Πέμπτη, 11 Ιουλίου 2019

Out of the oddity

All of 2015 was an odd year in Greece, politically speaking - in the very middle of an odd seven-year (gl)itch that started in early summer 2012 and ended last Sunday.

Early May 2012 was when a bunch of anti-establishment parties gained one third of Greece's popular vote. Left-wing Syriza, a radical evolution of a Euro-communist group formed after USSR's Czechoslovakia invasion, started to take over the bulk of former socialist (Pasok) voters. Nationalist Independent Greeks (a splinter from conservative New Democracy) exceeded 10% and the neo-nazi Golden Dawn entered parliament too, with 7%. This sum subsequently grew to nearly 50% and, during the 2015 referendum, formed the core of the 61% anti-bailout result.

The referendum proved useless - as ex PM Tsipras now admits, it served basically as a "moment of freedom" before the hard realities sank in. During the same evening, finance minister Varoufakis resigned as he realized that Tsipras had decided to strike a deal with the lending institutions. The day after, Greek President Pavlopoulos held a meeting of all party leaders save for Golden Dawn. There are no minutes taken from that long conversation but the results were soon obvious.

The defeated opposition parties of New Democracy and Pasok supported Tsipras and more than counterbalanced his parliamentary losses, passing the new package through parliament. Tsipras' gamble paid off as, in September 2015, he called an early election, which he won with a virtually unchanged percentage. As the Independent Greeks reentered parliament, the result of January 2015 was replicated, meaning Tsipras got an easy 4-year extension as PM.

What had changed since January is that he no longer had to live up to any promises. The election was not won on any platform, as neither government nor opposition had any. The third bailout package had defined policy and each new tranche typically meant additional corrective measures. The opposition stopped supporting the government in parliament as Tsipras was passing one after another unpopular measure, including the deal on "North Macedonia".

What did change for the opposition was the election - after six months of interim leadership - of a new leader. Ever since Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of a former PM and statesman, came as an outsider to finally win the two-round contest, he took the lead in opinion polls. From anecdotal information I can confirm that centrists and socialists without New Democracy ties very openly supported Mitsotakis from day one.

Conveniently for both sides, there were no elections planned before May 2019. The poll margin for New Democracy remained more or less unchanged, with both parties gaining in popularity and causing attrition to Pasok and the other centrist group called Potami. Although -typically for Greece- the four years were hardly dull, there seems to have been no single event that catapulted Mitsotakis or caused Tsipras to collapse.

There were clear benefits for Greece in passing certain bailout-related measures (privatizations primarily) without street protests. At the same time, the economy did not rebound (there was recession in Tsipras' first two years and only mild growth from 2017), investments did not exactly fly and taxation / social security burdens became worse, if anything. Unemployment fortunately fell, partly through public-sector employment and with clear tendencies of the Tsipras government to promote labor-intensiveness and favoritism. However, the brain drain continued and those left behind depended largely on the support of extended households and pensions.

People found easily reasons to express their anger - and two strong ones appeared during 2018. The deal with (NATO-EU on) Skopje was criticized not just by maximalist nationalists but also by moderates (including Mitsotakis) who additionally hammered the lack of internal public dialogue in Greece and the perceived absence of additional material benefits for Greece. Also importantly, the fire east of Athens that killed over 100 people was outrageous not just per se (although a similar disaster had happened near Olympia in 2007 and Greece's public emergency response services proved incapable once again) but also in terms of communication handling. Although Tsipras cut short a visit to Mostar, Bosnia, on arrival he joined an on-camera emergency meeting where no reference was made to the large number of dead already known (as it turned out) to the authorities. Greater Athens (Attica) prefect Dourou, a Syriza party-mate of Tsipras and till then assumed to be his no. 2, was widely criticized for poor coordination of emergency response and has since then been indicted for negligence that caused multiple deaths.

