Too early for good news from Greece

Ministers' claims that the economy has "turned a corner" don't bear up to scrutiny.

"Greece has turned a corner" is the general message Yannis Stournaras, the Greek Finance Minister, has been trying to spread in the past few months. Not only "The IMF has praised improvements to Greece's much-maligned tax collection procedures," as the Greek media have been reporting lately, but also, as Stournaras said, "Greece could return to international debt markets by next May." This same line has been at play since late last year, when the Bank of Greece Governor Giorgos Provopoulos stated in an interview with the Financial Times that the worst is over. "Greece could return to the markets in 2014," Stournaras went on. "We've turned a corner".

The international media have tried their hand at this, with Reuters columnist Hugo Dixon writing in his piece The Gloom Around Greece is Dissipating:

Athens now seems on course to achieve 'primary balance' this year. In other words, it will not have a budget deficit before interest payments. That means it probably will not have to implement another round of austerity next year, so the economy will not be struggling against that obstacle.

One might notice there is a quite big maybe in there, standing out. In the same spirit, Yannis Stournaras commented last week in an interview with NET that "this year we managed to make up for two thirds of the fiscal gap, without cutting pensions". Again, Stournaras seems to only be speaking about part of the money Greece will need within 2013 in order to avoid cutting deeper into pensions and public spending, while at the same time admitting that 2013 will be a very difficult year. His view is that unemployment will start falling in 2014.

There are several problems with this, and the unavoidable question arises: is Greece really doing better or is Stournaras simply spinning a positive vibe to soothe the markets and maybe help Merkel and co. look good ahead of the German elections in September? The first issue here would be a whopping €8.2bn the country owes to private companies and contractors. Greece has only managed to make its overall finances look good by stopping payments towards the domestic market. Part of the bailout funds will have to be used in order for this debt to be paid off, but a sense of "too little, too late" is in the air as this delay has strangled many businesses in the past 3 years. A "possible return to the markets" is more like a "necessary exit" as bailout funds run dry next April and additional aid looks unlikely to arrive. Any issues we might face on the road there, lie exclusively with the coalition's financial strategy.

The government's decision to increase taxation on heating oil did not only leave many Greeks unable to heat their homes last winter, but also caused general revenue from taxes to drop by €291m, after consumption fell by 68.7 per cent. Since the beginning of the year, due to this and other tax hikes, tax revenues were lower than the targets set by the government and the Troika in the first three months of 2013.

The most terrifying prospect Greece faces in the next few months though, is the devastating unemployment. Overall unemployment in Greece is now 27 per cent while it goes up to 28.7 per cent in certain regions. In the 18 to 25 age group, unemployment stands at a staggering 64 per cent. To give some perspective, unemployment stood at 21.9 per cent last January, and has more than tripled since the crisis began in 2008. It is likely that it will touch 30 per cent by the end of the year, despite the cuts in wages that now sees those making the minimum wage earning no more than €440 per month after taxes.

It is easy to assume that in his statement, Yannis Stournaras means that unemployment will start falling once it reaches the dreaded 30 per cent. This does little to comfort Greeks. Despite the numbers the government chooses to stress in order to support its position of "light at the end of the tunnel", the very real problems of unemployment, dwindling consumption and political instability are felt by ordinary Greeks. New cuts in wages and pensions are still on the table if Greece doesn’t achieve a primary surplus this year or if, let's be honest, this primary surplus is achieved on shaky grounds and new taxes await within the year.

We've yet to see the Greek government clash and cut its ties with the Greek oligarchs that have refused so far to pay their fair share of the burden. Ship-owners still enjoy scandalous tax-exemptions, while the same people who often found themselves facing charges for cheating the state out of millions (and still owe tens of millions according to the data released by the ministry of finance) appear to still be in business with the ruling New Democracy party. This only stands proof that the government will opt to put even more of that burden on the backs of those already finding themselves in dire position because of this unwillingness.

The ruling coalition and the Troika's spin dominates public discourse in Greece. According to a recent report, the government takes up 63.4 per cent of the time allocated to political parties, while the Troika and its representative’s statements take up 57.2 per cent of the rest. This may be helpful for the financial climate to improve at a superficial level and to make Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble look good while elections draw near (a courtesy Schauble looks unwilling to grant Greece), but it does little in the way of truth.

A harsh summer that will bring hikes in electricity bills will find Greeks once again in discomfort, this time battling the predicted heatwave without access to air-conditioning. Health issues will inevitably arise. And that's only one part of the problem. No matter how much the Greek government wants us to believe things are bound to get better, it does to little to help those who actually need it: the people. If only wishful thinking and PR could replace reality…

Follow Yiannis on twitter @YiannisBab

Greek finance minister Yiannis Stournaras. (Photo: Getty.)

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot