The Greeks Pass Austerity, but Are They Being Priced Out of Their Lives?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Greek riot police take cover from an exploding petrol bomb during a huge antiausterity demonstration in Athens on Feb. 12, 2012

Nikolas Fallieras was overwhelmed. For hours, people had been streaming through the revolving door at Amalia Hotel, where he's the assistant manager. They had been outside, just a block away from Parliament, protesting the painful new austerity measures that lawmakers would pass in exchange for more bailout loans. They chanted and marched and sang along to old Greek protest songs. And then things got ugly.

Gangs in hoods and masks broke out of the peaceful crowd of nearly 100,000 and picked fights with riot police. The response was quick and brutal: rounds of tear gas so acrid that the protesters began to flee. They included grandmothers draped in Greek flags, teenagers tweeting on Androids and old men in suit jackets carrying handwritten banners that read "Hang them."

"Traitors!" the crowd screamed to the lawmakers inside Parliament. "Murderers and pigs!" they screamed to the riot police. They wore light blue surgical masks, their faces chalky white from the liquid Maalox stomach antacid that's supposed to counteract the effects of the tear gas. It didn't work. They gasped and coughed, their eyes watering.

"Please, stay calm!" pleaded Fallieras, a small, slight man with delicate glasses, as a panicked crush of protesters rushed through the hotel door. One was Angeliki Papandreou, 40, a bank employee from Athens. She had gone to the protest with a friend, Ioanna Stabeli, who was visiting from the Netherlands. They both coughed as the tear gas outside wafted into the hotel. "The bubble that is the broken Greek political system is about to burst," said Papandreou as she wiped her eyes. "I don't know what the solution is anymore — whether we should stick with the euro or return to the drachma — because both roads seem to lead to poverty. All I know is that what they're doing to us is terrorism."

She was referring to not only riot police, whom she despised for what she called the "chemical warfare" of tear gas, but also the lawmakers who were about to pass a new bailout deal that she believed no Greek supported. "We are despairing," she said, "and they don't care."

Inside Parliament, however, it was clear that lawmakers were agonized. Communist Party deputies refused to vote, saying the new bailout was unconstitutional. One leftist deputy threw the draft law back at Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who exploded in fury. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister George Papandreou — no relation to Angeliki — tried to persuade defecting deputies from his PASOK party to vote for the new bailout. "We have to sacrifice a lot so as to not sacrifice everything," he said. "We must speak honestly and tell Greeks what bankruptcy really means. It means chaos." But 23 refused to support it. Austerity had already brought their party — and Papandreou — down.

Meanwhile, Antonis Samaras, the leader of the main opposition New Democracy party, also tried to keep his party deputies from revolting. The bailout, he said, "won't solve the problem, but it will help. It distances us from bankruptcy, looting, the chaos that would follow." He said snap elections should be held as soon as possible — no later than early April — and added that those deputies who refused to support the bailout couldn't stand for elections as party members. Twenty-one voted against it anyway.

As the rhetoric heated up inside, the violence outside devolved into chaos. Angry gangs of young men in hoods and masks smashed shops and looted them. They attacked banks and foreign chain stores, including a Starbucks. They torched dozens of buildings, including a beloved historic cinema, the Attikon, which left many Athenians grieving. "What is lost in the fire may be greater than that which we feared to lose," wrote Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini. "Perhaps it was a fitting sacrifice – a symbol of our rush to destroy because we cannot create, an expression of our need to abandon memories and pass into the future, blackened with ashes and rage."

Scores of demonstrators and police officers were hurt. Back at Amalia Hotel, Irini Tsigoni watched in horror as demonstrators were carried in for first aid. She covered her mouth as her husband, a physician, tried to revive a young woman who had passed out from the tear gas. "Look at this horror," she said, her voice trembling with anger. "Take a long, hard look and tell me, Is this Greece? Is this what it's come to? Greeks backed into a corner by our creditors, who want more, more, more, and cheated by our politicians, who only look out for themselves and their patrons? We want to live with dignity, not follow a one-way road into poverty."

Tsigoni, an architect who had taken a bus from the nearby city of Halkida, has lost nearly all her work after two years of austerity. Many of her friends are unemployed, some are on the verge of losing their homes. "Even those of us with homes can't afford all the new austerity taxes on them," she sighed. "I feel like I'm getting priced out of my own life."

Most polls show that Greeks oppose austerity but that they want to stay in the euro zone. In a televised speech on Saturday, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos — who was appointed to lead a coalition government that was supposed to secure this bailout and a separate bond-swap deal to cut Greek debt by at least 50% — said he understood the deep sacrifices Greeks had already made. But he said that bankruptcy and a messy default would be so much worse. Greece wouldn't have the money to pay salaries or pensions or run hospitals and schools. The prices of imports such as fuel and most supermarket goods would become prohibitively high. The ensuing economic chaos and social instability would likely cause an exit from the euro zone.

"It would be a great injustice of history if the country where a European civilization was born, which in the past 65 years has lived through a civil war and a dictatorship and yet prospered, built a democracy, institutions and values, went bankrupt and found itself in national isolation and despair," Papademos told lawmakers late Sunday before the vote. He also pleaded with the public to show calm. "Vandalism and destruction have no place in a democracy," he said. "I call on the public to show calm."

By then, nearly everyone outside had gone home. Nevertheless, as 199 of the 300 members of Parliament pushed through the new bailout deal, the streets of central Athens were apocalyptic. The stench and sting of tear gas hung heavy. At Amalia Hotel, Nikolas Fallieras leaned against the lobby desk, taking a breather after the frantic hours of shepherding through tired and terrified protesters. "It's my job to take care of people," he said. "That's what I do at the hotel, and I really like it. I like to think I'm good it." He managed a weak smile and then looked down. His eyes filled with tears.