So, yesterday, I gave an interview to Hubertus Volmer, of the German n-tv network, on the current situation in Greece. You can read the whole thing in German, here. Or, you can read an English translation of the interview right below.
Hubertus Volmer: Let’s start with a simple question: Whose fault is it that Greece is in the state it’s in?
I wouldn’t call that a very simple question! Allow me to address this issue at length, since I find it an extremely important determinant of many skewed narratives about Greece – both domestically and abroad.
For most people – citizens, journalists, analysts, and politicians alike – it is very easy to attribute blame on some factor they deem unequivocally responsible for the state Greece is in today. Unfortunately, such hasty judgments are heavily guided by lack of information, economic interests, personal benefits, or ideological presuppositions.
For many Germans, blame lies in the decades-long fiscal imprudence of the Greek state, and the stereotypical image of the Greek citizen as a lazy, selfish, and corrupt individual who refrains from paying his or her taxes. For most Greeks, on the other hand, the prevailing narrative wants Germany to have exemplified a cruel hegemonic stance since the beginning of the crisis, luring Greece in a series of bailout packages with excruciating terms, wrecking both the country’s sovereignty and its future economic prospects. Interestingly enough, you will also find many people assigning blame to one of the two big parties of the former status quo – the conservative New Democracy or the socialist PASOK – depending on their ideological inclinations, or how much they had benefitted under the former clientelistic system.
Then again, there are the so-called “experts”. Many of those tend to have an absolute and unbending belief about what went wrong. Some will blame austerity, some will talk about the flawed design of the Memorandum of Understanding, others will talk about the imbalance between countries within the entire European structure, while others will focus on Greece-specific issues, such as the overwhelming public bureaucracy, the lack of efficiency and fairness in the functioning of the Greek state, mock compliance of the past three Greek governments towards our lenders, or the lack of competitiveness of Greek products.
All of those views share some elements of truth in them – of course not to the same degree. But foolhardy blame-attribution does not help. What we need to do each time we are faced with this question is to refrain from giving a monolithic and Manichean response. Rather, what we should try to be doing is pointing out the synthesis of reasons, and the iterative steps, that led us where we are.
HB: The January elections seem to have made things worse.
This is absolutely true. The 25th January elections were the last thing we needed in Greece this year. Although I am no fan of the previous government, or the former status-quo for that matter, I cannot but admit that since around Q2 of 2014 we started seeing small – but definitely detectable! – signs of recovery in the Greek economy, both in the real economy and in the numbers made available by analysts and state authorities. Of course, this does not mean to say that things were ‘good.’ But they had finally stopped getting ‘worse.
I believe that things would have turned much better had we waited until next year for elections to be held normally, even with Syriza coming out on the steering wheel of the country. Not only did we throw a year of relative economic stability and growth out of the window, but we also returned right back to 2010. This time, however, the prospects for recovery seem much gloomier, and the EZ seems much readier (and more willing!) to handle a potential exit of Greece from the euro.
HB: Varoufakis said on Wednesday that Schäuble had told him, he had lost the confidence of the German government. Varoufakis answered, he never had it. Would you say that is true: Did the German government never give him any chance?
True enough, many German officials were aware of Varoufakis’s character and ideas well before he was elected to the Hellenic Parliament. Add to that the media storm that built on his quirky persona once he became appointed as the Minister of Finance, and I am sure that the German government did not have the most positive image in their minds. In that sense, I do agree with Varoufakis that he never had the full confidence of his German counterparts.
Nevertheless, Varoufakis never tried to win Germany’s confidence either. Despite grand claims about how much he respects the German Finance Minister, or his vision of creating a better and more united Europe, he did not use pragmatic actions in order to honestly persuade, not only Germany, but every other country member of the Eurozone, of why his government needs to be trusted. He turned the negotiations into a big show for domestic consumption, caring more about being viewed as a true warrior by Greek citizens, rather than putting meaningful and much-needed, yet highly delayed reforms on the table. How could he expect to win over the trust of his counterparts at the Eurogroup meetings by lecturing them as if they were his students?
HB: Should Germany and the rest of the Eurozone have given Tsipras and his government a warmer welcome in their midst? After all, Syriza could have been a fresh start for Greece.
I think that the response of Germany to the newly elected government in Greece is perfectly rational. Do I like it? As a Greek myself, not really. Do I understand it, though? Definitely. The German government is not a fool, and it definitely does not want to be seen as one. The government of Tsipras, despite its proclamations of fighting everything that is wrong with Greece, is not exempt from negative elements either. True enough, the former status-quo of the ND-PASOK alternate rule in power was highly corrupt and responsible for constructing a huge web of clientelism all across the public sector. Yet, the fact that Syriza is ‘fresh’ does not necessarily mean that it is also ‘better.’ One would hope that it would be better, especially since it is the first time that a Leftist government rises to power in Greece and since it enjoys wide support by the people, but a cold-hearted yet pragmatic look at the matter shows how false such hopes are.
