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Saturday 20 September 2014

Greek austerity – it's just like aftermath of World War Two

Oliver Staley

Published 20/12/2012 | 05:00

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In the Greek mountain town of Kastoria, less than an hour from the Albanian border, Kostas Tsitskos (88) can't afford fuel to heat his home against the winter's cold. So he and his son live in a single bedroom, warmed by a small electric heater.

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"One room is enough," said Tsitskos, who lives on a €734 -a-month pension and doesn't have the the money he needs to buy heating oil.

Greece is facing a heating-oil crisis. With an economy that has contracted for five years and an unemployment rate at a record 25pc, residents in northern Greece can't heat their homes.

Kastoria hasn't received funds from the central government to warm schools and the mayor says he will close all 53 of them rather than let children freeze, a step already taken in a nearby town. Truck loads of wood are arriving from Bulgaria as families search for alternative fuels.

"This is the coldest place in Greece," said Emmanouil Hatzisimeonidis, Kastoria's mayor. "It's winter from October to April.

"This year we are very lucky. Last year, it was snowing for four months."

When temperatures fall below freezing, Tsitskos spends most of his time in his bedroom and rarely leaves the house, he said.

For meals, he and his son move the electrical heater to the kitchen. Other older residents in the town spend their days at a senior citizens' centre and cafes to save on heating costs, returning home only to sleep, he said.

Austerity measures have cut government salaries and benefits, raised the retirement age and reduced services.

The household price for heating oil in Greece reached €1,266 per 1,000 litres in the second quarter of this year, surging 48pc from a year earlier, according to the International Energy Agency. The same quantity cost €861 in the UK and €790 in New York.

Heating

Greeks pay both excise and value-added taxes on heating oil that can make up 42 pc of the total cost.

Now the mayors of the region are petitioning the govern- ment to be exempted from the tax.

Greece's oil prices are high because of laws that protect the country's two refining companies and prevent competition, said Pavlos Eleftheriadis, a lecturer in law at the University of Oxford in England.

"The Greek political system works for the insiders," said Eleftheriadis, a native of Greece. "If you're an insider, there will be an attempt to protect you. If you're a poor person in Kastoria, you are on your own."

Frozen lake

Kastoria, a town of about 36,000, is on a peninsula jutting into a lake 2,050 feet above sea level. Restaurants and taverns sit by the water, where rowers scull year round.

On winter days, the sky is a clear blue and the air is crisp. In some years, the lake freezes over and residents from neighbouring villages walk across. At night in December, the temperature can fall to -10 degrees Celsius.

Kastoria is the centre of Greece's fur industry and mink is raised in the area. Many of the area's furriers cater to a Russian clientele, and signs with Cyrillic letters hang from their stores.

At a Kastoria senior centre in a small building next to the lake, several dozen grey-haired men play cards and pay 80 cents for coffee.

Among them is Kostas Tsitskos, who said the suffering he sees now reminds him of the devastation caused by the German occupation in World War Two.

"People were looking in the garbage for food then and they are now," Tsitskos said. "In World War Two, people were selling furniture for food. If the situation continues now, we will be selling our furniture."

This winter, Tsitskos bought an electric heater for his 100 square-metre (1,076 square-foot) home and he turns it down at night. He has two thermometers and on a recent December day, the temperature was 17 degrees inside and 6 degrees outside. If the weather is good, Tsitskos uses a walking stick to travel the few blocks to the senior centre.

The centre is usually heated, although not well and not every day, he said.

"Sometimes we are heated with the heat from our own bodies," he said.

Christos Tsitskos, his 43-year-old son, lives with his father. Christos owned a small fur business before closing it in the crisis. He now works at another company manufacturing pelts, earning €5 an hour. There are no buyers, he said.

"We'll make 100 pelts and sell two or three," he said. "We don't sell anything."

Own business

A veteran of the Greek Civil War, which was fought from 1946 to 1949, the elder Tsitskos worked in the fur industry in Montreal and New York before opening his own business manufacturing coats in Kastoria, retiring at 65. His wife died 15 years ago.

Tsitskos has relatives in Astoria, New York, who have considered returning to Greece to retire and he cautions them to stay in the US. He would leave if he could afford it, he said.

"I was expecting a different type of life," he said.

"There's nothing that makes me happy. I'm living just to live."

Even after 40 years in the trade, Tsitskos doesn't have any furs to keep warm. The one fur coat he owned was sold years ago. (Bloomberg)

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