Posts Tagged 'europe'



Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

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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.

Taking on the pigheaded

By Harry van Versendaal

Speak to Sonja Giese and you’ll immediately understand that the dominant belief that has us think Greeks are an object of stereotyping by everyone in Germany is no more than a stereotype itself.

“Since the outbreak of the crisis, Greek people have been portrayed by the German yellow press and many mainstream media as liars, cheaters, lazy bums and parasites,” she says of the bad publicity the debt-wracked nation has received since striking a bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

“They have been told to sell their islands, to open ‘gyros’ bank accounts, to leave the eurozone and to go to hell,” she says.

Working at the Press and Communications Unit of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, the 32-year-old German knows a thing or two about media stereotyping and perceived prejudice.

“Stereotyping is a common tool used by the media, in advertising and in politics,” she says.

It’s hard to disagree. The European tabloids have been awash with stories about lazy, feckless, work-shy Greeks often recycling exaggerated or simply false data about the country. Experts and politicians at home and abroad have not exactly helped to debunk the recurring myths about Greece.

Visiting Athens earlier this month, European Central Bank executive board member Joerg Asmussen said it was difficult to convince people in states such as Estonia and Slovakia, where the average wage is 1,000 euros, to lend to a country where the average wage in the state sector is about 3,000 euros. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past suggested Greeks don’t work hard enough and take too much vacation time off. If such hyperbole comes from the lips of high-ranking politicians and bankers, there’s not much one can expect from a sensationalist tabloid in Germany or Britain.

Frustrated with the abuse of Greece and the continent’s other so-called profligate eurozone nations, Giese decided to actually do something to fix some of the damage. Together with Mareike Lambertz, a 24-year-old freelance journalist from Belgium, she is launching a photojournalism project titled “We Are the Pigs: A Road Trip to the Epicenter of the Crisis” — a reference to the unflattering acronym used to describe the troubled economies of the European periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

Between them, the pair have plenty of experience in journalism and the audiovisual field — as well as a soft spot for good old black-and-white photography. And they plan to put it to good use. Setting off from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in early August, Giese and Lambertz plan to tour the so-called PIIGS countries seeking to collect and record personal stories of ordinary people who have been hit by the economic meltdown — but also of people who have not been affected at all. The idea, Giese says, is to show people’s faces, to visit their favorite hangouts and former working spaces, to meet with their friends and families, to document how they deal with everyday life in times of social and economic crisis. “But there is no ready-made script or agenda. We want to be as open-minded as possible,” Giese says.

“We want to show an alternative view of the Greek people. Using photographs and words, we want to show a small part of a reality that is beyond GDP figures, stock markets and rating agencies,” she explains, warning that to target any individual nation is to undermine the European home at large.

“There is no such thing as ‘The Greeks’ or ‘The Germans.’ Stereotyping Greek people as being lazy and untruthful leads to national prejudices among the people of Europe,” she says.

Instead of relying on commissions, Giese and Lambertz are using Startnext, a German crowdfunding platform, to raise money for their project. The duo have already agreed that various newspapers and magazines will run some of their stories and portraits. The work is scheduled to go on display in Brussels, Berlin and Eupen but the list of shows could grow by the time they wrap up the project.

“We want to show our work to a public that is curious and critical about what is going on in Europe. Our goal is to share information and try to change the way it flows.”

http://www.facebook.com/WePigs

Big dreamer in a small country

By Harry van Versendaal

Kader Abdolah had never heard, nor read, let alone spoken, Dutch until he was 33. Twenty-four years later, he has published 17 books in this “beautiful language,” as he likes to say.

Born Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani in Arik, Iran, from early on he was driven by that rare — and at the same time tormenting — sense of destiny.

“I had a dream. I wanted to be a big, well-known Persian writer. Like my great-great grandfather. And I wanted to be a president, a beloved president,” he says.

From the ranks of a left-wing underground group, Abdolah, a physics graduate from the University of Tehran, opposed both the Shah and later Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime. He began writing under the pseudonym Kader Abdolah, a combination of the names of two murdered Kurdish friends.

A tall bespectacled man with a shock of black hair and a thick white mustache, Abdolah cuts a rather eccentric figure. He speaks in clipped, emphatic sentences with a heavy Persian accent, describing how in 1985 he was forced to leave Iran and escape into Turkey.

“I did not want to leave my homeland. I did not want to leave my language. It just happened,” he says.

Unable to afford an illegal passage into the United States, three years later he ended up in Holland as a political refugee. When he first got to the Netherlands it was, of course, raining. “What could a young Persian man do in Amsterdam? I did what every tourist does: I went to the Red Light District,” he says. He would soon come across a Persian carpet shop. After greeting a fellow Iranian behind the counter in his native tongue, he went on to disclose his ambition to become a big Persian writer.

