Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A racist attack every 2 days in Greece

This article was published by EnetEnglish.

Police are reportedly involved in about 15% of all racist attacks reported to 1 Against Racism last year (photo by Anna Psaroudaki)

Racist attacks on immigrants in Greece took place on average once every two and a half days last year, according to a report released today by Greece’s leading racism watchdog.

1 Against Racism recorded 154 attacks during 2012. It says almost all of the attacks were perpetrated by Greek males in their late 20s, operating in small groups. “Most attacks happen after sunset or in the early morning hours,” the report says. “The commonest form of attack is a  ‘patrol’ of blackshirts, on foot or on motorcycles, acting as self-appointed vigilantes, who attack refugees and immigrants on the street, on squares or public transport waiting areas.”

Most victims are from Central Asia and North Africa, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Libya and Egypt. The blackshirts’ preferred weapons are crowbars, clubs and broken glass bottles, the victims report. Almost all the attacks were in Athens.

Perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that police were reportedly involved in 25 of these attacks - one in six. Seven of them reportedly took place inside detention facilities. In a further 17 of the incidents, the attackers were allegedly uniformed police officers. The report explains that, “these are incidents in which officers carrying out routine duties resort to illegal and violent behaviour.”

Police had not seen the report on Wednesday and said they were unable to comment on it.

1 Against Racism was set up in 2011 by a consortium of 30 NGOs, including the Greek chapters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Doctors of the World, Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Its express purpose is to record violence whose victims are too intimidated to talk to the authorities, or who would face deportation if they did so. 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Privatisation should focus on jobs, says new agency chief

This article was published on EnetEnglish.

The headquarters of OPAP, Greece's gaming monopoly

Greece’s privatisation agency was due on Monday evening to announce the winning bid for the state’s one-third share in gaming monopoly OPAP. The sale, worth an estimated 220 million euros, is to be its largest sale to date, and may signal that after two years of false starts, privatisation may finally take off.

“The sale of real estate and corporate assets is now absolutely necessary,” said Stelios Stavridis, the incoming chairman of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, as the privatisation body is known. He is the third man in the job in two years, and made his first public remarks on Thursday to a crowd of businesspeople and government functionaries invited by the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.

“We know we are in a war,” he said, alluding to political pressure against the activities of the fund from the opposition. It has sold practically nothing since it was created in 2011 under the terms of Greece’s first bailout loan. “We know people are targeting us. The conventional approach would be to say, ‘let’s follow procedures and do nothing.’ That’s not what we’re here to do.” 

The fund failed to bring 1.7 billion euros into public coffers last year, as a contribution to paying down Greece’s debt. It is charged with raising 2.4 billion euros this year – a target even Stavridis is not entirely sure will be met.

But meeting revenue targets may be besides the point, he thinks. “For me, the amount of money that we will be getting from an asset initially is just a tiny fraction of the wealth that is going to be created through developing this asset, through absorbing tens of thousands of jobs, through the wealth that will be brought from abroad,” he remarked privately later. Greek corporations and banks have no liquidity, he pointed out, and the fund has to attract money from abroad.

The troika of Greece’s creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – originally had high hopes for the potential of privatisation to pay down the country’s debt. That is partly because the state owns roughly 100,000 real estate properties, which some pre-crisis estimates valued at about 300 billion euros – enough to pay the debt off in its entirety.

Greece’s original memorandum with the troika set a privatisation goal of 50 billion euros, but repeated disappointments have revised that down to 10.4 billion by 2016.

Now, after five years of recession that are on target to claim a quarter of the Greek economy by the end of this year, and with unemployment forecast to reach over 30 percent, Stavridis believes that the growth potential stemming from privatisation is far more important than the sale revenue.

“Because we were not willing to do privatisations and reforms, we’ve seen income dropping dramatically, salaries dropping dramatically. We’ve seen a totally irrational tax burden, and all this is due [to the fact that] we cannot create privatisations and reforms. So I feel the pressure on us tremendously. We have to go ahead quickly because if we don’t do it we will go back to discussing salary cuts, this society cannot support that any more.”

Privatisation has been one of the biggest bones of contention between Greek governments and the troika. In February 2011 it became the subject of the first open rift between then finance minister Yiorgos Papakonstantinou and troika representatives, when they held a press conference in Athens to announce that the government had committed to raising 50 billion euros through sales of corporations and real estate.

The revelation created enormous controversy and stirred opposition to the memorandum. Even government MPs questioned whether such a sale of assets was technically feasible, or desirable given that it might depress the value of privately held real estate dangerously. Many Greeks were skeptical about the rationale of selling profitable state companies. Even Stavridies admits, “we didn’t want to sell DEPA and DESFA,” the lucrative state gas monopoly and its subsidiary, which owns the pipeline network, both due to go on the block this year. “The Europeans put a knife to our throats.”

