Greece’s Financial Crisis: A Country on the Edge
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By Christopher Torchia
October 8, 2011

To find symbolism in the Greek financial crisis, go to the source. The national image on the two-euro coin in Greece depicts an ancient myth about the abduction of Europa, a Phoenician princess, by Zeus, the king of the gods in the form of a bull. The saga known as the “Rape of Europa,” whose protagonist rides the bull’s back in an image reproduced by artists over the centuries, mirrors the turbulent journey of Greece and the rest of Europe, hitched together in an agonizing spiral that seems to go on and on and on.

The crude parallel ends there, however: Zeus turned into a human, had his way with Europa, and she bore him children. The last chapter in modern Greece, meanwhile, is still blank. Will there be a debt default, with its ominous implications for the global economy? How long will Greeks endure the erosion of what was a good life? The future is a void, and anger and helplessness dig deep in the Greek psyche. Joblessness is climbing and essential services such as health care and policing are losing resources.

The crisis may pale beside the bloody conflict or poverty in Libya or Afghanistan, but the hardship is as much psychological as economic. It is the shock of undercut expectations, the loss of benefits and prospects once taken for granted as part of the European contract.

The mood now resembles the plot of “Groundhog Day,” a 1993 movie about a man who wakes up to the same day over and over again. “We don’t see how we can escape from this problem,” said Kostas Theofanides, engineering manager for British Petroleum in Greece. He spoke Thursday evening at a resort hotel on the Athenian coast, where Greek and German business executives mingled during a forum that hummed with talk of investing in a country on the edge.

Greeks, whose previous governments were accused of hiding the extent of the country’s ballooning budget deficit, now talk with withering honesty about their problems, even at investment forums. Theofanides said his compatriots are angry, unsafe and depressed, and wonder how long they have to put up their daily stew of taxes, austerity, unemployment and general uncertainty.

He ticked off the possibilities: Two years? Three years? Ten years, 25 years? Who knows. But there is plenty of blame to go around, and nobody is exempt – from free-spending Greeks, to the politicians they elected, to Germany and the international lenders with their dire prescriptions of cuts and then more cuts.

Dimitrios Gardikiotis, director at an information technology company, suggested Germany had been plotting Greece’s downfall for the past 20 years, luring its junior economic partner into dissolute ways so that it could barge in and buy assets on the cheap. “‘I’m preparing your economic death. Then I will buy you and your wife and your children,’” said Gardikiotis, imagining what he thought might be a German viewpoint. He said it in such a disarming manner that it was hard to tell what he really thought.

“Greeks actually point their fingers at others, not at themselves,” Gardikiotis said. “Of course, there are certain mistakes, and everybody has to recognize their responsibility.”

History is to blame as well, in some Greek quarters. Its students point to centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in independence in 1829, giving other European nations a headstart in building democracy. Then bouts of civil strife stunted progress. The king and the prime minister sparred during the National Schism in the early 20th century, the Western-backed government fought the communists in the late 1940s, and a military junta ruled between 1967 and 1974.

For a few resentful Greeks, there are always the Nazis, who occupied Greece during World War II. On Thursday, several people in uniforms, including a man doing his best to impersonate Adolf Hitler, turned up with a Nazi flag and other insignia outside the German Embassy. “The Germans owe us millions in war reparations, let them pay what they owe us,” said 75-year-old Demetris Kollatos, a fixture on the protest circuit who vaguely recalled the German occupation of Athens during his childhood. “In their greed to get everything, they'll lose everything.”