Young unemployed feeling the most pain as yet another round of cuts looms large
Published 21/02/2012 | 05:00
SO wearied are Greeks by their country's all-consuming crisis that anarchist protests in central Athens scarcely raise an eyebrow, while the cries of the demonstrators seem almost quaint.
"Bread, education, freedom!" chanted a knot of 100 black-clad youths, who appeared from nowhere and marched under an anarchist banner into Syntagma square.
Passers-by ignored them as they strode towards the finance ministry, where red paint thrown during the previous outburst of public anger still stained the wall.
Greeks are bitterly aware that the conditions demanded by eurozone finance ministers in return for the €130bn bailout agreed yesterday will make "bread, education and freedom" an empty dream for years to come.
Instead, Greece will now suffer some of the harshest economic policies ever imposed on a western democracy.
One measure, aimed squarely at the poorest members of the workforce, might serve to symbolise them all: the minimum wage will fall by 22pc to €690 per month, around half of the €1,300 equivalent here in Ireland.
Physical decay mirrors social malaise: traffic lights have broken down across Athens, either because demonstrators have smashed them, or the state, which is sacking thousands of personnel, no longer troubles to fix them.
City thoroughfares are stained with graffiti, shops are boarded up, and Stediou Street, scene of the last big protests, is lined with the blackened shells of burnt-out buildings.
Meanwhile, a pack of stray dogs roams the street beside the Parthenon, snarling at passers-by and running in demented pursuit of motorcyclists.
Greece had endured five consecutive years of recession even before the looming onset of this new round of deflation.
Unemployment for those aged under 25 already stands at 48pc, having risen by more than one-third since November 2010.
Perhaps most stark of all is a national suicide rate that has doubled from 2.8 per 100,000 people in 2008, to about six last year.
Erasmia Dimoula (25) qualified as a nursery school teacher two years ago. Since then, she has not had a job, save for a brief stint as a waitress.
She now lives at home, in a state of enforced dependence on her parents, along with her similarly unemployed sister, who speaks three languages and has a masters degree in psychology.
"If there wasn't a financial crisis, I would be working now. I'm sure of it," said Ms Dimoula.
Like many Greeks of her generation, she vowed not to vote in the elections expected in April and expressed nothing but contempt for the politicians of all parties who brought the country to its current pass.
"I don't expect anything from any government, from any politician. I can only expect things from myself," she said.
"You have to take responsibility if you give your vote to these people. Then you'd have to shut up about what's going on," she added.
Young Greeks cannot be blamed for their nation's crisis, but what about an older generation who voted for corrupt governments, handed out jobs according to family or political ties, and artfully avoided taxation?
This generation launched a famous student revolt at Athens Polytechnic in 1973, which eventually toppled the military junta and brought in democracy, before arguably going on to cripple the country.
"A lot of people my age are blaming the Polytechnic generation," said Ms Dimoula. "I found myself doing it as well. But you can't blame a whole generation."
She added: "They are an optimistic generation: they thought things will be better for them and for their children. But we can't be optimistic. We can't believe in anything."
Those from the Polytechnic generation who played by the rules were not always rewarded. Ms Dimoula's father worked for 35 years and must now support two unemployed adult daughters from his pension, which has inevitably been cut.
"I want to try and do better, I want to not let this thing get on top of me, but it's very difficult," she said. "There are times that I cry because of all this."
One possible answer for young Greeks is to emigrate. Kyriakos Soubasis (28) graduated in mechanical engineering four years ago and has been unable to find a job. "In the last two years, I never went to an office. I send my CV by email, but no one answers. I have no income right now, I live with my family," he said.
Those of his university contemporaries who do work have often left Greece. "Many of them go abroad: to London, to Berlin. And those who stayed here, some have jobs, but no pay. If the bosses have no money, they don't pay you, perhaps for two or three months."
Half of all small businesses in Greece are unable to meet their payroll costs, while a quarter of all companies have gone bankrupt since 2009.
Political power has alternated between PASOK and New Democracy, the established parties of the left and right respectively, since the advent of democracy in 1974.
The leaders of both movements have pledged to implement the austerity measures in return for the bailout package.
Success will mean reducing Greek national debt from today's level of 160pc of gross domestic product to a mere 120pc by 2020.
"The political system is incapable of handling the situation. The people who created the problem are now going to solve the problem: that's the paradox," said Stelios Kouloglou, a current affairs presenter on national television. "It is doomed to fail. This just creates more and more recession. It's a vicious circle between more recession and more measures."
In the meantime, Greece has suffered perhaps the most wounding blow of all: its national dignity and self-belief has been undermined.
Mr Kouloglou deeply resents the media caricature of the easy-living, non-taxpaying Greek. "It's becoming kind of racist," he said. "You cannot have an honest solution when you have an image as bad as that." (© Daily Telegraph, London)