Directly after my visit to Moscow I undertook a brief two day visit to Athens. Like my trip to Moscow it was carried out mainly for business reasons, but it also gave me an opportunity to get a sense of the situation in Greece.
The Greek government is claiming that the Greek economy is reviving, and is reporting growth in the last two quarters. I saw no sign of this at all. On the contrary in the few weeks since I was there at the beginning of September, the situation seems to have got if anything significantly worse.
My family home is located within the elite district of Kolonaki, which has until recently seemed immune to the crisis. No longer is this so. The exclusive shops, boutiques and restaurants that used to proliferate in this area, are now starting to close at an accelerating rate, with nothing opening in their place. Instead even in this formerly privileged district one sees empty premises marked everywhere with “to let” signs. Graffiti meanwhile has become ubiquitous and litter collection is sporadic, whilst sometimes aggressive begging is becoming ever more common.
What is perhaps most dismaying of all is the spreading collapse of morale, reflected in increasing dishonesty.
Tax evasion – which the EU, the IMF and the Greek government promised to cure – is now universal, with everyone (rightly) complaining that the levels of tax are now so intolerably high that it would be impossible to live one’s life and conduct one’s business if one paid them.
Under relentless pressure from the EU and the IMF and from the Greek government, the tax authorities have however responded by becoming increasingly aggressive. One hears alarming stories of people’s electricity supply being cut off and of their homes being seized because of their failure to pay their taxes. How that is supposed to help the economy revive it is impossible to see.
Until recently the response of many people to the collapse of their incomes was to spend what little disposable income they had left in cafes, shopping for anything other than basic necessities being impossible. However as money has run out even this activity seems to be drying up, with cafes empty and starting to close.
Greece still has a gilded circle of people who remain stupendously rich. Amazingly three ballet companies – two from Moscow, one from Kiev – are visiting Athens this Christmas. Shops like Brioni and Audemars Piguet are still there. Even these people must however increasingly sense the desperation and hostility all around them.
I was given a vivid impression of this on the night of my arrival in Athens. The taxi driver who took me home from the airport refused to take my suitcase out of the boot of his car unless I paid him an extra 100 euros on top of his fare. Since I could not count on the police arresting him – as opposed to siding with him – I had no choice but to do so. The fact my home address is in Kolonaki undoubtedly made him think I could afford it. Nothing like that has ever happened to me in Greece before, but as a manifestation of class hostility I understand that it is becoming commonplace.
In summary, I was only in Greece for just two days, but not only did I experience a country whose economy is rapidly deteriorating from an already critical level, but for the first time I sensed a society that is now finally approaching its breaking point.
The talk in Greece is that in the event of new elections the victor will be the conservative pro-EU New Democracy party. Whilst that may be the case, I have to say that it is a prospect that seemed to me born more of disillusion with the disastrous failure of the Tsipras/Syriza government than of any hope of it providing anything better. Moreover it is a prospect that may be fostering a dangerously unwise complacency in Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt and elsewhere.
Unless there is some radical change before long, the days of what can still just about be called mainstream politics in Greece look to me to be running out.