Posts Tagged 'greek'

Victimhood culture spawns Greek anti-Semitism, study finds

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By Harry van Versendaal

A large number of Greeks have limited awareness of the Holocaust or even hold anti-Semitic views, according to a new survey which traces the roots of attitudes to a strong sense of victimization among the public.

The same study found that prejudice or hatred against the Jews cuts across the country’s left-right political spectrum, which is similarly attributed to the fact that victimhood, the idea that Greeks have suffered without full responsibility for their misfortune, is a universal trait of the country’s political culture.

The survey, which was presented Thursday at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Athens under the title “Perceptions about the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism in Greece,” was carried out by researchers at the University of Macedonia, Oxford University and the International Hellenic University with the support of the embassies of the United Kingdom, Canada and Romania.

Asked what the word “Holocaust” brought to mind and presented with a choice of Auschwitz, Distomo, Zalongo/Arkadi and “None of the above,” less than half of respondents opted for Auschwitz. An almost equal percentage chose either the 1944 Nazi massacre at Distomo or the mass suicide of Souli women at Zalongo in 1803 and the 1866 Ottoman raid at Arkadi. All alternatives to Auschwitz are related to Greek history. Almost 15 percent of respondents found no association between the Holocaust and any of the available options.

Less than 33 percent of respondents selected the correct answer when asked about the number of Jews estimated to have perished during World War II – 6 million. The Greeks ranked lower than their European peers, with the exception of Germany. Almost 50 percent of French and 55 percent of Swiss came up with the correct answer in similar surveys.

“Interestingly, underestimations are a lot more frequent than overestimations among those who pick an incorrect figure,” the study said.

Whereas more than 90 percent of respondents said that subjects such as the 1922 Asia Minor disaster, the 1946-49 Greek Civil War, and the Pontic genocide should be taught at school, less than 60 percent said that Holocaust teaching should be included in the curriculum.

“The Holocaust… is perceived as something that does not belong to Greek history and thus its teaching becomes less pivotal in public education,” experts said.

The research was carried out between January 10 and 14, when 1,043 Greek adults were surveyed on their perceptions of the Holocaust. Its publication comes on the back of an earlier report conducted by the same team of researchers last summer that indicated high levels of anti-Semitism among the Greek public.

Competitive victimhood

Experts sought to play down partisan and ideological affiliations as a significant factor in influencing attitudes and perceptions about the Holocaust.

“Ideology is not a safe guide to explain the phenomenon,” Elias Dinas, a political expert at Oxford, which contributed to the survey, told a press conference, singling out supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party and the nationalist, populist Independent Greeks, now junior coalition partners.

Findings instead indicated competitive victimhood as a catalyst in fueling anti-Semitic attitudes.

“Victimization engenders an ethnocentric view of global history, thus generating biased perceptions about the magnitude of suffering incurred by other groups,” the report said, suggesting that Greeks felt less willing to acknowledge themselves as victim to other communities.

It mentioned that high levels of victimization tend to generate indirect competition with established ethnolinguistic or religious groups that have been widely recognized as victims.

“It is outrageous. It shows a lack of moderation. It’s like saying, ‘I can’t be part of another person’s drama, because I have my own drama,’” Dinas said.

Asked how it was possible that Greeks were in a position to see themselves as a unique community and, at the same time, victims of outside interference, Dinas said that national self-understanding is not necessarily a rational one.

“‘We are unique,’ the argument goes, ‘and this is why we are in everyone’s cross hairs,’” he said.

More than 60,000 Greek Jews died in Nazi death camps or were killed during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The Jewish community in Greece currently numbers about 5,500 people.

In comments made to the newspaper, Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at the International Hellenic University, said that misguided perceptions about the Holocaust were not just a result of poor schooling in Greece.

“What really concerns us is the fact that whereas education is used for the socialization of other painful chapters of Greek history, the Holocaust is not really treated as an issue of national concern,” he said.

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“Perception of the Holocaust and of Anti-Semitism in Greece.” Research conducted by Nikos Marantzidis (University of Macedonia), Elias Dinas (Oxford University), Spyros Kosmidis (Oxford University), Leon Saltiel (University of Macedonia), and Giorgos Antoniou (International Hellenic University), with the support of the embassies of the United Kingdom, Canada and Romania.

