Greeks will commemorate the Oct. 28 national holiday in a very different country from what it was a year ago. The anniversary marks the day in 1940 when a Greek government rejected an ultimatum from Fascist Italy to allow its troops to enter the country. The “No” (“Ochi” in Greek) united a deeply divided country behind a right-wing dictatorship and thrust Greece into World War II on the side of the Allies. “No” is a symbol of defiance. But now Greeks must decide what they want, rather than what they reject.
On “Ochi Day,” military parades and patriotic speeches hail a small nation’s resilience against insurmountable odds. After initially pushing Italian invaders deep back into Albania, the Greeks were overwhelmed by a German blitz that led to four years of brutal occupation and determined resistance. After the war, the old divisions roared back, with a civil war between Communist forces and a government that was backed first by Britain and then by the United States leaving a lasting legacy of pain and suspicion between left and right.
Despite divisions and strife, the “No” of 1940 has stood as a unifying memory of a nation that will tolerate no foreign master. Recently, though, in the throes of a devastating economic crisis, the Greeks were divided once again, and the talismanic “No” was commandeered by one side.
Those who opposed the bailout agreement between Greece and its partners and creditors, in which Greece received huge loans but committed itself to harsh austerity and deep reforms, drew on history to repeat their “No” to foreign intervention and the supposed loss of Greek sovereignty. Those in favor of the bailout, signed in May 2010, were described as Quislings, as lackeys of the troika of creditors — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Passions boiled over on Oct. 28, 2011, when a crowd of protesters carrying banners with the word “Ochi” disrupted a military parade in Thessaloniki. Prime Minister George Papandreou was shaken. After his call for a referendum on the bailout was shot down by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy — who summoned the Greek leader to a summit in Cannes to humiliate him — Mr. Papandreou resigned in favor of a technocrat prime minister.
The success of that Oct. 28 protest, and the clumsy intervention of Germany and France, reinforced the “No” camp’s narrative that the bailout was imposed by foreign powers, and that dynamic demonstrations could derail it. Syriza, a grouping of radical-left parties that had won less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009, led the protests. Its supporters multiplied and it came close to winning the next elections, in 2012, before coming to power last January in a coalition with a hard-right nationalist party. Syriza’s junior partner, the Independent Greeks, was founded to oppose the bailout and “foreign intervention.”
Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, vowed to scrap the bailout without losing the loans that came with it, and without leading Greece out of the euro. This was impossible: He would be forced either to drop his opposition to the bailout or see an end to loans, leading to Greece’s economy collapsing and expulsion from the eurozone. From his election in January until July, Mr. Tsipras’s negotiating tactic as prime minister was to demand changes to the bailout agreement while warning Greece’s partners that his country’s exit from the eurozone would destroy the common currency.
Before Syriza, the Greek governments that signed on to the bailout were just as keen on getting loans and halfhearted in their efforts to implement austerity and reforms — knowing that these would sink their chances of re-election. Opposition parties, meanwhile, claimed relentlessly that anyone in favor of agreeing with Greece’s partners was serving foreign interests. With Syriza’s election, the bailout’s opponents were in charge, and “No” was their guiding principle, right down to a parliamentary committee advocating that Greece refuse to pay its debts.
Confronted by creditors’ proposals for a new bailout, when the previous one expired and Greece could not meet its obligations, Mr. Tsipras called a referendum. “I call on you to say a big ‘No’ to ultimatums, ‘No’ to blackmail,” he urged at a rally. “Turn your back on those who would terrorize you.” A vast majority obliged. The “No” vote got 61 percent.
Mr. Tsipras’s triumph, however, was a dead end. The “No” could go no further. Greece was now in default to the I.M.F., its banks closed and its people allowed to draw only 60 euros a day from their accounts. Resistance had restored national pride, but the lack of an alternative program to keep Greece’s economy running revealed that the campaign was little more than political brinkmanship and, in the eyes of partners and creditors, a petulant refusal to acknowledge debt and our commitments.
The empire struck back. The European Union called an emergency summit meeting, and leading officials hinted strongly that this could lead to Greece’s expulsion from the eurozone, perhaps even the union itself. Mr. Tsipras conceded defeat and accepted a new bailout with stricter terms than earlier proposals.
An unbroken chain of defiant “No”s had resulted in a reluctant “Yes.”
So once again, we have a government that has halfheartedly committed itself to austerity and reform in exchange for lifesaving loans. Syriza won snap elections on Sept. 20, as voters appeared to reward it both for its resistance to creditors and for the turnaround that averted further damage. A die-hard “No” faction that split from Syriza failed to get into Parliament. Syriza, in other words, does not face the uncompromising opposition that it showed previous governments. But it has to make the third bailout succeed where the previous ones did not.
This year’s Oct. 28 commemoration will probably be a somber affair. Some small groups may organize protests to exploit the occasion, but most of us Greeks are coming to terms with the fact that uniting to fight off invaders may be less difficult than uniting to reform our country.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini and a contributing opinion writer.