Posts Tagged 'economy'

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.

Re-evaluating the urban legacy of the 1960s

By Harry van Versendaal

Much of the controversy that has arisen over contemporary Athens’s urban landscape stems from the changes wrought on it during the 1960s. Any reference to the architectural legacy of that period usually provokes a knee-jerk condemnation as the time is associated with the brutal transformation of the capital’s appearance.

It’s an unfair judgment, in the eyes of Kathimerini journalist and urban culture aficionado Nikos Vatopoulos. As the curator of “Athens: The Spirit of the 60s – A Changing Capital,” an ongoing exhibition at the Hellenic American Union’s Kennedy Gallery in the downtown Kolonaki district, he tries to challenge mainstream perceptions about the formative period.

“It was a controversial period because it was full of powerful contradictions. It was a time of transition and transformation for Greek society – a process that had many positive aspects, such as a faith in progress, the rise of cosmopolitanism, and economic growth,” Vatopoulos says.

Indeed, the rate of economic growth was heady: On average, gross domestic product was growing at an annual 7.6 percent while industrial output was increasing 10 percent each year. Growth was driven by a surge in foreign direct investment, mainly from the United States and Germany, coupled with a wave of internal migration to urban centers, which spurred construction. The cement and home appliances industries were flourishing. The apartment building, or “polykatoikia,” embodied the values and ambitions of the postwar urbanite generation, who turned their backs on the memories of deprivation in the countryside and the nasty hangover from the civil war.

Original photographs and postcards from the period, many from Vatopoulos’s own archive, document the burgeoning metropolis and the arrival of modern architectural landmarks such as the Athens Hilton. Built between 1958 and 1963 according to plans by architects Emmanouil Vourekas, Prokopios Vassiliadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiades, the emblematic structure reflected the economic and social zeitgeist as Greece became a global player in the tourism and luxury market.

The evolution of lifestyles, fashion and social habits during the 1960s is also documented at the HAU exhibition. Magazine covers, ads, stamps and playbills capture the advent of cosmopolitanism and female consumerism (with classic 60s sexist cliches). Most of that came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the military dictatorship in 1967.

To be sure, Vatopoulos, who was born in Athens in 1960, acknowledges the decade’s negative consequences on the city’s physical and social environment.

“There was no foresight regarding the city’s expansion while dogmatic belief in ‘the new civilization’ left no room for historical sensibilities,” he says.

Many historical structures were knocked down at the time to make way for new buildings in the name of a tradition- and culture-insensitive modernism – also assisted by a wave of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors (whereby the latter would replace low-story homes with apartment blocks whose units would then be divided between the two), a now deeply controversial measure introduced by Costantine Karamanlis as minister of public works.

The HAU exhibition takes place against the backdrop of a brutal financial crisis that has naturally left scars on the Greek capital. Interestingly, the social and aesthetic implications of poverty, homelessness and Greece’s six-year recession have been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city.

Vatopoulos, who currently lives in the southern seaside suburb of Glyfada, has been surprised at the response to the Facebook group “Saturdays in Athens” he formed three years ago as a platform for organizing weekly cultural activities such as guided tours, lectures and seminars. It currently numbers more than 19,000 members.

“The public has a desire to turn to something steady, familiar and safe. This is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia for a city with a recognizable etiquette,” he says.

But this is not the only reason behind the renewed interest, he says. “All this is also a reaction to the city’s degradation, a more energetic reaction that seeks to comprehend the various stages of Athens’s development,” he says.

Vatopoulos, for one, appears to be motivated by both. On top of his online community and extensive writings on the city, he has released a number of publications over the years and staged a well-received photo exhibition with cozy, nighttime shots of some of his favorite Athens buildings. As Instagram user @16thcentury, he uploads the pictures he takes all over the city.

He loves Athens, with all its contradictions.

“I was born and raised in Athens at a time when the city was changing at a rapid rate. Certainly, I was influenced by my family environment, but the emotional, awe-filled response I had witnessing a building’s demolition is a very strong childhood memory,” he says.

“I consider that I grew up observing the transformation of the city on the inside, I changed as the city changed. It’s something very personal to me.”

