It is 11pm. A group of men and women, obviously foreign, descend from a bus that has dropped them off at the lower end of Syntagma Square, the plaza that faces the Greek parliament.
They walk past a man curled in a fetal position at the top of Ermou, a pedestrian street that leads off the square.
They pass another slumped across a cardboard sheet, his head in his hands, then a tousle-haired immigrant, arms outstretched, as he murmurs: “Mister, mister, euro, mister.”
However, the men and women do not look. They walk on cheerily chatting toward their hotel.
The group, a team of technical experts mostly from the EU, are in Greece to monitor the state of its debt-stricken economy — and after several days spent poring over ministerial figures they know how dire the situation is. They also knew that on the ground things would get a lot worse when their bosses at the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB) — the “troika” — flew into Athens yesterday to formally approve a new wave of recession-inducing austerity in return for aid.
Amid feverish speculation that Greece is on the brink of default, 16 months after it received the biggest bailout in Western history, the country was the focus of talks at the IMF’s annual meeting over the weekend. There are few who do not believe that time is running out to solve a crisis that began beneath the Acropolis two years ago, but with markets far from appeased, now threatens the global economy.
Surviving on rescue loans from its “troika” of lenders, the beleaguered Greek government is between a rock and a hard place, under immense pressure to make radical reforms in exchange for support, but also pressured by a populace exhausted by the measures.
“Europe’s politicians have persistently been behind the curve. They have made the situation much worse with their policy U-turns, conflicting messages, half-hearted measures and piecemeal approach,” National Technical University of Athens economics professor Yannis Caloghirou said. “The lost time has produced a lot of uncertainty, which has created a lot of fear. For the first time in decades, people are really frightened.”
In Athens, panic is sketched not only on the faces of those who have become increasingly impoverished by the cost-cutting policies the social democratic government has been forced to apply. Earlier this month, as officials announced yet more “shock and awe” measures — job losses, tax hikes and pension cuts in a desperate bid to trim the bloated public sector and secure enough cash to cover public sector wages and pensions — panic was heard in the voices of the ruling elite.
“People justifiably think the crisis is what we’re going through now: cuts in wages, pensions and incomes, fewer prospects for the young,” Greek Minister of Finance Evangelos Venizelos said, looking visibly drained as he responded to the uproar over the measures. “Unfortunately, this isn’t the crisis. This is an attempt, a difficult attempt, to protect ourselves from crisis. Because the crisis will be [Greece following] Argentina: The complete collapse of the economy, institutions, the social fabric and the country’s productive base.”
With Athens confronting a debt load of 360 billion euros (US$487.58 billion) — five times the size of Argentina’s US$95 billion default in 2001 — there was, he said, little choice. Faced with crippling sovereign default, the social democratic government had to take an axe to the profligate public sector, whose 800,000 employees more than anyone have borne the brunt of the crisis.