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Athens, 7 June 2012
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACK
You do not have to go far from Syntagma Square to come upon the other Athens. In fact, you do not have to leave the square at all. In the south-west corner stands a tall cypress tree. As it happens, there are a number of cypress trees, along with other varieties, in the square. From an arboreal point of view, there is nothing special about this one. In fact, it is gives the impression of being somewhat down-at-heel, an impression that is much enhanced by the motley collection of torn cardboard boxes, bits of paper, old posters and discarded children’s toys at its foot. A Van Gogh cypress this is not.
Nonetheless, this tree is rather special, after all.
It was at the foot of this cypress in the morning of 4 April 2012 that Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist, shot himself dead with a pistol. He left the following suicide note hand-written in red ink:
«Η κατοχική κυβέρνηση Τσολάκογλου εκμηδένισε κυριολεκτικά τη δυνατότητα επιβίωσής μου που στηριζόταν σε μια αξιοπρεπή σύνταξη που επί 35 χρόνια εγώ μόνον (χωρίς ενίσχυση κράτους) πλήρωνα γι’ αυτήν. Επειδή έχω μια ηλικία που δεν μου δίνει την ατομική δυνατότητα δυναμικής αντίδρασης (χωρίς βέβαια να αποκλείω αν ένας Ελληνας έπαιρνε το καλάσνικωφ, ο δεύτερος θα ήμουν εγώ), δεν βρίσκω άλλη λύση από ένα αξιοπρεπές τέλος, πριν αρχίσω να ψάχνω τα σκουπίδια για την διατροφή μου. Πιστεύω πως οι νέοι χωρίς μέλλον κάποια μέρα θα πάρουν τα όπλα και στην πλατεία Συντάγματος θα κρεμάσουν ανάποδα τους εθνικούς προδότες, όπως έκαναν το 1945 οι Ιταλοί στον Μουσολίνι (Πιάτσα Λορέτο του Μιλάνου)».
“Tsolakoglou’s occupation government has literally annihilated my abiity to survive, which was based on a decent pension that I alone paid towards for 35 years (without any contribution from the state). Since I am at an age which does not allow me to react forcibly (although I don’t exclude the possibility that, if one of my compatriots were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life before I start fishing through the garbage for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future will one day take up arms and hang the quislings upside down in Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did in 1945 to Mussolini (in Piazzale Loreto in Milan).”
General Giorgios Tsolakoglou was a collaborationist prime minister (1941-1942) during Germany’s occupation of Greece during the Second World War. Christoulas, not unreasonably, regarded the government of the technocrat Lucas Papademos (Prime Minister 2011-2012) as being on a par with the collaborationist regime. Papademos was responsible for accepting the dramatic cuts in Greek living standards on which the German-led Brussels elite had insisted in exchange for the loan of European funds to bail out the Greek banks.
The tatty mess of cardboard and paper at the foot of the cypress tree in Syntagma turns out to consist of tributes to Christoulos from well-wishers from many countries.
Taking pride of place among these is a marble plaque emblazoned with the last words of the dead pharmacist.
A synthetic white banner with a red border at its top and bottom is signed by the “March to Athens”. It says (in Italian): “Il gesto di Dimitris per las crisi non deve piú ripetersi per il futuro. Non ti dimenticheremo mai.”
Another message, in Castilian, says “No pasarán” – the legendary slogan of defiance hurled by the Republican leader Dolores Ibárruri Gómez – “La Pasionaria” – at Franco’s advancing rebel army during the 1936 siege of Madrid.
One banner rails against the “economic dictatorship”. Another says “Let people live”. The message on a cardboard box starts with the injunction “Don’t walk like a robot but stop here and open your mind”, concluding with the clarion call “TAKE THE SQUARE”.
Two plush teddy-bears sit incongruously among the debris of tributes.
The suicide provoked much soul-searching throughout Greece, not least in political circles, as reported in the English language weekly “Athens News” at the time.
Laos Party head Yiorgos Karatzaferis told Parliament: “This is not just a person that killed himself. This event should make us understand that we have all been behind this, we have all pulled the trigger. What did this man see from us, before deciding to take his own life? He saw shady goings-on, he saw none of those that stole from him and the Greek people go to jail. What else did he see? He saw no help coming his way, as he tried to deal with his loans and debts. What did this man hear from us? He heard that no slack would be given to him, no room to move, while the political parties would get plenty of money. Money they did not deserve”.
Independent Greeks’ leader Panos Kamenos said: “It wasn’t this man who should have committed suicide. Rather, it should have been those politicians that knowingly led Greece to be crushed.”
Yiannis Dimaras, leader of the Panhellenic Citizens’ Chariot, said: “Those who have voted away all the rights of this country, those who have given our dignity away, are those that are guilty for spilling the blood of this Greek pensioner”.
However, that was then and this is now and two months is a long time in politics. The caravan has moved on and the media has lost interest Christodoulas. His last desperate gesture may, after all, have been in vain. Moreover, the hopes of the “March to Athens”, quoted above, that his suicide would be the last have not borne fruit. Self-inflicted deaths linked to the economic crisis continue unabated. In our post for 5 June 2012, for instance, we reported that an unnamed 61-year-old pensioner who was heavily in debt had hanged himself in a park in Athens on May 30.
The cypress tree is only 150 yards from the splendor of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, whose praises we sang yesterday. Yet it is in another world. As the English poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) said:
“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat”.
We leave the square and continue our search for the other Athens.
We do not have far to go.
