Posts Tagged 'crisis'

Far right tests Europe’s democracies

By Harry van Versendaal

Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.

“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.

“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.

“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.

Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.

Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.

“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.

The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.

To ban or not to ban?

Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Haunted by its Nazi past, Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.

Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.

“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.

Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.

“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.

“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.

Golden Dawn did not face an NPD-style ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses. In a 700-page report, the prosecutor said that none of GD’s MPs can claim convincingly that they were unaware of the criminal acts that were consistently carried out over a long period of time in the name of the party.

Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.

Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Greek Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.

Photographers create ‘unofficial history’ of Greek crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

“Depression Era,” a show of 250 photographs that opens Wednesday at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum, documents the far-reaching impact of Greece’s brutal economic crisis on the country’s urban and social fabric.

The works presented in the exhibition, which also features a few video installations and a big collage comprising cutouts from print media related to the crisis, are by the Depression Era Project, a collective of more than 35 local photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. The photos were shot over the past four years.

The show, which runs through January 11, includes works by Panos Kokkinias, Spyros Staveris, Pavlos Fysakis, Dimitris Michalakis, Eirini Vourloumis and Yiannis Theodoropoulos, and has been curated by Petros Babasikas, Pavlos Fysakis, Yorgos Prinos, Dimitris Tsoumplekas and Pasqua Vorgia.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, organizers said that the project aims to document the social, historical and economic transformation currently under way in the debt-wracked nation as a way of creating an “unofficial history” of recent developments. Among the objectives set out by the collective is to question the mainstream belief in progress and human improvement.

While personal styles may differ, a sense of gloom, defeat and discontinuity runs through most of the 250 images on the walls of the Benaki. A nondescript dystopian cityscape, a half-finished home, a central Athens street scarred by a rowdy protest rally, a suburban villa behind a closed metal gate, contrasted against occasional flashbacks to the 2004 Olympic euphoria and the days of irrational exuberance.

“The project was inspired by the need to forge a new narrative amid all the noise created by the Greek crisis,” Fysakis, who masterminded the project, told journalists.

Parts of the project have already been showcased at the Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, at the Mois de la Photo in Paris, the PhotoBiennale of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, and the Ebros theater squat in Athens.

The Depression Era collective and the KOLEKTIV8 nonprofit group which supports it were founded in 2011. The current project is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, tel 210 345 3111. Wednesday’s opening starts at 8 p.m. Regular visiting hours are Thursdays & Sundays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

For more information, visit depressionera.gr.

The rise and rise of Golden Dawn

By Harry van Versendaal

With its leadership awaiting trial for a series of alleged felonies, why would someone vote for Golden Dawn?

“Golden Dawn is changing. To me, as a voter, there are clear signs of political maturity. The party is moving away from what used to be its core ideology; it’s not about kicking and punching immigrants anymore,” says Thodoris, a mild-mannered 45-year-old civil servant a few days after the far-right party gained seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.

“A growing number of people are joining out of patriotism and concern about national issues like illegal immigration. If you attend a party rally, you won’t see skinheads but ordinary people like me.”

Thodoris, who lives in the seaside resort town of Porto Rafti, east of Athens, says he initially voted for the anti-immigrant, ultranationalist and Holocaust-denying group in 2012, mainly to protest the way Greece’s two mainstream parties were handling the debt crisis. But at last month’s European Parliament elections, the former PASOK supporter – who did not wish to give his last name – says he had extra reasons to do so.

“While other parties promoted celebrities and soccer players to run in the European elections, Golden Dawn picked serious men,” says Thodoris, a devout Christian. Former lieutenant generals Eleftherios Synadinos, who once commanded the Greek army’s special forces, and Georgios Epitideios, a former director at the European Union Military Staff, as well as Lambros Fountoulis, the father of murdered Golden Dawn member Giorgos Fountoulis, accepted the invitation to run on the party ticket.

On the rebound

The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label, came third in the European elections, taking 9.4 percent of the vote and collecting 110,460 more ballots than in the June 2012 national elections. Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s swastika tattoo-bearing spokesman, hailed the result, saying his party was now “the third force in the country’s political life.”

Just eight months ago, such a result seemed almost unthinkable. In September 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was taken away screaming and cursing in handcuffs to the high-security Kordyallos Prison, along with dozens of high-ranking party members and several MPs. But despite its leadership still being behind bars awaiting trial on charges of running the party as a criminal gang, Golden Dawn still managed to make a strong showing in Greece’s local and European elections last month, augmenting its nationwide political presence and surpassing expectations.

In the regional elections, the party won 31,903 more votes compared to the national vote of 2012, electing 26 regional councilors in 12 out of the 13 regions it campaigned for. Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Golden Dawn had 14 councilors elected in the nine municipalities where it ran. Four of them were elected in Athens where the party tripled its percentage compared to the 2010 local vote.

“The desire for retribution, which manifested itself in the 2012 elections, once again ushered voters toward GD, while in areas such as the Athens municipality and the Attica region, where the party commands a more solid backing, its performance most probably reflects some form of real support for the party rather than just anger or disillusionment with politics,” says Lamprini Rori, a political analyst who has conducted extensive research into Greece’s foremost far-right party.

“Voters whose anger initially turned them toward Golden Dawn appear to be gradually starting to identify with the party,” says Rori, adding that although the party’s geographical representation remains uneven, it managed to attract votes from more age groups and professional categories.

Black sheep

Greece’s crippling financial crisis – the economy is in the seventh year of a recession that has driven unemployment to around 27 percent – has been a windfall for Golden Dawn, which used to poll well below 1 percent. However, analysts agree that Greeks’ declining living standards are by no means the only factor in GD’s meteoric rise.

“None of the other countries that suffered an economic crisis in recent years, such as Spain, Portugal or Ireland, witnessed a rise in extremism in recent elections,” Rori says.

“In fact, far-right and Euroskeptic parties made gains in countries that were not that seriously affected by the crisis, such as the United Kingdom and France,” she adds.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front topped the national vote in France for the first time, while Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU, won a stunning victory across the Channel.

But analysts believe the sociocultural factors which catapulted Golden Dawn into the political mainstream were apparent before the debt crisis hit Greece.

The steady degradation of the center of Athens after the 2004 Olympic Games, soaring crime rates and the rapid influx of immigrants in certain downtown areas created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn, enabling it to ensconce itself in the capital’s fourth and sixth municipal districts. It was in working-class neighborhoods such as Kolonos, Sepolia, Akadimia Platonos, Kypseli and Patissia that the party’s foot soldiers gained the trust of native Greek locals who felt abandoned by the state. Golden Dawn developed a grassroots following that organized protest rallies, food drives, offered protection services and launched vigilante-style patrols, including violent attacks on immigrants.