Syriza depends heavily upon its clientelistic linkages with the unions and syndicates that voted for it, it has been continuously opposing any meaningful reforms since the beginning of the crisis (on the matter of anti-corruption, especially, which it espouses as its primary goal while in power, it either abstained or voted against most policies), and it has already established close ties with the oligarchy it so much wants to fight. Tsipras and many of the higher-ups in Syriza have championed an extreme nationalist-populist discourse, and have promised the stars to the people of Greece. Not only are many of their pre-electoral proclamations unfeasible, but even if there were no economic constraints, they would also be leading Greece to regression rather than progress. This can be seen now more than ever, with the non-fiscal changes that the government wants to pass in areas such as education and healthcare.
HB: Do you think it’s a plausible scenario that the Greek government actually wants to leave the Euro?
I really do not want to think of that.
On the one hand, the attitude of the Greek government towards its partners – and Germany especially – has become exceedingly confrontational. One simply has to look at the statements made by Minister of Defense, Panos Kammenos, earlier this week, who threatened to send waves of economic immigrants and jihadists to Western Europe. Or the attempt of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, since the beginning of his tenure, to make Athens cozy up with Moscow. Or even the comments from two days ago, made by the Minister of Justice, Nikos Paraskevopoulos, who said that he is ready to implement a ruling by the High Court of Greece that would lead to the confiscation of German state-owned property within the country. So it definitely seems as if there is an intentional and directed attempt to infuriate Germany and our other partners, perhaps using a potential harsh retaliation as a ‘scapegoat’ for whatever plan they might have.
On the other hand, exiting the common currency involves an extremely difficult, complex, and arduous procedure. From the moment that capital controls are imposed, until the moment that the old (or new) currency is actually printed and distributed to the people, weeks or even months will go by. This will be devastating for the Greek economy, perhaps beyond repair in the future. Black markets will arise almost instantly, the poor – who have already lost so much from the crisis – will finally get their final blow, and the vested interests and super-rich oligarchs that Syriza proclaims to want to fight will benefit the most, since they will have most of their wealth in foreign banks. Realistically, the government does not seem ready at all to carry the burden of a ‘Grexit’ in its shoulders. It also seems to have no plan whatsoever for the ‘day after.’
It seems to me that rather than actually taking any action honestly and valiantly itself, the government seems ready to pass the burden of the choice to the people. While Varoufakis has denied the possibility of a referendum on the euro, both him and Tsipras have left quite open the possibility of a referendum on other matters, such as the reform program. Given the intransigence of the Greek government to offer the deep-reaching structural reforms requested by our partners (and to continue the previous program), and the “not backing down” stance of our partners, such a prospect does not seem impossible.
HB: Could you reveal anything about yourself?
Unfortunately not. I can only say that I have lived and worked both within and out of Greece in areas relating to public policy, and that I am younger than 30 years old (although I cannot say whether by a day or by a decade, haha).
HB: Why do you work incognito? Is the overall mood in Greece so bad that you fear publicity?
I never expected my coverage of the Greek crisis to get such traction so fast. The Greek Analyst was created mostly as a fun pet-project. Working in incognito mode has two basic benefits: first and foremost, I do not really have to tone down much of my commentary. I say things the way I see them. I can also poke some fun out of the ongoing developments. Of course, always ensuring that I do not cross any lines or insult people. Secondly, it allows me to protect myself from vicious attacks within the Twitter-sphere. The Greek Twitter-sphere – much like the Greek public sphere today – is a particularly nasty place. Anyone who disagrees with even the slightest thing done by the current Greek government is immediately accused of as a neoliberal, or a fascist, or a traitor, or even a German quisling. I want to avoid that drama.
HB: You follow Greek politics on twitter and you translate Greek texts like Tsipras’ speech about German reparations to Greece or an interview that Varoufakis gave a Greek radio station. Why do you do that?
I have been following the developments in the Greek political economy very closely for a while now. At some point, I realized that there is a gap (both in terms of time and of substance) between the happenings within Greece and what international coverage from abroad reports on. I kinda slipped right into that gap. At this point, I have to make clear that there are no specific interests hiding behind me (such accusations are the negative part of anonymity). Some people might not believe that, given how randomly I just popped up in the Interwebs right before the Elections of 25th of January, but I sure hope that most of my followers can see that. At the moment, it is a one-man show, and I intend to keep it like this in the near future.
HB: What do you hope for regarding Greece’s future?
Given its wide support by the Greek people, Syriza has a unique opportunity to do what no other Greek government could do in the past: implement drastically needed, progressive structural reforms that can create a more open economy (appealing to the domestic population and foreign investors alike), an accountable political system, as well as a fair and respectful society. Tsipras must not yield to the extreme voices of the hardcore Left platform within the party, and put the good of the entire society above any personal political ambitions. It is his duty to the Greek people. Valuable time has been lost, but there’s still time to turn the tides around.