How Greece squandered its freedom

Our partners in the European Union are frightened of the consequences of our vote,but seem otherwise indifferent to our fate.

Written by New York Times | Published:June 17, 2012 3:32 am

My country is hurtling toward an election that will decide its fate—whether Greeks will fight on to remain part of Europe’s core or succumb to their own weaknesses and turn inward,choosing isolation,anger and uncertainty greater than that from which they wish to flee.

The vote on Sunday will change our lives—determining not only whether we remain in the euro zone but also the nature of our society and the fate of the democracy that was re-established just 38 years ago after a dictatorship. We are bitterly divided between those who want to carry on with the reform process and those who want to turn back the clock. Our partners in the European Union are frightened of the consequences of our vote,but seem otherwise indifferent to our fate.

We face a choice between two deeply flawed alternatives. On one hand,there is New Democracy,a centre-right party that has done much to undermine Greece’s economic reform and revival over the past two years. On the other hand there is Syriza,a fractious coalition of 12 radical groups that has anointed itself the herald of leftist change throughout Europe and declares that it will immediately annul the bailout agreement while demanding that our partners continue to lend us money. The latter course could lead to the country’s swift exit from the euro and a chaotic and unpredictable future.

Since last October,after the first suggestion that Greece might be forced out of the euro zone,we have lived with desperate uncertainty. Suicides,once few,are on the rise as the pressure becomes too much for some. In a country of fewer than 11 million people,more than a million are jobless. Migrants are leaving and Greeks are emigrating. A recent study conducted on behalf of Panteion University in Athens suggests that 7 out of 10 Greeks between the ages of 18 and 24 hope to seek their fortune elsewhere.

The choice Greeks face on Sunday might appear simple—between tightening our belts and remaining in the euro or leaving it and facing an economic meltdown. But politics is never simple here. The discredited New Democracy party,which governed Greece from 2004 to 2009,represents the failed political system that allowed Greece to fall so deeply into debt and then signed on to harsh austerity measures. And a coalition led by the left-wing coalition Syriza wouldn’t be the breath of fresh air that its 37-year-old leader,Alexis Tsipras,would like us to believe. Meanwhile Pasok,the socialist party that until May had been Greece’s other major political faction,alongside New Democracy,has withered to near irrelevance.

The widespread feeling of loss is worsened by the understanding that we wasted most of the past four decades. Greece made great strides toward achieving the standards of its European partners,with major infrastructure projects,hospitals and schools,and with European Union subsidies and markets helping to create a booming economy and a new middle class. But we allowed development to become a bubble. We lost the self-discipline,moderation and inventiveness that once helped the Greeks achieve great things,and we succumbed to political expediency,delusions of grandeur and a fatal sense of entitlement.

Ever since the Greeks began their war of independence against the Turks in 1821,these different aspects of the national character have been in perpetual conflict,resulting in breathtaking swings between glorious heights and desperate depths. The heroic resistance to the German occupation in World War II was followed by a terrible civil war between left and right that still cripples our politics; the inspiration of the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004 was followed by the economic,social and political ineptitude that brought us to today’s collapse of the main political parties,and what is turning out to be the destruction of the country’s backbone: small businesses and the middle class.

What I want to remember from Greece in 2012 is how laziness and years of intellectual sloppiness can waste the gift of freedom and leave open the gates of the city—how we allowed our leaders to pander to us until we had no one capable of leading us,no one next to us at the barricades.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini

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