CHICAGO, IL – The road to Greece’s current crumbling state of economy was paved in the 1980s by social democratic political party PASOK, asserted Dr. Thanos Veremis in a lively and engaging presentation titled “The Greek Crisis: Causes and Implications,” held at the National Hellenic Museum in the city’s Greektown, November 6th.
The Greek economic crisis is not just one of financial calamity, as the deep-rooted Greek mentality is a factor stifling the country’s wellbeing, Veremis, Vice Mayor of Athens, explained. “It appears to be a fiscal crisis but it’s not just a fiscal crisis, it’s a multifaceted crisis that contains different things. It’s also a crisis of a way of life that we have to give up, and the sooner the better,” he said.
The Modern Greek economy was never a strong one in terms of production and export, never excelling for a variety of reasons, Veremis noted. “The problem with Greece is that it’s not a kind of solid economy that you can depend on. It’s very much prone to changes of international politics, weather, you name it, anything that varies affects the Greek economy,” he said.
GREECE INCOME SOURCES
As Veremis explained to the crowd, agriculture served as the basis of the Greek economy since Greece had become an independent state after the 1821 War of Independence. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a boom in seafaring. “Seafaring Greeks became a source of income for Greece more so than they are today, in fact, because in the beginning of the Greek Merchant Marine, many Greeks worked on ships,” he explained. “They don’t anymore because it’s a hard existence,” he added, going on to explain that WWII caused the industry’s collapse. “At the end of the war, Greek Merchant Marine practically did not exist because the English had leased most of the ships, but Greek owners did [exist] and they bought ships from the United States and that marked a new era,” he said.
The shipping industry in Greece today ranks, in fact, number one in terms of deadweight tonnage globally, standing as one of the country’s most lucrative businesses sectors. Another thriving source of income for Greece is the country’s tourism sector, which brought in record numbers this past summer. “Last summer was a bonanza for Greece. It was unprecedented in terms of numbers and income generated,” Veremis noted.
ON ANDREAS PAPANDREOU
Not a big fan of PASOK, Veremis accused the late former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, father of recent former Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou, for driving Greece down a path of financial ruin. “As of the post-dictatorship years of 1974, the Greeks started off well with very high rates of growth, but after a while there were elections in 1981,” he explained. “PASOK comes to power and Andreas Papandreou had his own agenda. Unfortunately his agenda was to redistribute income, but not income generated by production or by taxes. He was redistributing loans, and by doing so he undermined the future of the country,” Veremis stated. “I must admit that the man was a genius of sorts, but not the kind of genius that helps an economy such as the Greek economy flourish,” he added.
An excessive increase in minimum wages, especially those of Greece’s large public sector, Veremis pointed out, was another major problem for the Greek economy. “In the beginning of the 1980s, the Greek public debt was 23 percent of GDP,” he said. “By the end of that decade, it had reached 60 percent, and a few years later 100 percent,” Veremis noted, painting a picture of how fast the country’s public debt exploded.
Veremis then continued to add on to the list of things he believes made Papandreou Sr. an unworthy leader for Greece. “His [Papandreou] immediate environment was almost handpicked for its lack of ability and talent. Why would he do such a thing? Because it made him feel secure. He would manipulate people,” Veremis said. “His foreign policy was absurd in the sense that he believed that Greece’s future was with the third world…with Mr. Gaddafi, with Arafat, with all the strange people in the globe, really strange in every sense. How on the earth did the Greeks buy that I will never know,” he added.
At various points during the animated presentation, the audience broke into laughter at some of Veremis’ statements on the history of crooked politics in Greece. “Andreas is not an ordinary kind of mind that you meet everyday, however, his populism, his conviction that the little man…is the bigger of society, a symbol of our future…this is where things become very strange. Greece had never had this kind of populism, and was too poor to afford this kind of populism,” he said.
“No peasant in Greece wanted his son to grow up to be the average Greek peasant…no peasant! In fact, he said ‘my son should be better than I am, an engineer, doctor, or lawyer or officer in the Greek army,’ anything except what the parent was…so he would put money on the side to have his son study and excel. Hence, Greece has the highest percentage of university graduates in the entire of Europe,” Veremis went on to note.
