Little left to laugh about in impoverished Greece
Greek national pride is suffering, now that the nation has stooped to international panhandling.
Two subjects currently dominate the Greek news. The measures taken against the financial crisis, and a sex tape featuring local TV celebrity and model, Julia Alexandratou. The starlet claims the recording was intended for private use, but a few days ago it became available in newsstands and 200,000 copies were sold.
Comedian Lakis Lazopoulos put two and two together in his popular TV show, showing a clip with the covers of sex tapes marked with financial terms and crisis imagery. “Lost in the gaping budget hole,” one cover read. Prime minister George Papandreou could be seen hanging from chains in German chancellor Angela Merkel’s SM-themed torture chamber. Papandreou is often portrayed nowadays as a vagrant who goes around begging for money from other government leaders.
Blame the government
Little is left of Greek national pride, Lazopoulos lamented. His weekly TV-show, Al Tsantiri Niouz (‘News from the gypsy tent’), draws a bigger audience than Greek football teams’ matches in the pan-European Champions League. After some jokes about sex, he hit a more sombre note, predicting more social unrest to come. His description of how the Greeks are currently feeling was rewarded with roaring applause: “When Europe said ‘stop’, our politicians asked the people: ‘give back the money we stole from you’.”
Support for the Greek government’s far-reaching cutbacks is waning now that the citizens are starting to feel the effects. A month ago, 70 percent of the population still supported prime minister Papandreou’s reform measures, now only half still does. On Thursday, Greeks hit the streets to protest the cutbacks, which are supposed to reduce the budget deficit. Public transport was at a standstill, flights were cancelled and hospitals were only dealing with emergencies. The Greeks are afraid, Lazopoulos said in an interview conducted in his dressing room after the show. They feel they’ve been “taken hostage” by a system that leaves the political parties in control of everything. Those who have a politician to thank for their jobs are not inclined to let him or her fall soon.
Greek resentment is growing. Last week the leader of the country’s biggest trade union was beaten so badly by protestors he ended up in hospital. Many Greeks feel the unions are too close to the socialist government.
No money left
Next Monday, VAT will be raised to 21 percent. The price of a pack of cigarettes has already risen by a full euro in one week, and now stands at 4.20 euros. This month, civil servants will see their pay cheques reduced for the first time. Easter is approaching, but this major holiday in Orthodox Greece will have to be celebrated with bonuses that are 30 percent lower than last year. The Christmas and summer bonus, amounting to an effective thirteenth and fourteenth month in salary for civil servants, will be abandoned. Hotels have already reported that domestic tourism is on the decline. Easter bookings are 60 percent down from last year.
Some hotels will remain closed altogether. “No Easter for us this year,” the comedian Lazopoulos sang to the melody ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. His pockets, turned inside out, dangled from the sides of his trousers.
Officials have started calling the Greek problem, ‘the Greek case study’. On their visits to Berlin, Paris and Washington last week, the prime minister and finance minister seemed to convince everyone that, while the Greeks have major issues with creative bookkeeping and a towering public debt, the current crisis really demonstrates the lack of a common European economic policy.
Last weekend, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, proposed forming a European equivalent to the International Monetary Fund to help euro countries that are in trouble. While this might help in future crises, for the average Greek citizen, it will make no difference for years to come.
According to Savas Robolis, the head of a labour market research agency operated by Greece’s largest coalition of unions GSEE, Greeks with below average paycheques are taking a double hit. Both the pay cuts and the raised taxes place a disproportionate burden on people who didn’t have much to begin with, he said. “The measures are unfair,” he added.
Because households have less money to spend, consumption will drop, leaving Greece lingering in recession for longer. Robolis predicted it would last until 2015. “Future generations will be burdened with the higher interest rates Greece is now paying on treasury bonds,” he added. The higher tax burden would also lead people to find “new ways of tax evasion” he warned.
Rumour has it that Theodoros Pagalos, the second most powerful man in the governing socialist party, Pasok, has advised the minister of health to hold back on expanding the country’s smoking ban for the time being, because the Greeks “have enough on their hands as it is”.
“It is only a rumour,” grinned Alexandros Karamalikis, the manager of Black Duck, a bar/restaurant/gallery in Athens’ business district, “but it does illustrate the mood well. We have no money, but we do like to go out and have fun, so let us smoke our cigarette in peace.”
In Greece, there is little left to laugh about. When comedian Lazopoulos mentioned the high prices and low pensions, his audience fell silent. “We still laugh,” he later said in his dressing room. “But it sounds hollow. Like the forced laughter at your grandmother’s death bed, used to hide from her the fact she is dying. We do not laugh because we don’t know what’s ailing Greece. We laugh because we do.”