Austerity in Athens

A report from the Greek capital.

We had many reasons for wanting to travel to Athens and to interview people there about the appalling effects of austerity's assault on services, jobs and aspirations. One was a concern about the brutal realities of cuts in Greece - Abi had visited Athens earlier this year, talked to a lot of people and was keen to meet with more. Another was an interest in comparing cuts stories from Greece with cuts stories in the UK. For several years, Kate has been interviewing people around the UK who were on the sharp end of this government's cuts – people who were losing care services, benefits, homes and any hope of rescue.

It seemed that comparisons could be made. It also seemed that comparisons should be made. Dead-eyed, austerity continues to march Europe deeper into poverty, shock, fascism and other forms of oblivion. Reporting that and the wider experience is a crucial part of the response of those of us who refuse to accept that most people exist to serve out as austerity's fodder. To put it another way – everyone everywhere needs to know when and where poverty and fascism are taking people out across Europe and anyone who is in a position to report that should be doing so. So, we went to Athens last week.
 
Right away, race was an issue. In fact, it was an issue before we went: friends in Greece warned Abi to take care and to stay out of Golden Dawn strongholds. Abi: “I spoke to Greeks in London who told of anarchist friends being beaten up alongside immigrants. Before we left, I'd heard that the American government issued a statement warning dark-skinned Americans in Athens to be careful when leaving their hotels at night. I assumed that as a dark-skinned British person, that probably applied to me as well.”
 
Kate is white and so, to put it bluntly, was a lot less likely to end up as a target. Nobody bothered with niceties on the subject. They simply told us that Abi was at risk and Kate wasn't. Abi: “I was surprised how many people said that I couldn’t go to certain places, although my white companion could. “Especially because you’re coloured” was something I heard a lot.”
 
“Don't you go,” surgeon Charalambos Farantos told Abi when, at the end of our interview with him, we said we said we would go to see Attica Square (Abi had seen this film) and several other areas. “They'll beat you up.”
 
“Is it dangerous here?” we asked antifascist activist Thanasis Kourkoulas when we were walking from Attiki station to his organisation's offices several streets away. We'd heard that Golden Dawn raids and attacks took place in the area at night, but the streets seemed benign during the day. People watched us and each other, but the sun was out and people in squares and cafes were talking and drinking coffee. But Kourkoulas seemed anxious. He took us to the burned-out ruins of a building that had recently been torched. He gave us a few minutes to take pictures of the site and the fascist graffiti that had been daubed on the surrounding walls and then he hurried us away.
 
“Come on,” he said. “Better go.”
 
“Is it dangerous?” we asked.
 
“It would be for you, because you're coloured,” he said to Abi.
 
Almost everyone we spoke to had a Golden Dawn story to tell, or seemed to expect to have one soon. Pavlos Antonopoulos, an Athens high school teacher, told us that just a few days earlier, three young Golden Dawn members – all ex-pupils – had turned up at his school to try and share the party's message with students. He told them to leave and they threatened to stab him. They took a different view of the security guard who let them in. “We will take care of you,” they told her.
 
We talked to doctors who treated immigrants without papers and people without insurance and said they would continue to do so, no matter who turned up to insist otherwise. “I think most doctors here would refuse if they were asked to behave like Mengele,” Farantos said. Doctors at his hospital had already taken pay cuts and were working hours of free overtime to treat people. Farantos told us that the evening before we met him, surgeons had worked into the night, unpaid, to operate on one person who had an appendicitis and another who needed emergency surgery for a stomach perforation.
 
We talked to three young men from Nigeria and Togo who'd come to Greece on the promise of further education. Two were were planning to leave as soon as they could. All said they were frightened of the police, all right. Explaining why, one of the young men pointed to an ugly lump over his eye – a day or two earlier, the police had thrown a bottle at him. We spoke to a teacher and students – all anti-fascist activists in Kallithea who were organising to leaflet against the party on the day we met them – who showed us obscene graffiti which had been sprayed on a school gate and signed with fascist insignia.
 
Not everyone was worried about fascism. Christos Mpampouras, 61, a man who ate regularly at an Omonoia municipal soup kitchen we visited, told us that he didn't have much problem with Golden Dawn because “they are young and they are Greek.” We spoke to a woman in her early thirties who voted Golden Dawn this year and said she'd vote for them again. She said she was proud to be Greek and needed hope.
 
Many of the Greek people we met wondered why the UK government was pursuing cuts with such passion off its own bat. A dentist we spoke to said: “In Greece the Troika is forcing us to implement these cuts. In the UK, your own government is doing it. Why?” Certainly, the evils being inflicted on people in the UK in the name of bank bailouts and corporate welfare - the Atos assessments, care cuts, bedroom taxes, council tax benefit cuts, housing benefit caps, rocketing rents, workfare, falling wages, the relying on foodbanks and all the rest - often came to mind while we were in Athens. The rise and rise of Golden Dawn may not be replicated here, but the heaping of cuts and blame on people who can least afford to shoulder those things sure as hell is.
Shops closed in Athens during a recent strike by transport workers (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times