The Greek Crisis: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission chief Poul Thomsen, center, arrives for a meeting in Greece.

WASHINGTON, DC – The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) has released nine essays authored by participants of the Fifth Annual American Hellenic Institute Foundation College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus.

The students’ insightful essays describe their personal experiences from the trip to Greece and Cyprus held June 19 to July 6. During the two-week program, the students were in Cyprus, June 22-27 and Athens, June 27 to July 6. They received firsthand experience about the foreign policy issues affecting Greece and Cyprus, their relations with the U.S., and the interests of the U.S. in the region.

The National Herald has published three of the essays. Including the following:

By Elissa Bowling

The “Greek economy” has become little more than punch-line of a joke or dug up as an example of what not to do. This tendency brushes over the actual causes of the crisis, which are numerous and complex: government corruption and betrayal of the people’s trust, a weak tax-collecting system, the experiment that is the European Union and the Eurozone, etc. This article, however, will focus on the good, bad, and ugly realities of the Greek economic state and what it means for Greek foreign policy now and in the near future.

Let’s start with the bad; it is a worldwide crisis, after all. The statistics speak for themselves: 27.6% unemployment and 64.9% unemployment between the ages of 15-24 as of May 2013. Those most able to provide professional experience, innovation, and growth (recent university graduates and young professionals) are increasingly moving to more stable European countries, mainly Germany.

Greece can also claim the single greatest illegal immigration problem in Europe. Located in an intercontinental crossroad, Greece finds itself as the entry point for many migrants from both Africa and the Middle East trying to reach Europe and a better quality of life. However, most of them are stopped at the border of other European countries, while those who do make it are sent back to where they came from (Greece). This system results in the country with sky-high unemployment for its own citizens given the extra burden of providing for a huge daily influx of immigrants. Like the crisis itself, this immigration issue is not simply a Greek problem: it is a European problem.

The aggregate effect of these issues and others has created a less-than-ideal context for Greece to conduct foreign policy. Many in Europe are inclined to view Greece as the problem, rather than the whole European Union. On one hand, it makes sense that other countries would not want to take responsibility for major economic setbacks and a rampant immigration problem. Before the creation of the EU and the Eurozone that might have been almost acceptable, but not anymore. That is what Greece should focus on in its foreign policy. Not only do other countries in the EU have the responsibility to help Greece as a member state, but it is also in their interest as part of the Eurozone and greater world economy. If Greece goes down, it’s taking them all with it.

Though the good is less easily identifiable, there are some positive outcomes stemming from the crisis. There is an undeniable gradual change occurring in the psyche of the Greek citizens materializing in the ways people are reaching out to one another in a way that had gone out of style in more prosperous times. Sons and daughters are re-strengthening family ties, religious centers and local communities are organizing clothing swaps and food drives to share the collective burden, and landlords are allowing tenants to keep their residences even with no foreseeable end to the months of unpaid rent. Even the road rage on the streets of Athens has decreased. Rather than fighting over what little there is, the Greek people are coming together in the same way they have for generations.

Greeks also always find ways to enjoy themselves. On any night of the week, throngs of people walk the streets of Athens, park themselves at cafes for hours, and hit up the nightclubs. While this might seem counterintuitive, anyone who knows anything about Greek culture would not blink an eye. Greeks tighten their belts by not buying new clothes for a few years or leaving door hinges loose or windows broken for another generation or two, but they will maintain their culture and enjoy life to the fullest. That sense of self sustained them through hundreds of years of occupation, and it will continue to sustain them through this economic crisis.

The communal resiliency and cultural strength is reflected in the Greek government. Despite all of its setbacks, the state has held together and taken considerable motions toward overcoming the ever-towering financial challenge. Start-up companies are popping up in the private sector – some more successful than others – implying attempts at continuing innovation. Other countries and private investors recognize these positive movements. Recently, President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and confirmed America’s conviction that Greece will bounce back and its willingness to aid in the recovery. While Greece has a long way to go to before it is safely out of the fire, there are many positive signs for its future.

That leaves us with the buzz-killing ugly. Chrisi Avgi (in English, “Golden Dawn”) is the far right (and purportedly Neo-Nazi) political party that won 11% of seats in Parliament in the last election. Like similar groups, Golden Dawn feeds on fear caused by the economic crisis and growing xenophobia brought on by the influx of immigrants competing for jobs and livelihood. Early in their development, Golden Dawn members engaged in “protection” that included escorting the elderly to and from cafes or places of work to their homes. Soon they traveled in roving bands and acted as unchecked policing forces and beating up the closest identifiable immigrant scapegoat when the real police were too slow or unmotivated to get involved. Golden Dawn is completely open about its Holocaust denial and blaming the crisis entirely on the immigrant population and meddling foreign powers. They even sport a symbol that eerily resembles the Nazi swastika. The ugliest part is that these thugs are sitting in the democratically elected Greek parliament. Greece said no to fascism during World War II – only to vote political thugs with those same ideals into parliament 72 years later.

Golden Dawn, though vocal and present, currently constitutes a small minority in Greek politics and appears not to have had a major effect on Greece’s international relations. However, based on its development and base, the so-called political party is here to stay – at least for a while. If its support increases and it becomes a more effective voice in Greek government, there could be serious repercussions in terms of foreign policy. Germany, the current center of European economic strength and backbone of Greece’s economic recovery, is deeply scarred by its fascist past and could alter its economic policies towards Greece. Similar-thinking countries would likely follow suit, including other EU states and the United States, potentially generating tensions within the EU and the pulling out of military personnel. It would essentially amount to political and financial suicide.

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Elissa Bowling is a junior at Tufts University, Medford, Mass., majoring in International Relations and History. At Tufts she serves as a senior student board member and research/program assistant for the university’s new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, designed to facilitate research and discussion on the interactions of race and democracy on local, national, and international levels. Elissa participated in the fifth annual AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.