Also to go this year are the state lotteries and Hellenikon, Athens’ former airport – a mammoth development covering over six million square metres and including the Olympic yachting marina at Agios Kosmas. If Stavridis manages to sell these assets for impressive sums and demonstrates job creation, he may overcome that throat-slitting image, which the fund represents for many Greeks. 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Faith erodes in austerity, political system

This article was published by EnetEnglish.

Anti-austerity parties in parliament would win a majority of votes if an election were to happen tomorrow, a new nationwide opinion poll being published by Sunday Eleftherotypia shows.

The poll also indicates that faith in the democratic political system is collapsing, with almost a third of respondents expressing nostalgia for the 1967-74 dictatorship on the eve of the coup’s 46th anniversary.

Parties that reject austerity and want to re-write the country’s loan agreements with the Eurozone - the radical left Syriza, staunchly conservative Independent Greeks, far-right Golden Dawn and the communist party - would take 51.9 percent of the popular vote, compared to the 45.8 percent they won in June, the poll indicates.

The poll also suggests a strengthening of smaller parties at the expense of the two major players. The ruling New Democracy conservatives and opposition radical left Syriza continue to run neck-and-neck, garnering 18.7 percent and 18.1 percent of the vote respectively in the poll’s raw, unrendered results.

But each party is dwarfed by the 30 percent of respondents who are undecided, or say they will not vote or cast a blank ballot. Even distributing these proportionally among the parties for which a preference was expressed only raises New Democracy to 27 percent and Syriza to 26.2 percent – a point below their June 2012 performance.

By this reckoning, the far right Golden Dawn would enter third at 10.7 percent, and the anti-austerity Independent Greeks, who also stand to the right of New Democracy, fourth at 9.5 percent, both significantly strengthened compared to the last election, indicating that anti-austerity parties on the right continue to eat away at New Democracy’s ability to regain its former glory as the coach-house of the centre-right.

Voters continue to punish the conservatives’ partners in government; the socialist Pasok would come in fifth with 8 percent of the vote, down from 12 in the last election, and the moderate Democratic Left sixth with 5.6 percent compared to 6.3.

Dictatorship nostalgia, suspicion of politicians

Perhaps more worrying is the fact that faith in Greece’s political system seems to be at an all-time low.

Thirty percent of respondents agreed that under the 1967-74 dictatorship “things were better than they are today,” according to the poll. That figure rises to 46 percent among New Democracy voters, but even a quarter of Syriza voters agree.

Nostalgia for the dictatorship is markedly higher when people are asked about living standards and security, where 46 percent and 59 percent say conditions were better, respectively. 

The dictatorship was launched on April 21, 1967 by a nationalist conspiracy of colonels who had become radicalised during their military service in Cyprus. It collapsed after a failed attempt to spawn a coup in Cyprus in July 1974 triggered the Turkish invasion of the island. Since the restoration of democracy, loathing of the colonels’ dictatorship has become a mantra for politicians of all hues.

Yet it is those post-dictatorship politicians who are now viewed with suspicion. Sixty-nine percent of respondents say they have “low” faith in parliament. Ninety-three percent of respondents believe that political parties subsist on unregulated money, while 70 percent say the parties should no longer be funded by the public purse. Three quarters of all Greeks continue to prefer coalition governments to single-party rule.

The Greek Weltanschaung

Perhaps not surprisingly for a society that has lost almost a quarter of its economy, the Greeks have little faith in their European partners’ handling of the crisis. Seventy-eight percent believe things are worse in the Eurozone now than they were a year ago. Ninety-four percent want the government to seek reparations for forced wartime loans to Nazi Germany, while 89 percent have a negative view of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Government revenues fall, targets slip

This article was published by EnetEnglish.

The Greek government's revenues are slipping significantly, official figures show on the eve of a new assessment by the country's creditors, raising questions about whether it can repeat last year's feat of meeting deficit targets.

Tax revenues for January and February fell by 624 million euros to 8.6bn - a 6.7 percent drop compared to the same period in 2012. General government revenues (including local government, providential funds, universities, hospitals etc.) fell by 1.6bn euros to 16.9bn, a drop of 8.7 percent. 

The government's balance sheet is still in the black at 72mn euros, but a far cry from the 2.3bn figure at the end of February last year. 

Labour unions warned earlier this year that rising unemployment (nominally at 27 percent) and depletion of bank deposits meant that households could only focus on vital spending for food, clothing and utilities, with little left over to pay taxes and pension funds.

2012 was the only year in which Greece met targets since it borrowed tens of billions of euros from the so-called troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in May 2010, entering an austerity regime of deficit reduction. Now it appears to be in danger of returning to the more familiar pattern of missing revenue collection targets and deficit targets, as its economy continues to shrink.

Representatives of the troika were due in Athens Wednesday to assess Greece's progress towards claiming a 2.6bn euro tranche of its loan at the end of April. Falling revenues are expected to be on the agenda. Another hot topic will be the departure of at least 150,000 employees from the public payroll by the end of 2015, an economy Greece pledged itself to making in two memoranda that accompanied its bailout loans. 

