GREECE: An austere people riven by bailout referendum... what happens next?

The past week has taken its toll on nearly everybody in Greece. What’s next, asks Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill from Athens

GREECE: An austere people riven by bailout referendum... what happens next?

Syriza wants to create a socialist Venezuela in the Mediterranean. Germany wants Greece out to frighten the rest of the eurozone into deeper political and economic union. The speculators are on the sideline, waiting to pounce at the first drop of blood spilled.

It’s all true, but it’s not all that simple.

In the middle are the Greek people, being regularly described as “proud” to explain their loud demonstrations against ongoing austerity. This austerity saw their GDP fall by 25% and cut their deficit three times faster than Ireland.

They are riven by yesterday’s referendum as they have not been probably since their 1946-49 civil war. Yale professor and Greek political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, a specialist on order, conflict, and violence, says referenda polarise society, forcing people to adopt one of two opposing sides.

It was the spark that lit the tinder-dry public, prepared by a few years of nationalist rhetoric from neo-Nazis in parliament and from the far left of Syriza. People are being called unpatriotic traitors for their views, with phrases not used since the Nazi occupation being thrown about.

Germany obliged by assuming the role of the enemy — feeding into the traditional Greek suspicion of foreigners and the west, usually represented by Britain and the US that were seen as using Greece for their own designs. The result is a tendency to blame outsiders, according to Prof Kalyvas.

While in opposition , Syriza did little to reform the administration of the state so taxation was fairer and applied to everyone. In government they have not succeeded in doing much in this respect, either.

The centre-right New Democracy government applied the cuts, including firing thousands of public servants, many of whom took early retirement while others continued to be paid while not coming to work because of legal issues.

Syriza sent many of them back to work and didn’t move against the rest of the public sector — although they formed the backbone of the yes camp in the referendum.

Much of the population appears to be in a panic while, at the same time, seems oblivious to their real situation, saying that everything will work out, that there will be a deal on their debt. Syriza has been cultivating the situation, says Prof Kalyvas.

“They say not to worry, Greece will not be out of the euro and banks will reopen. People believe them irrespective of the fact that nothing they have said has panned out. It is incredible. It’s like the rhetoric used in Serbia — we just have to be nationalist and defiant.”

It has been working, too. A poll in the past few days shows that 81% of people support keeping the euro, many more than voted yes.

Eirene, who works in a chocolate shop on Ermou St in central Athens explains why she voted no. “For five years, everything has been for the banks, nothing for me. We want it to end. Now it’s between bad for another five years out of Europe, or 25 years in it,” she said.

Since the imposition of capital controls, Athens feels a little like a Soviet state. Public transport is free, with drivers shrugging their shoulders if you try to pay. Banks refuse to transfer taxes for people to the state, blaming the controls.

Irrespective of what happens next, Antonis Zairis, representing more than 700,000 retailers whose businesses have been frozen over the past week, said they have lost the trust and confidence of their external suppliers.

The government needs to reopen the banks quickly and get money flowing again. This will need a new government to forge a new agreement with the creditors and make the changes necessary to get the country growing and working again.

Athanase Papandropoulos has worked as a journalist in Brussels since before Greece joined the EU. He believes the only option is that the president insist on a government of national unity with respected non-politicians as prime minister and finance minister. Under the Greek system, this government could change the referendum, weakening the powers of the administration and introducing changes.

Former centre-right minister Thanassis Skordas — who introduced changes such as small shops opening on Sundays, making it easier to set up a company, and combating transfer pricing — believes there should be a major drive to encourage the use of plastic rather than cash as a step towards tackling tax evasion.

First they need to recapitalise their banks, which they will do either with loans raised by the EU or by seizing deposits in the banks and printing a new currency.

Hatred, more than poverty, divides Greece

Dimitra is a journalist working with the free-sheet Athens Voice, while Fotini works in the public sector with the Athens National Theatre.

They are preparing to move in together to cut their costs, as Dimitra does not expect to be employed this week after all advertising to Athens Voice – and most other media – was pulled on Saturday morning after the referendum was announced.

“But the worst thing after the increasing poverty is that we are divided into two camps in Greece, and there is a lot of hate,” she says.

“Those who support no in the referendum say that those of us who support yes are defending the rights of the German enemy and being traitors.

“I wrote an article supporting yes in the newspaper and the comments I got on-line were a disaster. Some of the worst were from my closest friends. It’s something like a civil war.

“The paper tries to cover all sides and publishes without question contributions from all parties. But last November some anarchists burned down the office.

“Nobody came to help — they said we deserved it because of what we were publishing. I was afraid to call some friends because I knew their reaction.

“This division started five years ago over the memorandum of understanding from the Troika but now it has become for or against Europe. This is what Tsipras wants, he has spent five years building a conflict.