The defeats for Dourou (in regional elections in May) and for the whole anti-bailout political trio (in May's European and then July's national election) were clear. The Independent Greeks have disappeared (their voters now apparently supporting a new, small and even more eccentric pro-Russian party), Golden Dawn failed to enter the national parliament (but did elect one MEP) and Syriza clearly trailed New Democracy -everywhere but on Crete- and are now out of power.

Tsipras seems to have been the last one-use government in those 7+ years. Papademos in 2011 and Samaras between 2012-2014 also took office under bailout terms. Mitsotakis carries a name causing strong negative feelings among the bulk of onetime '80s Pasoki who now largely support Syriza - but seems to have won over a portion of the electorate that rarely vote for ND. The pro-European alliance formed by necessity under Papademos and Samaras was forged with emotional participation during the pre-referendum hot months. Much of this alliance gave Mitsotakis his surprising 40% share of the vote, a percentage that ND hadn't seen since 2007. Despite party history, Tsipras' gross mismanagement of the crisis in early 2015 (causing a third bailout that would have been largely avoidable otherwise) has helped Mitsotakis to be perceived differently: Not as a leader of the party that contributed to the crisis (smartly, he had often differentiated himself from ND's party line of voting) but as the one that can lead Greece's path out of the oddity - and back to normality.

To a normality that is, anyway, limited by continuing debt repayment commitments and "enhanced surveillance reports". But that can still express itself in many ways, if there is a will.

[Statistical addendum: Part of the returning normality is the comeback of less fragmented politics. The two leading parties have over 70% of the vote - the last time this happened was 2009. At the same time, the political center has become again the main playing field - the main part of the spectrum where votes swing. New Democracy gained almost 12 percentage points since the last time - almost two thirds of that came from the center and left. And Syriza's net loss of 4 points was also primarily to its right.]

Τρίτη, 11 Δεκεμβρίου 2018

The seven-lived seagull

The seven-lived seagull

I came to the world in 1938, at Genova's Ansaldo shipyard. These same facilities produced the Andrea Doria after the war, an ocean liner that sank shortly afterwards in the Atlantic after a fatal collision with another boat. 

I had my own wreck too, but survived. As a matter of fact, I'm seven-lived. In the beginning I was meant to transport bananas to Italy from its African possessions, Somalia and Eritrea. The initials of the company owning me - Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane - gave my my first name, Ramb III.

Before however I was used at all for commercial purposes, my country entered the war and transformed me into a warship. Under the same name I escorted Italian convoys, until I retired to Trieste, hurt by a British torpedo. There I went through the Italian capitulation, following which I changed hands and name. As the Kibbitz I was laying mines for the Germans in the Adriatic, until I fell on one of those myself. These things happen. 

The damage made me dock at Fiume. During the allies' attack, I was one more target for their warplanes. They sank me - and when I came back to the surface, the town had a different name and a different country. It was Yugoslavia's Rijeka. Apparently my hull was robust. My new homeland's Navy took me to the town with the Roman theater and transformed me into its educational boat. This withdrawal from the frontline felt like an honor, although a bit premature: I wasn't even fifteen years of age. 

There, in Istria's Pula, by the name of Galeb (Seagull), I attracted Marshal Tito's attention. The President used me as his personal yacht to the end of his life. I travelled him all the way to Greenwich on an official visit to London - and entertained important guests of his: leading politicians like Nehru and Khrushchev and stars like Kirk Douglas and Sophia Loren. 

I'm still known as the Seagull, despite changing countries and owners after my country collapsed. The Yugoslav Navy took me to Montenegro after Croatia's secession in 1991. From there, a Greek shipowner bought me in 2000: John-Paul Papanikolaou, a friend of Onassis' and the owner of, among others, the yacht that has his daughter Christina's name. 

The tycoon had great plans for me: he would convert me to a luxury boat and would lease me for a hefty price. He took me to the top shipyard of Rijeka - but never got me back. A financial loose end - rumored to amount to a six-digit amount in English pounds, but I don't swear (I'm a seagull, what do I know?) - gave the Croatian authorities the opportunity to confiscate me. My final handover to the City of Rijeka, in 2009, made a lot of people happy, including the left-wing mayor Vojko Obersnel and the local anti-fascist organization. 

