Greece is at a critical crossroads. It could either become a European version of Argentina or mature into a modern European state. The answer will depend on whether political leaders get their act together soon enough, and also if society will react violently to shock therapy.
Right now there is a lot of anger in the Greek street. Anger against the political class, journalists, the business establishment. People feel betrayed by their leaders. The average Greek had not realised that the country was nearly bankrupt until last autumn, when the former prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, called an election and shocked the public by proposing severe austerity measures. His opponent, and now prime minister, ignored the warning, cynical as it was, since it was made when Karamanlis knew he would lose the election, and insisted that "there was enough money to go around".
Six months later, George Papandreou, who takes pride in being the president of the Socialist International, had to bite the bullet and negotiate an unprecedented agreement with the EU and the IMF. It's an agreement that entails a lot of pain for public sector employees and retirees, and also introduces sweeping changes in the labour market.
However, it includes a plan for a true nation-rebuilding effort. Unreal as it sounds, the Greek state still does not have a system that keeps tabs on how many employees different ministries have, or how state money is distributed in various agencies. It's a non-transparent system that has been protected for decades by politicians and civil servants alike since it provides cover for corruption and patronage. The problem is that the average Greek voter was content with this system as long as it provided jobs and permanent status as a public employee. Politicians kept the party going, at all levels from the ministries to municipalities. They created new positions, borrowed more money, and ignored fiscal constraints with no controls or evaluations.
The system cultivated corruption. A new business class took over who lived off the state, winning public works or procurement contracts that overcharged the state by significant amounts and, at the same time, siphoned undeclared political contributions to the parties and specific politicians. People heard a lot about the scandals and were often shocked by the unjustifiably excessive lifestyle of certain politicians who served in key ministries. Neither the media nor the justice system ever uncovered specific evidence, however. This led initially to a sense of cynicism about politics, but people were willing to live with it as long as the political system provided all the essentials for them. Now that the system has failed, they are angry and are all – from the president of the republic down to the average citizen – asking for someone to pay a price for decades of mismanagement and corruption. A huge wave of populist anger has swept Greek public opinion and has found politicians unable to respond. The talk of the town is the constant search for some sort of new leadership that will sweep away the ancien regime that has governed Greece for the last 30 years.
The prime minister is in a very difficult spot. He is called upon to engage in a heroic effort to cure all wrongs that have accumulated in this country over many years. It's not an easy task because he will have to do it while the country faces a deep recession, and many people will be forced to significantly lower living standards. He also faces a viral culture of protest from the left that often leads to civil unrest and acts of violence like the one that led to the death of three innocent bank employees on Wednesday.
History often takes unusual and unpredictable turns. Many of the entitlements and attitudes that need to be demolished today were initiated by the current prime minister's father back in the 1980s. Papandreou will have to convince his own party and society at large that Greece has to change dramatically in order to be able to repay its debts and maintain its membership of the eurozone.
It is hard to predict the outcome of this almost Sisyphean task. In the meantime we Greeks have managed to tarnish the country's brand name in the last few months. We have our share of problems and flaws, and my hope is that we will face up to them in the next few years. It is, however, unfair and destructive to create a stereotype for the whole country based on exaggerations. We might have occasional violent protests, but we still live in one of the safest countries in Europe.
This is clearly the time to put our house in order, restore our credibility in the world, and regain the optimistic and extrovert attitude that characterised our country during the Athens Olympic Games of 2004. In the meantime we ask for some patience. It is not easy for any society to undo 30 years of misdeeds within a few months. And all indications are that, barring any deus ex machina, it will be a long and painful road for us. We need all your understanding –and, yes, as many of you as possible to visit our islands this summer.
Alexis Papahelas, managing editor of the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini.