The sea, as I look from my office window, is calm. Little white sailboats glide over silver waters in the Saronic Gulf. A picture of peace, but the scene of countless battles. In these waters, at Salamis, an alliance of free Greek states under Athens’s leadership defeated the Persian navy in 480 B.C., giving democracy room to develop. In 1941, as German forces swept into the country, a handful of allied airmen tried to stop black waves of enemy planes, with many pilots plunging to their deaths in the bay one April day.
Today, as my country rushes toward another battle of sorts — a referendum that will determine its place in the world and mark its history — I sense “the eternal note of sadness” that the poet Matthew Arnold imagined Sophocles hearing in “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” as he stood on this shore.
Our country is at peace, but the stakes are as high as if we were at war — a war waged not with battleships, guns and planes but with words and money. Its foot soldiers, in a sense, are the lines of the unemployed, the pensioners crowding outside banks; cars queuing at gas stations are a crippled cavalry; generals are the finance ministers who lob proposals at one another with the aggression of those who will not suffer the consequences.
All are caught up in a five-year campaign in which Greece has struggled to meet the terms of the biggest bailout in history, a total of 240 billion euros from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for austerity and reform. The government blames the creditors for Greece’s woes, claiming they turned the country into a “debt colony.”
With the E.C.B. declining to raise the limit on emergency funds this past week, our banks quickly began to run out of cash. Within days, a sophisticated society began to unravel — old people struggled to draw their pensions, trade and industry froze, websites could not renew their domain names with overseas providers, smartphone owners could not download apps as their credit cards were blocked.
On the brink of bankruptcy, Greece is in a worse state than before the bailout. In Sunday’s referendum, we voters will show whether we want to keep negotiating for a deal with our partners or gamble the future on a proud “no” to further diktats.
A lot more is at stake than the only stable currency Greece has had in a history punctuated by bankruptcies. Will we raise children and grow old in a united society? Will we remain part of Europe’s further development? Will the idea of Europe — named after a maiden in Greek myth, Europa — as a union fall apart, country by country? Will our children be able to study abroad, or will we sink into an isolation that will harm the next generation as much as our pensioners now suffer?
The effort to restore Greece to normalcy has been a failure, because of poor policies, fundamental problems in Greece’s dysfunctional state and a pitiful lack of leadership in Greece and among policy makers in Europe and at the I.M.F. The collapse of the parties that had mismanaged Greece for decades created a vacuum that Syriza, a coalition of the radical left, filled with promises: It would continue to procure bailout funds, scrap austerity, undo reforms and still keep the country within the eurozone.
Five months of acrimonious sparring with our partners and creditors failed to achieve this. Domestically, the government has overseen the unraveling of many reforms, done little to crack down on tax evasion and corruption, and repeated the cronyism of the past with blatantly political appointments in the public sector. With no options left before bankruptcy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rolled the dice and announced the referendum, urging citizens to vote “no.”
Those citizens (and taxpayers in other countries) have paid a price for the failed bailout; now the Greeks face even greater hardship, whether we stay in the euro or are forced out. Worse, though, is the isolation that stems from a lack of communication between Athens and its partners. Both sides played a game of chicken, and neither was bluffing — the Europeans, led by Germany, were determined to continue imposing austerity; the Greeks were determined to ride their recklessness to the end. The Greeks’ demand for debt relief, and their declarations of restored pride, were seen by creditors as petulance. Instead of working for solutions, both sides sought excuses for failure.
The greatest damage, so far, has been the rift that it opened between Greece and our partners. We forgot that we are all supposed to be in this together, that Greece and the European Union should be indivisible, that the problems one country faces will be faced by others, that each country can survive only as part of the Union. A “yes” vote will oblige both Greece and Europe to solve the current impasse; a “no” will be an excuse to let Greece sink.
Within Greece, the tensions and divisions of the past few years have been compounded by the uncertainty of recent months and the real misery of the last few days. A “yes” majority might allow us to get down to the business of making Greece a viable economy while an integral part of the European Union; a “no” vote would divide us further, with economic woes and social tensions growing.
Throughout their history, the Greeks have fought hardest when all seemed lost. We won so many wars, overcame so many coups and foreign occupations to achieve the stability that now — in peacetime — is threatened. With so much at stake, we will soon see whether today’s Greeks are worthy of their ancestors.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini and a contributing opinion writer.