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Greek selections at the 17th Thessaloniki doc fest

By Harry van Versendaal

Fifteen years since his landmark film “Agelastos Petra” (The Mourning Rock), an emotional 10-year exploration of the impact of industrial activity on the people, environment and antiquities in the working-class coastal town of Elefsina, west of Athens, Greek auteur Filippos Koutsaftis returns with another lyrical film, this time turning his lens on the the myth-filled, bucolic province of Arcadia.

“Hail Arcadia” will be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) as part of the Greek program, which this year features 63 feature and short films. Seventeen of these productions have been included in the different sections of the International Program while 46 are part of the Greek Panorama.

Other movies by Greek directors include “Escape from Amorgos” by festival regular – and now SYRIZA MEP – Stelios Kouloglou, which tells the story of a plot to rescue left-wing politician Giorgos Mylonas from his political exile on the Aegean island of Amorgos at the time of Greece’s military dictatorship in the late 1960s. The documentary is based on Elias Kulukundis’s book “The Amorgos conspiracy.”

Kimon Tsakiris, whose darkly humorous “Sugartown” was a smash hit in 2006, arrives in Thessaloniki this year with “The Archaeologist,” telling the story of a determined female scientist who tries to salvage as much as possible from an archaeological dig that is destined to go under the water due to the construction of a new dam project by the Public Power Corporation (PPC) in western Macedonia.

Not all the Greek-produced films take place within the country’s borders. “The New Plastic Road,” by director Angelos Tsaousis and photographer Myrto Papadopoulos, documents physical and social transformation in a remote area in Tajikistan brought about by the construction of a new road connecting this poorest republic of the former Soviet Union with China.

Outside of the films in competition, TDF organizers have so far announced a tribute to Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper and Romanian director Alexandru Solomon, as well as a special section on contemporary German productions. A press conference will be held on Tuesday.

Info: tdf.filmfestival.gr

The pioneering electric car that hit the skids

By Harry van Versendaal

Built for the urban motorist, this quirky vehicle is quiet, easy to drive and can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

It is the Enfield 8000, and it first rolled off the production line in 1973.

The name will ring very few bells these days, but not only did such a car hit the road some four decades before the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf, it actually did so with the help of Greek brains, hands and money.

Now a new documentary unravels the story behind the birth and premature death of an electric pioneer. “A Tale of Two Isles,” an informative, well-crafted and at times emotional film directed by Michalis Stavropoulos, a Greek automotive journalist, is showing at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF).

The story goes back to 1966 when the UK’s Electricity Council launched a tender for a prototype electric car, a move that was, in part at least, prompted by growing energy concerns when the OPEC oil embargo led to a global fuel crisis. Underdog Enfield – a brand that used to make rifles, speedboats and hovercrafts, and which had just been acquired by Greek shipowner John Goulandris – eventually beat rival bids from Ford and British Leyland for the production of about 100 vehicles at its factory on the Isle of Wight.

Powered by eight heavy duty 12V lead acid batteries – four under the bonnet and another four in the boot – the Enfield 8000 could travel at a top speed of 77 kilometers per hour and had a range of around 64 km.

The vehicle was designed around a tubular chassis frame with panels made of lightweight aluminum. It featured an impressive aerodynamic drag coefficient – its designers brag it was found to actually be lower than the Porsche of that time – while the low center of gravity gave the car very good handling. Running costs were estimated at a quarter of the Mini, while maintenance costs were almost zero as there were no moving parts and no fuel. Designers relied extensively on commercially available parts and components to facilitate repairs and replacements around the globe.

On the down side, the bulky batteries took their toll as the Enfield 8000 weighed nearly a ton. And when the batteries ran out, they had to be charged for up to 10 hours.

It all went rather smoothly until a strike by sheet metal workers forced Goulandris to eventually shut down the Isle of Wight factory. A frustrated Goulandris soon made the controversial decision to move production to the Greek island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades and the country’s one-time maritime and commercial hub, where his family had acquired control of the Neorion Shipyards. As was to be expected, not everyone agreed with the plan; and not everyone followed.

Production of the Enfield now took place inside a defunct textile factory next to the port. Machinery and equipment had to be shipped from the UK while engineers, hired from the island’s shipyards, built the cars by hand. There was no assembly line, but six work stations where an equal number of vehicles were built from scratch all at the same time – no doubt a costly procedure. The fact that the car was designed in Britain, then made in Greece, then transported back to England where the batteries were installed, before being exported to the rest of the world made little financial sense either.

