My parents, like thousands of their compatriots, left Greece in the 1960s looking to escape the deep economic devastation caused by the Second World War and the Greek Civil War. I grew up listening to Stelio Kazantzidi records about the sorrows of weary immigrants who missed home.
Half a century later, the financial crisis resulting from over half a decade of brutal austerity measures imposed by the European Union and IMF has forced a new wave of immigration, one I never thought I would see. More than 200,000 Greeks, many of the best and the brightest, are estimated to have left the country in the past five years alone.
During my visits to Greece and conversations with friends and relatives there, I have watched the devastation and the hopelessness seep in. I’ve watched the brain drain, the immeasurable damage the loss of human capital does to a country. I’ve watched average middle-class Greeks sink to their knees and learn to make do with less, and then be asked to make do with practically nothing.
Imagine millions of people losing their jobs, 35 per cent of businesses shutting down, 30 per cent of the workforce (most of them under 30) without jobs, unprecedented increases in child mortality and poverty rates, seniors having their meagre pensions slashed by half, and a whopping 33 per cent of the population without national health insurance. Imagine far right neo-Nazi parties like Golden Dawn rising in popularity as fear capitalizes on despair and misery. This has been Greece in the past five years.
Syriza’s triumphant win in yesterday’s game-changing election is a breath of fresh air. The anti-austerity leftist party soared to victory despite the fearmongering coming from the right, the EU, and almost all local media supporting government policies. Anger and indignation have fueled Syriza’s rise. After years of punishing austerity measures, Greeks are choosing hope over fear. The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that going on their own does not represent the same ominous threat it once did. They simply have nothing left to lose at this point.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, a 40-year-old civil engineer, said this week that he will not negotiate with the Troika, but directly with EU officials. He’s said he does not want to leave the Eurozone, but is ready to demand new repayment terms for the bailout loans that came with such harsh demands. He has also mentioned debt forgiveness in the past, not shying away from pointing out that the world (Greece included) did it for Germany in 1953.
Many will be quick to argue that the devastation in Greece was brought on by its own people and that Greeks borrowed irresponsibly and now deserve the devastating consequences. This popular political narrative conveniently ignores that most of what was borrowed went to a corrupt few, not the average hard-working Greeks struggling to make ends meet. They had nothing to do with the backdoor dealings or Goldman Sachs artificially propping up Greece’s financial situation so the country could enter the EU.
As someone who lived in Greece for 10 years, I can assure you that so many of the popular ideas people have of the country are false. Greece may have had issues with tax evasion, nepotism, and cronyism, but find me a country exempt from similar problems. Greeks are hard-working, creative, and fiercely proud, and these past five years of concessions and kowtowing to the powers that be have been abysmally demoralizing.
I spent yesterday following the elections closely and reading every article I could find on the subject. I cried when I saw Syriza had swept to victory, not because I believe they will solve all the country’s problems, but because the desire for justice, fair play, and a more humane approach to problem solving had won over the fear of repercussions hanging over ordinary Greeks’ heads like a Damocles sword for the past five years.
Greeks got off their knees yesterday and said, “Enough!” Enough with the punishing austerity measures aimed at tackling a debt that is simply insurmountable, enough with punishing the poor for the mistakes made by the rich, enough with pretending that austerity is a solution to this particular crisis.
Those wishing to prop up the EU, the IMF, and their policies will, of course, react with fear to this outcome. The special kind of political hypocrisy displayed by people such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who immediately tweeted about the Greek election increasing economic uncertainty while falling over backwards to praise and mourn Saudi despot King Abdullah, is particularly loathsome. Funny how a democratically elected anti-austerity politician is painted as a dangerous radical, while King Abdullah, a lover and enforcer of beheadings and public floggings, is being portrayed as a valuable “reformer.”
Just shy of a clear majority, Syriza has already formed a coalition government with right-wing Independents. They agree on anti-austerity, but disagree on pretty much everything else, so I’m guessing this will be a short-term partnership with one clear goal in mind.
No one knows what the future holds for Greece and whether the country is in danger of leaving the EU and the 19 states sharing a single currency. All I know is that I, and millions of Greeks, felt a surge of pride and happiness upon watching the results last night.
At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, Greece is a country historically accustomed to invasions, devastating wars, and political turmoil. This is a country that is fiercely and proudly independent, whose national motto is Freedom or Death.
Sometimes it’s time to press the reset button, have faith that there’s a better way, and see what comes next. Greece has suffered so much in the past five years that fear is no longer the deterrent that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Troika hoped it would be. The new government’s demand for much-needed reforms may prove to be a catalyst, the first crack in a dam for the rest of Europe as well.
As Zaid Jilani so eloquently said on Twitter last night, elites have been telling people, Give us money or we’ll burn down your house. Greece has just said, Take the house, we’ll build another.