Golden Dawn claimed to be taking on the duties of a corrupt, dysfunctional and unloving state as trust in official institutions and traditional political parties was obliterated by the crisis.

Meanwhile, the participation in November 2011 of Giorgos Karatzaferis’s populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the interim administration led by former central banker Lucas Papademos gave Golden Dawn a monopoly on the far-right anti-systemic vote.

Moreover, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi rhetoric jelled with the 69 percent of an electorate that harbors anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Just three years after receiving a paltry 0.29 percent, Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 18 parliamentary seats in the June 2012 national elections.

Backfire

New Democracy attempted to counter Golden Dawn’s rise by bringing in two popular lawmakers from LAOS and adopting a hardline attitude on issues such as street crime and illegal immigration, hoping this would bring voters back.

During the 2012 election campaign, ND leader Antonis Samaras labeled migrants as “tyrants” and spoke of the need to “reclaim” city centers from their grip. After becoming premier, Samaras scrapped a law granting citizenship to second-generation immigrants before blocking an anti-racism bill a year later.

ND’s candidate for Athens mayor, Aris Spiliotopoulos, adopted an openly xenophobic agenda in his 2014 campaign, attacking plans to construct a mosque in Athens on the grounds that the capital did not need “another magnet for illegal immigration” or “third-world tents under the sacred rock of the Acropolis.” Despite his own coalition government’s much-vaunted plans for going ahead with the construction of a mosque in Athens, Spiliotopoulos proposed a referendum on it, an idea that had been put forward months earlier by Golden Dawn’s own mayoral candidate.

These attempts by ND to break into far-right terrain worked to Golden Dawn’s advantage, bringing its pet issues into the mainstream of what is politically acceptable.

“When a political player haphazardly tries to hijack the issues and the framing of a rival political force, voters do not just remember the issues but also who is more suitable, in their judgement, to deal with these issues. GD obviously benefited from this,” Rori says.

In the capital’s mayoral race, far-right candidate Kasidiaris, also under criminal investigation, drew almost level with New Democracy, gaining 16.1 percent to Spiliotopoulos’s 16.9 percent. Both candidates failed to make the runoff.

Martyr status

Initially, the massive crackdown on the party after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, by a Golden Dawn member in the Athens neighborhood of Keratsini last September was anticipated to reverse the group’s momentum. But these expectations were quickly flattened. The launch of a judicial investigation saw a decline in grassroots actions and violent attacks but fell short of dampening the party’s appeal. Polls show that GD actually increased its share in Keratsini and neighboring Perama.

“The party did everything to portray the ongoing criminal inquiry as politically motivated, a strategy that allowed it to galvanize its party base,” Rori says.

Meanwhile, hard proof, such as a much speculated-upon weapons cache, has not been found, nor has a trial date yet been set, fueling belief among some voters that the investigation into the party is political motivated.

Thodoris, for one, believes the arrests are of dubious legality. “There is no evidence for these trumped-up charges. It’s all reactionary and dirty propaganda by the media. It may fool older people like my parents, but not conscious folk like myself,” he says.

“These people were sent to jail although nothing has been proved,” says Thodoris, who believes that the killing of Fyssas – as well as other widely recorded attacks against immigrants across the country – was an isolated incident that should not be attributed to commands from the top echelons of the party.

Golden Dawn’s martyr status was reinforced by the murder of two party members – 22-year-old Manolis Kapelonis and 26-year-old Giorgos Fountoulis – who were shot in cold blood in the Neo Iraklio suburb of Athens in November. The shooting was claimed by a previously unknown – and silent since – urban guerrilla organization.

“Golden Dawn showed it was able to hold back its members from reacting,” says Thodoris, a sign to him that the party had moved on from its violent past.

Another boon toward Golden Dawn’s increasing legitimacy has come in the form of costly blunders made by mainstream politicians. Cabinet secretary Panayiotis Baltakos, Samaras’s chief of staff, was forced to resign in April after he was secretly filmed in a private meeting with Kasidiaris during which he accused the Greek premier of instigating and influencing the judicial inquiry against GD for political gain.

“The Baltakos incident and the approval by the Supreme Court of Golden Dawn’s participation in the European elections both served as an alibi for the party’s voters who were looking for a way to justify their choice,” Rori says.

Speaking in an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Baltakos was adamant that there is a kinship between ND and Golden Dawn voters. He said his party should continue to court GD supporters.

“The leaderships of the [right-wing] parties cannot merge. That is evident. But the voters can. That too is evident,” said Baltakos.

Banality of evil

With Golden Dawn polling just under the 10 percent threshold, pundits are still debating how much of their support comes from protest votes and whether there are still misguided voters out there who have little stomach for neo-Nazi ideology.

“With 66 party members facing charges and 29 – including six deputies – sitting in jail pending trial, it would be rather naive to speak of misguided voters,” says Rori. But classifying all of these voters as neo-Nazis is a different matter altogether, she adds.

“Some of them do not think that the criminal charges against Golden Dawn hold any water; others do, but don’t really mind. Some condone violence or may even be attracted to it, because they are charmed by the display of power, the imposition of order or revenge.”

More disturbingly, there are those she classifies as free riders: “people who like violence without personal cost since they do not exercise violence, nor suffer from it.”

Vasilis Lyritsis, managing director at the refugee reception center run by the Hellenic Red Cross in Lavrio, on the eastern coast of Attica, also disputes the concept of the ignorant voter.

“I do not believe any Golden Dawn voters were ‘misled,’ as it were, or that they did not know what they were voting for,” he says.

Lyritsis, who ran as a regional candidate on a center-left ticket backed by the small Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, believes the mainstream parties must stand against Golden Dawn using clear political discourse on everything from human rights to the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Politicians should not make any ideological concessions in the hope of stealing voters away from the neo-Nazis. The European elections demonstrated clearly that this does not work,” Lyritsis says.

A stumbling block in that direction is that political polarization regarding Greece’s bailout agreements with foreign lenders has prevented mainstream parties from forging a unified response. At the same time, experts say, the political class must work to rebuild the institutions of the state, because Golden Dawn has shown its adeptness at squeezing through the cracks and infiltrating basic functions of government.

“Golden Dawn exploited the absence of institutions like the police, welfare and justice against the more vulnerable groups of the population in order to weave its web,” says Lyritsis, who deems the party should have been outlawed because it is a threat to democracy.

However, analysts agree that the safest way to curb the influence of extremist ideas in the long run is to educate the voters of tomorrow. Lyritsis maintains the country needs to move beyond a nation-centric education.

