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Journalist Finds Self-Inflicted Wounds Wandering ‘New Greek Ruins’

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Pedophiles qualified for partial disability payments. The state-owned broadcasting corporation had a choir. Civil servants convicted of murder had the right to collect half of their salaries for years while in prison. A country that was effectively broke spent more on pharmaceuticals as a percentage of GDP than any other industrialized country. An alarming number of self-employed professionals evaded taxes on a grand scale. And thousands who claimed to be blind or have another disability were apparently con artists.

a4.greek.book.catastrophe.storyThese are just a handful of reasons — skillfully reported by Greek-American journalist James Angelos in his new book, “The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruinswhy Greece has been in dire straits in recent years.

Angelos is a multilingual, Berlin-based freelance journalist who has reported on Greece’s debt crisis for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. In “The Full Catastrophe,” he provides an engaging but deeply sobering account of how Greece became the sick man of Europe and a threat to the global economy.

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Greek-American journalist James Angelos

Greece’s ailments have, of course, hit home the hardest. One out of every four Greeks is unemployed. Average income has decreased by 40 percent. Basic services like police protection and trash collection have suffered. Universities and hospitals have shuttered. Depression and drug use are on the rise. And many experts say Greece is essentially bankrupt and has little hope of ever paying off its mountain of public debt, which has soared to 180 percent of its GDP.

Unlike other reporters, however, Angelos doesn’t offer sympathetic coverage of the harsh European Union-imposed austerity measures that have deepened the country’s misery, nor does he focus on the bankers who helped plunge the country into financial chaos.

Instead, he gives readers an inside look at Greece’s endemic corruption, xenophobia and governance problems while shedding light on its reparation claims against Germany, its immigration crisis and a host of other issues. We spoke to Angelos in early June as Greece and its creditors were wrangling over negotiations to prevent a default on Greece’s debt and keep it in the eurozone.

The Washington Diplomat: There are obviously many countries around the world with failing economies, bad governance and corruption. Why does Greece matter?

James Angelos: Greece is on the cusp of a default which could lead to a eurozone exit and that could destabilize the global economy. That’s why the U.S. government has been active in trying to press Greece’s creditors and Greek leaders to come to a compromise. Many of Greece’s creditors believe that Greece has been sufficiently quarantined, that a Greek exit (from the eurozone) no longer poses a threat to the global financial system. Right now, global markets aren’t reacting in the same way as they did in previous phases of the crisis. Borrowing costs in Italy and Spain haven’t skyrocketed as they did before, so to some extent it’s true. But I think they may also be playing with fire.

TWD: Was this is a historic blunder to let Greece into the eurozone to begin with?

Angelos: I think so because it wasn’t ready. Its institutions weren’t ready. Greece’s eurozone entry allowed it to borrow extensively at a low interest rate. The government was borrowing and finding ways to disseminate that money. Greece was growing at the second-fastest clip in the eurozone from the time it entered to the time the crisis started (in 2009). On average, there was 4 percent growth. It was a good run. Salaries were going up but Greek competitiveness was going down. We’re now experiencing the aftermath of that party.

TWD: Should Greece still have the drachma?

Angelos: That’s something economists argue about. But there’s a difference between whether Greece should have been in the eurozone — which is no — and what can you do now. The fact that they shouldn’t have gone in doesn’t mean it should now leave because the damage that could inspire, the flight of capital from the country and the instability that would cause, the consequences are unknown until you try it. But with the devaluation of the currency, Greece might become competitive again.

TWD: Greeks are rightly very proud of their culture and their heritage, perhaps more so than most other places in the world?

Angelos: Greeks are in one way doomed to always be contrasting themselves to their ancient predecessors. But at the same time it’s a weight. The trouble is that Greeks often look to what has been instead of what’s becoming. That presents certain challenges. Greece’s challenge is to form a government and a political system that Greeks can be proud of, instead of being proud of an ancient past that was millennia ago.

TWD: Did the fact that you are a Greek-American make it any more difficult for you to write an objective, many would say quite critical, book about Greece?

Angelos: I think in a lot of small diaspora communities there is this sense — you’re a member of the tribe, so you should put the best face of the country forward. I had a mayor on the island of Hydra tell me, “You’re Greek, you need to project a good image of our country.” This is pretty common. I did have a nagging sense while reporting, “Am I representing Greeks well here? Am I in danger of betraying the tribe?” But I think my reportorial instincts and my desire to do a good job kicked in and overrode those concerns. I tried to present a balanced book. Everyone will make their own judgments. I tried not to be scolding of the Greeks but it’s clearly pretty critical.

TWD: You went to the island of Zakynthos to look into why so many people there were able to collect blindness disability checks. You wrote that 498 of the 680 people receiving this benefit apparently shouldn’t have been getting it, according to a police investigation. And when the disabled had to show up in government offices around the country to demonstrate their disability, 36,000 of them never appeared, saving the government 100 million euros. You concluded that for some Greeks, “scamming the state isn’t the same as scamming the nation.” Is this a Greek phenomenon or common around the region?

Angelos: Because of the prevalence of this kind of small corruption, if you aren’t doing something that is really uncommon you can justify it. You don’t feel too bad about it. The way one woman who was getting the benefit justified it to me was, “It’s a supplement to my pension, which is already quite low.” If you live in a place like Denmark or Sweden, people are willing to pay taxes, hand over money to their government with the expectation that goods and services will be returned. That doesn’t exist in Greece. There is very little loyalty to the state in Greece. But that does not equate to the concept of loyalty to the tribe, the ethnos.

TWD: During my travels in Greece, I kept hearing people lay the blame at this small group of wealthy, tax-evading elite Greeks and the politicians who enable them.

Angelos: The lack of trust in government pervades the society. It’s true that the people at the top, to use a Greek expression, “ate” more than those at the bottom. But that doesn’t necessarily justify the small-time stuff because that adds up and has an impact on the country. People would prefer, though, for the government to start at the top and work their way down, but there is a widespread perception that the Greek government did it the other way around.

TWD: You’re based in Germany. When you told Greeks you lived there, what kind of reaction did you get, given all the ill feeling toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany in general in recent years?

Angelos: I got a range of reactions. The most surprising was, “Can you help my son get a job there?” You get that and you get, “Oh, what the Germans are doing to us now is worse than what they did during the war” — which is absurd.

TWD: In the book, you cited a 2012 poll in which 91 percent of Greeks said that their government should use all necessary means to obtain World War II reparations from Germany — and the figure that has been used is 162 billion euros not including interest. A lot of people, and not just in Germany, question the timing of this.

Angelos: My first reaction about the reparation demands was, “Wow, I can’t believe it.” But the more I learned about the topic, the less I felt that way. I’m not saying the Greeks should get reparations. But when you look at the post-World War II history, Germany wasn’t going to be forced to pay reparations because it couldn’t possibly pay for all the destruction it caused. They didn’t make the mistakes that were made following World War I (when the Allies imposed harsh conditions on Germany that drove it into financial ruin). It’s not like the crisis came along and then the Greeks invented the reparations claim; it’s an issue that’s been around for a very long time and hasn’t gone away. It’s just that now more people are paying attention to Greece now. The left in Greece has been passionately arguing for reparations really since the end of World War II.

TWD: You live in Germany. Is there still a perception there that Greeks are lazy, despite statistics showing that private sector workers in Greece work longer hours than perhaps almost any other country in Europe?

Angelos: There is enough of that in Germany, and in the U.S. and other parts of the world too. But there are also plenty of people in Germany who don’t buy that at all. Both sides pick the most controversial things said about each other in the media and just replay them to each other. People conflate the problems in the public administration with what’s going on across the economy. But in the public administration, a lot of those people got their jobs because of who they knew or because of their political affiliation. And so some of them aren’t motivated to perform at the highest level. But that doesn’t necessarily bleed over into the private sector.

TWD: You confronted a number of people who may have had something to hide in your reporting — the wife of a government worker who killed a mayor but was still collecting half his salary while he was in prison for years, the doctor in Zakynthos handing out bogus disability statements and so on. Were you at all concerned for how this kind of immersive reporting would go over?

Angelos: I was but was often surprised by how friendly people were, including the shooter’s brother and his wife. I wanted to meet them to fairly represent their side of the story. This woman who was married to the shooter, her situation is sad. No matter how wrong her husband acted, it was still important to represent the totality of the consequences of what happened. As a reporter, it’s trying to do people justice by covering all sides of a story.

TWD: You spent a pretty big chunk of the book documenting the problem of xenophobia in Greece and the rise of the far-right party Golden Dawn. But aren’t there also a number of Greeks who aren’t racist but who are legitimately concerned that their government can’t control the country’s borders, can’t afford to resettle refugees and isn’t getting any support from the EU on these problems?

Angelos: I think it’s legitimate for Greeks to be concerned about the level of irregular immigration coming into the country. Europe is coming to a better place on this burden sharing. Germany is taking on the greatest number of asylum applicants. Before the system was: the country that first receives the migrant must process their asylum application, which was insanely unfair. But this doesn’t justify the bad treatment that migrants have been forced to endure in Greece.

The debate is often talked about as though there were a finite number of jobs and that migrants come to a country and take those jobs and I think that is a very poor perception of reality. When migrants come to a country, they also create demand in that country, and if they are motivated to work and become part of the society, they create jobs and they pay taxes. If Greece were more willing to open its doors to migrants coming into the country — even if they perceive them as being not the kind of migrants they want — it could be beneficial to the country in the long run. These people want to work; they want to make a living.

TWD: So even with Greece’s 25 percent unemployment rate, if you were setting policy, you would have an open-borders immigration policy?

Angelos: I wouldn’t have an open-borders policy. But I just don’t think (immigration) is the unmitigated problem that people think it is. I think it is just as much a cultural identity issue as an economics issue.

TWD: Golden Dawn has polled around 6 percent or so in recent elections.  How does Greece’s far-right movement compare to similar groups in France, the U.K, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe?

Angelos: [Marine] Le Pen, for example, is far right, but has she organized assault battalions to go out in the streets to hunt down migrants? I don’t think so. The U.K. Independence Party, the National Front in France, they are not the same thing as Golden Dawn. They may have objectionable viewpoints but Golden Dawn has put into practice an ideology of Fascist violence on the streets.

TWD: So they are more violent than, for example, Jobbik in Hungary and others?

Angelos: Hungary might be comparable but I wouldn’t compare [Greece] to France and the U.K. Those aren’t Fascist parties putting in place systematic violence on the streets. What I was struck by was the impunity with which they were able to roam the streets of Athens and what that says about the wider society.

TWD: What does it say about the wider society?

Angelos: It’s a fringe movement. I don’t think they will ever come close to coming to power, but they have an effect on the overall political system. They can appeal to some of these narratives. The thing about Golden Dawn is they downplay their Nazism to appeal to the more mainstream voter.

TWD: The book is a great read but it is also a very sobering portrait of a country that has some really serious problems. Are there any reasons to be optimistic about Greece’s future?

Angelos: There are a lot of depressing things in the book but there are positives as well. Take the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, for example. He invited Israelis and Turks to come visit Thessaloniki. (The city once had a huge Jewish population prior to World War II, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Thessaloniki.) This (initiative) challenged the long-entrenched notion that Thessaloniki has always been a purely Greek city. He complicated that narrative, and there was a lot of backlash, especially among religious conservatives. But then the people of Thessaloniki re-elected him. Why? Probably because they saw the benefits of opening up the tourism sector and they saw that hotel bookings from Israel quadrupled.

The previous mayor left the city broke and Boutaris came in and balanced the budget. People could see there was a marked improvement. There is a thirst in Greece for a new way forward. There have been a lot of reforms. If Greece gets some breathing room, things can turn around and there’s a lot of potential for the country.

TWD: Is that the best-case scenario — that Greece’s creditors give it some breathing room and it finds a way out of this crisis?

Angelos: The creditors have leverage to get Greece to carry out the reform program. It’s important that pressure stays on Greece to implement these reforms, but at the same time, there has to be some acknowledgement that the country needs fiscal breathing room in order to grow.

There is still too much uncertainty for the economy to grow, so Greece needs some political stability. Greeks need a vision of what’s coming in the future, so they see that things will get better if they stay the course.

TWD: Would you be more surprised if, five years from now, Greece was still in the eurozone and its economy was doing much better, or if things were much the same as they are now?

Angelos: I’m afraid I don’t know. And what is most concerning is that I don’t think anyone else does either — and that includes the Greek government and Europe’s leaders. All along, I’ve been betting that there will be an 11th-hour agreement that will keep Greece in the euro. But I can’t see how the status quo could last for five more years. So my immediate forecast, if I’m forced to make one, is that both sides have too much to lose to allow for a euro exit, so they’ll do what they can to avoid it. But the longer-term future is still too muddy to see.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 30, 2015