|In this issue: Issues in contemporary Greece|
With this issue I want to start a short series reviewing the major issues that Greek society is struggling with now. I'm doing this because so much of what Greece means to people in the U.S. is either the ancients or tourism. I'd like to try to introduce the place as a currently existing culture. Of course, I can only observe this at a distance. As a result, my list of issues is going to be focused disproportionately on foreign policy. So let's begin there. A HREF="#top">
The first issue has to do with Economic convergence, the integration of the Greek economy into the larger European market. There is strong public support for this by the government, and budget and policy are affected by the desire to bring inflation down to meet the criteria for inflation and budget deficit that are a requirement for integration. While Greece's inflation rate of 5% or so is much higher than other European countries, it reflects a real and significant amount of progress towards convergence in the last 2 or 3 years. A recent devaluation of the drachma also was motivated, in part, by a desire for integration.
On the political front, there is also a process of convergence of sorts. Greece has a reputation for being difficult. This reputation was nurtured over the years by its flamboyant approach to issues such as the name of FRYOM, defense of Serbs in the Balkans, Turkey, its internal economic disarray, the use of the economy (in particular public sector jobs) as a campaigning tool in elections, and other reasons. Greece is poor relative to Europe's main powers, that didn't help either. As will be said several times in this essay, we can look to Prime Minister Simitis as someone who is trying to make progress against this reputation. He rationalized relations with FRYOM, that issue is settled in all but name (an intentional pun) and he has tried to make Greece a positive force in the Balkans crisis.
The relation of Turkey to Europe also affects Greece's interaction with Europe. While the U. S. has long viewed Turkey as more strategic than Greece, the relation of Turkey to Europe is more tangled. I don't want to try to cover that entire issue here, but to say that in some quarters, Greece is seen as "blocking" Turkey's full participation in Europe. To be sure Greece wants Cyprus resolved before full participation happens, but in theory at least, Greece supports Turkey's European orientation. Greek politicians do make speeches saying that Turkey belongs in Europe, but the impact on Turkish opinion is doubtless reduced because they immediately follow it with a call for Turkey to reverse its entire foreign policy.
The reason Greece wants Turkey fully in Europe goes to the motivation of Greece for its own integration with Europe. In part, Greece hopes that integration of both countries will make Europe take more seriously Turkey's aggressive actions against Greece. Such aggression will become an internal, European matter that, Greece hopes, Europe will have to confront. I doubt that this will be as effective as Greece hopes, since the power of nations to ignore what they don't want to deal with is near absolute.
Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, relations with the U.S. and Russia were locked in a somewhat unsatisfactory relationship from Greece's point of view. While both Turkey and Greece were looked upon as allies of the U. S., there was not an equal perception of the two countries. Turkey was clearly seen as more strategically located, and its army received more support than did Greece's. Turkey's army was intended in NATO to actually block a Russian invasion, at least for a time, so it was well supplied with foreign aid. The Greek army had only a local responsibility, it was more or less conceded that in the event of an invasion, Greece would fall to the Russians fairly immediately. I don't know how Turkey was supposed to survive with a Russian occupied Greece on its rear, but the whole exercise was a fantasy as we now know. However, it led to more importance being placed on Turkey by NATO and the US.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has left people looking for new ways of understanding the relationship. Russia has made some moves that continue to put them in opposition to Turkey, but now can be supportive of Greece. For example, Russia has made a controversial commitment to deliver some missiles to the Greek Cypriot government for defense against any renewed Turkish expansionism on the island. There are the mutual ties of Orthodoxy as well, though that seems not to provide as deep a connection as one might suppose.
Relations with the U. S. are harder to figure. Noises are always being made about the favorable connections between the two countries, but the blunt fact is that Greece isn't very important to the U. S., now, any more than before the fall of the Soviet Union. I surmise that the U. S. looks with a mixture of relief and pleasure on the Simitis government's series of moves to give Greece a more mature foreign policy, but how deep that goes is not easy to tell. For some reason, Clinton took on Cyprus as an issue, but little progress has been made to date so it remains to be seen how much capital the U. S. wants to invest in furthering relations with Greece.
At the level of the ordinary person, I really wonder how much residual anger still exists against the meddling in Greek affairs the U. S. did in the 40's and 50's. The U.S. embassy was certainly a player in Greek politics, occasionally indicating which person should or should not be prime minister. And then, in the period of the colonels (1967-74), the U. S's approval of the junta was deeply resented. While paranoiac views about the CIA are occasionally heard, I suspect that there is a broader sense at the level of the ordinary person that Greece is a pawn of larger forces. For example, a recent deal the government struck with NATO involves a restart of a NATO command headquarters in Greece. This was greeted by the opposition parties as a "sell-out" of Greek sovereignty, even though it will bind Greece's fate closer to NATO, and strengthen connections of Greece with NATO.
Again, Greece seeks European allies primarily as a check on Turkish expansionism. I suspect Greece desires the U. S. to do that as well, but the history of U. S. connection with Turkey makes that more difficult.
Let's do one domestic issue. Perhaps this should be called a "proto-issue", or "issue of the future," since I'm uncertain how much progress has actually been made, but at least it has surfaced.
Greece has a rather bloated state sector: companies that are state owned, and (more important) state managed. This sector has served as a standard plum to be sold during election campaigns. Governments from all political persuasions have succumbed to the temptation to offer bribes in the form of promises of jobs as well as increases in pay and pensions. Attempts to regulate or rationalize this state sector encounter fierce opposition from both labor unions and their political supporters, since it becomes easy for the party out of power to ally itself as a "friend of the workers."
More attention seems to be given by the current government to making some moves either to privatize various companies and to enforce better schemes of management on the state enterprises. With the usual contrariness of Greek politics this is now being opposed by the main opposition party because it doesn't go far enough. However, they also attack the government for trying to rationalize taxes and for the drachma devaluation, both elements of rationalization.
At the other end of the spectrum is the gray or black market: those companies that operate outside the framework of regulations and taxes. This is related to the current state of the tax system. At the moment, some taxes are levied not on income reports, but on an estimate of what the company should have earned. Plans are put forward for trying to rationalize all this, but plans have been put forward before. It is only Simits' more mature leadership that suggests that this time, something might actually be done.
Modernization is an issue as it is everywhere. But the inflexibility in the Greek system it is especially urgent. There is no chance to participate in the global economy without all the electronic and procedural comforts of home. But, remember that Greece is poorer than most of Western Europe. As a result, it is hard to come up with the capital to launch large-scale modernization projects. However, some projects, such as expansion of the Athens metro and the new Athens airport are in progress.
Well, enough for now, more next time.
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