“Portraying the ‘other’ as an enemy who is nearly by default blamed for all the nation’s woes has caused a great deal of navel gazing and an overblown national ego created around the idea of a chosen people,” says Lyritsis, who is also a trained historian.

“Greek schools must not operate like ivory towers. They must open up to multiculturalism and difference. They ought to promote the country’s contemporary history instead of finding comfort with the cozy identification of pupils with Greece’s ancient and Byzantine legacy, which may look safe but is dangerous in the long term,” Lyritsis says. “What we now get is a form of intellectual fascism.”

And while extremist ideas continue to gain traction and voters, Greece’s two traditional political parties, wedded in an uneasy coalition government, are shedding voters apace. The question is, who will replace them if they perish?

Environmental group urges MPs to block ‘criminal’ coastal development bill

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By Harry van Versendaal

Reactions against a controversial bill that lifts restrictions on construction along Greece’s coastline continued Monday, as environmental protection group WWF Greece urged lawmakers to shoot down the “ecologically criminal proposal.”

“It is a brutal and outrageously shortsighted, revenue-oriented wipeout of environmental law,” the NGO said in an open letter to Greek MPs urging them to stop the draft law before it is submitted to Parliament.

The bill, which was submitted by the Finance Ministry, lifts all current restrictions on the maximum area designated for beach concessions such as bars, umbrellas and sun loungers while abolishing the right to unhindered public access to the seashore.

The proposed measures also facilitate permanent constructions on beaches for commercial purposes, while making it possible for businesses to pay fines to legalize unlicensed constructions.

Public consultation on the bill, launched during the Easter break, has been extended to May 13. Local elections are scheduled to be held in Greece on May 18 and 25.

“We are calling upon MPs to launch a cross-party initiative so that the unconscionable crime against our natural wealth that is the Finance Ministry bill is never submitted to Parliament,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator at WWF.

“We can see no justification for the sudden culling of legislation for the protection of the environment and natural resources in the name of ‘development’ that is chaotic, nonviable in the long term and financially questionable,” Nantsou said.

The conservative-led government reportedly claims that the legislation is necessary because it will help Greece sell millions of euros’ worth of public property as part of its privatization process. Critics, however, have suggested that the legislation that is already in place is adequate for this purpose.

In the same letter sent to MPs Monday, WWF attacked the idea that the changes to the legislation are crucial for the development of tourism, Greece’s largest industry.

“At a time of global crisis, the country’s millions of visitors are not here to see crammed beaches, cement-covered stretches of coastline or ugly constructions on closed-off beaches,” it said.

According to a 2010 Flash Eurobarometer survey, cited by WWF, most European Union citizens named a location’s environment as their key consideration when deciding on a holiday destination.

Bankrupt growth model

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, Nantsou warned of an environmental rollback in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown.

“WWF Greece has been closely monitoring the environmental dimensions of the economic downturn and we have been witnessing a serious rollback in important laws and policies,” Nantsou told the newspaper.

“Planning for more constructions and resource overuse is what crisis-hit countries should not be doing. The old and bankrupt growth model of high hidden costs and of an ecological debt that is transferred to the future generations should be a non-starter,” she said.

The coastal development bill has been attacked by the small Ecologist Greens and the pro-business Drasi parties, but has yet to draw official criticism from any of their mainstream counterparts.

On Friday, a New Democracy lawmaker promised to vote against the bill should it come to the House.

“The bill is monstrous… I will certainly not vote for it in its current form,” Fotini Pipili said.

No one-size-fits-all policy for the crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Latvia was hit by a financial crisis in 2008, the government had few qualms about embracing cost-cutting measures and structural reforms, while keeping its national currency pegged to the euro.

Now in the waiting room for eurozone membership, due in January 2014, this Baltic nation’s decision makers appear undeterred by a rather skeptical public and the woes dogging other eurozone countries, most prominently Greece.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition during his visit to Athens this week, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said he sees his country’s euro entry as a further step into the West by the former Soviet republic after it joined the European Union in 2004.

Notwithstanding Latvia’s portrayal by several Western policymakers as a poster child for austerity that could serve as a roadmap for other troubled economies, Rinkevics is reluctant to draw parallels with Greece, stressing instead the economic and cultural particularities of each country.

The eurozone is in crisis but Latvia still plans to join in January 2014. Haven’t you been deterred by the difficulties faced by countries using the single currency?

I really do not believe that the problems are caused by the single currency. We have seen – and also our own experience between 2008 and 2011 has shown – that the currency has had no direct effect on the crisis. It’s about the economic and financial policies of the country in question. Keeping this in mind, we see eurozone membership as an opportunity to boost trade relations with other countries in the euro area. Membership however is also a geopolitical choice. By signing the accession treaties here in Greece 10 years ago, we joined a political and economic union. But we still have to integrate more in terms of the financial system, transportation and energy. In a way, it completes the move away from the former Soviet Union to a more European union.

Is the close presence of Russia also a geopolitical incentive?

It’s more about the economic and financial security of the country. It’s more about deeper integration in the EU. Given that, I would not say that joining the eurozone is specifically against somebody. It’s about boosting our own standing when it comes to politics and the economy.

Polls show that only one in three Latvians wants to join the euro. Why is the figure so low and is this enough support to give the government’s decision legitimacy?

First, our public reads what is happening in the eurozone. Two or three years ago, newspapers, Internet media, TV and radio were full of doomsday scenarios that the euro is going to crash and that the eurozone is finishing, which is not what we see now. We actually see that the eurozone is well and alive. Secondly, it’s also an emotional issue. Our currency, the lat, was reintroduced after Latvia gained independence back in 1993, and for 20 years the currency has been very stable. We had a very strong monetary policy by the Bank of Latvia; we did not devalue even when probably it could have been a possible course of action back in 2008 and 2009. So there is a very strong emotional attachment to the currency and even if people understand that there can be gains, they still find it hard to say good bye.

How to tackle this [public skepticism]? I think the only way is for the people to see that nothing bad happens. Money is money, what you call it does not really say much. It is going to take about six months to a year for people to see the effects and to understand that actually nothing bad happens.

How will the Latvian people react if the country has to contribute to eurozone crisis funding after it joins?

That’s something that certainly people really don’t want to do. But this is about solidarity and we also remind ourselves that it was the IMF and the EU that actually saved our country back in 2009 by providing loans. Solidarity works both ways.

Are you worried about growing Euroskepticism in Europe?

Yes, although as far as Latvia is concerned, the recent Eurobarometer poll showed an interesting picture. Ten years after joining the EU, 57 percent of the general population believe that membership has benefited more than caused problems, against an average EU rate of 54 percent.

