Sometimes great historic events occur not with a jolt but at a glacial pace and the slow-motion car-crash of the Greek economic crisis must have felt that way for its victims. It is more than seven years since 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead in Athens by the Greek police, prompting a wave of strikes and protests. The gathering storm finally came to a head during six remarkable months last year: a period spanning the shock election of radical left-wing party Syriza in January, to the referendum on the Troika's proposed third bailout of Greece in July, and the government's capitulation to the Troika three days later. After this succession of seismic events, we are now seeing the aftershock of serious documentation start to emerge: notably, the hour-long documentary #ThisIsACoup (available free online), from director Theopi Skarlatos and producer Paul Mason, and a short, polemical book of reportage, Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden.
This is a welcome development, not least because cultural stereotypes too often inform popular understanding of complex global events. The snobbish trope of “lazy Greeks” thrived in some parts of Europe as the country’s crisis wore on: the notion that ballooning debt had been caused by a bloated Greek public sector and a self-indulgent workforce distracted from productive economic activity by wine and sunshine – often characterised as the same Mediterranean malaise causing problems in Portugal and Spain. It is a telling mythology; it is amusing by just how false it is. In 2013, the average Greek working week was 42 hours, the longest in Europe – longer than the EU average of 37 and the German average of 35. (The next hardest workers after Greece were Portugal and Spain.) Inefficiency, corruption and tax evasion certainly been huge problems in fueling the Greek economic crisis: but it’s not slacking off by ordinary Greeks that have caused them.
How the rest of Europe viewed the Greek crisis was vital. It was a crisis being managed, and played out, between a nation state on one side and its international creditors, along with a series of supranational institutions.
The six-month period under scrutiny constituted a test of national sovereignty rarely seen in the era of globalisation – a measure of power relations between the EU’s nation states and the power at the centre, in particular the Troika: the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The precedent it would set and the knock-on effects for other countries using the euro as their currency meant
The outcome of the battle would be decisive for the entire continent. Would-be challengers to austerity economics, especially those in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, watched the struggle intently, cheering on the Greek people in the referendum via social media – in particular, the Greek word for no, “Oxi”, became an international meme. Likewise, the documentary #ThisIsACoup takes its name from the Twitter hashtag that became a global sensation, an expression of solidarity with the 62 per cent of people who voted “no” in the referendum on the Troika’s third bailout and still did not get their way. Both the documentary and Ovenden’s book point out that many of the placards on the incessant anti-Troika demonstrations in Athens were written in English, or German – pleading outwards as much as to their fellow Greeks.
Ovenden, a British journalist, had covered Greek politics and returned for the crisis. In a short and lively book he still manages to explore the lives beyond the numbers – the suffering of a proud people living life on the brink, surviving only through mutual support and solidarity. He also examines a distractingly intense six months of events in Greek political history. In particular, the rise of the youthful, oppositional Syriza (an acronym which translates as Coalition of the Radical Left) seems all the more notable in the face of the decline of Pasok, the social democratic party that had governed for most of the previous 35 years. Pasok fell from 43 per cent of the vote in 2009 to 4.7 per cent in 2015. This decimation also gave rise to the concept of “Pasokification”, the rapid decline of a once-heavyweight social democratic party complicit in austerity economics.
Like Ovenden’s book, Skarlatos and Mason’s film sets out to explore “the limits of democracy”, as the Greek people’s sovereignty was chipped away at and humbled by the Troika and their partners, particularly those in Germany. The pivotal week in July when Greece’s fate plays out like a melodrama: portentous, hectic, tearfully passionate and ultimately tragic. The European powers were unapologetic in urging the Greek people to vote “yes” and threatening disaster if they chose otherwise. Meanwhile, with the long-powerful Greek oligarchy running the media, every privately owned TV station backed “yes”, with only the embattled state broadcaster holding out. And yet, remarkably, the Greek voters sided with their elected government and voted “no” by a comfortable margin.
The economic consequences of a rejection of the bail-out would have been a “Grexit” from the euro, and this could have caused even deeper economic ruination. Greece was truly damned either way, and three days after the referendum, its prime minister and the Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras capitulated. Accepting the terms of the €85 billion (Dh349bn) third bailout, Tsipras began implementing the far-reaching austerity measures he had been elected to oppose. It led, Ovenden records, to the bizarre spectacle of Tsipras “speaking in parliament in favour of accepting a deal which he acknowledged was terrible”.
So what was the point of the referendum or confrontation with the European superpowers? Tsipras commented that it was vital the Greek people have the chance to “feel dignity”. Perhaps they did, but it was only to last days.
“What happens when an entire modern European country feels it has no agency?” asked Mason last month after a screening of #ThisIsACoup in London. He did not know the answer, he said, and it’s fair to suppose the Greek people do not either.
To some, Tsipras had betrayed his electors, but the young prime minister called a snap election and was re-elected, albeit with a smaller share of the vote. Today, capital controls limiting bank withdrawals remain, unemployment is above 30 per cent and the unresolved chaos of the refugee crisis continues. Most opinion polls give Syriza’s conservative rivals New Democracy a lead of about five percentage points.
When Syriza was first elected last January, some commentators noted that its “rock star finance minister” Yanis Varafoukis had written on the subject of game theory. Thus, it was believed, he would be thinking several moves ahead of his opponents. He was to discover that you can be as expert as you like in such matters: if the other side has all the power, outmanoeuvring them will be impossible.
Dan Hancox also writes articles for The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.