Athens recovers from riots, but anger and anxiety remain
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Life in Athens is returning to normal after weekend riots in protest of a new austerity package. But the anger of the people has not subsided. FRANCE 24 reports from the ground.
In downtown Athens, there’s a mild burning smell, some graffiti splashed across building walls, and bits of stone and concrete on the street.
These are the immediately noticeable remains of the violent demonstrations that broke out four days ago in protest at the Greek parliament’s vote to pass the austerity bill needed for the bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Farther away from Syntagma Square, located in front of Parliament, one can more clearly see the blackened facades of buildings that were set on fire, as well as shattered storefront windows. But while coffee and peanut vendors have resumed work, shops have reopened, and people in the street appear calmer, there is nevertheless a simmering anger among Greeks toward their government and the EU in general.
The owner of a small café near Syntagma Square laughs while holding up the latest edition of the right-wing daily Demokratia. The newspaper’s front page features a photo of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble edited to make it look like he is wearing a Nazi uniform. “It’s not a good time to be German around here,” the café owner said.
Indeed, since the start of this crisis, Greeks have directed much of their anger at Germany, who have been dominating the EU bailout of Greece – and whose Nazi occupation left deep wounds.
On Sunday, Greek resentment of Germany reached a new high. While Greek parliament members -- under pressure from the EU and IMF -- passed a new austerity plan, Schauble referred to Greece as “a bottomless pit” and questioned the effectiveness of prior measures to help the country’s economy.
Athenians were not pleased. “So what has been the point of all the sacrifices we’ve made over the past two years,” Elena, a shoe store employee, wondered aloud indignantly.
Jobless rates in Greece are soaring, with nearly 21 percent of the total active population, and roughly 50 percent of those under 25 years-old, unemployed. Maria (not her real name), in her thirties, has a good job in the Greek labour ministry. She thinks the real unemployment figures are considerably higher than the official numbers cited by authorities. “Many people are not registered as job seekers,” she said. “Often they’re hopeless; they think that declaring themselves as unemployed won’t help them get anywhere.”
Maria does not have much hope herself. Seated at a table at Booze, a big, trendy café in central Athens, she spoke of the toll that economic hardship has taken on the people of Greece. “It’s getting harder and harder to imagine a future here,” she confided. “My husband is doing his doctoral thesis in the UK. I think that as soon as he’s finished, we’ll move to another country in Europe, or maybe in the Middle East. Because the future is not bright here.”
Young Greeks have indeed been leaving the country in large numbers; many have gone to Australia, where a big Greek community exists.
‘People living on the brink’
“With my situation here five years ago, I would have considered buying an apartment,” Maria explained. “Today, it’s impossible. We don’t even plan on having children now, because it would be too hard to raise them in proper conditions.” In less than a year, her salary was cut by more than 18 percent. “And I was hired after the biggest salary cuts for civil servants [imposed after the first austerity plan in May 2010].”
Some Greek public employees have seen their salaries cut in half over the past two years. But the private sector has barely fared better, with businesses laying off significant numbers of workers. Socioeconomic consequences have been disastrous. Government and private sector employees who were previously considered middle-class are often no longer able to pay off their mortgages. Many Athenians have had to leave their homes and move back in with their parents in rural areas. Others, drowning in debt, have ended up joining the growing ranks of homeless that can be seen on the streets of downtown Athens.
The lowering of the minimum monthly salary for those under 25 years of age from 586 to 360 euros has certainly not helped young Greeks trying to make ends meet. “On 586 euros a month, you may be able to live with a roommate and have enough to eat every day in Athens,” Maria said. “But you can’t pay for transportation, telephone or internet bills. Everyone seems to think it’s only about numbers and figures, but 11 million Greeks are affected. The middle class is disappearing; there is no working class, only people living on the brink.”
You might not know it from the happy-sounding buzz of Booze café, but young Greeks are deeply fearful about their future. The elderly have not escaped the ravages of Greece’s economic struggles, either; many have had to leave retirement homes, because their families can no longer afford to pay the few hundred euros a month it costs to keep them there.
The streets of Athens may bear few traces of Sunday’s riots, as life begins to return to its normal rhythms. But anxiety about what lies in Greece’s future has spared no one.