“When Syriza was in opposition they cultivated hate, calling people traitors who voted for the MoU, saying: ‘You are either with us or against us’.

“We feel we are in a trance, moving towards a collective suicide. Tsipras said that pensions and salaries are certain and we will have access to the banks soon — these are lies.

“Is he going to personally guarantee the pensions, the deposits? You think you are going mad.

“They will lie until the end and nobody talks about the day after. But people are not used to thinking in political terms. They think you are afraid because you have money in the bank — I don’t.

“Many believe that banks are the bad guys that rule the world and we are better to leave the EU and be rid of the banks. The minister Nikos Pappos with a laugh like a madman said: ‘Its a wonderful night and its going to be a wonder morning,’ after the banks closed.

“People believe him — they just want their old lives back. They think bringing back the drachma will do it.”

I voted ‘yes’ but only with a very heavy heart

“We had to pay €95,000 to hire the theatre for two nights — it is our best chance of earning money because it is the largest theatre in Athens and people love going to the theatre.

“But after the referendum was called, everything stopped. We have sold only 2,000 of the 10,000 seats. They reduced the rent and we may be OK. But other theatres have sold just 10 tickets and they will not be.

“Last Tuesday, I read they were going to close the banks.

“I called my mother who lives on one of the islands to tell her to take her money out if she has any.

“I was afraid to call my colleagues because they accuse me of trying to frighten them — ‘you are saying things like this for five years and nothing has happened”, they say. I did call a friend with three children but she accused me of trying to frighten her too.

“Now they are trying to create worry with the Minister of Defence saying that he can ‘guarantee the stability of the country’. Who is he defending it against? Me?

“When one sides ‘wins’ in the referendum, will we have celebrations? I vote yes but I don’t want to, I do it with a heavy heart. I feel unprotected. I thought someone would be objective.

“But the government says I am guilty and I feel Europe is kicking us out - if they wanted us to stay they would propose something better because the situation is very hard. We cannot collect €8.5 billion in tax in 18 months.

“But I am against austerity too.

“The big problem is we do not have an opposition or anyone you could vote for — those that believe in reforming don’t get elected.

“A lot of people in Syriza want Greece to be Cuba. But people voted for them because they were young and different. They were cool. But everything Tsipras says is a tactic. It is strange that there are no leaks from this government.

“And now they are putting their own people into the top administrative jobs. The others did it — its like the spoils of war, but not so obviously. Tsipras has said publically that these are political positions.

“We are watching a revolution.

Syriza has an agenda to change shape of Europe

George Bitros, 75, is a retired professor of economics at Athens University of Economics and Business, assistant professor economics at New York University, and author of many books.

“Syriza has an agenda they have not revealed to the Greek people,” he says. “Most come from the communist parties. They want to change Europe — not just Greece — into a socialist state where central control will take over market processes and personal liberties disappear.

“Greece is the frontier between east and west, which is something that the US has long understood, and this is the card that Syriza plays with the EU. If Greece left the western alliance, the balance in the Aegean would be disturbed.

“But the Greek people are not ready to commit collective suicide and I believe that, very soon, Syriza will go back to getting just 3% of the vote, especially because people have come so close to losing everything.

“Greece is a clientelist state — Greeks are not equal in the eyes of the state. The political parties talk about justice and social justice, but they are completely unjust. I have voted against them all — right and left.

“When I returned from the US in 1976, they did not like my views but I have published so much they couldn’t touch me and now they tell me I was right all along.

“Now my new book is about to be published, Never again Bankruptcy, but it is for my grandchildren, because straightening out Greece will take two decades.

“France, Germany, and the UK will do whatever it takes to keep the EU together because it is the only way for Europe to be one of the five global powers with the USA, India, Brazil, and China.

“Globalisation is shaping our world and it cannot be controlled. We need to abolish political parties and govern in another way.

“I was critical of the structure of the 2013 austerity programme put together by technocrats and of the politicians who misapplied it, but I do not believe in the argument that we need to sign up to the latest agreement and in that way to gain time to correct the mistakes

“All the governments have not abided by any EU treaty and have by-passed every austerity programme, applying only half of it — the worst half. But EU policies on fishing and farming have destroyed these industries. The state now needs to model itself on the Greek merchant maritime sector — the best in the world, open to competition and not controlled by the state.”

The thing I see the most is the miserable atmosphere

Bessy Polykarpou, 22, student of the philosophy and history of systems of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Athens. Summer job in a travel agency.

The crisis has brought big changes to her family’s circumstances, forcing them to move houses and lowering their standard of living considerably. She says she has adjusted but it has caused a lot of hardship for her family and for others.

“My parents - my father is an IT consultant and my mother works in the semi-state postoffice - are very angry. They still have jobs but with an income less than ten years ago. We have different views on what political parties we support.