Ermou and its less fancy neighbour Mitropoleos are two parallel shopping streets in central Athens. Both end in Syntagma Square. We saunter along both of them, now in one, now in the other.
At the Syntagma Square end all is well. The shops seem well-stocked and well-patronised. In Mitropoleos we find a shop open selling fur coats and fur hats. This in an afternoon temperature of 32° C ! This is surely a triumph of hope over feasibility. We find it encouraging. We think that if the Greeks can manage to sell furs at temperatures like these, then how can they possibly fail to get their economy up and running again.
But our optimism was short-lived. At the far end of Mitropoleos, towards Monastiraki Square, we hit upon boarded-up shop fronts, for-sale and to-let signs, and notices saying that businesses have moved elsewhere.
Ermou is much longer than Mitropoleos, continuing on well beyond Monastiraki. Up to Monastiraki all is more or less well, but beyond is a disaster zone, a desert of unoccupied shops and boarded-up businesses stretching block after block in graffiti-decked desolation as far as Thiseio.
Surely there must be entrepreneurs able and willing to raise the cash to develop this prime location in the centre of one of Europe’s major capital cities?
But then we read in the UK press that wealthy Greeks have been pouring shedloads of money into London property.
According to a report in the Guardian newspaper on 2 June 2012, upmarket estate agency Savills has seen web searches from Greece jump by 50% compared with six months ago.
Nor does the collapse in the value of the euro appear to have put off rich Greeks “desperate to park their money somewhere safe”, according to the paper.
Traffic at the real estate website PrimeLocation.com is reported to have surged by 40 per cent in a month. Nigel Lewis, the site’s property analyst, told the Guardian: “Greeks are in the top five euro nations buying in London. They were the trail-blazers in the 70s, 80s and 90s and as the economy got worse and worse more high net worth individuals have been moving to London.”
Greeks are said to be after trophy houses in west London where they can throw lavish parties and hold business meetings but where they live for only a few weeks or months a year.
Mike Warburton of accountants Grant Thornton acts for many buyers from overseas. “It happens to be Greeks at the moment,” he told the paper.
Our point is obvious. If Greeks are shoveling money into London property, they are not investing it in Greece. These are funds that could have been used, for instance, to resuscitate shopping streets like Mitropoleos and Ermou.
Rena Dourou, international affairs secretary for the leftwing Syriza party, has told the latest edition of “Athens News” that Syriza’s financial priorities include “creating the conditions to suspend the flow of bank deposits abroad and return transferred money back to our banking system”.
The question is how they are to do this. Capital controls or high interest rates are the obvious tools, but both are outlawed in the eurozone.
The free movement of capital between European Union countries is a bedrock EU principle. European businesses and wealthy individuals, including Greeks, are free to invest wherever they want in the 27 member states of the union. National governments have surrendered to Brussels the power to compel national capital to stay within national boundaries.
If governments want capital to stay at home, they have to provide it with a stable and secure investment environment and a good rate of return. Greece can offer neither at the moment, nor will it be able to do so in the foreseeable future.
In these circumstance, it is difficult to see how Syriza, which has loudly committed itself to staying within the eurozone – or indeed how any other Greek political party, for that matter – can either stem the current capital outflows or entice back capital that has fled abroad.
If we move on to tourism, which makes up 20 per cent of Greek GDP, the picture is not too healthy either. A straw poll of businesses in Athens gives a mixed picture. Yesterday 6 June we mentioned a couple of businesses that had been largely unaffected by the economic crisis. However, it may be that this is because these businesses are more geared to the Greek market and less dependent on foreign tourists than the city centre hotels.
Since then we have come across evidence of a less rosy picture. While the hospitality business in Athens may be resisting the downturn, to some extent at least, we have heard that the situation is catastrophic outside the capital, particularly in the islands, which are normally crowded with tourists at this time of year. International reporting of the crisis has given people outside Greece the idea that the country is a virtual war zone – a cross between Baghdad and Kinshasa: no medicines, no food, no money in the banks, people keeling over and dying in the streets. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly as far as Athens is concerned. Yet this is now a widespread perception abroad as a result of negative media coverage. Moreover, if you talk to tourists in Athens, you find that, before they left their home countries to come here, friends would commiserate with them on having made such a bad choice of holiday destination. We spoke to Germans, Americans and Australians and the answer we got was the same: many of their compatriots would not dream of holidaying in Greece this year, some fearing riots in the streets, others unwilling to endure the concentration camp living standards that they believed awaited them in Greece. It must be assumed that this perception has had some significant impact on tourist numbers. Tourists who have been up the Acropolis have told us that they were surprised by the small number of visitors to Greece’s hottest tourist destination. Moreover, not all hotels have had it easy. Even the Hotel Grande Bretagne is having problems. We were told there that the crisis had resulted in a 15 to 20 per cent drop in visitors. Moreover, on 6 June Andreas Andreadis, head of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises, predicted that tourist revenues across the country could fall 10 or 15 per cent this year.
New figures show that the unemployment rate in Greece reached a record high of 21.9 per cent in March. This compares with a rate of 15.7 per cent in March 2011. A breakdown of the figures shows that female unemployment in March was 25.8 per cent, compared with 18.9 per cent for men. The percentage of people under 24 who are out of work is 52.8.
If no stable government emerges from the new parliamentary elections on 17 June 2012, the crisis could clearly degenerate into a catastrophe not only for the Greek hospitality industry but for employment across the country as a whole.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.