He still recalls the shop owner’s somewhat sarcastic response: “Your dream is very big, the Netherlands is very small.”

Abdolah moved to a small village not far from the German border and tried to do some writing in Persian. “But, suddenly, I was nobody. I was a refuge. I was not able to explain myself.”

He decided to leave Europe. He paid money for a fake passport in a bid to sneak into America. But he was arrested at Schiphol Airport. A few months later, he made a fresh attempt, with a new passport. Again he failed. On his third attempt, he finally managed to board a plane to New York. “When I got there, the man behind the security desk looked into my eyes and then at my passport. He looked into my eyes again and then back at my passport. I was once again arrested, and sent back to the Netherlands.”

“It was then that I remembered an old Persian saying: ‘If you fail at something for the third time, use a different language.’ And that is what I did,” he says.

Abdolah’s early attempts to write in Dutch were a failure. His writings were full of mistakes. But he did not give up. With the help of a Dutch language teacher, he gradually improved until he mastered the new tool — often incorporating his own literary pecularities.

His first pieces appeared in local newspapers and then he made his author debut with the 1993 collection of short stories “De adelaars” (Eagles). In 2006, he published “Het huis van de moskee” (The House of the Mosque), the story of a family living in a provincial Iranian city over the course of three decades. The book started flying off the shelves, selling more than 300,000 copies in Holland. It has since been voted the second-greatest Dutch novel of all time and been translated into 27 languages.

Abdolah may not have become president — at least not yet — but he has certainly become a big writer in his newfound country. And in a sign of his receptiveness to Dutch habits, he went on to produce a more Euro-friendly translation of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, which earned him contempt from more traditional Muslims.

“You need to reach deep into the soul of a society and culture before you can appeal to its audience,” he says. “Writing in Dutch is good for me, and it is good for the Dutch,” he adds, explaining how his work has enabled him to show the natives their own beauty, as well as how to better appreciate it. That beauty, thanks to immigrants like himself, is of an ever-changing, more colorful kind.

As Dutch society changes, the language is changing too. “The Dutch language has always been beautiful. But I made it even more beautiful than it was.”

______________________________

The text is based on a discussion at the European Parliament Office in Athens, organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the Dutch Embassy in Athens. Kader Abdolah’s book “De boodschapper” (The Messenger) has just been made available in Greek from Kastaniotis publishers.

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.

Economic, political crisis catapults far right LAOS into the mainstream

By Harry van Versendaal

Embarrassing foot-dragging by the mainstream parties and growing political turmoil, even for Greece’s anarchic standards, has enabled a small far-right party to claw its way up the greasy pole of domestic politics by successfully asserting itself as champion of a crisis coalition government and accelerator of political developments.

In a bid to ease a crisis that brought Greece closer to a default and a eurozone exit, leaders of the PASOK socialists, New Democracy conservatives, and ultranationalist LAOS party last week agreed on an interim administration under technocrat economist Lucas Papademos. Since its establishment in 2000, LAOS has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, nationalist platform.

“A leadership vacuum presented an opportunity for LAOS, which used it to its own advantage by seeking, and imposing, its own participation in the government,” Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Greece’s debt crisis proved too big for PASOK to tame, causing the dramatic fall of its leader George Papandreou from the country’s top seat. The endgame came after Papandreou’s explosive decision to put a 130-million-euro rescue package agreed with euro area leaders in October to a referendum. The announcement rattled financial markets and sent shock waves through Greece’s European peers. It also proved a catalyst for political developments at home, as Papandreou eventually agreed to step down and make way for a cross-party government.

The power-sharing deal was struck after 10 days of Byzantine negotiations and cringe-worthy political theater. After a boycott from Greece’s left wing parties who rejected the talks as “anti-constitutional,” the provisional government brought together deputies from PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS. (LAOS, which means “the people” in Greek, is short for Popular Orthodox Rally).

“With the two biggest parties unable to govern, and the rest unwilling to govern, LAOS appeared to be the only party that wanted to accelerate developments,” Georgiadou said.

LAOS chief Giorgos Karatzaferis repeatedly called on Papandreou and conservative leader Antonis Samaras to join hands for “the good of the country.” A previous bid between the two politicians to strike a unity government in June fell through.

Greece’s communists, better known after their acronym KKE, have branded the transitional government the “black alliance,” attacking LAOS officials as the “ideological heirs of dictator [Ioannis] Metaxas” — a reference to the country’s leader between 1936 and 1941. SYRIZA, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, has levelled similar accusations.

But a lot of the vitriol, critics agree, is hypocritical. By choosing to stay in the political safe zone, parties on the left effectively gave LAOS more space for maneuver in the bargaining, and more influence in the new government.

“Those who see threats in LAOS’s participation in the government should not overreact now. Not because their fears are unfounded, but because they did nothing to prevent this from happening in the first place,” Georgiadou said.