I didn't escape damage to my body at times of peace. I nearly sank at least once during my standstill; and today I'm rusting away at a corner of the main port. But I got optimistic again in the last few days. The reason was the 69 million kuna -almost ten million euro- approved by the European Union to support Rijeka as the cultural capital for 2020. An important part of that amount will be earmarked for my repair and display (the rest will be granted for the iconic onetime sugar plant, dating back to the 18th century). 

Maybe my wings cannot stand the effort of travelling me across the tough Adriatic, especially when the northerly Bura or the southerly Jugo are blowing. And so what? I have lived seven lives, in peace and in wars. It is enough that someone will look after me and spruce me up, me the old seagull. And, who knows, maybe through my own lifting the city of the Italian-mannered carnival could pick up as well - exactly a century after the treaty of Rapallo, granting to it a short-lived independence and making it a test-field of fascism. It isn't only good things that have come from the powerful neighbors on the west. 

And this is something that even the seagulls know.

Πέμπτη, 5 Ιουλίου 2018

Run

I swear that she kissed me awake.

The news must have sounded unreal to my wife. Even exciting. A snap referendum, with only a week's time for campaigning - wow!

I had gone to bed early, with a planned road trip ahead of me. Despite the worrying latest news - of people queuing in front of ATMs - Friday fatigue had helped me sleep fast.

And there I was, seated bleary-eyed in front of the TV and wondering. Not whether it was real -it sure was- but what it really meant. Some idea we did have, from earlier Cyprus or Argentina footage, from warnings spelt out after the abandoned 2011 referendum idea, from the very term bank run. You just run.

I still needed to sleep but only managed part of what I hoped for. Show had to go on. I hit the road with my son, not too late in the morning. We made all the right stops for coffee and lunch along the 600-kilometer route, trying to enjoy the ride. Our destination was an attractive one, after all - the seaside Thessaloniki, where the young lad would spend three weeks in an English-speaking summer boarding school.

I hardly enjoyed the first break and the cold coffee I ordered. A text message had come from a worried colleague seeking my advice. I don't quite remember what I answered but most likely it was a tip for caution and vigilance - what else could it be?

Run.

It was extremely nice along the north Aegean waterfront. Following a stroll along part of the revamped promenade we watched a Swedish street performer and then had dinner with an old MSc classmate and her daughter. We chatted a bit about what was to come, but only a bit - there was so much to talk about, spanning some fifteen years (and thankfully the youngsters developed their own interesting conversation, largely ignoring us).

The next morning I drove my son to the school, situated in an uphill suburb. All along the drive we saw people queued in front of ATMs. At the school I met the mother of another student who told me she regretted having paid the fees in advance. For a moment I wondered whether we should have cancelled this luxury. Then I thought, perhaps cynically, that at least the school would make sure the kids would be sheltered and fed for three weeks, no matter what.

Sensing my conflict, the nice lady gave me her number, offering to help in case of any emergency. My friend had suggested the same the night before. But nothing will happen, I kept telling myself, even as I walked down to the parking lot to pick up the car for the drive back home.

It was a long drive and only started a few hours later, after several futile stops for cash withdrawal (the only ATMs without queues were the empty ones, and the non-empty ones would soon dry out), a gyros lunch and a downtown coffee. And then I hit the road.

Run. But not exactly in the right direction. Somehow I felt I could afford to fool around a bit more, so I took the Edessa road instead of the tollway and decided to drive for the first time ever along what some people believe was "Greece's first motorway".

As I wrote in my Greek blog entry of those days, this 60-km stretch belonged to my personal terra incognita. For the most part it isn't really a motorway. Only a small part, including the 16 kilometers between Polykastro junction and the border have a divided cross-section. Traffic-wise this is more than enough and it is really puzzling to see as many as three (!) lanes per direction at the Edessa road interchange.