The hefty price tag – the Enfield 8000 cost almost twice the Mini – was certainly one of the things that killed the project. As the people behind the project tell the camera, the infamous Greek bureaucracy, politics and hostility from the oil industry – who were, after all, Goulandris’s business partners – proved a minefield.

The last Enfield car rolled out of the Syros factory in early 1976. A total of 123 cars were assembled then shipped to the various electricity boards around the UK and all around the world from France and Russia to Africa and Australia. None was sold in Greece because of red tape.

For people who took part in that innovative project, such as versatile designer John Ackroyd, seeing electric cars finally charge into the mainstream so many years later spurs a mixture of sadness and vindication.

The Enfield 8000, Ackroyd says in the documentary, “gave the message that electric cars could work to the world; but the world didn’t really catch on.”

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

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

By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal logging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tailor-made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last resort

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

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

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

Filthy habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Win-win pattern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderate, pragmatic and unloved: Greece’s liberal parties

By Harry van Versendaal

“In Greece, a liberal is called a ‘neoliberal’ and is perceived as a ‘neoconservative’,” says Constantinos Alexacos, an architect who ran as a candidate with the Drasi party in the May 6 elections.

Big shocks change perceptions but the spectacular meltdown of Greece’s two-party system, dominant since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has failed to shake off at least one: mainstream distrust in liberalism.

Socialist PASOK and the New Democracy conservatives suffered a drubbing on Sunday, seeing their combined share of the vote sink to an all-time low of 32 percent. Nevertheless, none of the country’s liberal parties — Democratic Alliance, Drasi (which merged with Liberal Alliance ahead of the vote), or Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) — won enough votes to make it into Parliament. The three garnered a combined 6.5 percent, or 411,536 votes, as a huge chunk of support went to the anti-bailout parties away from the center of the political spectrum.

The poor showing has prompted a fair deal of frustration and soul-searching among self-described liberals in this debt-wracked nation. If there is one thing they all agree on it’s that their doctrine is a perennial victim of bad publicity. For a wide range of reasons, liberalism is still a dirty word for many, particularly those on the left.

“Like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We’ve allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned with,” says Emmanuel Schizas, editor of the LOL Greece blog.

“Essentially, if you call yourself a liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, a corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the suppression of political rights,” adds Schizas.

It’s quite an exasperating situation for people who have traditionally espoused such values as individual freedom, rule of law, active but accountable government, free but responsible markets, and mutual toleration.

Most liberals have called for a smaller government, fewer civil servants, privatizations and further deregulation of closed professions. But the fact that liberal parties chose to back the deeply unpopular austerity policies attached to the EU-IMF bailout deal didn’t do much to promote their ideas. Worse, some liberal commentators say, the parties paid the price of endorsing ideas that were not, in fact, related to their political religion.

“Most liberals around the world have strongly opposed policies like those included in the memorandum,” says Tilemachos Chormovitis, a contributor for the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog. “You can’t solve a debt crisis by accepting more loans. Instead of putting forward their own program against the tax-heavy policies of the memorandum and the stubborn statism of the left, liberals tagged along with the worn-out parties that backed the program,” he says.

To be sure, allergy to liberal ideas goes further back and has systematically been fed by the system of nepotism, clientelism and corruption that took hold of Greek society after populist PASOK rose to power in 1981. Any attempts to contain the country’s gigantic and profligate state ran against the interests of the ruling parties and their voters. Over time, liberal reforms were seen as coming together with a self-destruct button.

“There comes a point on the road to serfdom where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalizing it will simply kill it,” says Schizas with a mention of F.A. Hayek’s 1944 classic.

Implementing liberal economic reforms, he says, was bound to take a hefty toll on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people — at least in the medium term. “In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don’t bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down,” he says.

It’s hard to miss the uncomfortable truth at the core of the liberal creed: “The liberal parties are in the business of pointing out trade-offs; telling people they can’t have everything. That’s been a widely unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the ‘change’ of 1981,” says Schizas, referring to the late Andreas Papandreou’s famous campaign slogan which heralded the massive, but often misguided, program of wealth redistribution which was to follow.

The trade-off idea is a far cry from the populist, pie-in-the-sky idealism that has animated Greek parties seeking to appease an audience that had grown increasingly spoiled during the past 30 years. Furthermore, this cold, instrumental approach to politics, observers say, is out of synch with the all-too-human qualities of politicking. “Politics is not engineering. It’s chaotic, it does not follow a straight line. Just like life,” Kathimerini commentator Nikos Xydakis says, acknowledging SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’s deft timing and political opportunism. “Politics requires Machiavellian ‘virtue,’ the ability to adapt to any given situation by doing whatever is necessary,” he says.