Decision making

Within a European Union where the power to make decisions appears to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of member states, what role is there for smaller countries like Greece and Latvia to play?

I think that with things being delegated to Brussels – particularly economic and financial issues such as banking union and more regulation of financial institutions – we still have an opportunity to use instruments like the Council, where we can work with like-minded countries to change or influence decisions that are not really in our interest. We had a very good experience when discussing the so-called Friends of Cohesion group, where Athens and Riga worked together to make sure that countries that receive European funds – including Greece and Latvia – prevent drastic cuts to the European budget.

There are some areas, like EU foreign policy, where I would like to see a more unified approach. We have a lot of success stories, like the EU standing on Syria, the EU standing on Iran. But then you have the Middle East peace process, where you have three different groups. Similarly, the EU policy on Russia has not always been unified.

Do you see any areas where it would be possible for Greece and Latvia to help each other?

Certainly. As we join the eurozone we are interested in working more closely with Greece on reform and development of eurozone policies, banking and financial regulations. Secondly, I think we have common interests and will work together because our presidency is in the first half of 2015, and then there is the Eastern Partnership initiative. I also expect that your presidency is going to address EU institutional issues – there can be a discussion about some changes in the institutional framework and this is something that small countries are particularly sensitive about.

As far as NATO is concerned, we are both members of this alliance and we have already worked quite closely also on issues that are related to, for instance, Article 5 operations and exercises [Article 5 requires NATO member states to come to the aid of any member state that comes under armed attack]. Greece is currently participating in a NATO exercise in the Baltic area. Also, we understand your concerns about immigration policy, so there are plenty of issues of common interest. And, of course, economic cooperation, which is probably not reaching the highest level and there is room to expand, and tourism.

Crisis response

What would you say were the main reasons for Latvia overcoming its crisis? What kind of austerity measures were involved?

It seems to me that each country has to tackle the crisis in its own way, taking into account its own history, traditions, structure of society, economy and so on. But we basically did three things. One was to introduce very severe cuts to public spending. These had been implemented by the end of 2008, and by the end of the crisis we had cut our public sector on average by 25-30 percent. All ministries suffered very severe cuts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost about 30 percent of its employees. The remaining staff had their salaries slashed by about an average 30 percent. Operational budgets were also cut. Second, we did our best to keep programs that were co-financed by the EU. That was almost the only stimulus package for our economic growth. And third, while we were cutting our public expenditure, some taxes were raised, such as personal income tax and VAT.

Now, in the third year of economic growth, we are actually going back to reducing some taxes. People need to feel the crisis is over. Yes, on a macroeconomic level everyone considers we are out of the woods, but on a personal level, it is only now that people are probably starting to feel a modest increase in their salaries.

You say every country has to deal with the crisis in its own way. Does Latvia then not vindicate the tough approach taken in bailing out countries like Greece and Portugal?

Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania are sometimes mentioned as good examples of how you do things. At the same time, we live in the north and that makes a difference. The root causes of our economic and financial crisis were different from those here in the south. We had an enormous real estate problem. After joining the EU, salaries skyrocketed in many areas. And, of course, they then went down like a stone. Public perception of what happened and who was responsible was also different. The new government that came in in 2009 was able to convince people that things had gone wrong because of bad polices introduced by a couple of governments before, and people actually acknowledged this. Our prime minister is in his fifth year in power, which is kind of a record for our country, where we tend to change governments and prime ministers quite often – even in good times. There was a general understanding among the public regarding the austerity policy. It was bad, but it was the right thing to do.

Did the Protestant culture in your country play a part in helping your country adjust? Did the fact that your country had been occupied for so many years also have an impact on how people accepted the measures?

It certainly worked, I think you are right. It was part of the solution. But, let’s face it, another part – which is now also an issue in Greece as far as I know – was that a lot of people left for jobs and opportunities in the UK, Ireland and other countries.

Government critics have said that high emigration was used to mask Latvia’s unemployment problem.

It helped mitigate the social effects. However, if you look at figures from the good years following EU accession in 2004, emigration was already in full swing as people were now free to move abroad for studies or work. Interestingly, we are starting to see that some of these people are starting to return as they are being offered competitive jobs [in Latvia].

What are the other major problems caused by the cuts you pursued?

Certainly one issue is the quality of public services after a lot of people left the government. Some cuts have been too severe and we need to rebalance. Another is how to get our demographic problems solved as birthrates dropped during the crisis years, in fact, for the second time – the first was in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and we had to change our whole economic and social system. Demography is a problem for most EU countries and is closely connected to the issue of social security reform. We had to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and to severely cut social security programs including unemployment benefits.

‘Ruins’ – the 2012 HIV sweeps and what came next

By Harry van Versendaal

With her back to the camera, a woman speaks softly and haltingly. Pausing only when emotion threatens to overcome her, she tells a story of anguish and humiliation at the hands of the Greek state.

It was April 2012, during the runup to a tense parliamentary election, when police rounded up hundreds of alleged prostitutes around Athens city center and – in cooperation with state medics – subjected them to forced HIV tests.

About 30 women who tested positive were charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm, a felony. Police also posted their names and photos online and appealed to those who had engaged in sexual contact with them to get in touch with authorities for health checks and treatment. The health minister at the time, Andreas Loverdos, said the operation was in the interest of public health. AIDS, he said, had “spread beyond the ghettos and entered Greek society.”

Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Greece of violating human rights and medical confidentiality as mug shots of the detainees were quickly reproduced by several news websites and newspapers, often alongside stories about the ticking “health bomb” created by HIV-positive prostitutes.

“Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch Hunt,” a 53-minute film by Zoe Mavroudi that was shown to journalists in Athens on Wednesday, documents the psychological impact of the stigma forced on the prosecuted women and their families. At the same time, the documentary sets out to deconstruct the social causes and political motives that led to the operation. To do so, “Ruins” draws on a number of interviews with two of the HIV-positive woman and their mothers. It also features discussions with doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and activists who campaigned for their release.

“More than being a case of HIV criminalization, this mass police operation was unprecedented because it was carried out in cooperation with official health authorities,” Mavroudi said during the press conference in reference to the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) that conducted the AIDS screenings.

Mavroudi, a playwright, screenwriter and actress who is making her directorial debut with “Ruins,” said the sweeps – which took place without significant evidence that the suspects were sex workers or that they had transmitted the virus – marked a “barbaric turning point in the Greece of the crisis.

“The crackdown targeted people who are weak and sick, people who do not engage in party politics, people however who have been mostly hit by the crisis,” said Mavroudi, adding that it was time to dole out responsibility for what happened.