Apparently the road was meant as a facade for those arriving from onetime Yugoslavia and the rest of Europe. Even today, with the facilities otherwise looking relatively shabby, an international driver would be impressed by certain unusual signs leading to the Karasouli allied cemetery or to the only roadside Greek mosque at a huge rest area. It was the main gateway from Europe - and to Europe, of course.

Run.

It was a leased car, meant for travel within Greece. This must have stopped me, together with realizing that it would be irrational and ridiculous. Even if I'd had the documentation to cross the border (a passport and a green card, as a minimum), where exactly would I go? The nearest I could find any friends was probably Vienna. My family, obligations and job were all south of the border and even if payments should get delayed (which in the end didn't really happen) there was no way they could reach me on the other side.

I filled up the Nissan using a credit card - it worked - and drove back towards Athens and Corinth. At my last stop I heard the announcements on capital controls and called once again my family. Everything seemed under control. On arrival in Corinth the streets were busy. No ATM queues, nor protests of the slightest sort. People were actually partying to celebrate the local festival in honor of Saints Peter and Paul.

They don't give a f*ck - they breed their chicken and plant their tomatoes so they're not afraid of starving, was a communication expert's explanation for rural Greece's apparent indifference to banking restrictions. He knew better - and actually surprised me by foreseeing the key resignations (of the finance minister and the opposition leader) in the wake of the referendum. His cool head helped me exercise the caution and vigilance that I advised to others.

No partying on either of those Sundays. A lot of TV, internet and talk until late in the night. Then I needed sleep. We would all run, but not immediately. In the meantime, she kept kissing me goodnight.


Τετάρτη, 4 Ιουλίου 2018

No (to Stiglitz)

"It is hard to advise Greeks how to vote on 5 July. Neither alternative – approval or rejection of the troika’s terms – will be easy, and both carry huge risks. A yes vote would mean depression almost without end. Perhaps a depleted country – one that has sold off all of its assets, and whose bright young people have emigrated – might finally get debt forgiveness; perhaps, having shrivelled into a middle-income economy, Greece might finally be able to get assistance from the World Bank. All of this might happen in the next decade, or perhaps in the decade after that".

That's how economist Stiglitz had explained his preference to a No vote in the Greek referendum, 3 years ago these days. Given that the Tsipras government ignored the referendum and adopted harsher terms (with cross-party support to counter defections of his own radicals, under an "emergency" setting), it is quite possible that such detached intellectuals still feel at ease with their lighthearted 2015 advice.

After all, the No became a virtual Yes and some of Stiglitz's warnings are partly confirmed (also because they were vague enough and/or have a 10-20 year horizon, by which time he will probably be dead or senile).

It is tricky to challenge specialists outside one's field but one can still legitimately wonder, whether this cry-wolf game (on Greece then and on Italy etc. today) does any good to the very people these savants are supposed to care about.

Like the expert himself, I have made up my mind on this last point, and it is a confident No.

Πέμπτη, 1 Φεβρουαρίου 2018

South Balkan dialogue

There are so many occasions of stalemate or deterioration that it automatically looks encouraging whenever solutions are sought. It is therefore tempting to rejoice in advance of the Macedonia-naming dispute resolution, as it was in the early '00s to look forward to the plan for the far-trickier Cyprus issue. However, experience from that latter UN-mediated endeavor shows that good intentions and high hopes won't suffice.

As a European citizen frustrated with unfriendly borders I would be glad to see the neighboring country (by whichever name is agreed) to prosper, be safe, join prestigious and demanding institutions and become a place welcoming people and not encouraging out-migration. It is exactly the thing I have been hoping for my own country, which was fortunate and able to join the E(E)C and has stayed in the fold even in hard times. Unfortunately, prosperity, safety and demography are areas where we have been deteriorating. And this is largely due to our bad selves and very little or not at all due to others.

