Friday, 15 June 2007

Greece and Fyrom 'Should Talk'

Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, was in Athens to commemorate the 60 years of the Marshall Plan last week. The Athens News caught up with him during the last ten minutes of his stay, in the Athens Airport VIP lounge

Eighty-two percent of Greeks were recently polled as being against induction of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) into Nato even under that temporary name. What would happen if the Greek government next year decided domestic pressure was overwhelming and felt it had to veto Fyrom's entry? 

I understand the sensitivities of the Greek public. Our hope is that this issue can be resolved by the UN mediation with Ambassador Matthew Nimetz, by direct talks between Athens and Skopje. The UN's is the leading role. If the US can be helpful, it certainly will, because we want to see this problem taken off the agenda, if it's possible, to the satisfaction of both parties. 

But I really do think it's also precipitous, because Nato has not made a decision to bring in Macedonia. Nato will not even debate that question, I believe, until the early part of 2008, so there's no reason why this should complicate current politics and there are many other issues that have to be dealt with in the meantime.

What we've said consistently since 1995 is that there is a UN process. We hope it can succeed. We're fully supportive of that. We will be active ourselves as a friend of Greece, as a friend of Macedonia. But, ultimately, the two sides have to talk as well. And, hopefully, a final result will be arrived at which is to the satisfaction of both countries. There's no crisis underway.

The issue of whether or not Macedonia comes in is a function of how hard they work. Right now there's more work needed by the Macedonian government. And there'll be 26 countries that will have to judge whether they've met the criteria that Nato has established for aspiring applicants. We believe that Croatia has, so the United States is supporting Croatia. Our hope is that Macedonia and Albania will be ready, but we have not yet made a decision that they are and we've advised them to work very hard on defence reform, on some of the rule-of-law reforms that are necessary, and to forestall corruption, and then we'll all take the temperature prior to the Bucharest Nato summit, likely to be held next April.

From a diplomatic perspective I think that's the proper way to proceed. That should lower the temperature and allow the two governments and the UN to work out - we hope - some kind of amicable solution.

But as well as a process you need to have the physics for an agreement. Currently, Fyrom is being recognised by more and more countries, so it doesn't seem to have the interest in an agreement, and Greece doesn't seem to have the leverage to force one.

We've told the Macedonian government that this is an important issue for Greece. We expect that Macedonia will negotiate seriously and work hard with the UN negotiator. So, the US position is that this is an issue that concerns our Nato ally Greece, therefore we'd like it to be resolved. 

There's an under-standable balancing act going on in offering Kosovo inde-pendence and Fyrom name recognition, and it shows a US ability and willingness to play a role in the Balkans, but Greece and Serbia perhaps don't see equal efforts to try and redress their concerns. 

I guess I don't agree with the question in that I don't see Greece as a disaffected party. We're a Nato ally. We have an excellent relationship with Greece. I don't see somehow that what we've done should be contrary to Greek interests. Now I understand that our position is fundamentally contrary to the Serb position on Kosovo itself. There's no question about that. 

What is the US doing to prevent an incursion into northern Iraq? 

The problem is not Turkey, the problem is the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party]. And for well over a year now the PKK has been launching attacks on the Turkish military and on Turkish civilians. It's a terrorist group. We don't deal with it and we are entirely sympathetic to Turkey when it comes to its dealings with the PKK. 

We do have an American envoy, appointed by President Bush, General Jo Ralston, whose job it is to help the Turks manage this problem. We do not want to see a cross-border invasion by Turkey. What we do want is to support Turkey diplomatically in defending itself against these attacks by the PKK, and therefore we would like to see greater efforts made by the Kurdish leadership in Iraq to dissuade the PKK from its present course. I think we have been the most active country. We've been extraordinarily active. And I think it's incumbent upon Europe to put the same pressure on the PKK, and that is to ask it to cease and desist from its terrorist actions.

New Democracy's popularity

NEW DEMOCRACY has been damaged by the bond scandal but will still win the next general election, albeit by a reduced margin, because nobody trusts Pasok to manage the economy. That, broadly speaking, seems to be the prediction of a majority of Greeks in four different opinion polls taken in late May and early June for variously affiliated media.

Two of the four polls, which ask for voter intent, find a one- (GPO) and two- (MRB) point conservative lead - well within the margin of error, but consistent with older polls unsullied by the bond. And the three polls that asked the question found that over 60 percent of voters expect New Democracy to win. All this strongly suggests that Pasok's efforts to sustain the bond topic with television appearances and parliamentary inquiries have not given it votes.

If this position holds, it will be the second time Pasok has failed to mire the conservatives in parliamentary committee hearings. The first was a sustained inquiry into the biggest act of political espionage in recent history through the Vodafone network - something New Democracy was the victim of but tried to cover up.
The latest scandal, in which the government seems to have insinuated bond issues into pension fund portfolios at disadvantageous prices, broke upon the Greek public on March 1. The conservatives withstood a political gale lasting two months before making Employment Minister Savvas Tsitouridis walk the plank on April 28.

The explanation for New Democracy's immunity this time around is probably in what VPRC found - that while 20 percent of Greeks blame the ruling conservatives most for endemic state corruption, 34 percent still blame the departed socialists even more; and that margin actually widened by six points over the past month.

There is a second major socialist weakness. The party is putting its voters out to graze while New Democracy is managing to herd its faithful. For instance, GPO finds that while 77 percent of New Democracy voters give their party good marks for performance, only 62 percent of Pasok voters do the same for theirs. The picture is similar with the personalities of the party leaders. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis wins the approval of 85 percent of his voters, but George Papandreou only inspires 69 percent of those who voted for him in 2004 - and that has gone up from an embarrassing 47 percent on the eve of the bond fiasco.

Overall, the most important measurement in Greek politics is whom voters find most suited to be prime minister. Karamanlis still enjoys leads over Papandreou of between 11.6 points (MRB) and 23 points (VPRC).

All this does not mean that voters are letting New Democracy off the hook. According to Metron Analysis, three-quarters of voters think Tsitouridis was a scapegoat; and according to GPO 69 percent find the bond impossible to dismiss, including 52 percent of conservative supporters. Minorities still want Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis and his deputy, Petros Doukas, to go.

Unfortunately for Pasok, Greeks think the grass is paler on its side. Not only do Greeks still blame Pasok for state corruption; 36 percent say New Democracy is best equipped to resolve corruption compared to just 25 percent for Pasok.

But it is the dissatisfaction with both that grabs the headlines. Another 36 percent says that neither party can clean house.

The result is spillage to small parties. The Left Coalition, once fearing for its political life, is set to re-enter parliament handsomely above the three percent threshold; and the right wing Laos is now set to enter for the first time.

Greeks seem to think that the remedy to corruption is not alternation between two parties, but a dilution of their ability to govern alone. The most pro-government poll, that of VPRC, commissioned by Kathimerini, says 59 percent of voters now prefer a coalition government. MRB found three-quarters in favour of a five-party parliament. How else to explain the fact that great majorities want parties they don't vote for to enter parliament - two-thirds for LAOS and 70 percent for the Left Coalition, according to GPO.

To an observer, the state of Greek democracy is not a healthy one. People are voting for ruling parties they do not fully trust. Despite their cynicism, they are not protected enough from outrage. Angered by continuing corruption, or perceived corruption, they want to prise their parties' insular gene pools open by forcing coalitions - a desperate measure in a country where parties do not collaborate. The last coalition, between communists and conservatives, had only one agenda - to get rid of the socialists - and floundered through two elections in 1990.

Polls between general elections are always somewhat tinged with the triumphalism of protest at the incumbent. Some of the seepage to the marginalia, left and right, may ultimately be sucked back in on election week. But the democratic deficit is now a clear liability for the two-party system.

Karamanlis may rest on Greece's exit from excessive deficit procedure and people's distrust of Pasok at the helm of the economy to return him to a second term; but he will likely only win a third by forcing his ministers to employ technocrats rather than chums, and live up to his promise of transparency.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The State of Non-Existence

The European Union has done more than any government's domestic agenda in the past two decades to liberalise and vitalise the economy. An enormous part of that vim has come from the (almost) free movement of goods, services, people and capital.

Yet these freedoms, along with the equal legal treatment of EU citizens, have now thrown Greece's treatment of non-EU citizens into sharp contrast. They still live in the Greece of the 1970s because no unified EU immigration policy towards third nationals exists.

This week we bring to light one of the worst aspects of the troubles non-EU residents face - the legal limbo of tens of thousands of children born in this country. Non-EU babies are barred from birth certificates, which would entitle them to Greek citizenship. Not all countries grant children born on their soil automatic citizenship, as, for instance, the US does; but the refusal to issue a birth certificate means that a non-EU minor is technically denied enrolment in a public school and, when he turns 21, must apply for a residence permit or citizenship. So on their 18th birthday, these young adults celebrate their emergence into society as illegal aliens by applying for legalisation and being subject to deportation.

There are softeners. Schools mercifully turn a blind eye to the certificate requirement because Greece is a humane society more than a law-abiding one. Instead, they settle for a form that simply registers birth. And adults may remain registered on their parents' residence permits until 21 years of age rather than 18, but the message they receive is that they do not belong to the society in which they were raised. This is particularly bizarre in the case of Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians whose parents repatriated.

It becomes even more bizarre in those cases when the parents' country of origin does not maintain an embassy here - as many African countries do not. In such cases newborns cannot obtain a passport, meaning that they may never travel and are stateless when they come of age.

The two municipalities of Sykea and Veroia (both Pasok) are putting a proposal to the Central Union of Communities and Municipalities (Kedke) that either non-EU children should be entitled to the full birth certificate, or that the birth registration should acquire the legal force of a certificate vis a vis school and health insurance.

The ombudsman, too, is preparing his proposals. One is to elevate the status of the registration, as in the proposal to Kedke. The other is to create a special municipal registry for non-EU births in every Greek town.

Pasok, meanwhile, has gone beyond an administrative fix to an ideological position, promising birthright citizenship.

If this were the only problem non-EU immigrants faced, it would be serious enough, but the labyrinth continues. Regional administrations take so long to issue annual residence permits that they run out of force just weeks before immigrants receive them.

The ruling conservatives have also played a silly game of evasion and discouragement with European longterm residence - a permit lasting five years Greece is obliged to issue to third country nationals who can prove five years of legal residence. After failing to delay longterm residence until 2011, they slapped a 900 euro application fee on the process, which the Council of State has ordered dropped as a violation of EU law.

A new round of legalisation in 2005 partly defeated its own object by demanding the most stringent forms of proof of residence in Greece for a year. Whereas Pasok governments had demanded utility bills and monthly bus passes, New Democracy demanded entry visas in passports. Ostensibly, this was done to prevent a wave of opportunistic immigration gate-crashing the legalisation process; but it thus included only those who had overstayed a legal period, and excluded practically all the populations from central Asia, along with many from Albania and Bulgaria, who entered illegally overland or over sea.

It also turned out to be a fallible requirement. The Pakistani consulate in Athens, for instance, recorded instances of its nationals who requested passports when the legalisation was announced and then had them doctored so that they appeared to have been issued a year earlier.

Perhaps the most ominous invention of the conservatives, however, is the cultural requirement. They have mandated 125 hours of Greek language and history lessons of applicants for longterm residence. Proof of Greek proficiency is lately being demanded of EU immigrants who want to work in frontisteria, too. The demand is a reasonable one if it is meant in good faith. Learning the national language is in an immigrant's economic interest and promotes integration; but it could all too easily become a back door for disqualification and protection of jobs for Greek nationals.

What is worrying about this formidable collection of hurdles is not that they exist - every country needs to set requirements for citizenship and residence - but the spirit in which they exist. They do not give any sign of flowing from a theoretical framework, but rather of being hastily erected palisades.

The absence of an immigration philosophy is troubling. Clearly, Greece needs manual labour (the country advertises over 50,000 positions every year even while providing work for an estimated half million illegals); clearly legalisation is driven by a need to make social security solvent and beat tax evasion; clearly the expensive public university system - undersubscribed in a number of disciplines - needs to follow the private in actively recruiting overseas, fee-paying students; and clearly, Greece is attractive to western lifestyle immigrants and fertile ground for mixed marriages.

Immigration is a socially and economically acceptable fact in all these forms, but no government has yet made the bold political decision to give legal residence or citizenship to everyone whom society and the economy seem capable of absorbing, preferring instead to keep them in a state of limbo. There is a clear political difficulty in asking Greeks to accept the permanence of a phenomenon that is ongoing. But the refusal to form policy leads to an unmistakeable deliberateness in the legal and psychological hiatus in which immigrants find themselves. That creates its own problem - the discomfiture of immigrants and their non-integration.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Protecting the Environment

In his interview with the Athens News this week, Greece's waste management tsar, Adamantios Skordilis, sees national recycling efforts in a positive light. We've come a long way in three years, he says. 

A glance at the figures recently provided by his boss, Public Works Minister George Souflias, bears him out. Almost a quarter of the estimated four million tonnes of waste Greece produces each year - 886,000 tonnes - was recycled in 2006, Souflias said. That includes everything from beer cans to vehicles. 

It is true that New Democracy has proceeded apace with the introduction into Greek law of European directives to recycle such things as end-of-life vehicles, machine oil, batteries and refrigerators. But the most rapidly growing rubbish sector - and 370,000 tonnes of Souflias' figure - is packaging waste. Even by Souflias' admission, only a third of the total is being reclaimed.

There are many reasons for the failure to reclaim household waste. The Hellenic Recovery and Recycling Corporation (HERRCO), responsible for recycling household waste nationwide, wants residents to sort paper, metal, plastic and glass from their general rubbish and place them in blue dumpsters, present in almost half of Greece's municipalities. But it did not spend any of its 26 million euro budget last year advertising the programme; nor did any of the 400-odd municipalities who are participating in it. Clearly, there needs to be a campaign.

Municipalities, who are the rubbish collectors, are the weak link in household waste. Being politically coloured, they often refuse to work with one another. For the first three years of New Democracy's reign, for instance, the Association of Attica Municipalities and Communities (ESDKNA), which oversees landfilling for the capital, was socialist-dominated. The predominantly blue municipalities of eastern Attica refused to participate and for a while contemplated forming their own waste management body. What kept them from doing so was that none of them wanted to be the site of the new landfill that would need to be created and managed.

To this day they dump rubbish illegally. In last year's local elections, ESDKNA came under conservative majority control. Its new head, Kifissia Mayor Nikos Hiotakis, says he wants to centralise waste management for the capital under his banner. That makes eminent good sense.

The greatest problem with the municipalities is that they have no incentive to recycle. ESDKNA charges its members a flat six percent of municipal income each year, while outside Attica most dump illegally for free. The illegal landfills need to be replaced by monitored ones, and municipalities need to be charged by the tonne.

The most effective way to advertise the blue bin programme is to tell people that their municipal charges will drop if they comply.

But the failure to recycle goes beyond advertising and gathering materials. Greece has never been a heavily industrialised economy. It does not have local smelters that can make the most effective use of discarded metals on a small scale; it has no paper mills, only two companies that make glass (one now recycles) and none that can put plastic to new use.

ESDKNA tried to overcome this problem by building what is touted as Europe's biggest recycling factory at Ano Liosia. It cost 75 million euros and is, at best, a non-disaster. It can separate metals and put biodegradeables out to compost, but industry has until now turned away its refuse-derived fuel (wood chip and plastic) as sub-par. Skordilis tells this newspaper he has struck a deal to send the fuel to a cement manufacturer, but it remains to be seen at what cost. The reason the plant failed is that the contractor's reward was not performance-related. The plant was the child of tax euros, which are there to be spent.

Private industry ought to be given more of a say in recycling. Given that transport is often prohibitively expensive (and reduces the benefit of recycling), local businesses ought to be given an opportunity to bid for contracts to process materials in new plants. The know-how exists in Europe (Czech companies put on a dazzling show of technology in Athens last month) and Greece is awash with rubbish and entrepreneurs.
There are worse examples of recycling failure than household waste. The most egregious is sewage, and here Souflias has not dealt with the situation effectively. Pasok governments left him with a partial treatment plant for Attica, on the island of Psyttaleia off Piraeus. It produces clean water and condensed raw sewage that has to be shipped abroad for treatment at great taxpayer cost.

Once again, it is the end user - private industry - that has not been met half-way. Psyttaleia was to have included a final stage in which the sludge was baked into dry fuel bricks.

The insistence by both private contractors and the public sector on seeing rubbish as a subsidy opportunity rather than a business opportunity has led to several dead ends - uncollected materials across the land, a recycling white elephant at Ano Liosia and a sewage plant so ridiculously under wraps that it amounts to a feculent Alcatraz.

It is right that the public and private sectors should work together in waste management; but the only way recycling is going to complete the industrial cycle is by making marketable materials. For all the good public policy intentions, both sides in Greece have failed to work on the problem backwards - from the marketplace to the landfill.