Wrong leaders, wrong audience

Analysts also voice reservations over whether Drasi leader, veteran politician and ex-minister Stefanos Manos and former New Democracy heavyweight Dora Bakoyannis, who now heads Democratic Alliance, are the right people for the job.

The biggest handicap, journalist and urban activist Dimitris Rigopoulos suggests, is that the vast majority of voters see them as part of the problem, not the solution. “Manos and Bakoyannis are both associated in the collective consciousness with Greece’s discredited political establishment,” he says.

Parallel to this, experts say, there’s an issue with the audiences that these parties have chosen for themselves. Drasi, which likes to see itself as the ‘orthodox’ libertarian party, tanked outside the main urban centers while drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from the alumni of elite schools. One of the most common criticisms against liberals is that they are haughty and elitist.

“You get the impression that many of these people feel unfortunate to have been born in Greece and often treat their compatriots with disdain. Naturally, they have failed to identify with the masses and the biggest chunk of support comes from posh districts like Filothei or Kolonaki,” Chormovitis says.

Meanwhile, most of the support for Democratic Alliance appears to come from the reservoir of voters connected to Dora Bakoyannis’s family — which includes her father and ex-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis and her late politician husband Pavlos. “If we’re being charitable, it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have personal loyalties,” says Schizas.

Still far from tipping point, but…

Some observers are rather reserved about the future of Greece’s liberal movement. “Greeks — at least those who did not vote for the leftovers of the old system and those who didn’t abstain — voted for sterile reaction and conservatism,” says journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos.

The ballot, he says, shows that Greece’s creative minority — those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow — is still far from reaching what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point” – “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” bringing about disproportionate change in society.

“If Greece’s creative minority had really reached the tipping point, the country wouldn’t have gone bankrupt in the first place,” Georgakopoulos says.

But true to their creed, liberals remain optimistic about the future. For Rigopoulos, a journalist with Kathimerini and founding member of the Atenistas citizens’ group, Greece is for the first time witnessing the conditions for the emergence of a genuinely liberal, reformist movement.

“Until five years ago, the so-called liberal front was reduced to a mostly isolated, demonized faction inside New Democracy plus a few scattered voices inside PASOK — the legacy of Costas Simitis, as it were,” he says in reference to the former modernist-minded premier. As intense polarization fades, new forces are being unleashed — “for better or for worse,” he says.

But unless they decide to join forces, liberals will find it hard to reach the tipping point. Ironically, although they are proud of their pragmatism and consensual habits, Greek liberals were in these elections represented with three distinct groupings. While bigger parties are struggling to form a unity government, liberal party officials have over the past few days been in talks to cooperate ahead of possible new elections. “Working with other people and parties has always been part of the solution as far as Drasi is concerned,” says Alexacos.

Others are less sure about the prospect. Chormovitis, for one, questions whether a liberal coalition would in fact succeed in even amassing the combined 6.5 percent won by the three parties on May 6.

“I am not so sure that Bakoyiannis’s election base in Crete or Evrytania would vote for a liberal coalition party that would not feature herself as leader, or that the fans of Manos and Tzimeros would throw their weight behind one of the most worn-out politicians of the post-1974 period,” says Chormovitis in reference to Thanos Tzimeros, the young advertiser who led Dimiourgia Xana, the surprise package among smaller parties.

Schizas insists parties should call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform first. “The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves,” he says.

But whether they choose to cooperate or not, Schizas says, Greece’s liberals must above all reach a point where they are defined not by association, but by their actual program. “As long as we are the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatization people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey.”

Building the Rotterdam of the South

A container depot in Aspropyrgos west of Athens. Neglected for decades, the area lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation. Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

ASPROPYRGOS – Under the pale winter sun, a yellow cargo truck rumbles by and turns into a narrow road filled with potholes. Nearby, a ragged scarecrow balefully stands guard over a scrubby patch of broccoli. A little further off, an immigrant pushes a supermarket trolley filled with scrap metal next to a herd of sheep grazing by a metal container.

Welcome to Greece’s main logistics hub, the Thriasio Plain. An ugly sprawl sandwiched between three mountains and the pungent Elefsina Bay, the land of Persephone has for decades hosted the bulk of the country’s heavy industry. Now the area — which contains the towns of Elefsina, Aspropyrgos, Mandra and Magoula — lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation.