All of the women, the overwhelming majority of whom turned out to be of Greek nationality, have since been acquitted of felony charges and released from jail. Thirteen of them still face smaller, misdemeanor charges. Meanwhile, the legal provision that led to their arrest was repealed for a brief period before it was reinstated by current Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis.

Loverdos, who has since created his own political party, and former Public Order Michalis Chrysochoidis both declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

In contrast to global trends, the number of HIV/AIDS cases is soaring in Greece, with infections among injecting drug users more than doubling since 2011, official data show.

Experts blame the rise on the elimination of needle exchange programs and an increase in unprotected sex as cash-strapped sex workers are tempted to spare condoms in exchange for a better deal.

The documentary was funded by Union Solidarity International, a recently established UK-based organization that uses new media to back campaigns around the world, including in Greece, and Unite the Union, a British and Irish trade union.

“Ruins,” which will soon be made freely available online, will debut at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos St Annex on Sunday at 7 p.m. It will be screened at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University two days later.

For more information visit http://ruins-documentary.com/

The big shift right

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By Harry van Versendaal

The discrediting of Greece’s mainstream political parties, brought about by the four-year debt crisis, has opened a political can of worms by strengthening the hand of far-right extremists, says Nikos Skoutaris, a European constitutional law expert at the London School of Economics.

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition during a two-week workshop in Thessaloniki on nationalism, religion and violence in Greece and SE Europe, Skoutaris voices concern about the right-wing shift of the Greek political agenda as reflected in the government’s decision to repeal the migrant citizenship law and the controversial decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT.

“A far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene,” he says.

Locked in an uneasy government coalition, the once-dominant New Democracy and PASOK have been leaning to the right in a bid to dampen the influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Currently polling in third place, the party is widely connected to an upsurge in racially motivated attacks.

Skoutaris is critical of government foot-dragging in introducing legislation against hate speech, but remains skeptical of an all-out ban on the party. “We do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law,” he says.

The 32-year-old academic is a senior research fellow at the LSE’s European Institute, where he has developed a research project on the constitutional accommodation of ethno-territorial conflicts in Europe. Skoutaris is program director of the Thessaloniki seminars, which have brought together over 30 experts from some 20 institutions.

The event is organized by the International Hellenic University in partnership with Charles University in Prague, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) of Cyprus, and with the support of the LSE’s Southeast Europe research unit, LSEE.

From the mid-1990s and for more than 15 years, Greece’s Socialist and conservative parties won elections by hijacking the center of the political spectrum. Three years into the crisis, voters as well as parties have all but deserted the middle ground. Are you concerned by the growing polarization of Greek politics?

More than the desertion of the middle ground, I am increasingly concerned about the rise of far-right extremism. This extremism, however, is not evident just in the presence of Golden Dawn in the Parliament and its increasing popularity in the polls, but also in the adoption of a far-right political agenda and discourse by the dominant political parties. The Loverdos incident with the HIV-positive prostitutes, the debacle concerning the amendment of the Ragousis citizenship law and even the way that the government decided to shut down the public broadcaster without having secured Parliament’s approval are some of the incidents suggesting that a far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene.

How can coalition partners PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that dominated Greek politics for almost 40 years, enforce the rule of law when they are seen as the main culprits behind the collapse of the country’s social contract?

It is true that PASOK and New Democracy bear the greatest responsibility for the financial and political collapse of Greece. And in that sense it is only fair for one to wonder how they can enforce the rule of law and set a new paradigm when they have failed to do so, so miserably, during the 40 years of their rule. I do not think there are any easy answers to this question and personally I am rather pessimistic as I do not believe that the current political elites – especially the ones connected to those parties – can live up to the challenges of this rather arduous task.

Has toleration of leftist violence in the post-1974 period also led to the rise of far-right extremism in Greece, as some analysts and historians have argued? Has the Greek left enjoyed a certain level of immunity that needs to be re-examined?

The argument concerning the “rise of the two extremes” is well known. I am neither a historian nor a sociοlogist nor a political scientist, so my view is not one of a specialist but rather of an unsophisticated constitutional lawyer who tries to follow Greek politics and make sense of it. With this in mind, I would associate the rise of far-right extremism with the delegitimation of the Greek political elites through the crisis and the emergence of Greece as a “failed state” rather than with the fact that the Greek left has resorted to practices that could be deemed illegal in certain instances. If there is a question that I would pose to the left – being a leftist myself – it is whether a discourse that supports violent forms of struggle for social justice still serves its strategy. My personal view is that a real and radical transformation of the democratic functioning of the Greek state and of capitalism in general is absolutely necessary. However, I have my doubts whether the rhetoric of the left has managed to express it in a sufficient manner.

Meanwhile, Greek conservatives, but not just them, have lashed out at attempts by revisionist historians, as it were, to challenge the dominant historical narrative and question “myths” seen as key to collective memory and national self-understanding. Do you think that this is a bad timing for this because of the crisis?

I do not think there is such a thing as bad timing when it comes to research in any area of knowledge and in particular the social sciences. To put it the other way round and with regard to the attempts to which you refer, I do not remember anyone saying at any moment in Greek history that “now is a good time to deconstruct the national myths.” Social scientists have an obligation to research and present their results to society. And personally, if the dilemma is between a painful truth and a comforting lie, I choose the former even at times when Greek society suffers.

Do you think that the proposed anti-racism bill could curb the wave of racially motivated crimes and the influence of Golden Dawn?

No, I don’t believe that any law could curb racially motivated crimes or the influence of a neo-Nazi party, at least not in the short term. Those are very complicated issues that could only be successfully dealt with through long-term comprehensive policies that would also contain a strong educational dimension. This does not mean that as a society we should not put out a strong political message that we do not tolerate any form of racism, including anti-Semitism. In that sense, I consider the recent debacle concerning the anti-racism bill as more evidence of the unwillingness and the incapacity of the Greek political elites – and the governing coalition in particular – to show that they can rise to the challenge that the existence of far-right extremism poses.

Would a ban on hate speech, including genocide-denying legislation, not imply restrictions on free speech?

To the best of my knowledge there exists no legal order where the right of expression is unfettered. To give but one example: In Greece one may not “offend the honor of the President of the Republic.” So, the right question is not whether we should have restrictions, but rather what kind of restrictions and what the scope of those restrictions should be. As I see it, keeping social peace in a Greek state that wishes to respect multiculturalism warrants such restrictions.

Do you think it would be a good idea to outlaw Golden Dawn altogether?