“Andreas comes forth and says ‘forget all this, you’re wonderful the way you are, don’t change a thing…if you have a big pot belly it’s wonderful… it’s not like a Greek statue but it’s a sign of prosperity’…he took people that felt sidelined by society, not very successful, and made them feel accepted. Hence, he was loved,” Veremis stated.
MORE ON GREEK POLITICS
Veremis went on to say that Greece today lacks true leaders who can adequately pull the country out of its dire position and move forward. “Politics have gone down the drain. We have come to the pit of the barrel when it comes to our present politicians,” Veremis said. “One of Greece’s saving graces was its political elites…people like Ioannis Kapodistrias, Harilaos Trikoupis and Eleftherios Venizelos were true statesmen and top leaders who saved the day when Greece was imperiled by a number of reasons. Nowadays what we have to show is really second rate, if not third,” he added.
According to Veremis, New Democracy and PASOK are today just imitations of one another, and other more extreme parties are also no help in patching up the Greek economy. “The communist party is consistent…it’s like the Natural History Museum…that is a party of consistency, all dinosaurs. But SYRIZA, the incoming party is worse than them because they are a mirror image of Andreas Papandreous’ populism…a left wing language which makes no sense whatsoever in the modern world,” he said.
Financial problems in Greece have escalated to their current levels due to a large public sector, a widespread fear of the public sector, a segmented society, and a culture of tax evasion, Veremis explained.
“It’s very strange that whereas the Americans believe in the private sector and private initiative, the Greeks hate the private sector and private initiative. They love the large public sector,” Veremis said. “If you reverse the American picture, you’ll have Greece, and this strange because the Greeks are known for their inventiveness and hardships they undergo to improve their liveliness. As soon as they get out of the madhouse they do very well in every sector practically and the United States is a good example,” he added.
Veremis then went on to note a few issues that have stymied the positive growth of the Greek economy for ages. “Civil society does not exist. Greeks are small family cells which increase their influence by bringing in friends and clients and ‘koumbarous,’ and the circle increases. Hence, Greece is like a baklava…there are of course all the strata of the baklava, but it’s cut in small pieces,” Veremis said. “That is why the Greeks cannot succeed within Greece, and politicians are made of that stuff, at least those that are not statesmen,” he added.
And when it comes down to taxes, productivity, and land ownership, Veremis pointed out a large gap between those following the rules, and those making a living simply by not doing so.
“The force of law in human nature works better when the law is implemented and there are sanctions for that. In Greece, there are no sanctions really. You can get away with all kinds of shenanigans,” Veremis stated. “I would like to see the Troika into the Greek state…a Troika of Greeks because let’s face it, these foreigners don’t know Greece at all. They want to sort of make the toothpaste tube produce whatever it does not have anymore…but we certainly need some regulatory factor. If we are left to our own devices we would revert to 1821, we would become ‘armatoli,’” he warned. “Squatting on public land is the other championship of the Greeks…half of Greece lives at the expense of the other half, and this is how things are,” Veremis stated.
Despite a difficult to improve mentality, years of taking political sides that offered an extra drachma or euro in voters’ pockets, a very closed business environment, and a lacking educational system, Veremis is hopeful for the future.
“I’m hopeful that despite all this, the Greeks are beginning to show signs of a coming of age. There is much more social solidarity now than ever before,” Veremis noted. “It will take time though, and frankly the danger now is early elections. Should we have early elections, there will be a series of elections, and all these efforts may go down the drain,” he added.
And though he predicts it will take Greece many years to recuperate from the consequences of financial and political negligence, Veremis has faith in the youth. “There is hope in Greece, mainly because there is a generation of young people that are now appearing who are very hopeful…we are hopeful because they are doing a good job in many different fields,” he said.
A historian of Modern Greece, Dr. Veremis is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Athens, and Vice Mayor of Athens. Author of several books on the political, economic, social, and cultural history of Greece, he has long played a prominent role in the contemporary public and intellectual life of Greece. He is a graduate of Oxford’s Trinity College and is a Visiting Professor at UIC’s Department of Classics and Mediterranean Studies, sponsored by the Onassis Foundation.