After signing a deal with the Greek government in 2010 to run part of Piraeus, the country’s largest port and strategic gateway for bringing Chinese goods into Europe and beyond, the China Ocean Shipping Company, or Cosco, is reportedly interested in acquiring a big chunk of land on the nearby plain of Thriasio to be used as a major freight and logistics center. Loaded with ambition, the project is expected to transform the entire peninsula.

But, alas, the reality on the ground paints a different story. A mishmash of divergent zoning plans — part industrial, part commercial wholesale, part “undefined” — Thriasio is scattered with warehouses, factories, scrapyards and legions of freight containers behind razor-wire fences. Connecting them is a labyrinthine set of unnamed narrow roads that frequently choke up, as cargo trucks must maneuver in limited space while street signs are mostly absent.

“It’s a joke. We call it an industrial zone, but there’s nothing that resembles one. When foreign investors visit the place, we turn red. There’s no roads, there’s no names, how can you expect to be taken seriously?” says Vassilis Argyrakis, a man in his early 40s who runs a family business that makes food products.

A black-and-white portrait of his grandfather who founded the company in the early 1920s hangs on the wall behind his desk. In 1980 the company moved from Piraeus to Aspropyrgos. “This was supposed to be a prime location, in close proximity to the the port, the capital, the railways and the national road,” he says at his office on the mezzanine of a gray cement building. More than 30 years later, Argyrakis tells a story of promises unfulfilled.

“For the past 30 years, no government ever took this place seriously. The state dumped all kinds of stuff here,” he says. Oil refineries, cement plants, steel factories and shipyards found a home here. Repeated environmental studies have found this to be one of Greece’s most heavily polluted areas. No surprise local newspapers regularly refer to Thriasio as Athens’s dumping ground.

Poor access is having an impact on the cost of services. Argyrakis says the cost of carrying goods from Piraeus to his company is higher than shipping goods from anywhere in the world to Greece. “It’s a waste of time, a waste of money. It’s totally counterproductive,” he says. His neighbors are not much help either. One of them keeps sending the police because noise from the factory interrupts his afternoon siesta, Argyrakis says with a smile. The police officer shrugs his shoulders, unable to do anything about it.

Bring the warehouses

Warehouses mushroomed along the northern side of the Attiki Odos ring road built here in 2003 to connect the capital with the coastal town of Elefsina providing a shortcut for northbound traffic.

“It was like they struck gold,” Andreas Papadakis, a young businessman, says of local landowners. “The price of land went up 1,500 percent almost overnight,” he says, as the area’s status was switched to “undefined,” giving the green light for the construction of warehouses.

As co-owner of a document storage firm, Papadakis has been renting one of those warehouses for the past six years. Thousands of cardboard boxes filled with A4 documents are stacked on rows and rows of metal shelving nearly to the top of the 20-meter-high structure. A forklift truck puts boxes into place as a company employee feeds data into a laptop computer. Sitting at the company’s headquarters at the foot of Mount Parnitha, he says running a business here has demanded a great deal of patience and adaptation. “We had to wait for six months to get a telephone line and even longer for a proper Internet connection,” he says. It took repeated calls to the local municipality before they eventually placed trash containers outside the company HQ, but a postman is yet to be seen.

Another problem is gangs stealing metal from the structures of the buildings, or even removing street drains, that they can then sell it on to one of the dozen of scrap merchants around here. Locals complain that burglars will break into a house just to take down the switchboard.

Beating the Leviathan

Municipal officials admit there are problems with the road network and anarchic construction. But they refuse to take any responsibility. Stelios Albandis is deputy mayor of Aspropyrgos which, thanks to the large number of businesses, is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country. “The rot starts from the top down,” he says, blaming the mess on Greece’s Leviathan bureaucratic state that holds local government to ransom.

A blueprint to regulate development in Attica, also known as the Athens Regulatory Plan, which includes plans to construct new highways, has suffered numerous setbacks. Albandis says that giving greater jurisdiction to the municipalities would save time and accelerate growth. “Zoning plans for every single town, from Alexandroupoli to Gavdos, has to go through the central government in Athens. This is extremely time-consuming. Getting a formal approval could take up to 15 years,” he says.

Looking down from the slopes of Mount Parnitha to the south, you can see the mammoth orange warehouse, property of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), and the space that is to host the new logistics center. On a clear day you can see the Bay of Elefsina and all the way to the island of Salamina, where in 480 BC the ancient Greeks beat the invading Persian fleet.