Surely not due to the landlocked country to our north. It is a pity that the naming issue has prevented a warm-up with the people I consider the Greeks' closest relative, culturally speaking. We are, of course, a nation without siblings, a bit like Hungarians - which explains some collective similarities in attitudes (see e.g. the Economist's recent graph on elements of national identities). Our main ethnic group is neither Slavic nor Turkic. But the populations descend from subjects of the East Roman empire with an Eastern Orthodox church tradition. Physical barriers in the area were not impenetrable, at least not in the north-south direction. Food, music and some intermarriages (or mostly the legacy of the latter) still echo some of the community shared among South Balkan Christian folk before the advent of modern nation-states.

Events of the last century and a half cannot be narrated in the same way by current nationals of the countries denoted as GR, MK and others in the region; we cannot even agree on terminologies. There will be no suggestion on the dispute resolution on this webpage - it's not my job to mess in diplomacy or politics and this is not a place or time for brainstorming. I am hoping more and more people on both sides of the divide will reach out and realize there are good reasons for both realities: that most people in Greece will not accept a plain "Macedonia" and that most people in the "former Yugoslav Republic" will not accept the total absence of "Macedonia". I'm also quite sure that neither side will prove desperate in the dialogue: there is more than enough stock of national prides. Is there a way to channel these patriotisms into energy that will make the country (each country) stronger and more confident? It would be good if, from now on, there could be more discussion in the region -the whole Balkans and especially the triangle between its highest peaks, mountains Musala, Olympus and Korab- about shaping a future of development than about reasserting known facts of centuries-old world history. 

Πέμπτη, 11 Ιανουαρίου 2018

"I'd make wine from your tears"

I loved Prague before I ever got there and maybe this is to blame on the narratives of the 1968 crushing of its Spring, on the bit of Kafka, Kundera and Ivan Klima I read, or the true Bud beer, or the smoothness of the velvet separation of Czechs and Slovaks - perhaps even on the personality of Havel or the class demonstrated by the football team that crushed us Greeks in 1980's Euro when even the Germans couldn't.

The main damage was done by the visuals, though. Not sure what came first but there were two bits. In ascending order of influence: a magazine feature (Time, I think, but not sure anymore) and a music video. With the latter I wasn't sure at first. After all it was late '88 or early '89. This part of the world was kind of closed, wasn't it? Off-limits. Forbidden, I thought.

Enter my dad with his early '80s adversity to communism - so strong at times that when I once mentioned the term East Bloc to him, he curtly advised me not to talk so much about it. Not that I really ever did - people who inspired me in my teens were often socialist-leaning but rarely of the pro-Moscow variety. I was convinced (and remain to this day) that no sane person - other than the power-holders - would really ever like to live in these societies.

What we called East Europe - as if my country were more western geographically than Czechoslovakia - was a terra incognita hidden behind the veil of my indifference and ignorance. I knew of a few iconic monuments and landscapes but nothing of the greying former Habsburg or Czarist cities, the trams and cobblestone streets never too far from a river.

The opening scenes (or rather, each and every second) of the INXS clip revealed a footbridge with sculptures across a stretch of water that could only be described by the German word prachtvoll, in the same language used by the famous Jewish author of dark situations and by the people that fled the region a few years after being used in the prelude of World War II.

The sax and violins of Never Tear Us Apart helped strengthen my desire to visit the Czechoslovak and later Czech capital, but this only happened almost a decade after the song's release. My first walk in the former East Bloc, however, was not in sunlit Prague but in dark Brno, on my arrival prior to a business trip. I was dead tired following successive travels but needed to eat, so I took a walk along a street leading up to the only square with a promise of a restaurant. Old trams and even older buildings and barely another walker encountered in over a quarter of an hour: could it still be as bleak these days?

Living in such a town for over two years now -the former Austrohungarian and then Yugoslav Zagreb- I now know better how they look and especially feel. Their facades may need major investment to look as fresh as the otherwise similar ones in Graz or Salzburg, but everything else is pretty much similar. Never the same - although to buffs of exotic travel they may look as uniform as East Asian faces seem to us Europeans (when we are our narrower selves). Human geography and history - in particular, the cultural diversity we have learned to notice on this continent - can truly make the difference in our perception.

