More to Greek tragedy than bailouts

By Sarah Bradley

IT project manager Stelios Kavaleros believes the austerity measures taken by Greece are not equitable. Photo / Mark Mitchell
IT project manager Stelios Kavaleros believes the austerity measures taken by Greece are not equitable. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As Greece heads into an election that could change the course of European history, 33-year old Wellington-based Greek Antonis Voutsinos says his country's economic woes need to be put in perspective.

"Everybody feels like this crisis is amazingly terrible, everyone is using big words like collapse, but Greece has been there for a long time and through worse, a lot, lot worse," he says.

"We have lived through world wars, a civil war and a military dictatorship just this last century."

It is hard though to imagine anything more challenging than Greece's financial and political situation - a far-right MP giving a female communist party member a left hook on national television, a Prime Minister unable to form a government and a nation buckling under $400 billion of debt.

The Greek election last month, failed to produce a definitive majority for any one party and it is possible that after this weekend's election, Greece may make a hasty retreat from the euro currency and a return to the drachma.

Greece is a relatively small economy, it makes up only 2 per cent of the eurozone. If it exits it could deeply hurt other eurozone nations, in particular Ireland, Portugal and Italy.

Spain has finally asked for a bank bailout, but it introduced austerity measures some time ago and so is not likely to find itself in as much trouble as Greece, at least in the short-term.

Antonis Voutsinos works in the film industry and has lived in Wellington for 18 months with his Greek partner.

He says the troubles have been brewing a long time.

"It wasn't out of the blue," he says. "People tend to think that, but there were many warning signs that were ignored."

Greece has been overspending for decades. Public sector wages are grossly higher than private incomes and tax evasion is rampant.

"There is a general disbelief that things like this can happen, but there is rancid corruption, vertical corruption across the board.

"Greece of course had a big part in the crisis, we don't like to admit it, but we have played a huge part in our demise," Voutsinos says.

Born to Greek parents in Wellington, 38-year old IT project manager Stelios Kavaleros lived in Greece in the mid-2000s.

"It took me about a year to get used to the system in Greece," he says, "which is very different from the way we carry out our everyday affairs in New Zealand.

"I tried to avoid anything that was bureaucracy-heavy as a minor job such as withdrawing money from the bank could take an entire morning."

Voutsinos says living in Wellington has made him appreciate the simplicity of the New Zealand system.

"Recently I did my New Zealand tax return and it took me one afternoon. In Greece, your tax return is due in June and you usually start working on it the December before."

And while the public sector has been blamed for exacerbating Greece's crisis, Voutsinos says any change in the way civil servants are treated would be anathema to them.

"For New Zealanders the dream is owning your own home, for Greeks, it's a cushy job in the public sector," he says, "once you're in, you can't get fired for any reason."

Kavaleros thinks the austerity measures are not completely fair.

"While my friends accept change has to come, they don't think that all the austerity measures are equitable.

"For example, targeting low income earners by lowering the minimum wage is unfair on them but could benefit large organisations, some [of] which are internationally owned," he says.

And Voutsinos says the austerity measures are misdirected.

"When people see pensioners' income dropping by 30 per cent and the minimum wage is down, yet the public sector employs 200 per cent more people than it needs, that's when there's outrage," he says. "Because there is so much tax evasion, the austerity measures target freelancers and pensioners because they are the easiest people to tax."

Greece has already received more than $170 billion in bailout money and many austerity measures.

"In practice, Greece has accepted the measures, they are paying more tax and most people have seen real income go down 30 to 40 per cent," says Voutsinos.

Family and friends in Greece have all been affected by the crisis, particularly those who own businesses.

"We have friends who have seen a huge change, all small businesses in Greece have been decimated," Voutsinos says.

"Life has remained very familial, my friends in their 30s are being forced to live with their parents, people in our age group have 35 per cent unemployment right now and that is amazingly understating it."

Kavaleros adds that immigrants in Greece are also suffering.

"There are a million illegal immigrants in Greece.

"Now there is a crisis they want to leave, but they can't afford to go home for one reason or another and the only way to survive is through crime and now crime is increasing and becoming more violent," he says.

Not only is there crime within the immigrant community, violent attacks against them have reportedly been blamed on the far-right political party, Golden Dawn.

Kavaleros and Voutsinos have mixed emotions about the upcoming election and what it will mean for the country.

"If we default on our debt now, it will be unbelievably difficult", Voutsinos says, "but Greece is in two camps, some want change and some just want the status quo. If you're used to a generous early pension, free education, free healthcare and pharmaceuticals, there is going to be friction if it is taken away."

Kavaleros is sceptical about the bailout plan.

"Bailout after bailout with tough austerity measures could impoverish the country for the next 20 years," he says.

But Voutsinos believes Greece will get through.

"It is a tragedy, but it is also a golden opportunity to root out what has caused this."

- NZ Herald

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