“Athens: The Spirit of the 60s,” at the HAU (22 Massalias) to Dec 13. Vatopoulos will speak on Athens during the 1960s at 7 p.m. on Nov 21 at the HAU Theater. There will be a guided tour of the exhibition on Dec 5, starting at 7.30 p.m.

WWF Greece unveils five-year plan for ‘living economy’

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By Harry van Versendaal

Environmental campaigners WWF Greece on Wednesday unveiled a series of ambitious policy proposals aimed at providing the debt-hit country’s economy with a green kick-start.

The five-year road map, which was drawn up by a group of more than a dozen WWF experts and independent scientists, contains a wide range of institutional, financial and educational measures for a more workable and sustainable economy.

“The crisis signals the need for change. Greece has to change,” WWF Greece CEO Demetres Karavellas told journalists at the organization’s Athens headquarters during a presentation of WWF’s 90-page blueprint that was published under the title “A Living Economy for Greece.”

“Environmental protection is unfortunately still treated here as an unnecessary luxury, as a stumbling block to growth, or as an expendable product in the efforts to recoup the country’s debt,” Karavellas said.

Stuck in a six-year recession, Greece is eager to attract investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy. NGOs have repeatedly warned of an environmental rollback in the country and accused authorities of using the financial crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations designed to safeguard the natural environment.

Recent legislation tabled by the Environment Ministry relaxes the restrictions on building in public and private forests, even if they are considered protected areas. The draft law was slammed by a number of local NGOs, including WWF, who refused to take part in the public consultation process.

The WWF proposals call for greater transparency, the scrapping of tailor-made regulations and the simplification of Greece’s notoriously nebulous legislation.

“Laws must be clear and well understood by everyone whether they are citizens, businesses or societies at large,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator for WWF Greece, also calling for less bureaucracy and more financial incentives for green companies.

The organization put forward a number of far-reaching interventions in Greece’s primary production – agriculture, livestock farming, forestry and fisheries – as well as directions for sustainable reforms in secondary production, i.e. industrial and manufacturing activity.

Greek industries must substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, promote energy efficiency and adopt resource efficient productive processes (like organic farming, recycling and sustainable waste management), said the report. WWF officials however warned that little will be achieved without a strong inspection system, while also calling for the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle.

“We want Greece to become the testing ground for this policy,” said Nantsou.

Tourism, which is Greece’s biggest industry accounting for about 16 percent of GDP and one in five jobs in 2011, is also addressed in the report. The sector must maximize economic gains with the minimum possible level of damage to the natural habitat and cultural heritage, WWF officials said, warning against unchecked construction.

“We must promote investment in areas where construction has already taken place rather than build new facilities all over the country,” said Nantsou, emphasizing the need for innovative ideas.

The WWF official proposed the revival of deserted villages that could be put to use for tourism while ensuring that their historic character is preserved and with the lowest possible footprint. She offered the example of Gavros, a village of adobe (sun-dried clay) houses in the Western Macedonia region of Kastoria.

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey quoted in the press conference, the natural environment is the key factor in picking a tourism destination. Cultural heritage ranks second.

Training and education also feature high on the agenda of the conservation group, which recently announced a new interactive, grassroots campaign to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. The WWF’s Kalyteri Zoi (Better Life) campaign, which is subsidized by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, will debut on Thursday.

WWF said the report has already been made available to several Greek ministries and government agencies.

“We are not deluding ourselves. We just want to provide a framework and pursue anything that is possible for us to pursue,” Nantsou said.

For more information visit http://www.wwf.gr

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.”

Made in Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

In a white, minimalist bedroom, a man in boxer shorts is getting dressed. His sated partner lies in bed. The door opens, and an older, besuited man walks in. Calmly, the woman introduces her lover, and her husband promptly asks him to lunch. And then the slogan flashes on the screen: “We Greeks aren’t like this — why should our furniture be?”

As Greece tries to deal with a contracting economy and sky-high unemployment, local businesses are trying to gain an advantage over the competition by advertising their Greek credentials. This commercial for Neoset furniture, poking fun at the local company’s bigger Swedish rival, is only one of many new ads popping up on the radio, television and in the press that are pitching the Buy Greek message.