The second visit to Prague, on a working Friday and a bonus weekend in '98, remains the prettiest of my eastern experiences in the past twenty years. I walked down Petrin hill and up the cemetery, spent time at a bookstore in Josefov (leaving with an amazing Jan Lukas photo album of Greece as it looked before my birth) and at various cafes reading books, chatted (occasionally drinking beer) with people I will probably never see again. Last but not least, I visited the old residence hosting my country's embassy, to get a signed and stamped paper proving* forever that I wasn't among the voters who got a "Mr Nobody" elected to some office (I only need to remember where I've stored it).

While I'm still living just 8 hours' driving time away, I hope to share this urban beauty with people who couldn't (have) join(ed) me. Maybe we will get lucky this summer, in which case we'll be able to call today's desire "my one and only new year's resolution".

[This post's title is taken from the song's lyrics, written by the late Michael Hutchence]

*Back then, voting was compulsory; when not voting, it was useful to have official proof you were at a distance above 200 kilometers

Δευτέρα, 11 Δεκεμβρίου 2017

Anyone

There are only so many times you can chant the Kyrie Eleison or its Ukrainian equivalent Hospody Pomiluy. The exact number eludes me. All I knew on that sunny day was that I had heard the latter quite a few times in the Kyiv-Orthodox* St. Michael's monastery, where I attended my first-ever "Service of the Bridegroom"** in a language other than Greek. However much I was valuing this experience, the absence of seating places -a normal feature of Orthodox churches in several Slavic countries but very rare in my country- soon got the better of me. I could no longer stay standing, or even leaning on the balustrade protecting a preserved restoration of the early part of this historic church, founded around 1100 and destroyed in the crude Soviet 1930s. I needed to walk.

I must confess (for getting out of church early is not exactly proper religious behavior) that I even enjoyed the fresh air and the unusually bright Kyiv sky. The colorful exterior and surroundings were further adorned by a soundtrack that surprised me. An upright piano was placed at the edge of the walkway, for passers-by to hear and hopefully leave a few hryvnias*** for the artist performing in the cool dusk. I'm not sure if I did; sometimes I bypass even those quality petty fundraisers, unfairly mixing them with instances of outright beggary - which I flatly reject.

That was pre-Easter Monday, a full eight months before my next encounter with an upright piano of that sort. Perhaps it was the same instrument and the same player but I wasn't looking at him and it didn't really matter. The day had surely been different, much different. Fog was obscuring even the tops of multi-storey buildings encountered in the afternoon walk. The gloom got more intense at the site of a huge massacre by Nazis, at what would otherwise be an innocuous and lovely suburban park. Babi(n) Yar**** features a modest set of monuments to the tens of thousands of Jews, Roma and other people executed after the German army occupied "Kiew" on its eastward campaign of 1941.

Music was needed to our ears after this emotional charge. Not any music but the film classic that translates as "anyone", Morricone's Chi Mai. The piano was now placed at a passage under the famous Maidan square, on the eve of yet another planned demonstration. Joining the dozen or maybe more people around the music surely helped add another precious Celsius degree or two, well above the outdoor zero that prevailed between two fits of typical Ukrainian snowfall. At this transition point, just before taking the deep metro for a quick glimpse of the non-touristy east Dnieper bank, I felt I knew what was the right thing to do. The afternoon tears had dried away and an evening smile shone on my face, as I let a yellow banknote drop into the piano man's hat, before moving on to downward escalators, high-capacity tunnels and two short walks on the wild side. Simple things that anyone can do, I guess.


*Kyiv-Orthodox means of the Kyiv patriarchate (as opposed to the Moscow patriarchate; the Orthodox church in Ukraine is fragmented)
**Service of the Bridegroom (based on the metaphor of Jesus as the Nymphios mentioned in Matthew's gospel) is heard on Palm Sunday and the two first evenings of the Orthodox Holy Week (pre-Easter)
***Hryvnia is the Ukrainian currency
****Widely known by its Russian name of Babi Yar