A notch to the east, on Pier 2 of Piraeus port, the Chinese mega-cranes are working at full throttle, like huge blue monsters bending their necks to lift blue, red and yellow lego bricks below. Last year saw a rise in container traffic in Piraeus, making this Cosco’s biggest container terminal in Europe and second only to Suez among the company’s biggest transatlantic terminals. Figures went up 73.5 percent in 2011, reaching a record 1,188,100 TEU against 684,900 TEU the previous year. The way of doing business here has radically changed. A local businessman, who wished to remain unnamed, describes how truck drivers used to bribe port officials at the gates and then again inside the loading area. “Or they would be kept waiting at the end of the line for hours,” he says. The Chinese have changed all that. “Truck drivers now simply swipe their access card to enter the dock, load the cargo and leave the place.”

Cash-strapped Greece, which currently depends on bailout loans from foreign creditors to stay afloat, craves the deep pockets of the Chinese, while for the Chinese Greece allows them to hasten east-west trade while getting a foot in the continental door. It is estimated that Piraeus saves them about a week of travel compared to the ports of Rotterdam, one of the world’s biggest, or Hamburg.

“Of all the southern ports, the one in Piraeus has the best potential for growth, situated in a country that the Chinese believe can be manipulated and controlled, with proximity to Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey, which is growing faster than most northern and central EU countries,” says Nasos Mihalakas, a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.

After taking control of the container terminal, Cosco has set its sights on OSE’s 600,000 square meter site in Thriasio where storing goods will be cheaper than on the coast. Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy commercial manager at Cosco’s wholly owned subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT), says the company would have to wait and see what the exact terms of the tender are before making a decision to bid for the project. “But [Cosco] would be interested on principle,” he says.

But some experts insist Thriasio is not necessarily essential in Cosco’s business strategy. “Space will be needed in order to make Piraeus the entry hub that the Chinese have been talking about, but Thriasio cannot be the only available space,” says Mihalakas, an expert on Chinese trade.

This is perhaps why Greek officials are reportedly trying to woo the Chinese with more carrots. A draft law approved last month allows the creation of free trade zones, which would permit the transfer and handling of goods in certain areas without the intervention of customs authorities.

Another crucial step is completing a long-delayed project to connect the port to the logistics hub via rail. The government last promised to complete the project by mid-2012. But according to transport expert Fotis Fotinos, this too is set to fail, putting the completion date “some time in 2013.”

Keep waiting

Repeated tenders for the Thriasio hub have been unsuccessful, as demands were deemed excessive in light of Greece’s economic conundrum. And, of course, there is a lot of government foot-dragging. Even though Athens decided to relaunch the tender in 2009, it took a year before it took place. Then OSE’s real estate arm, Gaiose, caused further delays by twice altering the terms of the tender.

“Precious time has been wasted, especially during the past couple of years. Today, no offers have been made,” says Costis Hatzidakis, who has served at the ministries of transport and development with the conservative New Democracy party, warning that if the logistics center is not operational by June, then Greece may lose crucial EU funding for the project.

Despite the setbacks, Hatzidakis still believes in the project. “The objective,” he says, is no less than “developing Greece into a major logistics hub in the Balkan area and Southeast Europe.”

Back in Aspropyrgos, some people voice similar ambitions. “If the plan came to fruition, this place could become a logistics center for the whole country, perhaps for the entire continent. I believe up to 90 percent of imports would travel through here,” the deputy mayor says. Booming trade, Albandis believes, would have a spillover effect, accelerating the transformation of the whole area, with big new roads and better town planning.

“Since we have nothing else to offer — like cheap labor, R&D or good universities — then we might as well sell our geographical position,” says Papadakis, who is confident the Chinese are here to stay. “Hopefully, this will one day become the Rotterdam of the south,” he says.

Until that happens, entrepreneurs will have to put up with the grim reality. At the Aspropyrgos food company, Argyrakis jokes how a group of German inspectors had to spend the night at a dodgy love motel after failing to locate his business.

Thriasio, he says, will not change before Greece’s bankrupt state does. “The civil servants who make up the state mechanism are never subjected to any assessment. Our politicians are elected whereas our civil servants are permanent. The former hesitate to take any measures because they do not want displease the latter,” says Argyrakis. “It’s the same old story. But these things don’t only happen here. Aspropyrgos is just a microcosm of Greece.”


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