinking. On the other side of the table, European leadership, fearing the moral hazard of a leftist government opposing its policies spilling over into other, larger debt-ridden states, refused to budge. Disappointment struck once again as tensions between the two sides grew to a level of mutual disdain.

This back and forth between optimism and disappointment that I felt over the course of the last five years came to a boiling point during my recent stay in Greece, after the Greferendum was announced. Talking in the days leading up to the vote with Greek merchants in Athens’ agora, university students, small business owners and established professionals, I found divisions in every corner.

Although the people were voting on accepting or refusing specific measures – part of a proposal that was albeit no longer on the table – the implications of what they were voting for were so loaded, the oracle at Delphi might as well have issued the referendum.

On the day of the Big Vote, I stood outside of a voting center in southern Athens and asked people about how they voted. It seemed a veritable microcosm of all the tensions underlying the vote. An 85 year old lady stamped her foot as she told me that she voted no because she had lived through the Nazi occupation and didn’t want her country now to become a colony. A 60 year old woman manning a stand in support of the yes camp told me she was voting yes because a Grexit would mean regression to a point unseen since the Nazi occupation. However bad the situation had gotten during previous administrations, she noted, pensioners never before had to stand in lines for hours to get their money. A 24 year old woman said she was driven by her conscience, more than anything else, to vote no to further humiliating austerity measures imposed by Europe.

Hours later, polls revealed that throughout the country, the Greeks had decisively rejected Europe’s recent proposal. Despite stark, impassioned divisions, the people received the results peacefully – no small task for a people who survived a Nazi occupation in World War II, only to pick up arms against each other in a brutal civil war over ideological schisms. Democracy reigned, once again, in its birthplace.

No supporters celebrate at Syntagma following the  results of the referendum
“No” supporters celebrate at Syntagma following the results of the referendum

Amid this maelstrom of opinion and justification, I didn’t encounter one person who wanted Greece to leave the Eurozone. Indeed, were another vote held that asked Greeks whether they want to remain in the Eurozone, the result would certainly be yes. But within hours, European leaders made clear that no meant no to staying in the Eurozone. In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker joined with the Germans in saying that if Greece didn’t want to assume responsibility, they were ready to see the country leave the Eurozone, a move that would imperil the historic Euro project.

Two days later, Mr. Tsipras, realizing the gravity of the situation, caved and offered a bailout proposal that now makes more austerity concessions than what Europe was initially demanding, in order to keep Greece from sliding out of the Euro. Whether the same people who vociferously rejected austerity accept the government’s new proposal as something that had to be done to drive Greece back from the precipice of a Grexit, remains to be seen.

Now, the European powers must come to terms with a Greek people that is weary of carrying the burden of failed European monetary policy alone. Furthermore, Europe must decide if it can trust Mr. Tsipras and his government to carry out a plan so similar to the one it adamantly urged Greek voters to reject less than a week ago. Thus, Mr. Tsipras has to reestablish his credibility in the face of skepticism on two fronts. Meanwhile, the stakes remain high as the future of Greece as a part of the Eurozone hangs in the balance.

Flying out of Athens, I peered out of the window of my plane and onto the glimmering Aegean Sea below me, hoping, like I had so many times before, for the best for my friends and relatives who have been caught in the midst of the uncertainty of the past few weeks, months, years. I hope for the best while trying to make sense of what I experienced the last few weeks in the omphalos of what is not just an economic crisis for Greece, but an existential crisis for the European project.

I wish I could say I know what comes next, but to invoke Socrates, after all my examination, all I know is that I know nothing at all.

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Sunset over the Aegean, 2015
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