Last Sunday, as the Greek Parliament adopted the latest reforms and austerity measures, hooded arsonists rampaged through central Athens and riot squads hosed protesters with tear gas.
The measures were so severe that more than 20 deputies in each of the two parties in the coalition government defied their parties and voted against them.
Nonetheless, politicians who had dragged their feet over reforms for the past two years made the tough decisions demanded of them, facing the wrath of a population angered and exhausted by the fifth year of recession, plummeting incomes, higher taxes, collapsing services, 20-percent unemployment and no apparent end to the hardship.
One would have expected that Greece’s European Union partners and its creditors at the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank would move quickly to strengthen the hand of the country’s embattled reformers and their leader, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a respected former vice president of the E.C.B.
Instead, the vote was met with more skepticism, more demands, and statements that were seen as direct interference in Greece’s politics, undermining the centrist, pro-E.U. government’s authority for reforms in the face of virulent opposition from the left and right.
It is understandable that some of Greece’s partners have lost patience with the country’s political leadership, which has repeatedly failed to deliver on promises of reform in exchange for loans.
But the people are increasingly desperate. Our future lies in our own decisions, but unless the rest of Europe can come up with a more constructive way of engaging the Greek people, the situation could spin out of control. Not only would Greece be forced to leave the euro zone; it could also easily turn into a failed state.
Greece needs a bit of credit and understanding. Through severe spending cuts and tax hikes, the primary budget deficit has narrowed from €24.7 billion in 2009 to just €5.2 billion. Unfortunately, however, stereotypes of lazy and unproductive Greeks have hijacked the public discourse in Europe.
This is unfair to the millions of Greeks who pay their taxes, work hard and believe that Greece has to change. Our politicians, or at least our mainstream politicians, appear ready to bite the bullet and fully implement the country’s commitment to its foreign partners and lenders.
But even those Greeks who recognized the need for sacrifice and hard decisions are now becoming skeptical over whether this will lead to growth or whether fiscal consolidation efforts are being swallowed by recession. Reform fatigue is now threatening political stability and enhancing populists and euroskeptics, whose rhetoric gains credibility when some of our partners behave like medieval despots.
Let me put it another way: Greece has lost the war of economic survival and now has to rely on loans and financial assistance from its partners. Most Greeks realize that the country will not be able to access international markets for many years and appreciate the help at a time of need. They also understand that this help comes with a financial straitjacket that will not go away any time soon.
What they cannot digest is the sort of diktat that seems to be coming from Germany and some of its north-European partners. This hurts the pride of a whole nation and it makes it impossible for the forces of reform to convince anyone about the need for change.
We know what diktat by the Western powers toward Germany after World War I led to. Greece is on the verge of such a meltdown. The extremists, both on the left and the right, are on the rise, and political violence is spreading. I can see the coming of a Weimar period in Greece when gangs start destroying political offices on a daily basis and right-wing extremists gain popularity among the underprivileged.
Some of our partners seem to focus more on ways to humiliate our political leaders or the average Greek than they are on getting the job done. If they somehow believe that they will force a change of political culture and personnel through intimidation, they are dead wrong. No country can be led under such pressure without some encouragement and incentive.
We don’t want Greece to get a free ride: We have to change, reform our economy and civil service, make sure that everyone pays their taxes, etc. Our politicians seem ready to implement deeply unpopular reforms. A coalition government has been formed for that purpose and is most likely to continue in another form after the next election.
This is a time for deadlines and pressure. But it is not a time for diktat. Germany should have learned from the way it was treated after World War II: There was pressure to change and reform, but without the humiliation that followed World War I.
I assume that neither Germany nor any other major Western power wants Greece to become a failed state in a very unstable and unpredictable neighborhood. I pray that this is the case and that our partners will exercise prudence and a bit of patience with a country that is struggling to stand on its own feet.
We have gotten back on our feet many times in the past, sometimes after self-inflicted national disasters. We will do it again. But we need encouragement and enlightened leadership from our strong partners, not arm-twisting or further humiliation.
The European Union is founded on a healthy balance of national responsibility and European solidarity; we must rediscover that.
By Alexis Papahelas, executive editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini.