The Air in Athens Suddenly Lighter, With Optimism

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during an open discussion with New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen. Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yiannis Panagopoulos)

ATHENS – It’s not over ’til it’s over but Greece is winding its way – still slowly – out of a 9 1/2-year-economic crisis and the end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($360.17 billion) and with election of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has brought a new bounch.

That was the way New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, discussing with Mitsotakis the state of the state at the Athens Democracy Forum, the writer describing an  “air of new optimism here in Athens,” asking how Greek democracy survived the biggest recession outside wartime, soaring unemployment, the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – until it fell – and being on the brink.

“Why did Greece just not fall off the cliff?” Cohen asked and Mitsotakis had a ready answer, three months after ousting the Radical Left SYRIZA of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who spent 4 ½ years reneging on anti-austerity promises, burying workers, pensioners and the poor with more brutal measures he swore to reject and leaving untouched the oligarchy he swore to crush.

“Obviously because we demonstrated collective intelligence at the ballot box,” Mitsotakis quipped in a sideways shot at his rivals.

“I think what happened in this process was an exercise by which Greek society matured significantly and realized that populists, when they come to power, don’t offer any real solutions to real problems,” he said.

“What I find interesting was that this was not a top-down exercise. It was very much an exercise where our political narrative found common ground with society, which matured from the bottom up,” he added.

Mitsotakis said another reason for people to feel better about their lives is his pushing major projects – that will bring thousands of jobs – that were stymied under SYRIZA, including the long-delayed 8-billion-euro ($8.84 billion) development of the abandoned Hellenkinon International Airport on Athens’ coast.

He said he believes the resurgence in faith that life will get better will last beyond the traditional honeymoon given new governments because “it’s a rational honeymoon rather than an emotional one… because it’s based on the belief that something might actually change.”

“People are feeling good because we’ve exceeded expectations,” Mitsotakis said. “May I remind you that when Mr. Tsipras was elected in 2015 he had much higher approval ratings than I have now – and then it all crashed,” he added.

The Greek leader had been painted by Tsipras as being with the ruling class and Mitsotakis admitted that with his education at Athens College, Harvard, Stanford and Harvard Business School he could be seen as the “poster-boy of the elite,” but that he would aid the disadvantaged.

Asked whether he could make the “imaginative leap” to put himself in the shoes of the have-nots, he said: “You have to. You have to do the best that you can to put yourself – as much as you can intellectually – in that position,” even though he’s never been, although his family was spirited out of Greece to Turkey for a while when a military junta took control in 1967.

“Elites failed to understand that the grievances on which the populist backlash was based were absolutely real. We have to take a lesson from the failures that resulted in this,” said Mitsotakis, although ironically it was Tsipras who hammered hardest the most vulnerable.