First of all, let me point out that the legal toolbox that the present constitutional framework provides for does not contain a procedure according to which we could outlaw Golden Dawn in the same way that the German or the Turkish constitutional orders do. Of course one could argue in favor of the amendment of the constitution to the effect that such a procedure would be included. It is a matter of belief and conviction whether one supports this idea of “militant democracy” according to which a constitutional order can outlaw political parties.

Personally I am not convinced, not least because international experience suggests that such procedures have proved ineffective. Political parties that were outlawed “resurrected” merely by changing their names and paying lip service to constitutional rules. The cases of the Turkish Islamist parties or Vlaams Blok / Vlaams Belang in Belgium are indicative.

Notwithstanding the absence of such procedures, one also has to note that a number of Golden Dawn members have clearly committed criminal offenses. Take for example the Ilias Kasidiaris incident on Antenna TV [where the Golden Dawn deputy and spokesman slapped a female Communist Party MP multiple times] or the repeated protests outside the Hytirio Theater in Athens [which led to the cancellation of the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi”]. To deal with those incidents, we do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law.

More worrying is the fact that members of Golden Dawn claim to be enforcing the rule of law. In a democratic state where rule of law applies, it is state institutions that are entrusted with the exercise of its powers. Golden Dawn members and their militia have no right to enforce the law, as it were, by checking immigrants’ IDs in flea markets or requesting truck drivers from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to remove their country code bumper stickers. The Greek state, if it wants to call itself democratic, has to make sure that it does not share the so-called monopoly of violence with Golden Dawn members, even if they are elected.

Documentary festival rolling in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Bess Kargman’s award-winning “First Position,” a documentary about the toughness of mind and body demanded of young classical ballet dancers, will open this year’s 10-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which gets under way on March 15.

The film follows a handful of boys and girls from various parts of the world as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, a competition that could determine their future in the ballet world. The documentary has picked up numerous accolades, including a Jury Prize at the San Francisco DocFest and audience awards at DOC NYC and the Portland International Film Festival.

Now in its 15th year, the TDF has drawn a big following of movie buffs and filmmakers who make the annual trip to the northern port city for the rich crop of hard-hitting productions and interesting side events.

“Its success is not just measured by the high numbers of people who flock to its theaters every year,” said Konstantinos Aivaliotis, a visual anthropology expert who is currently doing research on the festival.

“The festival is really talked about abroad, ranking in the top five – if not top three – on the European doc fest circuit,” he said.

Despite the financial difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together about 200 films from 45 countries, as well as 58 local productions.

Alongside “First Position,” festival highlights include Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” a shocking account of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Based on more than 100 interviews, the Arizona-born director exposes the systemic cover-up of sexual crimes and the everyday struggle of victims – mostly women but also men – to rebuild their lives and find justice.

In his Sundance winner “Blood Brother,” Pittsburg director Steve Hoover travels to southern India to document his longtime friend’s mission to help children living with HIV and AIDS. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award for American documentaries at what is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Dutch John Appel’s “Wrong Time, Wrong Place,” billed as a film about “how small, seemingly trivial events can upset the fine balance between life and death,” features discussions with five people who were caught up in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo and the ensuing shooting spree on the island of Utoya where Norwegian far-right activist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 242.

In “Forbidden Voices,” Swiss director Barbara Miller documents the lives of dissident bloggers in Cuba, China and Iran who use their laptops to fight for free speech and press freedom.

The organizers have also prepared a tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, maker of the classic 260-minute trilogy “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicles the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. The 71-year-old director, who won five-star reviews for his 2010 philosophical cine-essay on history and memory, “Nostalgia for the Light,” has been booked for a workshop in Thessaloniki.

Uncomfortably relevant

Stuck in recession for a sixth year, debt-wracked Greece is struggling with severe austerity measures and sky-high unemployment. It’s a lethal mix that has fueled social turmoil and political polarization as reflected in the meteoric ascent of the country’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It all makes the doc fest uncomfortably topical.

“Documentaries can serve as an alternative news source and highlight issues that do not come up in mainstream media,” Aivaliotis said.

He says the crisis has not produced a major shift in subject matter, but at least a few of this year’s 58 movies seem to be influenced by the zeitgeist in one way or another.

“Neo-Nazi, the Holocaust of Memory,” shot by established TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou, revisits the country’s path from the German occupation during World War II to the rise of Golden Dawn, which currently controls 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

“To the Wolf,” a documentary-narrative hybrid shot in the mountains of western Greece by first-time directing duo Christina Koutsospyrou and Britain’s Aran Hughes, follows two shepherd families as they try to survive the Greek crisis. The production earned flattering reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Nikos Dayandas, who last year left Thessaloniki with the Film Critics’ Award for his film “Sayome,” returns with “The Little Land” to tell the story of a disaffected young urban couple who decide to try their luck on the remote Aegean island of Icaria.

The Greek economic crisis, which has touched all levels of society, also means that local documentarists – never a spoiled lot – will continue to struggle for funding. But on the other hand, they have technology on their side as digital video is making films cheaper to produce.

“The means [to make a documentary] are more accessible now and the need to cooperate has started to be more obvious, so I think we will continue to see fresh things from Greek creators,” Aivaliotis said.

Approximately 520 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all those screened as part of the official program. Around 60 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.

In debt-hit Greece, much-craved development is no longer green

By Harry van Versendaal

Nongovernmental organizations are warning of an “unprecedented environmental rollback” in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown.

More controversially, several civil society groups allege that in a number of instances, the authorities have used the brutal debt crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations meant to protect the natural environment.

“A series of very disturbing developments indicate that the environment is already being called on to pay a significant part of the soaring Greek debt,” said Theodota Nantsou of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Athens.

“As a result of the economic turndown and the resulting structural adjustment and austerity policies, Greece has witnessed an unprecedented environmental rollback,” she said.

The government recently unveiled an austerity budget which aims to unlock foreign aid by slashing public spending even more, even though the country’s economy is shrinking fast. More painful cuts are anticipated as Greece faces what is expected to be a sixth year of recession.

The budget of the fire brigade was this year slashed by up to 45 percent, taking a toll on the maintenance of water-dropping aircraft and fire engines, as well as the ability to pay for overtime work.

Just 18 of the 21 yellow Canadair aircraft were airworthy this summer while none of the five helicopters owned by the service could fly as the renewal of the pilots’ flight licenses was held up for financial reasons, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias admitted in Parliament.

A wildfire on the island of Chios destroyed at least 15,000 hectares of vegetation in August. The blaze, which went on for five days, ravaged the island’s trademark mastic tree plantations, dealing a massive ecological and financial blow to the islanders.