Cynical conservatives

LAOS, which garnered less than 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 general elections, is over-represented in the 48-member Cabinet with one minister, one alternate and two deputy ministers.

The reason for this interestingly lies with New Democracy — which itself is underrepresented in the new Cabinet. Samaras — who has given critics many reasons to question his commitment to the interim administration — is said to have wanted a heavy LAOS participation in the transition government in order to prevent the party from trawling for New Democracy supporters while in opposition.

Reservations about LAOS’s role have also been voiced inside PASOK, while a Muslim PASOK deputy this week voted down the new government in a vote of confidence.

Critics outside Greece were not too impressed either. France’s Socialist Party expressed “shock” at the news while the Central Committee of German Jews was also adamant, saying that “a professed anti-Semite [such as Karatzaferis] cannot serve in a government with which the German government will need to negotiate billions in aid.”

Greece depends on loans from a 110-billion-euro rescue package agreed in 2010, when mammoth borrowing costs blocked Greece from international markets. That bailout later proved inadequate, forcing the a new loan agreement in late October that will also see a writedown on Greece’s privately held debt by 50 percent.

Past imperfect

To be sure, misgivings about LAOS are justified. Its officials have often made extremist and intolerant comments in the past.

“We are the only real Greeks. We are not from these Jews, homosexuals or communists,” Karatzaferis said in 2000. Two years later in a debate with Israel’s ambassador to Greece, he seemed to dismiss the Holocaust as a myth. “Let’s talk about all these tales of Auschwitz and Dachau,” he had said.

The past of LAOS’s Makis Voridis, the new minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, is also a political minefield. In the early 1980s he led the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group that was founded by ex-dictator Georgios Papadopoulos from inside Korydallos Prison. Five years later, Voridis was kicked out of the law school student union for engaging in extremist acts. In an infamous picture taken at the time, he is seen wielding a hand-made ax (he later said it was for self-defense).

In the mid-1990s, Voridis established the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), a nationalist party with close ties to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. In 2005, Hellenic Front merged with LAOS and Voridis was elected to Parliament two years later.

Voridis, who showed up at the swearing-in ceremony carrying his child in his arms, has toned down his language over the years. Seeking to resonate with a largely middle-class electorate worried about rising crime and economic insecurity, he has sought to wed his trademark law-and-order rhetoric with talk about public sector reform.

His party leader, the media-savvy Karatzaferis, has done his fair share of airbrushing himself. In an interview with Reuters this week he denied he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, describing him as the “greatest criminal” of the 20th century. He also said he regretted previous remarks that Jews were warned to leave the World Trade Center before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

And then there is Adonis Georgiadis. A sort of televangelist who is mocked for hawking his wares (nationalist history books in pseudoscientific disguise), the new development deputy minister began his tenure with changing office signs for ones using the accent system dropped in the early 1980s. But despite his colorful antics, his career has very often verged deep into bigoted territory, such as defending Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Political filter

The rise of the right is not exclusive to Greece, of course. A mix of xenophobia, Europskepticism and unemployment has sent far-right politicians making it into parliament in many European countries including Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Some analysts argue that letting populist parties join a government — provided they have enough votes — is the best way to moderate their message and influence.

“If a party is regarded as populist, it’s also safer to have them inside the government sharing responsibility for the difficult decisions rather than having them outside stirring up reactions on the street,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Georgiadou is not so sure.

“Extreme parties that take over government posts are obliged to adopt less extreme positions, to abandon the politics of protest and to become more institutional and systemic actors,” she said.

“But that does not mean that their voters will be willing to follow,” she added, explaining that voters who disagree with how their party evolves will turn to new groups and organizations to vent their extremist sentiment.

One does not need to look too far. When LAOS decided to back Nikitas Kaklamanis, the New Democracy candidate, in the race for Athens mayor a year ago, the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi group succeeded in swaying far-right voters to elect its own representative in City Hall.

Although LAOS’s participation in the provisional government does not necessarily mean it will inflict permanent damage to the political system, Georgiadou argues that its participation in the government nevertheless sets “a bad precedent.”

Others remain more sanguine.

“Given the depth of the crisis, a wider political base for the government is essential,” Featherstone said, adding that this needs to be as broadly based as possible to be effective.

“Including LAOS achieves this aim, but the exclusion of Dora Bakoyannis, a centrist, was a missed opportunity,” Featherstone said of the Democratic Alliance party that claimed to have been left out after a Samaras veto.

By any measure, the cross-party government marks the end of politics as it was known in this corner of Europe. Like every government, this one too will be judged by its results. But the LAOS contingent — whose part in the coalition risks alienating the core of their grassroots supporters — would seem to have more reasons to make this work than their coalition partners.

Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.


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