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Amid New Strikes in Greece, ‘a Constant Tension in the Air’

September 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Greek Parliament is set to vote Tuesday on a key part of a new austerity package that would include a new property tax paid through electricity bills. Jeffrey Brown discusses efforts to keep the nation from defaulting with freelance reporter John Psaropoulos in Athens.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For the latest from Athens, I spoke with freelance reporter John Psaropoulos a short time ago.

John Psaropoulos, welcome.

Well, the market seemed at least a little encouraged today by potential action, but there in Athens, you have new demonstrations, new strikes. What’s — how disruptive is all that? What does it feel like there?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS, freelance reporter: Well, there is a constant tension in the air. People are always waiting for the next strike to be announced. It’s become a fact of daily life in Athens that public transport may not work or may not work fully from one day to the next.

But people carry on as best they can in their daily lives. The real trouble, the underlying trouble here that does threaten to blow stability in the air literally is the political balance, because the government is ruling with a majority of four deputies in Parliament.

And in the days ahead, very difficult legislation is going to be put to them, very unpopular moves, like the upcoming vote tomorrow, Tuesday, to bring in a new property tax that will charge every Greek household anything between hundreds to thousands of euros every year for the next four years for property they already own. And that is a very new idea to the Greeks. And following that will come even more difficult legislation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is all, of course, part of the austerity plan. How much are people feeling that and in what ways, even anecdotally? Give us a little flavor. How do people feel that?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Well, you can see the effects of austerity now beginning to bite, because measures that were announced last year and earlier this year are now taking effect.

There is higher consumer tax, higher gasoline tax. And you can see on a retail level shops are closing down. Sometimes, you walk along the street and there are several properties in a row vacant. When you go to a petrol station, people are spending maybe 15, 20 euros, not filling up their tanks.

BP recently ran an ad encouraging people to spend as much as 30 euros on gasoline. And, in return, they would get a book of coupons to spend in supermarkets. So, you can see that while the rhythms of life are following familiar patterns, people are still going out for a drink, for a coffee or evening for an evening meal, they’re spending a lot less and they’re feeling the pinch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, as the debate continues about how and even whether to aid Greece, there is, of course, a lot more talk about default perhaps being inevitable. Do you get that sense there? Do people there — are they beginning to feel that way?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Well, if a recent opinion poll that ran in last Sunday’s papers is anything to go by, two-thirds of Greeks are against the idea of default. They instinctively mistrust that this is somehow going to bail Greece out of the obligation over the long term to pay off its debt.

People feel much safer within the bailout plan as it stands, trying to bring in the tax revenues that the country is obliged to bring in under that plan and receiving the bailout installments every two months. So, people, I think, are rather terrified of the idea of a default even within the Eurozone and are not convinced that the banking system will not collapse, that properties will not be reclaimed, and that there won’t be widespread unrest in the streets in such an event.

On the contrary, they expect bloodshed in such an event.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you have — no one wants a default, but then you have demonstrations against the austerity measures. So is there any consensus formed? You started this by talking about the political problems of the moment. That’s what you’re referring to, right?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: That’s right.

People, I think, want the government to cut its expenses, to reduce its costs, its day-to-day costs, to simply shut down bureaucracy that amounts to waste. People who are not really doing anything in the public sector, shut down loss-making companies and try and run the government along more Northern European lines, but not carry the political burden of doing all of this, because this is all politically unpopular, over to the taxpayer and ask for the taxpayer to pay more and more every couple of months with new excise taxes, property taxes, increased income tax, and decreased payouts to pensioners, which is what has mainly been going on over the past year, because now all of these extra taxes and charges have come to a head.

People are living in the reality of these new taxes, down to consumer taxes for everyday goods. At this point, they say the government has to step in and cut its costs.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Psaropoulos in Athens, thanks very much.

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Thank you.