Monday, 20 January 2014

Terrorist resurfaces with call to arms against austerity

Convicted Greek terrorist Christodoulos Xiros has called for a new armed struggle against Greece's austerity policies.

"I have decided once again to thunder with the guerrilla rifle against those who stole our lives and sold dreams for profit," he writes in a proclamation dated January 14, but issued today on indymedia, an omnibus website for left wing activists and anarchists. An accompanying video sets him against portraits of Greek infantry captains who led the nationalist revolution against the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.

The 58 year-old Xiros went missing on January 9 when he failed to report to authorities during a furlough from his prison sentence. He was one of the key hit-men for 17 November, Greece's deadliest and longest-running terrorist organisation (1975-2002). He was convicted in 2003 for participating in five murders.

Whereas 17N's action had almost exclusively targeted US diplomats and Greeks, Xiros apportions particular blame to Germany for Greece's present predicament.

"Just as in 1941 [the Nazis] forced us to finance the occupation with forced loans etc., we are now financing the Fourth Reich with slashed salaries and pensions."

Greece was forced to lend Nazi Germany an estimated 228 million dollars through two central bank loans during the height of the Nazi occupation, in 1943. Some mainstream politicians have called upon Germany to repay those loans, reducing the Greek debt.

This is not the first time a 17N member has been critical of Germany. Xiros' brother, Savvas, was one of two members of 17 November who fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the home of then German ambassador Karl Kuhna in February 1999. It was the only high-profile attack on a German diplomat in decades, and came in response to Germany's participation in the NATO bombardment of Serbia - Germany's first offensive military action since World War Two.

Christodoulos Xiros' escape comes as an embarrassment to Greece, which this month assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Although the presidency is a largely administrative job of of co-ordinating European ministers in legislative work, it carries great prestige.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Greece's poor could see some relief in May

Greece's ruling conservatives may have the opportunity to woo voters with a social spending package ahead of May's European Parliament election. It would be the first such electoral sweetener in years, and would come thanks to Greece's austere fiscal policy under the tutelage of its creditors.

The government said on Tuesday that its 2013 tax revenues fell 328 million euros short of targets, but government spending was so disciplined that the central government will produce a primary surplus of about 700 million euros, compared to a primary deficit of 3.5 billion euros last year.

Once general government revenues (which include local government, hospitals and foundations) are taken into account, the surplus could reach well over 800 million euros, with some Greek media reporting an expected primary surplus of close to a billion euros. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has pledged that 70 percent of any primary surplus will go into social spending.

If corroborated by the European Statistical Service in April, the surplus would place Greece's performance last year well ahead of targets set by the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Greece has a way to go, however, if it is to single-handedly service its debt to those organisations without borrowing further. Its adjustment programme forecasts growth of 4.5 percent of GDP by 2016, a difficult if not impossible pole-vault, given a recession of similar size last year.

Should growth fail to materialise this year as expected, Greek taxpayers may also have trouble sustaining payments. The government attributes the revenue shortfall of 328 million euros to delayed payouts from the European Commission, but it could equally suggest increasing taxpayer fatigue. Greeks are being called upon to pay a staggering combination of regular income tax and property back taxes before new tax filings come due in April. The pressure on household incomes is so great that the finance ministry this week advised those who cannot stick to payment schedules to simply pay what they can. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Greece's Unemployment Breaks Record

Despite a rebound for tourism last summer, Greece's unemployment has hit a new record high of 27.8 percent for last October. The figures were released last Thursday by the Hellenic Statistical Authority. The General Confederation of Greek Workers, which represents private sector labour, believes that the nominal figures are an underestimation, and that the real figure is closer to 33 percent, because underemployment and salary arrears are not taken into account.

Despite Antonis Samaras' bullish predictions of an impending turnaround last spring, Greece's unemployment - the highest in Europe - has risen steadily for five years:

Greek Unemployment Oct. 2008 – Oct. 2013
October 2008
October 2009
October 2010
October 2011
October 2012
October 2013
(Source: Hellenic Statistical Authority)

See the Al Jazeera English report here

Friday, 10 January 2014

Greeks Desperately Seek Good Authority in EU

This article was published by Al Jazeera English.

The Greeks had said that theirs will be an austere presidency, and they showed from day one that they mean it. EU press rooms are normally lavishly catered. Greece produced canteens of black coffee and a number of sandwiches so small that their reputation traveled much further than they did.

The EU presidency may not be the grand institution it was when Greece last held it in 2003, ushering in a massive expansion into Eastern Europe; heads of government and foreign ministers now have permanent chairs to their councils, sparing the traveling circus the EU's biggest decisions; but it is still, by virtue of its rotation through member states, the greatest symbol of democracy and institutional equality federal Europe has after the European Parliament. Greece means to use it to remind powerful states like Germany that it can still influence the debate on Europe's future, even if it is a disgraced member of the club.

It helps that Greece now seems to be rounding the corner of the deepest and longest recession suffered by a Western economy since World War Two. The government is keen to tie its own expected recovery this year, however feeble, to a new era in which Europe will prioritise growth and jobs over austerity, and it is gradually feeling its way to a narrative that suggests a phoenix rising from the ashes (though politicians have consciously avoided that analogy: the phoenix was the logo adopted by a colonels’ dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years until 1974; many people here feel that Germany’s dictation of economic and fiscal policy has been an even greater blow to sovereign democracy than the colonels).

Greece has, without doubt, achieved one of the greatest fiscal adjustments the world has seen. In 2009, it borrowed 36 billion euros above tax revenues. Last year, if the finance ministry's estimate proves right, it made a primary surplus of almost a billion. The human cost of that adjustment has been appalling - a million jobs lost during the crisis, meaning that according to figures released on Thursday, 3.6 million people are supporting 4.7 million.

Not surprisingly, Greece wants to turn its back on that period, willing the nightmare to end. If its 2013 performance is confirmed in April, Greece is expected to seek a drastic restructuring of its unsustainable debt, now at 175 percent of GDP, possibly by asking for a massive extension of its maturity.

The problem is that while greater fiscal health may buy back some lost respect in Europe, economists agree that its benefits won’t be felt by the man and woman on the street for another year or two. A slow, jobless recovery carries the risk of political instability long before the next general election is officially due in 2016. 

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces a European Parliamentary election in May, which is widely expected to bring Eurosceptic powers to the Strasbourg legislature. He was bullish when asked by the Financial Times whether he can remain in power long enough to see the EU presidency out. “I understand that some people like to show anger for those huge sacrifices they had to go through,” he said. “However, I have full trust to the Greek people that when they vote, they also vote for their children and they also vote for the future... and that means more and better Europe.”

A little more than a year ago Greece stood on the verge of what has been called the Iphigenia scenario – being kicked out of the Eurozone as a cathartic sacrifice to preserve the membership of other weak members. Greeks have largely supported the difficult decision to remain within the Eurozone largely for one reason – they see Brussels as a necessary check to national politicians they feel very little instinctive trust or respect for. Since the turn of the millennium, politicians and the media have scored very low marks in opinion polls here, while Eurobarometer polls have almost always found Greeks willing to cede competences to Brussels. When the state finally bankrupted itself in 2010, Greeks grasped a distant, desperate and hard-hearted authority to escape an incompetent one. Embracing the EU presidency may turn out to be one of the few popular things Samaras has been able to do during his brief tenure.