“My friends from the University of Athens — they are lower or middle class as the others go to private universities — do not believe in Europe anymore because they think these politics of austerity have destroyed Greece. They say we have to ‘fuck them and vote no’. I don’t think this is a solution.

“I don’t like these expressions of violence. I am trying to understand things and I talk to everyone about it — taxi drivers, friends, and people I meet. I am trying to learn about the troika so I can be more sure of the position I take on all this.

“My uncle has no job. I think about the people with €300 a month, taking food from bins. The thing I see the most is the miserable atmosphere when I talk to people. The worst of all is the conflict between us, and the referendum created more conflict. When you say you believe in the eurozone, they say you are an enemy of Greece and do not think about the poverty.

“I want to try to build something in this destroyed city and this destroyed country even if I take home just €400 a month or work as a volunteer — we have to be positive and not destroy everything. So I am working with the Yes Europe campaign.

“When I was on my Erasmus year in Montpellier, my friends came from Spain, Canada, Britain, and Germany. They all had the mentality of solidarity and the stereotype of the Germans and the Greeks did not exist — my friends from Germany were very depressed for Greece too.”

It is outrageous how they try to blackmail us

Elena Skarpidou, a teacher of English for 23 years in a public school, says she still hopes for change.

“In January, although I’m not a member of Syriza , I voted for Syriza hoping they would start real negotiations with the institutions, as I was convinced the previous corrupt governments had accepted every term without any fight,” says Elena.

“After the elections, my teacher colleagues, who were fired without having done anything wrong, returned, the constant intimidation stopped, and a democratic dialogue about radical reforms in education began. However, our students and their families still have the same problems of unemployment, poverty and depression.

“I believe the government has tried to negotiate but the EU/IMF/ECB haven’t. Instead, they have been trying to gain time, to humiliate Syriza, to worsen living conditions and prepare the way for a more submissive government to put in practice a new memorandum.

“Syriza has made several mistakes but this doesn’t change the fact that our sufferings are due to the unfair memorandum and the previous governments’ policy. Austerity has devastated Greece just as much as a war.

“Now I feel angry and indignant because of the EU reaction, how they have been trying to guide us towards a yes, in collaboration with the Greek mass media. It is outrageous how they try to blackmail and terrorise simple people, the elderly, the less educated, the ones with less physical fortitude.

“Most of my friends will vote no. A few are very afraid of the responsibility of deciding their future, as they have been used to accepting the decisions others took for them. I understand their fear as the capitalist forces are all against us, a small poor country that won’t give up its rights, but I get angry when they use immoral ways to win others to their side. I’m not fearless, but I still have my ability to reason and I can see the institutions’ demands are unreasonable, as well as the fact that they are terrified of the historical perspective of a Greek no.

“I reminded my friends who were panicked into voting yes that some of our compatriots did not have a chance to vote. These are the young educated people, as well as the poor uneducated ones, who have left the country, their families, and their life here to find a job. The people who have died waiting for their turn for an operation and the ones who have committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the consequences of the crisis.

Critical times that are moments of madness

“Greece is not a perfect democracy, scoring nine out of 10 on the polity index, but the problem is not its political institutions but its governance.

“Its failure to collect taxes undermines its operation as a state and this is a feature of the fact that it has a very large self-employed and small business sector.

“Greece is a petit bourgeois country, very conservative, but people sometimes adopt the strong leftist vocabulary of an industrial working class that never existed in Greece when their livelihoods are under threat — so we should not assume everyone is a revolutionary. In another country, they would be extreme right.

“Greece is not like Ireland. It is more like former soviet block states with a highly- protected economy, but its population has been used to wealth rather than poverty.

“The EU has been very positive in helping the east to transition and needs to help Greece overhaul its system of governance, preferably in the way that the Marshall plan was used in Greece after the war. It has a flexible economy, great English-speaking human capital, but is in desperate need of a vision.

“Unfortunately advocating a no vote as being patriotic does not offer a vision of growth for the future.

“Syriza’s only experience was in student politics where they easily got their own way against the Greek state, but have found themselves with their back to the wall in government. They could not manage Grexit, there would be complete chaos.

“Now we have a strong coalition of convenience between Greek radicals with crazy ideas because they do not have any plan for tomorrow and hardliners in the EU who want a Grexit to reinforce the union — my biggest worry is that these hardline factions work in parallel. We need the moderates to come together to counter this.

“I never expected to experience in real time and in my own country what I study — what one American political scientist described as “critical times in society that are moments of madness”. I have always been fascinated by that but never wanted to be in the middle of it.”

Stathis Kalyvas is a political scientist specialising in analysing polarisation, civil war, and how identities and differences are created. He has also researched party politics. Professor at Yale University, he has just published Modern Greece: What everyone Needs to Know.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up