“Despite Neoset being a Greek company that has worked in the sector for over 30 years, it’s the first time it has ever come out so strongly in advertising its products’ provenance,” the company’s retail marketing coordinator, Marita Kazadelli, said in a recent interview.

“As a company, but also as consumers, we want to support Greek companies and Greek products, so in this way we show our support for Greek businesses, Greek exports, Greek workers and all the rest,” she said.

A whole variety of businesses from travel agents to the fashion industry are catching the trend.

One of these is Helmi, a Greek company that makes edgy clothes for women who until now, its officials admit, had let consumers think it was not local.

“For years our customers considered us a foreign company, an assumption which… we never tried to correct. Now, however, we are letting our consumers know that this supposedly foreign brand is actually Greek,” Helmi CEO Dimosthenis Helmis said.

A radio ad by Bic, the France-based company specializing in the manufacturing of stationery products, lighters and razors, claims that 97 percent of the company’s disposable razors are manufactured in Greece. Around 860 million razors were manufactured in Bic’s factory near Athens last year, 90 percent of which were exported to 153 countries, according to the company website.

But nowhere is the Buy Greek penchant more prominent than where Greeks already held a strong position: the dairy and food market.

Melissa pasta last year used its Greek identity as the central slogan for a big campaign celebrating the firm’s 60th anniversary.

People at the company herald the newfound patriotism.

“I think this trend is natural and that it was late coming. Turks always bought Turkish products, the Germans always bought German products, why did Greeks think Greek products were inferior?” public relations manager Tina Kikiza asked.

The company has for years had to combat the general wisdom that Italian pasta is the best. What many people do not know, says Kikiza, is that many Italian rivals depend on wheat imports from Greece for their products.

The company’s turnover has not been dented by the economic crisis, climbing from 45 million euros in 2007 to 70 million in 2010. It is expected to reach a similar level in 2011.

Marketing pitfalls

However, marketing experts are wary of the long-term implications of the Buy Greek drive.

“All products are now brands. Their image is important to their viability. So the question is not whether Greek products are better or worse, but what their being defined as Greek has to add to their brand image,” said Daphne Patrikiou, associate creative director at the BBDO advertising agency.

Strategies vary. Some companies — not always Greek-owned — have adopted a consistent corporate approach, emphasizing their contribution to the local economy. The more opportunistic have pitched their Greek credentials with one-dimensional advertising campaigns or with simply putting “Made in Greece” stickers on their products to encourage impulse buying.

To be sure, not all firms have an interest in advertising their Greekness. Those who have for years invested in strategic planning, like eco-friendly detergent manufacturer Planet or natural skincare company Korres, are rather laconic about their origins, reaping instead the benefits of their longstanding niche strategies.

“Being associated with a Greek identity may benefit a product in the short term, but it could backfire in the long run,” Patrikiou said.

Particularly for companies specializing in hi-tech products and devices, experts warn, a Buy Greek strategy could be damaging. Computer and technology retailer Plaisio has made a profitable business in branding its own PC series, but success is attributed to its value-for-money image, not its being Greek.

Irrational exuberance

Made in Greece has never been associated with innovation, quality or style. And this one of the reasons why the country has for decades spent more than it made as consumers looked outside for good products.

But the situation really spun out of control after the country joined the eurozone in 2001. Thanks to the stable and trusted currency, Greeks were able to borrow cheaply. The balance of trade took a nosedive as Greece imported more goods than it produced.

In 1990, Greece’s balance of trade deficit was 446 thousand euros, by 2002 it had soared to 1.7 billion, while in 2006 it hovered at 2.1 billion. Meanwhile, Greek imports in 1990 were valued at 1.6 billion euros; in 2002 the figure went up to 4.7 billion and by 2006 it had skyrocketed to 5.9 billion.

The overconsumption of foreign goods also had a cultural aspect. After a long stretch of political instability and poverty, the newly empowered Greeks — often powered by provincial attitudes — developed a soft spot for foreign goods. The figures were backed by anecdotal stories of Greeks infamously storming London’s Harrods and Selfridges on weekend shopping sprees.

