NEW YORK – Bard College Economist Rania Antonopoulos is humbled by the fact that she will soon take her place in the Parliament of her beloved homeland.
Antonopoulos will have the opportunity to inform crucial debates on the basis of her experience with countries undergoing similar crises and facing analogous development challenges, but as a member of the community, she took time before boarding her flight for Athens to speak with The National Herald about the January 25 elections.
Shedding light on the party she believes has been a victim of media distortions on both sides of the Atlantic, she noted, “There is a lot of fear-mongering.”
She spoke about both the flood of citizens’ anger that has lifted the boats of a party of the radical left and about the goals and principles of SYRIZA.
“There is no justice in the fact that since the crisis, the top 10 percent of the population has seen their income increase and the bottom ten have deteriorated by 40-50 percent. This is not a society we want to continue,” she said.
But don’t know what to expect from SYRIZA.
During his visits to the United States, SYRIZA’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has said “we call ourselves a radical party because we want to make radical changes in society,” implying that its members are not revolutionaries.
Antonopoulos testified that “I have heard from the very beginning SYRIZA’s economists saying “we do not want, and we cannot go back to a statist model…the vision is not of the state becoming the producer…the state sets the stage and makes rules…but I think there is an eagerness that Greece emerge a country with fair laws. That exploitation [is ended] and that the less privileged are uplifted,” she said.
Although it is not clear what portion of SYRIZA’s Central Committee and rank and file want their changes to be in harmony with Greece’s capitalist reality as a member of the EU, the rage of many Greeks at the establishment compels them to give SYRIZA the benefit of the doubt.
Antonopoulos, who came to America to study at 17, has both academic and private sector experience.
She was always interested in policy, not politics, but then she noticed that SYRIZA’s leaders’ perspectives resembled her own.
She told TNH that when Greece signed the memorandum “I was certain that it was going to be a disaster.” When she warned people that massive unemployment would result, they laughed, but when SYRIZA echoed her concern, she reached out to them with an email. The conversations opened a new door in her life.
“My work always had policy implications” – she has worked in advisory capacity at UN agencies. “We economists provide evidence in support of different options, but we don’t have the ability to change the lives of individuals or countries.”
She will now have that chance, beginning with clarifying the debates.
Antonopoulos acknowledged that politicians and the media have failed to distinguish between austerity measures being imposed upon them and overdue structural reforms, and among the latter between primary and secondary reforms – between the modernization of the state and things of dubious value like the fire sale privatizations.
CHOICES, WHAT CHOICES?
It is tragic, she said, that the coalition did not utilize the leeway it had to prioritize among the list of actions the troika called for.
She emphasized SYRIZA’s goal of finally addressing Greece’s biggest economic problems, such the oligopolies that dominate some sectors. “There is a lack of competition because of entrenched interests. If you want to break that up,” take action, she said, “but they began with the taxis and the pharmacies, instead of looking at the bigger picture.”
Experience also taught Antonopoulos – some hope she will get a cabinet appointment – that “you must move gradually – you cannot shock an economy from one state into another…or just throw the oligarchs out of the country, but you must start sequencing” the actions, and “you must start the conversation. From what I hear, none of that has taken place.”
She said SYRIZA will address “the incredible impediments to company start-ups and re-organizations.”
The current government has left much undone, she said, including rethinking public/private partnerships” which drive development in other countries. “It is not helpful to say the state has nothing to offer” in the investment process, she said.
Care must be taken regarding what kinds investment to attract, an issue connected with SYRIZA’s insistence that some recent labor law changes must be rolled back. She said attracting low wage jobs in sectors where Greece cannot compete will not help, and sweetheart deals must be avoided.
There is a perception, however, that despite Tsipras reassurances, there is an anti-capitalist, anti-business tone among key elements of the party that will scare away investment.
Asked if Tsipras is committed to making Greece a modern effective, capitalist country – albeit with a strong social dimension – she said “I cannot think of anything in SYRIZA’s program that puts this into question. SYRIZA insists that public assets not be undersold,” she said, and believes its positions on the banking sector are sound.
“Greek Banks are not in a very good position…it is very difficult for them to lend out money…but Tsipras is not calling for takeovers…Rather, people should be placed on their boards of directors who will be sensitive to the need to lend to companies, as was the case with the recent U.S. bank bailout.”
She also believes “The talk of Greece’s exit for the euro” is irresponsible, and noted, “From day one SYRIZA has said…we will use the euro.”
Regarding the charge that SYRIZA’s inexperience in governing is dangerous; Antonopoulos said “I love responding to that question. First, please look at what the people with lots of experience have done. You can destroy a country regardless of how much experience you have.”
“Second, during the past two years there have been more than 15 working groups of specialists…I was participating in one of them…. it is quite impressive… There are a lot of people…who have been preparing and charting a path for the day after the elections.”
Some people feel that although Greece needs shaking up so badly they welcome even a far left party, they believe that despite its recent reorganization, SYRIZA is still more like a coalition. They fear it will fall apart under the pressure of the practicalities of governing, the compromises it must make with political partners – SYRIZA is unlikely to be able to govern on its own – and the EU.
In her answer, Antonopoulos distinguishes strongly between how parties and governments function. “The party arrives at definite outcomes and then everybody must abide by them…the factions within SYRIZA are very vocal,” she said,” and noted the left “traditionally is not shy about airing its laundry in public.”
After the debates, however, the line is “The party has decided X, and this is what SYRIZA will do.”
Antonopoulos expects that after forming a government SYRIZA will roll up its sleeves and work with professionals who know what kind of environment is needed to attract investment and how to both modernize a state and ensure social justice.
“There are a variety of signals this government will send out early on that will quite down the fears,” she said.