Friday, 29 August 2008

Fyrom's missed opportunity

This was meant to be the year of the Macedonian issue. In view of a Nato summit where Yugoslav Macedonia was to be admitted as a member along with two other southeast European nations, United Nations mediator Mattew Nimetz submitted a shortlist of five name proposals in mid-February. Greece leaned towards Northern Macedonia, reversing a 17-year practice of ruling out any name containing the M-word.

Evidently trusting in the ability of the US to bring Greece on board, Nikola Gruevski, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Macedonia, stuck to his guns. Greece vetoed his country's membership, as it had amply warned it would do; it has already warned that it will veto Yugoslav Macedonia's candidacy status prior to the European Union summit in December.

Gruevski, whose coalition was returned to power on June 1, has gone on the offensive. The day after the election, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, as the country is provisionally entered in the UN, refused passage to a Greek relief convoy bound for Kosovo. On July 14 he wrote to Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis seeking redress for the properties vacated by what he termed ethnic Macedonians who fled Greece in 1949. He also requested due consideration for the language and educational rights of what he termed ethnic Macedonians still living in Greece.

The intended effect of such a letter cannot have been misjudged by Gruevski, himself the grandson of a Macedonian Greek who fled to communist Yugoslavia at the close of the Greek Civil War. Greece refuses to recognise a Macedonian ethnicity - something Karamanlis reiterated in his response four days later. With the exchange of those letters the prospects of a solution without outside help ground to a halt.

The negotiating position in Skopje is now that Greece must recognise a Macedonian people before proceeding to discuss the country's name.

The intended strategy behind pushing away a solution that is within reach is not clear. Most Greek officials have been ready to accept a composite name solution since the dispute began in 1991. It took the intervening years for public opinion to come on board. Polls conducted last March and a year earlier found that only 43 percent of Greeks would oppose a composite name containing the term Macedonia, as long as the agreement was binding on all Fyrom's bilateral relations with other countries. The conservative government of Karamanlis has committed itself to such a solution, which it wants sealed inside a UN Security Council Resolution.

What, then, can Gruevski be playing at? Perhaps he is simply putting bargaining chips on the table. If that is the case, he will need an opportunity to cash them in well before a European Commission report on his country's progress, due in October; but such an opportunity has not yet been tabled. Leaked reports of a new proposal to be tabled by Condoleezza Rice in September remain unconfirmed.

Perhaps Gruevski sees the Greek concession as granted and wants to play for what he can get. It is difficult to see what that could be in diplomatic terms. There is no international legal process for the recognition (or denial) of ethnicities, and the UN talks are strictly about the country's name.

While this inscrutable nationalistic game goes on, the country pays the price of remaining outside multilateral organisations. US ambassador to Skopje Gillian Milovanovic implied her reproach of this in an August 26 interview. "I don't think there is any positive prospect for Macedonia without membership in Nato, and I mean quick membership, " she said.

The sacrificing of Fyrom's membership in stabilising clubs is also displeasing the ethnic Albanian community, who see Nato and the EU as the main guarantors of their long-term equality. Also weighing against Fyrom is the damage to its long-term economic prospects. These are high risks and heavy prices to pay for a nationalism that ultimately fits into no long-term strategy for the country's future, but serves only to build more political capital for Gruevski and his party, the VMRO.

Greek diplomacy cannot address the ethnic preoccupation broadcast by Skopje, and attempting to could only backfire. The only thing Athens therefore need do is stick to its compromise position and look good to the rest of the world.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Greece's image in the world

The beating to death of an Australian tourist on Mykonos has woken Greeks up to the question of how the rest of the world perceives this country. It is a periodic awakening, usually following senseless deaths of tourists.

Last year two French tourists drowned in the bowels of the cruise ship Sea Diamond, run aground by its captain off Santorini. In 2006 two British siblings died tragically of carbon monoxide poisoning when the boiler of their rented bungalow on Corfu malfunctioned. In 2003 a young Briton was slashed to death with a broken bottle in the Rhodes resort of Faliraki following a night of binge drinking. Such stories are inevitably going to generate headlines in countries whose nationals suffer.

Sometimes the tourism-related stories are objectively important. In the biggest such story in recent years, 121 passengers and crew were killed in 2005 when a Cypriot Boeing 737 failed to compress at high altitude and plunged into eastern Attica. And Greece made international headlines in 2000 when 85 people drowned on board the Express Samina in the country's second-worst maritime disaster.

Travel and tourism-related stories, along with natural disasters such as last year's forest fires, also happen to be the biggest international headlines Greece has generated since the 2004 Olympics. This is both good and bad. As one veteran foreign correspondent points out (see article on page 5), it is a sign of how economic and political progress have moved Greece on from the upheavals of civil war, reconstruction and dictatorship between the 1940s and the 1970s; but it is also a signal that Greece is politically and economically trivial - a resort country the rest of the world remembers when the second home market heats up.

The trivialisation of Greece is not all its own doing. The country is partly a victim of the trivialisation of world news. As print media and even television begin to go into the red, news-gathering budgets are being slashed. The only news bureaus in Athens are run by the workhorses of the industry - the wire agencies - which act as a press pool for their clients. Besides them, few news organisations here offer salaried positions. Even active freelancers are few, and a press ministry demand that their dispatches be their chief source of income is a bit of a joke.

The dearth of news-gathering cash is leading to travesties; wire agencies now see their stories cannibalised by would-be correspondents, or sometimes stolen wholesale by desk editors in London and New York who can't afford to field a journalist (or can't be bothered to).

Greece is also partly a victim of each country's natural introspection. With so many foreign nationals visiting (they were the majority of 16 million arrivals last year), any deaths during the news-starved summer months will cause disproportional headlines back home and displace other, perhaps more important, stories.

