Outrage and disenchantment in Greece ahead of austerity vote

The protests have become the largest social movement in Greece since martial law in 1974. More than a pushback against austerity, they hint at broad skepticism toward Europe's leaders.

Kostas Ts ironis/AP
Protesters gestured toward the Greek Parliament during a peaceful rally in Syntagma Square, Athens, on June 19. Thousands rallied against fiscal austerity measures, and denounced politicians.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The upstart crowd camped out on Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament is like no other in Greek history. Yes, it is rough around the edges. No, it does not have solutions to the years of debt and corruption that have Greece near default. Yet since May 24, the movement organized through social media has continued to swell and turned heads as a new voice of the people, the power of the Greek powerless.

Critically, it is largely nonviolent. On Tuesday, however, the violent fringes smashed windows and drew shots of tear gas from riot police. But this protest movement has been one of baby strollers and roasting corn rather than molotov cocktails, skinheads, or communist red flags. The only flag is Greek. Trotskyites and Orthodox priests tolerate each other. The usual anarchists and fascist suspects lurk only on the margins.

By mid-June, the gathering – a crazy quilt that shares elements of a tea party caucus, the Arab Spring, an antiglobalization rally, and a Haight-Ashbury commune – had become the largest social movement in Greece since martial law in 1974. These aganaktismenoi, or so-called outraged, earned enough public credibility to nearly end the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou on June 15 as it sought €28 billion ($40 billion) in new austerity cuts.

On Tuesday, public workers began a two-day strike to protest the austerity package that Greek parliamentarians are expected to vote on tomorrow. The deal would clear the way for Greece to receive European Union and International Monetary Fund loans to avoid a default on its sovereign debt. Brussels has taken a hard line, insisting that Greece will default unless it adopts more austerity cuts, including tax hikes, spending cuts, and privatization of government services.

Other peaceful citizens' movements – called "indignants" – have emerged in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. A common theme is skepticism about elite politicians, and skepticism about European Union policies that view austerity as the only way to growth and solvency.

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In Athens, on the sun-drenched square, the Greek protesters may prefigure deeper currents of disenchantment among rising populations of educated, but jobless young people who find something missing in the dream of Europe that burned brightly a decade ago. Many here speak of their protest in terms of an "awakening," or as a new effort to "find the truth."

The 'indignants'

The improbable inspiration of the movements is a 93-year-old French Nazi resistance hero, Stephane Hessel, who came out of retirement last year to write a bestseller titled "Get Indignant!" that laments the loss of ideals and idealism in Europe, arguing that young people should not accept a future predetermined to be bleak and constricted. What's unclear is where the new movements will go.

George Stefanatos, a graphic artist, has come to Syntagma Square, an acre of palm trees and evergreens, every weekday since May 24. "I'm here because there is a deeper crisis of ourselves and our society. We've been closed in our houses, sitting on our couches, watching TV. No one questioned anything; it wasn't healthy. But I think we are waking up. We have started talking with each other. That's why I am here. We are talking about the economy but really we are talking about many other things."

Loukas Tsoukalis, director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, says the dynamics date to the 2008 economic crisis: "The bursting of the economic bubble is leading to substantial changes in many countries; it is shifting the tectonic plates and we are seeing new forces. In Sweden and Finland we've had the election of nationalist parties unimaginable a few years ago. What is common is anger at political elites. In Greece we see a challenge to established parties – but which way it will go we don't know."

Teetering on edge of default

The big issue remains the deep austerity cuts, adding to last year's cuts after Greek leaders revealed public debt of $350 billion. That threw Europe into a stark moment of soul-searching and an eventual bailout or "stability fund." Greece now needs a second deal and austerity is required by the EU for Greece to receive the $12 billion loan by July 15 – or face bankruptcy.

Having tremulously survived a June 21 confidence vote, the Papandreou government, armed with a new and influential finance minister who had been the prime minister's chief rival, still faced passing austerity cuts on June 28.

The possibility of a Greek default – with untold consequences for the world economy – has suddenly and powerfully seized Europe's attention. And as the crisis continues to unfold, fingers are pointing in every direction.

European officials are gnashing their teeth, irritated that a small southern nation making up 2.5 percent of Europe's gross domestic product could trigger a genuine crisis. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called out Europe's leaders on June 21 for a lack of decisive action to quell a dangerous default at a time when global recovery is fragile. Oxford University's Timothy Garton Ash says the problem is a flagging ardor in Germany for the European project, and that Chancellor Angela Merkel must explain to a skeptical public why it is in Germany's interest to put its mighty weight behind a deal to calm the markets.

Corruption and overspending

In Athens, despite charges of collective denial in many quarters, there is a strong awareness that the nation overspent and is corrupt from top to bottom, as Mr. Papandreou has said openly. A store clerk argues, "We need to change our mentality. Those Greeks that say they can't find a job are not entirely honest. You can find a job if you try. I don't buy the excuses."

Reform-minded experts such as Takis Pappas at the University of Strasbourg in France say Europe has no option but to bail out Greece or let it default, and default is a "catastrophic option." At the same time, Mr. Pappas argues that "Greece is blackmailing the EU and I don't like this. They see there is no alternative. What we need instead is a bridge between austerity and growth."

A key conundrum is that in forming the EU after German reunification, Europe agreed to a common currency. But it did not forge a common political union, and common fiscal and banking policy that would oversee affairs. The Greek crisis is an example of the problem of what is often called a "fair weather" union that chugs along swimmingly in good times, but now faces storms.

In Greece, nearly 1 million out of a population of 11 million receive some kind of state salary. The Greek debt is a public spending debt. Yet cuts last year and economic decline have dried up the extra jobs and renowned extended Mediterranean family support.

"Last year my parents gave money to my children," says economist Leonidas Vatikiotis, a consultant on the film "Debtocracy," a popular documentary about the Greek crisis. "This year I'm giving money to my parents."

Outraged in Greece

One reason the "outrage" protesters get credence is that their rank and file are mostly outsiders – too young or too poor to have achieved any state spoils or patronage. They are seen as those carrying the burden of tax hikes and job cuts. They are not part of a sizable cohort angry about bad management and an end to a spigot of jobs, early pensions, stuffed corporate envelopes, or trade union payout. When crowds grow in the square – a group that walked from Sparta was welcomed with roars – there is a palpable upwelling of pride. ("The outrage movement has achieved such a status of virtue that everyone is afraid to criticize it," says a Greek journalist.)

Add to the mix an undercurrent of culture war with northern European states whose press often characterize Greece as feckless or lazy. Ms. Merkel said last fall that it was a mistake to have allowed Greece into the eurozone. On the square, there's a feeling of speaking to other Europeans.

"We are not animals, just people that exist to keep an economy and a finance system grinding on," says Filos, a tall 27-year-old with a Quicksilver-logo T-shirt. He claims to live in a posh suburb with a car and a job: "But I feel a need to come here in the evening. The Greeks don't just exist to consume and buy and sit around in clubs. Our politicians don't acknowledge this. The rich need to pay more taxes," he says, referring to the austerity package's unpopular across-the-board cuts.

While many in the "outrage" movement say they are ready to "leave Europe," the sentiment does not seem to be overwhelming in Greece. Vassiliki, a singer with flowing locks in a traditional Greek band says, "I want Greece to stay in Europe, but with dignity."

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