The situation prompted a reaction by the now defunct association for the promotion of Greek products. A Buy Greek promo made at the time mocked Lakis, a tacky character showing off his flashy designer buys — all foreign imports. At least Greeks created their own word for the trend, “xenomania,” meaning the extreme love for all things foreign — a regular topic of high school essays during the 1980s and 90s.

These days, the Buy Greek message is mostly spread by private firms and business associations, while a number of Facebook pages and citizen groups have also added their voices to the campaign. The Greece520.gr website for one aims to inform consumers that products carrying bar codes starting with 520 are made in the country.

The costly truth

The campaigns seem to be paying off. The National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce recently said sales of local products have gone up 44 percent this year as Greeks turn away from dearer imports.

“It seems crazy to me to buy American rice when I can buy Greek-grown rice,” said Katerina Petraki, a mother of two who works as a food inspector.

In the case of foodstuffs, Petraki says, she usually prefers Greek products — including the supermarkets’ increasingly popular own-name brands. They are just as good, she says, and at the same time you support homegrown products.

“I mean, I know it’s a profit-driven ideology — but why not support it? After all, it will help us become more competitive,” she said.

But not everyone appears convinced. Products made here often cost more and some consumers won’t hesitate to opt for cheaper foreign-made items to help their own finances.

“I haven’t started buying more Greek products because of the crisis. I buy what’s on sale. I look at the price, not the origin,” said Maria Andritsou, a civil engineer who has been unemployed for over a year.

“Until now I used to buy Greek flour. Now I buy foreign-made,” said Andritsou, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.

People like her dislike the idea of having to accept poorer quality or more expensive products in the name of alleged benefits to the national collective. Such misplaced patriotism, she says, would be like a reward to substandard local suppliers.

“Greek manufacturers have overcharged for so long. Why should I support them now?” she said.

The costly truth is that concepts like home economics and consumer education have long been mostly alien to the average Greek. Consumers rarely did any market research, thus discouraging price competition among local retailers. Greek products were as a result more expensive than their foreign counterparts, which made little economic sense given the cost of transport and logistics.

Who gains?

Consumers often complain it’s hard to know if their money goes to the right place. Product identity in the globalized marketplace of complex ownership structures and competing loyalties can become uncomfortably fuzzy.

The fact is it’s not always clear where products are manufactured or who profits. The Misko pasta factory is controlled by the Barilla Group, Marinopoulos has been taken over by Carrefour, even Metaxa, the world-famous brandy maker, is now owned by France’s Remy Cointreau Group.

But commerce is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Although owned by Barilla, Misko still makes the brand’s products using Greek raw materials. For obvious commercial reasons, Barilla has kept the famous Misko brand logo featuring a Greek Orthodox monk riding a donkey. But, more importantly, the Italian giant operates one of Europe’s biggest pasta factories in Viotia.

Foreign companies like Ikea, Bic or the AB Vassilopoulos supermarket chain, which is controlled by Belgium-based retailer Delhaize, are keen to stress their contribution to the local economy, since they employ thousands of Greek staff and pay taxes to the Greek state.

“We don’t see ourselves as a foreign supermarket,” AB’s communication manager Alexia Macheras said, noting that the company is the fifth-biggest employer in Greece with more than 11,000 staff.

She said AB has for years supported local production by promoting homegrown goods while running campaigns to support Greek foods, clothes and tourism.

I want that Pony

Despite upbeat early statistics, experts insist that Greekness alone is not enough to shape people’s long-term purchase preferences and ensure sustainable growth for the companies.

“Consumers can see through advertising practices and remain rather skeptical toward them. They need a stronger sell to adopt a habit. A product’s national identity is not a strong sell on its own,” Patrikiou said.

Business gurus have a tendency to urge us to see crises as opportunities. Reports last month said that former Greek car manufacturer NAMCO is due to begin production of a new version of the poor man’s SUV, the Pony, which hit the country’s streets in the late 1970s and early 80s. If Greece were to exit the eurozone and return to a devalued drachma, beloved products like quality German cars would be out of reach for local consumers, who would have to depend heavily on locally made products. It would be interesting to see then how many people here would give up their dearest BMW or Mercedes for the more humble Pony.

In Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics

Photo by Chris Bertsos

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s past midnight in Syntagma Square, the epicenter of Greece’s month-long anti-austerity demonstrations, and Stathis Marinos is sitting at a corner cafe overlooking the colorful tent city under the trees. Flipping a string of worry beads while sipping a frappe, the 37-year-old software engineer muses about Greece’s financial crisis.

“The memorandum is unsustainable,” he says of the loan deal signed last year between the socialist government of George Papandreou and Greece’s foreign creditors to avert default. He thinks the debt-choked country is being stifled by a mix of brutally rigid measures — and that they must be resisted. “But you cannot use the system to fight the system. You must not get caught up in this process,” he says, criticizing calls among protesters and pundits to declare the bailout agreement unconstitutional.

A few yards away, in the heart of the white marble square, a loudspeaker crackles with rhetorical din from the ongoing session at the makeshift assembly meeting. Modeled after Spain’s “Indignados” who took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other public squares earlier this year, Athens’s “aganaktismenoi” (Indignants) have camped in the capital’s main square since May 25. A month after the first call on Facebook and other social media, Syntagma, or Constitution square, the starting point to the capital’s main commercial street, is playing host to a postmodern incarnation of the ancient Athenian agora.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather here to discuss anything and everything about the crisis. Speakers, who are chosen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to allow for the greatest possible number of contributions. There is little of the typical booing and hissing, and audiences react mostly with hand gestures: waving their hands in the air for approval or giving a thumbs down when they disagree. Interpretations of what is happening in the square range from the groundbreaking to the delusional or just plain silly.

“This is not a movement — and it will by no means evolve into a political party. It’s more like a trend,” says Marinos, who has joined in every evening after work since day one. He has often taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never belonged to a political party. “It’s great that people familiarize themselves with the political process; they learn how to engage in dialogue with each other; how to participate in civic life,” he says of the meetings.

In the beginning, the Indignants were mostly portrayed as a non-political grouping. It was in the wake of a mass demonstration earlier this month that Greece’s mainstream parties, PASOK and the right-of-center New Democracy, came close to clinching a unity coalition deal. Talks eventually fell through and Papandreou went on to conduct a cabinet reshuffle designed to galvanize his base. He also proposed a referendum in the fall on a proposal to revise the Greek Constitution. The fact that the Indignants have put pressure on the government and the politicians, some argue, means that they have now become political.

Political animals

In fact, some analysts maintain, the movement has been political from the start. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, recently penned one of the most flattering profiles of the Indignants in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, after being invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.

He is not alone. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, has kept a close eye on the demographics of the square. All findings so far, she says, indicate that we are dealing with a “politically active” audience. “These people are deeply disaffected and disillusioned with politicians, with the political parties and with the institutions at large,” she explains. Their reaction was not a bolt out of the historical blue. Most research shows that people’s disaffection with Greece’s social and political institutions dates back to the early 1990s. A public survey published last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dissatisfied with how democracy works.” The local media, which have suffered their own barrage of criticism (some of it fair) as sycophants of the status quo, like to describe the movement in emotional rather than ideological terms. “But frustration is not merely an emotional reaction. Frustration is the preamble of political protest,” says Georgiadou.

“Any kind of politics of resistance starts from a refusal. Refusal is the first step in any process of eventual political confrontation,” Douzinas says. The phenomenon seems to have a dream-come-true quality for some, and Douzinas is certainly happy to connect the dots. “Without people being in a space, taking it over and declaring their refusal of whatever it is that they want to reject, no radical change has ever taken place in history,” he says.

Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the memorandum is not at the root of the problem, but only a symptom. Culminating to the memorandum, they say, the trail has been one of dysfunction, waste and corruption. Writing in The Guardian last week, author Apostolos Doxiadis attacked the “charlatans” who blame the evil foreigners for our own ills and failures. Some soul-searching would instead be more appropriate, he reckons. “I know that the heart of our problem is a huge, parasitic and inefficient public sector, which EU funds, unwisely and often corruptly distributed by our politicians over the past two decades, made even bigger and less productive,” he writes.

