On June 29, 2011, protests against the adoption of EU austerity measures quickly turned violent in front of the Hellenic Parliament in Greece. Reporters broadcasted live with gas masks to protect themselves against the excessive amounts of tear gas used to dispel the crowd. For days, major media outlets emphasized the political instability and turmoil happening in the heart of Athens.
Just a few days later, we arrived and observed a completely different scene. The takeover of Syntagma Square by the protesters was more like a communal festival of sorts. In the morning, protesters would occupy the square and at night they would sing and dance, mocking the government in their celebrations. Everyone else, on the other hand, was going about his or her daily business. Storefronts were reopened and repaired in days and buses were packed with people commuting to work. The only significant sign of turmoil was a decimated kiosk close to the unscathed tram ticket booth. Other than that, we never witnessed any signs of extreme or violent protests.
That is not to say all aspects of life had simply bounced back. At one point we were walking through Kolonaki, one of the most expensive areas in central Athens, and we witnessed an old lady trying to make some money selling handpicked herbs at the doorstep of a bank. A few minutes later, we were approached by a man who was persistently asking for money to buy some food. It became clear at that point that the economic situation was becoming increasingly stressful on the entire Greek population.
The problem lies in figuring out how to fix the system that has been around for over 30 years. Among the people we interviewed for the Media Project, there was a general consensus on the policy changes that needed to be implemented. Essentially, the government needs to cut the public sector, cut through the bureaucracy, and cut the debt. Most academics would agree that policy changes, like tax reform and reduced state employment, are necessary for Greece to stabilize its finances and start repaying its debt.
Yet, over the past year, these measures have caused great public resistance that lowers public confidence and keeps the government from moving forward. We must make a distinction, however, between the kinds of protests happening in Greece and the rest of the world. In the Arab Spring countries, for example, people are fighting for greater freedom and a more democratic government. In Greece, people are fighting against reforms that could liberate them from a systematic lock on development and growth.
Cuts and tax increases are not easy to accept, especially when a large portion of the population is used to avoiding taxes and finding long-term job security in the public sector. Many families or individuals, for example, dearly depend on state assistance or government employment. Furthermore, a recent study showed that suicide rates in Greece have increased as a result of economic stress.
But Greece has to adjust and break away from the old system, which required the government to borrow excessively just to meet yearly expenses. More specifically, Greece needs to liberate the business sector and open professions to competition. There is plenty of potential for export-oriented growth, whether in agriculture, tourism, technology or shipping. The Greeks simply need to accept the challenge and reinterpret the crisis as a chance for a new beginning.
Vasiliki and other students in the Reinventing Greece fellows program took these pictures of protests around Syntagma Square in central Athens.