Illegal logging

Meanwhile, economic hardship and rising heating costs are said to be responsible for a dramatic spike in illegal logging across the country — also evident in forests near the capital. Unauthorized logging has intensified as forest patrols have been reduced. A last-minute amendment submitted to Parliament earlier this year, which reduced penalties for offenders, has not helped much either.

WWF’s 2012 report on the status of environmental legislation in Greece, published three years after George Papandreou’s ambitious yet dismally ill-fated “green development” program, found “an avalanche of serious environmental losses.”

“Policies introduced by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate change upon its establishment in 2009, were canceled, betraying hopes for good environmental policy-making,” the report said.

Under pressure from its foreign lenders to reduce the number of public entities and slash public spending, the government decided to merge the country’s 29 protected area local management agencies, bringing their number down to 14.

Also on an institutional level, authorities decided to divert the vast majority of money from the Green Fund — a national environment fund set up in 2010 to support regeneration projects — to make up for shortfalls in the country’s public finances. The government said that just 400 million euros of the 4 billion the fund was expected to raise by 2014 will be used for building parks and similar schemes, while the rest will go elsewhere.

The Environment Ministry told this newspaper that any money transfer away from the Green Fund requires prior consent from its own head; but it’s hard to see how this serves as a safeguard.

Tailor-made

NGOs assert that some of the damage to the environment is far from unavoidable, and accuse authorities of compromising protection policy by catering to narrow sectional interests.

“The crisis has been used by the government as an excuse for undermining environmental legislation and promoting legal provisions that are tailor-made to specific investment plans,” Nantsou said.

In April the Environment Ministry gave the green light for a massive tourist investment at Atalanti in central Greece in spite of the fact that most of the area is registered as forestland, which cannot be built upon. Investors — who are planning the construction of three hotels, three golf courses and 3,712 holiday homes — reportedly took advantage of a recent amendment that doubled the percentage of forestland that can be used for tourism and adjacent sports facilities in areas bigger than 300 hectares.

Notwithstanding opposition from green groups, locals are in favor of the 2-billion-euro project which, investors say, will create up to 8,000 jobs.

The contrast drives home one of the key dilemmas facing Greece at the moment: The debt-wracked country needs investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy, but it has to balance this with preserving its natural assets.

It is a similar story in Halkidiki, a Central Macedonia regional unit with 25.1 percent unemployment at the end of the second quarter. Locals and NGOs there have vehemently opposed the operation of the Skouries gold mine despite claims by the Vancouver-based company behind the project that this will create more than a thousand jobs. The courts recently referred to the economic argument in their temporary ruling that the project should proceed.

As police and protesters once again battled on Sunday, supporters of the project reportedly staged a counterdemonstration with banners saying “no to violence, yes to jobs.”

The above examples fit into a much bigger, much more damaging pattern as opportunistic administrations have again and again rubber-stamped laws to legalize hundreds of thousands of illegally constructed properties in a bid to cajole voters while raising revenues from fines.

Greece’s Environment Ministry last month extended the deadline for owners of illegally built or illegally altered homes to declare their properties and be exempted from future fines or demolitions until January 31, 2013.

By the end of July more than 400,000 Greeks had declared illegal homes, almost 80,000 of which have now been approved. This protects them from demolition and further fines for the next 30 years.

“Hundreds of thousands of illegal buildings are legalized without any assessment of their environmental impact, even within protected areas,” Nantsou said.

The Environment Ministry denies the allegations. A press spokesman said the law on illegal dwellings was designed “to strengthen equality and the rule of law, as well as to protect and restore the environment.” At the same time, the ministry said, the law aims to make sure the state is compensated for any urban-planning violations — that is, fetch some desperately needed cash into state coffers.

Last resort

Meanwhile, recent legislation proposed by the Infrastructure Ministry regulating construction in resort areas, including Greece’s famed Aegean islands, has come under fire for giving in to greedy developers and other vested interests under the pretext of stimulating growth and investment.

“The new draft law paves the way for an unbelievable amount of construction in areas that really cannot tolerate it, without taking the necessary restrictions and sustainability concerns into consideration,” said Georgia Kikou head of the Sustainable Aegean Program of Elliniki Etairia — Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

The Environment Ministry says that lingering recession and high unemployment dictate measures that will attract investment and spur growth — but not in an unregulated fashion. “The simplification and facilitation of tourist investments does not take place uncritically, but comes with checks on illegal construction and on construction outside the town plan,” the ministry said.

Filthy habits

The cost-cutting drive prompted by the financial crisis has also given fodder to enemies of cleaner energy practices.

Environmentalists criticize the Public Power Corporation, in which the Greek state holds a 51 percent stake, for insisting on making most of its electricity from lignite. They say lignite, a form of brown coal, does not come as cheap as its champions would have us believe.

According to Greenpeace, the use of lignite burdens Greece with up to 3.9 billion euros annually in environmental and health costs.

Meanwhile, purchase of CO2 emission rights as of 2013 is estimated to cost the company — and, in effect, consumers — some 400 million euros per year, at current rates.

With around 50 million tons per year, PPC is Greece’s biggest offender in carbon dioxide emissions as the country is trying to meet a renewable energy quota (20 percent of national electricity production) by the end of the decade.

Greece has pledged to boost solar and wind power generation. But recent measures — such as cuts of feed-in tariffs on photovoltaics and a ban on new photovoltaic applications — appear to be pulling the country in the wrong direction as they target renewable energy, solar power in particular.

“Instead of challenging the current energy status mainly depending on lignite, the discussion on the energy market liberalization is mainly restricted to allowing access to lignite for private investors, thus extending the country’s dependence on dirty fuels,” said Dimitris Ibrahim, campaigns coordinator at Greenpeace Greece.

Last month PPC won an EU court bid to overturn a 2008 decision ordering Greece to loosen the company’s stranglehold on lignite. The European Commission failed to show there was an abuse of a dominant position by the power company as a result of its preferential treatment in the market, the EU General Court in Luxembourg ruled.

In a sign of Greece’s myopic insistence on obsolete and failed recipes, Ibrahim said, PPC is desperately looking for investors to fund the construction of a new lignite-fired power plant while shelving plans for two major solar parks in Kozani and Megalopoli, the two lignite centers.

Win-win pattern

Instead of planning new lignite factories, environmentalists say, Greece should move in the direction of energy efficiency and renewables as they offer more jobs, less waste for fuel imports and lower energy bills.

Researchers at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University have estimated that existing photovoltaic systems will help save more than 230 million euros in 2012 and over 400 million in 2013-14.

For civil society groups the PPC case demonstrates the need for a broader paradigm shift built around the notion that the safest way out of the crisis is by switching Greece’s production pattern, and consumer culture, into an environmentally friendly one.