Greece has worked hard to sharply reduce healthcare and pharmaceutical spending in 2012, but the pressure is now on for the government to dismiss 15,000 employees in 2013. Interior Minister Antonis Manitakis has increasingly emerged as unsympathetic to this idea.

“As it became clear that the departure of 150,000 civil servants could be achieved through retirement, in the second memorandum [of 2012] the further goal was added of 15,000 dismissals,” Manitakis said in a public discussion onWednesday.

“All talk of dismissals stirs an irrational fear in all employees, even worthy ones. It paralyses and undermines every declaration of reform. It cancels out evaluation procedures. In other words, it works as an alibi for doing nothing, changing nothing, leaving everything as it is… and prompts workers to not care and work to order.”

Manitakis said that 32,000 civil servants had been retired in 2012 and that this was not included in the 150,000 that would go by 2015, leaving about 600,000 civil servants still on the job by then. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Greeks Blaming Greeks

This editorial was published by EnetEnglish

Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades addresses civil servants on March 29 in Nicosia (Reuters) 

As armies of reporters departed Cyprus towards the end of last week, and the Cypriot people felt that they had sufficiently vilified the Eurozone for leaving their banking system uninsured against its own misinvestments, they settled down to the task of apportioning blame among themselves.

The government’s dissatisfaction with central banker Panikos Dimitriades for sacrificing Laiki Bank, the country’s second-largest, is an open secret. One lawmaker on March 28 brought forward a motion to transfer his newly elected extraordinary powers to resolve financial institutions to the finance minister, instead. The discussion was postponed.

Potentially nasty secrets are beginning to wend their way into the press. Greek national daily Ethnos published excerpts of a list of current and former Cypriot politicians who, for one reason or another, had large portions of un-repaid loans written off. The list has been lodged with the Cypriot parliament’s transparency committee, the newspaper said on March 29, and awaits discussion.

This soul-searching process was kicked off by President Nikos Anastasiades himself, who was elected on February 25 and entered in medias res a negotiation the previous Cypriot administration began with the Eurozone the previous summer. In a contrite address to the nation on March 25, he announced a judicial panel with powers to investigate and prosecute financial or political wrongdoing, both during his brief tenure and, more to the point, under the previous administration. He refined the point at the end of the week. “I am not one to point fingers,” he told a gathering of civil servants, “but I think that there are times when people have to exercise some self-criticism, and especially those who held the management of the economy in their hands.”

Anastasiades and his cabinet have given the judicial inquiry the broadest possible rubric, but they have emphaised the need to investigate the circumstances under which Cypriot banks bought Greek bonds, particularly as other European banks were dumping them; the circumstances under which two administrations were prevailed upon in the Eurogroup to accept the terms of the bailout; and why Laiki Bank was allowed to accrue 9.3 billion euros’ worth of debt to the ECB when it was technically insolvent.

The judicial inquiry ought to preoccupy Greek authorities as much as Cypriot. Greek negligence, or worse, was instrumental in the two most destructive individual acts to the Cypriot economy in recent years.

The first of these was the massive explosion on Greece’s military base at Mari, on Cyprus’ south coast, in July 2011. The explosion, caused by improper, prolonged storage of confiscated ordnance bound for Syria, all but destroyed Cyprus’ largest power station at Vasiliko, which lies adjacent to the base. The costs to the Electricity Authority of Cyprus of restoring generating capacity, providing temporary diesel generators and of lost revenue due to power cuts is in the neighbourhood of 400 million euros.

Among other things, the explosion was a crushing blow to the credibility of the Christofias government. It would sorely miss that credibility the following year, when Cyprus would face a comeuppance over the second and more destructive of Greece’s acts – the sale of government bonds to the Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank. 

The bonds’ devaluation in March last year cost the Cypriot banks approximately five billion euros, rendering them insolvent. The Cypriot government hadn’t the cash to bail them out, so they survived on life support from the European Central Bank in the form of emergency liquidity assistance. This made the ECB the arbiter of time on Cyprus’ negotiations with the Eurogroup. When, on March 16, it pulled the plug to force Cypriot compliance, the game was up.

The process of recrimination is not a pleasant one, particularly when it pits Greeks against Greeks; but before blaming northern Europeans for their hard-hearted and desperate decisions, the Greeks need to clear out their own deadwood.

It is an open secret among bankers that the purchase of bonds has long been a condition of doing business in Greece. Successive Greek governments financed their reckless election promises by selling paper to high street banks. The banks, in turn, made easy profits on that paper during the years when markets effectively stopped assessing risks. If the Cypriot investigation means business, it should end a number of political and financial careers in both countries. That will be a painful process, but if the Greek crisis has demonstrated anything it is that the political system cannot survive unless it cleanses itself and installs a proper distance between itself and the private sector.