Greece has entered the third millennium having survived many foreign occupations. The most trying was that of the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1453 when Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, from the Greek phrase meaning “going to the city.” Since our liberation from the Turks in 1821, we have suffered many dictatorships, the most recent following the coup d’état of 1967 and lasting seven years. But since then, Greece has entered its longest period of peace and democracy since it was constituted as an independent state.
Excuse me for this prologue, but it is indispensable in order to explain the present “crisis” over Greece’s exploding debt. This mess is actually a small problem by historic standards. Over the last two centuries my compatriots have survived much worse.
Historically, Greece has had three patrons: Britain, France and Russia. In the early days of the reborn Hellenic state, Germany was usually an unfriendly country; it became an ally of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey and a foe in both world wars. Now we are facing the delicate situation of accepting the protection of a Germany that, along with France, dominates the euro zone. (Britain’s role as a patron was handed off to the United States with the Truman doctrine of 1947.)
Yet the vast majority of Greeks do not consider the European Monetary Union a threat to national sovereignty. On the contrary, we feel that the common currency offers valuable protection from the headwinds of the international economic crisis, and is thus an extra guarantee to national sovereignty.
A neighbor of mine, Yiannis, recalls the days of nonstop devaluations of the drachma, our national currency before the euro. If you wished to go to, say, Delphi by car, you would take a suitcase of drachmas to pay for fuel.
The first signs of our current fiscal derailment appeared in 2007 with the crashing of our own real estate bubble. Last October, Prime Minister George Papandreou was elected with a strong mandate to fight corruption and navigate the country through the fiscal storm.
The political and economic morass that our journalists call the “Greek tragedy” became an opportunity to push forward an unprecedented agenda of regulatory reform and policy initiatives to support a new model of sustainable, environmentally friendly development. And the Greek people gradually have come to understand that they themselves must help in creating a new model of economic development.
Therefore, we are for the most part reacting with stoicism to the government’s proposed austerity measures. The demonstrations by civil servants over the last few days got a lot of press coverage, but they were relatively modest, without the infamous “pulse” of earlier eras. They were much tamer than the December 2008 riots that followed the police shooting of a 15-year-old student.
I sense that the majority of Greek people seem to understand the urgency of the economic situation and are willing to accept sacrifices. They demand deep and radical change right now. Our politicians also appear united, a demonstration of cohesiveness in Greek society that may be without precedent, at least in the 35-year history of the Republic.
My cousin Stella, for example, was telling me she would be willing to sacrifice a part of her monthly income if that would help the country. But she thinks that burden-sharing needs to be fair and just for the measures to get broad social support. This is a major challenge for our top economic officials: to use the existing labyrinth of obsolete and inefficient bureaucracies and procedures to come up with a proposal for financial restoration that the public will accept.
The man in the street also feels more positively about the United States than ever before. Most Greeks think that on issues from foreign policy to restoring the social safety net, the Obama administration’s goals are in sync with their own. The Greek people also share President Obama’s anger and frustration over the behavior of bankers.
While the European Union last week promised “determined and coordinated action” on Greece’s debt problem, none of us is quite sure what that will amount to. The one thing I am certain of, however, is that my country will overcome the financial crisis with national pride and international dignity intact.