But if Greece cares about its image globally - and all the indications are that it does - it only seems to remember half the time. Television talkfests buzz with concern over the fallout on tourism and national pride every time a foreign medium criticises Greece; but when the furore is forgotten, it does not seem to occur to anyone that the country's self-determination is its biggest story.

In the postwar stories, the political and social revolution that was the coming to power of Pasok in 1981, in being the eurozone straggler in 2001 and the country with the lowest expectations to hold the Olympics for some time, Greece was seen as striving for something. Our spectacular foreign policy turnaround in 1999 took Turkey by surprise and we leveraged the European Union effectively enough to nearly solve the division of Cyprus in 2004.

Increasingly, though, Greece seems to be getting bogged down in complacency and an inability to pass economic and social reforms. Either they are not passed to the extent that they are necessary (each administration seeming to be in conversation with the next) or not addressed at all. That is the case in the environment and the perception of corruption and lack of transparency, meritocracy and accountability in the public sector.

When a country seems to be at a stalemate with itself the media tend to lose interest. When it seems to be on the cusp of change the microphones come closer. Without a slew of reforms Greece will only be subject to the stories it cannot generate or suppress - human tragedy and natural disaster. It will be in terms of the media and real terms in the hands of fate.

One foreign correspondent speaking to this newspaper put it best: "There's no sense of the country having any specific task to complete."

Friday, 1 August 2008

The socialist party needs to outgrow the union movement

The opposition has flown into a frenzy of well-worn phrases about how the social state is being eroded and social dialogue abandoned. The cause is Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis' amendment passed in parliament last week, which makes it harder for state workers in loss-making concerns to get annual raises.

Until now, public employees could be confident of an annual raise in collective bargaining agreements because if they couldn't agree with management they could call in a board of arbitration. The board traditionally split the difference between the two sides, meaning that half of an outrageous claim could conceivably be met.

No longer. Management must now approve an appeal to arbitration, leaving workers with strikes as their only resort.

Otherwise reasonable people and unionists have called on the government to rethink. Loukas Apostolidis, a cultivated diplomat and former intelligence chief, says Alogoskoufis is trampling on human dignity. Kostas Poupakis, New Democracy's top unionist, told Alogoskoufis to take the amendment back. Yannis Manolis, a former unionist who fancies himself the conscience of the conservatives, wondered why his party had to be the one to admit defeat in keeping up the rate of deficit spending Greeks have come to expect.

New Democracy may have proven themselves at least as corrupt as their predecessors - and on that score budget savings are unlikely until the next election - but the party has made a sincere effort to sew up the holes in state-controlled companies.

Its first law affecting state enterprises (DEKOs) was passed in December 2005. It obliged management to follow international financial reporting standards and create three-year business plans; and it obliged new hires to come in without tenure.

The first measure would suggest preparation for privatisation, or at least private sector-style management, but the last measure laid the foundation only for generational change. It will be at least two decades before DEKOs look attractive enough to investors if they slim their payrolls by attrition.

The enterprising CEO of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation (OTE), retired investment banker Panagis Vourloumis, sped things along. He embarked in 2006 on a voluntary redundancy scheme that enabled him to shed 700 workers. The cost was high - 913 million euros - because Vourloumis offered veterans the entire balance of what they would be paid until retirement to retire immediately. The scheme was so successful - OTE boosted its shareholder value over the following two years - that it may be repeated for a further 650.

Although voluntary retirement schemes have not been announced for other DEKOs, they have at least been proven a viable option. Alogoskoufis is suggesting nothing so radical for the 25 DEKOs that collectively cost the taxpayer 1.5 billion euros last year - about 6.5 percent of GDP. He merely wants to make it harder for collective bargaining agreements with labour to raise that cost every year by a fixed percentage at the stroke of a pen.

The unspoken message is clear: the economy will never right itself without savings. Alogoskoufis has already tried everything else - he has lowered personal and corporate tax as a stimulant for new businesses and more taxpayers on payroll; he has revised the debt he inherited upward, which gave him a more unfavourable starting post to measure his progress against; then he revised GDP upward, which lowered deficit and debt figures by proportion; in a pinch, he raised VAT to make good a revenue shortfall. Despite all, the deficit - forecast for a new low of 1.6 percent of GDP this year - will now likely be closer to three percent.

Those three percentage points are dwarfed by the amount we will pay this year to bail out the payroll of workers hired by Pasok. But our children will pay that with interest, and therein lies the criminality of opposing as reasonable a measure as that which Alogoskoufis carried through parliament last week.

Almost all the DEKO debt is caused by companies in the transport sector - of this year's estimated 1.6bn euro bill, the Hellenic Railways Organisation is already responsible for an estimated 878mn, and Athens' public transport network at least a further half million. Olympic Airlines and Olympic Airways will incur an undisclosed amount of damage.

If the value of city transport networks can include the fact that cities are simply not viable without them, and neither, therefore, are urban economies, they can be seen as parts of a worthwhile whole; carbon emissions savings should be rightly taken into account, too, and there is now a financial mechanism through which to do so.

Yet even if we consider subsidised buses, trolleys, metropolitan rail and trams - areas where private sector competition would certainly drive fares up - a socialist base on which capitalism may thrive, we must surely penalise long-distance transport for behaving in the same way. Intercity and international trips are not a daily necessity, and these markets are served by a viable private sector.

The political priorities that drive parties in power are destructive to the ends of efficiency and accountability that must drive corporations. Politics is an essentially humane practice, and business essentially inhumane. The tug of war between the two is the healthy state of affairs; when the public and private sectors buy each other out, the game becomes rigged to the long-term detriment of both.