As Greece bows to creditors, defiance turns to despair in Athens

Greece's government elected in January on an anti-austerity platform is seeking parliamentary approval Wednesday for a new bailout package. Many ordinary Greeks feel burned by the failure of leftists to force change.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A man counts money as he sits in front of a shop selling Greek flags in central Athens, Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was seeking Tuesday to rally his party members to support a preliminary rescue deal struck with Greece’s European creditors that includes measures so onerous some of his own ministers were in open revolt.

On the cusp of January’s election, the streets of Athens felt like a theater of rebellion mixed with hope. At a campaign rally for the far-left Syriza party, the crowd lit up with the lyrics of Leonard Cohen: "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”

Six months on, those same revolutionaries, and their supporters, now face what feels like complete surrender by a Syriza-led government to its creditors. 

They didn’t take Berlin. In fact, Berlin took them.

The bailout agreement signed in the early hours of Monday by Greece and eurozone leaders, driven by Germany, brought an immediate sense of relief here. From the chatter at newsstands and cafes, to bleary-eyed residents who’d remained glued to their television sets all weekend, a feeling of crisis averted – and continued membership in Europe’s currency bloc – united young and old, conservative and liberal.

A day later, that relief has turned to frustration as the reality sinks in that January’s election of a leftist government, and a defiant anti-austerity referendum, appear to have gotten Greece nowhere. Indeed, the package of reforms demanded in return for new loans is arguably more onerous than that offered previously. 

Yet there’s little fight left as people here, anxious to see if the new bailout is accepted and how it will ultimately take shape, shrink from the radicalism of their leftist leaders.

"The situation is tragic. Europeans and the Tsipras government are to be blamed for this situation,” says Konstantinos, a military officer. “On the other hand I'm glad for being a European, and it was great that we stayed in the eurozone.”

Others voice similar complaints. Young people, who overwhelmingly voted “no” in the July 5 referendum, have been left dumbfounded. They say they are "poking a hole in water," as Greeks say, meaning to do something for nothing. “I feel shame for the Europe I live in, and I’m sad about the Greece that comes tomorrow,” says Stellaki, a student.

Parliamentary vote

Not surprisingly, hard-left factions within Syriza have rejected the principles of the bailout agreement signed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Thirty of his lawmakers, who liken the deal to “enslavement”, could vote against it in Wednesday’s parliament meeting. But Mr. Tsipras is likely to win the day in parliament because of support from his opponents in centrist parties. The proposed legislation includes hikes in consumer taxes and further curbs on state pensions. 

The retreat by Tsipras mirrors the fears of Greeks that continued brinksmanship would lead them out of the euro and into some form of sovereign default. “It’s obvious that people desperately want change but feared what radical overhaul would mean,” says Dimitris Charalambis, a professor of political science at the University of Athens.

Most voters who back Syriza are moderates who seek change, not revolution, while the hard-left is balking at bailout terms that only represents the 5 percent of the party, he says.

“The people are more realistic. They asked Tsipras for a better negotiation, a better Greek stance, with more dignity. They didn’t believe that the Syriza election would change things drastically,” he says. “If we take into consideration the income losses, the unemployment, the reduction of GDP, it is amazing how calm this society has remained.”

Banks still closed

Indeed, Greeks have quickly adapted to capital controls. They’ve learned when to avoid long lines at ATM queues (in the hot afternoon hours) and even developed an app that helps people to find the nearest machines and their status. Banks have been closed for two weeks and there are limits on daily withdrawals of 60 euros from ATMs.

Underneath that stoicism may lurk a dawning realization that, for all the bitterness at its creditors, Greeks know Greece must change.

“For me the most important (thing) is that there will be a prerequisite for reforms. In this country we were unable to perform reforms that would truly affect the way the state and the society operates,” says George Ioannou, a professor of economics at the University of Athens. “We waited for the worst to happen to be able to come up with an agreement concerning reforms.”

While he believes that austerity has driven Greece deeper into recession and poverty, Mr. Ioannou also blames Greece for not keeping up its end of the bargain. Now he sees an opening for a shift in Greek politics, even if it implies more hardship in the short term. “If this government that is based on the left passes all these prerequisites through the parliament, I believe it’s going to be a huge step historically,” Professor Ioannou says.

It might not be a step that earns Greece a national holiday, like Bastille Day, that is being celebrated in France today.

In his annual Bastille address to the nation, President Francois Hollande, whose support of keeping Greece in the eurozone won him plaudits in Athens, said the deal averted a far worse prospect. “It would have been a humiliation had Greece been forced out of the euro,” he said.

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