After the Fall: Greece's Former Prime Minister Assesses the State of His Nation

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Patrick Hertzog / AFP / Getty Images

Socialist leader and former Greek Prime minister George Papandreou takes part in a debate about the Greek crisis, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on March 16, 2012.

Like his country, George Papandreou, 59, has downsized in the last six months. He stepped down as prime minister of Greece in November, then, in March, as leader of PASOK, the Socialist party his father founded in 1974. Looking back at the unprecedented meddling of European powers in his country's politics amid the Euro crisis — a series of events that led to his fall as well as Greece becoming the first country in the zone to be forced to accept painful austerities in exchange for bailout loans — Papandreou told TIME, "I think it couldn't have been avoided. We were a lab rat, an experiment."

He's settling into a new corner office in the Papandreou Foundation, housed in a weathered neoclassical building in the central Athenian neighborhood of Kerameikos, which used to house ancient potters thousands of years ago. It's a gritty and anxious neighborhood that's a microcosm of Greece today: People are worried about crime, money, identity and, most of all, the future. They're also deeply divided about what to do. Sunday's parliamentary elections are expected to be the messiest in decades. No party looks likely to get enough votes to form a government. It's expected to be another anti-austerity vote that, along with a likely win of Francois Hollande in France, could change the dynamics of the eurozone crisis.

The austerity measures have crushed the Greek economy, which is now in its fifth year of a deep recession. The unemployment rate has shot up from about 9% in 2009 to 21% today. Suicides are also on the rise. Tens of thousands of small businesses have closed. Some of the poorest Greeks found themselves homeless and eating at soup kitchens. "I wish we could have done this in a way that was softer on the people, especially those who weren't to blame, like the pensioners and the workers," Papandreou says. "But in the end, everybody has paid and paid dearly for this crisis."

What galls the former premier is that some European Union leaders refuse to recognize these sacrifices. Though Greece cut its budget by 5.5% in the first year of austerity and was recently praised by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for being a top reformer, "some populist politicians say, 'It's not that Greece has a problem, it's that Greeks are the problem,'" Papandreou says. "How can a parliamentarian or a leader in a country say, on the one hand, that we're going to support Greece but at the same time say that Greeks are lazy?" he says. "I mean, their citizens will say, well, if they're lazy, then why are we supporting them?"

Greeks are clearly outraged that austerity is leading nowhere. Anti-austerity protests in Athens regularly devolve into violent riots in the neighborhoods around parliament. Still, public opinion polls show that about 70% of Greeks want to remain in the eurozone. Papandreou says he proposed the idea of a public referendum on the second bailout, which European Union leaders hammered out last October, because "Greek people had to feel like they owned the program, that it wasn't an imposed program." "We had to make a decision," he says. "We had to decide whether we wanted the program or not, whether we wanted to stay in the euro or not, whether that would have consequences."

But the referendum never happened. Many Greeks said the timing was wrong or that they felt cornered. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy berated Papandreou and claimed he had blindsided them. Papandreou says firmly that Merkel and Sarkozy knew about his intentions. "I was very optimistic that the Greek people would have said yes, that it's difficult but we'll go through this [austerity] process, whatever it takes," he says. "And this is why I was so unhappy that there were some negative reactions in Europe."

Shortly after the referendum idea went bust, Papandreou resigned as premier to make way for a coalition government led by PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties who have ruled Greece for the last 30 years, and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). The new government chose Lucas Papademos, a former central bank and MIT-trained economist as interim premier. Papandreou has now been replaced as PASOK by Evangelos Venizelos, a verbose and combative constitutional lawyer who had recently served as Finance Minister.

If pre-election polls hold true, PASOK and New Democracy are expected to get a combined 40% of the vote in Sunday's elections. That's a stunning fall from 2009, when the parties got about twice that. Voters are turning to political parties on the left and right who oppose the bailout. Some voters are even turning to Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, an extreme right party with neo-Nazi ties which blames Greece's economic problems on immigrants. Chrysi Avgi got 0.23% of the vote in 2009. This year, they're polling at 5% and are expected to win seats in parliament.

Papandreou likely won't have a role in the next government but he will be in the next parliament. The constitution guarantees him a seat as a former prime minister. The U.S.-born and educated Papandreous will represent Achaia, the district in southern Greece where he began his political career more than 30 years ago.

Greeks are clearly angry at pan-European austerity politics. But voters like George Pappas, 37, a physical therapist, say they're equally as angry at the ossified politics at home. Pappas says Greeks must kick familiar faces out of parliament so Greece can rid itself of corruption and patronage. "I'm going to vote for the craziest and least appropriate person this time," Pappas says. "I'm beginning to believe that the only way to help this country is to demolish the whole system and start from scratch — even if it means that we leave the eurozone."

Voters like Pappas are especially angry at politicians like Papandreou, whom they say sold Greece out to international lenders. Papandreou says he doesn't take the criticism personally and says he agrees that Greece must reform dramatically to thrive. "The slogan that came out almost spontaneously from the people and from our party in 2009 was that either we change or we sink," he says. "I still say this today, and I'm even more convinced today, that we were a mismanaged society led by mismanaging governments."

Richard Parker, an economist at Harvard University who advised Papandreou during his two years in office, said the country had few options but to accept the austerity recipe offered by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. "Like the rest of Europe, Greece had lived on a credit-fueled boom built on relaxed standards of oversight and regulation," Parker says. "Greeks got caught as collateral damage to the meltdown of the American capital markets. It got hit by a tsunami not of its own origin."

Standing on the balcony of his family's foundation in central Athens, gazing at the Agora, the marketplace of ancient Athens, Papandreou ponders his country's breadth of history and golden moments of harmony. "In ancient Greece," the former prime minister says, "politics and the market were not decoupled." The bone-colored ruins are lit up by bright sunlight even as the shadow of a modern catastrophe envelopes the country.