But behind the usual flood of eco-sensitive statements, few Greek politicians seem really convinced that, despite some inevitable trade-offs, the green thing to do can also be the profitable one.

“Panic-stricken policymakers have failed to identify environmental protection and sustainable development as a substantial part of a solution to the crisis,” Ibrahim said.

Key is the realization, NGOs say, that the environmental destruction caused by unrestrained growth can be so severe as to undermine growth itself.

“Safeguarding Greece’s natural and cultural capital — which is also the country’s comparative advantage — is extremely significant,” said Kikou, warning against a grow-first-clean-up-later attitude.

“The loss of this capital, after all, would be irreversible.”

Local innovators try to navigate their way out of Greek mess

By Harry van Versendaal

AthensBook made a name for itself in 2009 as a free mobile phone application that served busy urbanites lost in the asphalt jungle of the Greek capital with easy-to-use, real-time location-based data: open pharmacies in the neighborhood, the cheapest gas stations and nearest on-duty hospitals — all at the tap of a touchscreen.

Three years and 145,000 downloads later, the two friends and business partners behind the project, 30-somethings Dimosthenis Kaponis and Yorgos Panzaris, are hoping to make fresh ripples in the local app ecosystem by unveiling an update that provides users with better, richer and more “social” content.

But the overall aim has not changed.

“Our goal is to provide the information people actually need while on the go,” said Kaponis from the team’s brand-new offices in Halandri, a leafy suburb in northeastern Athens. “This does not mean stuffing hundreds of mostly unused and irrelevant bits of information inside a database and serving those. Our vision lies in evaluating and providing exactly what every single one of our users needs, without them worrying too much about it,” he added.

AthensBook is available on iOS and Android, and it will soon be available in Windows 8 for tablet devices, after being selected as one of the very few companies that partnered with Microsoft in order to provide locally valuable applications for its new operating system.

Using one of those gadgets, you can now find your closest watering hole, order home delivery from the most popular pizza parlors, see what museums and archaeological sites are open, avoid traffic and even watch movie trailers with a few swipes of your finger.

Beyond the valley

AthensBook is one of an estimated 2 million apps worldwide that will be available for download by the end of 2012. A stunning 15,000 apps are released every year, far more than any other type of media — a factor that makes its success all the more remarkable.

Greece, of course, is another.

In spite of repeated pledges by politicians here to improve the notoriously hostile business environment, the country remains riddled with disincentives. Start-ups have to grapple with eye-popping bureaucracy, complex legislation and an erratic tax system. A recent report by McKinsey & Company described the Greek economy as “chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business.”

Kaponis puts it more mildly. “There are significant obstacles to the creation of a powerful, capable, world-class high-tech community,” he said. With the economy in its fifth year of recession, youth unemployment has skyrocketed above 50 percent.

Like many of their tech-savvy peers, the creators of AthensBook have both spent considerable quality time outside Greece. Kaponis got his M.Eng in information systems engineering from Imperial College and started a doctorate on distributed artificial intelligence at the London-based institution. He soon left his doctorate program and returned to Greece to start Cosmical Technology, providing consulting and development services to businesses. Panzaris studied electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and later turned to the humanities, getting a master’s in education from Harvard and a PhD on the history of technology from Stanford.

Add it up

The two friends, who met in the local blogosphere, came up with the idea for AthensBook in 2008. A few months later, the app was launched on an experimental basis. At the time, location-based products and services were no more than coffeehouse fodder. Similarly, location-based advertising, which relies on global positioning satellites and the triangulation of cell base stations by mobile operators to pinpoint location, was still in the offing.

“In 2008 extremely few companies were aware of mobile marketing that did not include your standard run-of-the mill SMS-based campaigns, or primitive — by smartphone standards — WAP sites,” Kaponis explained. Even advertising agencies specializing in digital media, largely Internet and mobile advertising, were just exploring the possibilities at that time, he says.

Convincing admen to take a risk on an unknown entity was an early challenge, but the two developers were fortunate to have created a pioneering service that was affordable enough for large businesses to try.

“The fact that we were bootstrapped made expanding our company harder, which in turn affected the product development rate,” Kaponis said. That probably wouldn’t have been much of an issue, he added, had they started their company in a more developed market with a better understanding of the high-tech sector.

To make matters worse, Greece was soon to be rocked by a severe debt crisis that also hit their sole source of revenue: ads. Total advertising spend has over the past three years shrunk to a small fraction of what it was in the late 2000s.

Nevertheless, “it wasn’t all bad,” Kaponis said, as web and mobile have lured a considerable chunk of ad money away from traditional media such as print, radio and television.

Personal touch

The latest edition of AthensBook features a smooth interface that connects to tens of thousands of venues including a full-featured cinema guide, restaurant guide, lists of nightlife venues, public services, museums and attractions, public transport information, taxi services, and live traffic information for the broader Athens area. To this end, the creators have made partnerships for premium, quality content like, for example, Infotrip for traffic data and ask4food.gr for restaurant reviews.

A Thessaloniki version, ThessBook, is also available.

Apart from upgrading content, the two developers have also tweaked the nature of the app to keep up with the web’s gradual shift to more user-generated, social content. The app now offers more social and lifestyle functionality, including user reviews, tips, and ratings. “The aim is to provide a more personal, smart and useful experience, rather than the more generic, utilitarian function it originally served,” Kaponis said.

Like most young Greek entrepreneurs, the two work with an eye fixed on what is going on outside the country. Despite the growing interest, the local market is uncomfortably small, or simply unwelcoming, for Greek start-ups that have never quite produced a blockbuster hit of Pinterest or Tumblr proportions. A very small number have managed to raise capital beyond seed level. “The human capital in Greece is a mixed bag: There are many people that are talented, ambitious and willing to work hard but who are tainted by a subpar education system and the nonexistence of an industry capable and willing to absorb them,” Kaponis said.

He and Panzaris have held discussions with a number of investors and potential partners, also from abroad, with the aim of creating useful, personal guides for cities around the world. They hope to release their first non-Greek guide in the near future.

They know that success in the digital media can be uncomfortably short-lived. Much bigger companies have risen and fallen in a very short time span. Kaponis and Panzaris say they make sure they keep their feet on the ground, but still try to mix pragmatism with a healthy dose of idealism. “AthensBook is a commercial product, so commercial success is always an important part of the equation,” Kaponis said. Their passion, however, he added, has always been to provide the best possible service and product, braving the very limited resources and difficulties of doing it here. “There is a rush associated with working on a product that is innovative, and, above all, truly useful to thousands or millions of people.”


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