When it comes to self-criticism and proposals to overcome the crisis, detractors say, the Syntagma folk are uncomfortably laconic. “Far form being the frontline of any kind of solid movement, the Syntagma camp-in is a confused, depoliticized, borderline-petulant response to the economic crisis,” writes Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked website, in The Australian. He is annoyed at the absence of any serious debate about the hard stuff. Save their vociferous opposition to austerity measures, “absolutely nothing of substance is proposed,” he writes.

What virtually everyone agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bankruptcy, the country received a 110-billion-euro rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014, when it hopes for a return to capital markets for funding. International creditors have set the introduction of a painful raft of belt-tightening measures — including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatizations — as a condition for releasing more aid. A critical vote is to be held in Parliament on June 29 and 30. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 16 percent and crime, in what used to be one of the safest states in Europe, is on the rise. Anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital, is spreading as once-marginal xenophobic groups are establishing a mainstream presence.

Square feat

Nicos Mouzelis, an emeritus sociology professor at the London School of Economics, goes as far as to draw parallels between the Indignants and the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa — and, in a more far-fetched comparison, the events of May 1968. Mouzelis, a former adviser to reformist Prime Minister Costas Simitis, praises the movement’s “great dynamism, spontaneity and the rapid, widespread diffusion across all social strata.” The protests have truly brought together a very diverse crowd — but one that is not always pulling in exactly the same direction.

Browsing through the crowd massed in the square, you encounter a motley crew of leftists railing against global capitalism and neoliberalism. Posters of Che Guevara hang next to used tear gas canisters (with “Made in USA” labels) launched by police during the recent riots. The spicy fumes wafting from the assorted stands of hot-dog vendors occasionally mixes with the pungent odor of marijuana. At the assembly, people discuss the negative effects of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy on Greek farmers before talking through some organizational issues. With time, the discourse at the meetings has become more progressive and assertive. A recent resolution called for activist-style interventions like the occupation of television stations and public buildings. For Marinos, some degree of radicalization is a “natural evolution.” “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.

The Indignants’ decision to cordon off the Parliament building on June 15 to prevent lawmakers from reviewing the controversial midterm fiscal plan was widely regarded as the first break with the movement’s non-violent stance. The rally, which was also attended by thousands of union members, degenerated into violence as riot police battled with self-styled anarchists for hours. Then came the usual finger-pointing squabble over who deserves the blame for the violence. A decision to give the movement a more activist orientation, some analysts say, would most likely alienate the big mass of supporters. “Some people would like to see a fallback to traditional practices. But I am not sure that many people will want to follow,” Georgiadou says.

Interestingly, however, developments in and around Syntagma Square have thrown left-wing parties — like the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) — into disarray. Early skepticism — the more sclerotic KKE went as far as to condemn the movement for not being class-driven — gradually gave way to, some say, cynical attempts to hijack the movement. They are unlikely to succeed, as most protesters view them as part of the problem. “If KKE changes, it will destroy itself,” Marinos says.

Dogs of war

Just up the steps from the assembly, in front of the illuminated Parliament building, a different group is chanting slogans and hurling insults against the “thieving politicians who destroyed Greece,” calling them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the country.” Demonstrators make the disparaging open-palm “moutza” gesture against the House and point green laser beams — sold here by immigrant street vendors — at television crews conveniently positioned on the balconies of the Grande Bretagne luxury hotel. Mock gallows and banners taunting Papandreou as being “Goldman Sachs’s employee of the year” decorate this part of the square. Most of the acid is flung at Theodoros Pangalos, the corpulent deputy prime minister and father of the infamous “we-all-ate-the-money-together” comment. Here, in this more colorful part of the new agora, is where you are most likely to bump into Loukanikos, the famous riot dog, and manic street preacher and cult TV personality Eleni Louka yelling “repent” into a megaphone as bystanders take snapshots with their cell phones.

The rowdy behavior and nationalist overtones of the people stationed in front of the House have caused occasional spats with their left-leaning counterparts down the steps. “I don’t understand what is going on down there,” Giorgos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cigarette. “I don’t have a solution to the crisis. All I know is that I am angry with all this,” he says. The blanket rejectionism and often xenophobic posturing of those upstairs conveys a sense of uncertainty, of lost bearings perhaps, in a world swept up by rapid social change.

Elias Maglinis, a writer and journalist in his early 40s who lives in the nearby Mets area, is put off by some of the crass behavior. “The gallows, the comparisons to the 1967 military coup and the slogans that the dictatorship did not end in 1973 make me angry. These people have no memory or do not know what a dictatorship or firing squad means,” he says.

At 1 a.m., the protest has petered out. About 50 people remain scattered on the sidewalk of Amalias Avenue in front of the House. Some lean over the newly installed railings to taunt the baton-wielding policemen. Two middle-aged men, beer cans in hand, chat with a police chief. A towering figure with a white mustache, the soft-spoken chief expresses his sympathy for the demonstrators. “We also are suffering,” he says pointing at his men. “My salary was slashed; I am the father of three. We are here to protect the House, not them [the deputies],” he says. Police officers, currently paid between 800 and 1,500 euros, are in for wage cuts like all civil servants. As he speaks, fireworks explode overhead as the Panathenaic stadium, the venue that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, prepares to host the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

What next?

Most analysts predict that the Indignant movement will fizzle out. “Because these movements reject any linkages to political parties, trade unions and other well-established organizations, they do not last long,” says Mouzelis. But the long-term impact on Greece’s political culture must not be discounted. “Politicians will not be able to operate ‘as usual’ anymore,” he says. And even if the hype about direct democracy in action is exaggerated, recent developments have made people realize that they can be active citizens without belonging to any particular party or trade union. “A democracy should welcome the existence of active citizens; it’s not something to be afraid of. After all, it’s better if people get together in public squares than becoming numbed couch potatoes,” Georgiadou says.

Back in the square, the assembly is voting on the resolutions proposed over the course of the day. Attendants vote in favor of organizing concerts on a daily basis, but reject a proposal to invite the country’s premier for talks. Decisions will soon be posted on the real-democracy website. Most of them dictate actions to be taken during the two-day general strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ambling over to the crowd, Marinos says that what happens during the strike may well determine the future of the movement. He ponders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three employees died when the premises were firebombed during an anti-austerity rally. “Should there be human losses like then, the whole thing will die.”

Divided we stand

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

By Harry van Versendaal

Will Bosnia make it? Few people place much hope in this small Balkan country these days. A national vote held earlier this month has intensified pessimism about its future as it appeared to cement the political deadlock that has sabotaged Bosnia’s integration with Europe.

Fifteen years after the ethnic war that cost the lives of more than 100,000 people, the election outcome mirrored the persistent ethnic divisions inside the former Yugoslav state of 4 million people.

But there was little in the way of surprise. “The results were not unexpected given the preceding election campaign,” Stefan Wolff, an international security expert at the University of Birmingham, told Athens Plus. “Ethnic divisions will not necessarily deepen further; rather, the results reflect the existing deep divisions and these will now harden as all sides see their perceptions of the respective others confirmed,” he said.

The complexity of the election system is frustrating, even by the exacting standards of the Balkans. Voters picked the three members of their collective presidency – one from each ethnic group – along with deputies in the central, regional and cantonal parliaments. Additionally, Bosnian Serbs picked a new president and two vice-presidents as well as delegates to their own parliament.

A US-brokered deal in 1995, known as the Dayton Peace Accord, stopped the bloodshed while splitting Bosnia into two regions – a federation of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats and a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS). The two entities are relatively autonomous but they do share a joint presidency, parliament and some state institutions all based in Sarajevo. Constitutional changes, designed to undo Bosnia’s bureaucratic behemoth and unblock the country’s European path by ending international guardianship, were put on ice earlier this year amid political wrangling.

Fade to black

In a sign of hope, Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of Bosnia’s wartime Muslim leader and an advocate of ethnic reconciliation, ousted Haris Silajdzic, a hardliner, in the race for the Muslim presidency. However, Milorad Dodik — Silajdzic’s political nemesis — strengthened his grasp on power in RS after the strong showing of his party and his own convincing election as president. Dodik, who will now chose one of his close aides to replace him as premier, is the international community’s bette noir in Bosnia, as he has repeatedly called for the Serbian Republic to secede.

“Dodik – as the undisputed center of power – will ensure that the presidency of RS, which played a largely symbolic role during [Dodik predecessor] Rajko Kuzmanovic’s tenure, becomes even more prominent and assertive,” Ian Bancroft, executive director of TransConflict and a UN global expert, told Athens Plus.

Dodik makes no secret of his ambitions. “Bosnia is a mistake created during the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia,” he recently told a Serbian daily. “Bosnia cannot be, never could be, and never will be a state. That’s the only reality.” Dodik, who refuses to recognize Bosnian Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, predicted independence will come in the next four years. “It can be argued that the entire campaign has in a way been a referendum on RS separation,” Sara Nikolic, an expert based in Sarajevo, told Athens Plus.

In addition, many Bosnian Croats – who want the creation of their own Croat entity within Bosnia – feel disenfranchised by the re-election of Zeljko Komsic as Croat member of the tripartite presidency, apparently accomplished on the back of Muslim support due to his support for a united, multiethnic Bosnia.

There is no fast track for Bosnia, where the formation of governments usually takes four to five months. “Though optimistic estimates suggest a governing coalition could be formed by February, the persistence of such disputes and tensions will only serve to further deepen ethnic rifts as the horse-trading and political bargaining gets under way in earnest,” Bancroft said.

Analysts claim that lingering economic misery is making voters prone to nationalist tantrums. About half the population is unemployed, while growth is expected to hover this year at 0.8 percent. Despite the slew of modern shopping malls and restored mosques around Sarajevo, lack of economic development means that many of the psychological and physical reminders of the 1992-1995 conflict remain.

Still, many observers say the economy is really not the most important factor. “The deterioration of ethnic relations, which have never been very good at any rate over the past almost two decades, also has to do with the fact that nationalism remains a powerful mobilizer of people in all three of the main communities and thus is too tempting for politicians not to exploit in their quest for power,” said Wolff.

Dodik has clearly sought to benefit from the Bosniaks’ failures – a bloated bureaucracy, ineffective decision-making and poorly controlled public spending – that have left the federation on the verge of bankruptcy. “Many in RS question why they should seek closer ties with what they perceive to be a failed part of the state,” Bancroft said.

Off the radar

Western powers helped stabilize Bosnia after the war but analysts warn the region is dropping off their radar, particularly as the Obama administration is devoting most of its energies in limiting damage in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment, Bosnia’s security is the responsibility of some 2,000 European peacekeepers but some EU governments are calling for at least partial withdrawal. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, former international high representative for Bosnia, recently remarked that the EU and US “are not connecting on Bosnia.”

“Bosnia is in no way ready for complete Western withdrawal,” Nikolic said. Although the actual physical Western presence in Bosnia is very small, the country, which has received 15 billion dollars in foreign aid since the end of the war, is still highly dependent on economic assistance.

Wolff believes the West will not chose to ignore the troubles in its backyard. “I do not think that the West, and in particular the EU, will abandon Bosnia. It is too important for stability in Europe and as a symbol for EU crisis management,” he said.

Balkan domino

Yet again, some wonder whether there is really any point in trying to keep together a state that does not wish to continue as one. Bosnia, after all, is a country where the allegiances of a majority of its population lie elsewhere. “No amount of nation-building will help foster an overarching Bosnian identity, at least not for several generations,” Bancroft said.

But while Bosnia may lack a shared identity and a civic conception of the state, he added, it does have a largely shared orientation: EU membership. “In order to progress down that road, however, Bosnia will have to cease being a protectorate, meaning that the office of the high representative (OHR) will have to close,” Bancroft said, adding that much of the country’s woes lie with the failure to foster local ownership of the reform process. Bosnian politicians, in other words, see little reason to take on the hard stuff when they can simply blame painful and politically costly measures on outsiders.

If the past is any guide, failure to keep the fragile country together may well create even bigger problems for the region and beyond. “Another contested secession in the Balkans, after Kosovo, would be very damaging and destabilizing, as it would intensify debates on redrawing boundaries elsewhere in the region as well,” Wolff said.


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