Tens of thousands of Greek workers have taken to the streets to protest the first of a series of budget
cuts. The cuts come as the European Union pressures the Greek government to slash its massive
budget deficit, or face potential bankruptcy. We spoke to Nikos Nikiasis of the Greek Social Forum, who
put forward another option for raising the needed funds, while questioning the importance of being part
of the European Union.
Produced by Jesse Freeston.
Greek workers refuse to pay for crisis
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: A 24-hour general strike paralyzed the Greek capital of Athens this week, shutting down schools, hospitals, and transportation, confirmation that Greece will be one of the first battlegrounds in the public-debt crises now threatening governments around the world, crises made worse after last year’s massive bank bailouts and stimulus packages. The protests in Greece, part of the second general strike in February alone, came after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he would drastically slash public spending as demanded by the European Union. The specific measures being opposed by the strikers include pay freezes for public workers, raising the retirement age from 61 to 63, and tax hikes for workers. But the government has made it clear these cuts are just the beginning. The government’s financial situation appears quite bad. It is unprepared to pay the ï¿½53 billion it owes to creditors this year, ï¿½22 billion of which are coming due in March and April alone. Despite the massive protests, the prime minister says that he has the support of most Greeks.
GEORGE PAPANDREOU, PRIME MINISTER OF GREECE: Even though they are austerity measures and they do hurtï¿½they do hurtï¿½we have a support right now of the austerity measures which is around 50 to 60 percent of the population, and the government also has that support.
FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Nikos Nikisianis of the Greek Social Forum, who opposes the cuts but confirmed that they are supported in Greece.
NIKOS NIKISIANIS, SPOKESPERSON, GREEK SOCIAL FORUM: I think in my lifetime it was the first time to see something like that. A terrifying coalition of the mainstream political parties, of all the media, even from the Orthodox Christian Church, all together were in fact trying to persuade the Greek people these two months that it’s in very critical situation and we have to accept to lose many of our rights if we want to survive as country.
FREESTON: As to the question of who in Greek society will pay for this crisis, the prime minister has called on all Greeks to unify in sacrificing for the good of the country.
PAPANDREOU: I think what we’re seeing hereï¿½and I haven’t seen this except during the Olympic Games in 2004ï¿½the real sense of unity of the Greek people of wanting to make a change and understanding that it’s painful and there will be reactions. But the wide support is there.
FREESTON: Nikisianis doesn’t agree that the responsibility should be a national project.
NIKISIANIS: They all trying to persuade that it’s something that we are all sharing the responsibility and we all should share the cost. Of course, on the other hand, it’s clear that we are not saying all of us these responsibilities. You know, it’s very, very usual in Greece that the private sector do not pay what they should for the social insurance. They just don’t pay. We’re speaking about huge amounts of money owed to the state and to various social services. If someone has to pay, they have to pay to get rid of the crisis. Instead of that, we see that all this goes back to the working class, and the profit rate of the big companies and the big banks is still very high. It’s still even increasing. It’s not now a matter of national unity; it’s a matter of contradictions inside the country.
FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Chris Spannos, editor for ZNet and coproducer of the 2009 documentary After the Greek Uprising.
CHRIS SPANNOS, ZCOMMUNICATIONS: The Greek workers and the Greek people, just like people everywhere, wherever there’s an economic crisis, they’re the ones who are going to be paying for this crisis, when the crisis was not theirs in the first place. They didn’t create the crisis.
FREESTON: This sentiment is springing up all over Europe. The Czech business magazine Hospodï¿½Å™skï¿½ noviny wrote on Wednesday, “Europe is sliding into the second phase of the crisis. For politicians this phase is even more difficult to control than the first. It was easier to pump money into the banks and leave debts to the generation of our grandchildren. But calming the generation of parents and grandparents is another thing altogether. For them it’s increasingly difficult to find jobs, and those they have are poorly paid.” Making the situation even worse is rampant financial speculation. Traders are using the financial instrument known as the credit default swap in order to bet against Greece’s ability to pay its debt obligations. The bets themselves make it even more difficult for Greece to borrow the money needed to make its debt obligations, making the wagers self-fulfilling.
SPANNOS: And it’s not just now, but it’s going back. And so the particular case of Goldman Sachs was in 2001, where apparently they traded some debt with Greece. It was a mutual exchange. It was mutually beneficial. Goldman Sachs may have benefited in the millions or billions. It’s still totally unclear. The investigation’s still unfolding, and the Federal Reserve is also investigating the matter.
BEN BERNANKE, CHAIRMAN, US FEDERAL RESERVE: Using these instruments in a way that potentially destabilizes a company or a country is counterproductive, and I’m sureï¿½.
SPANNOS: What so far we know is that this negotiation, this debt swap with Goldman Sachs, increased in 2001, helped Greece hide its public deficit and national debt and enabled it or allowed it to enter the European union of nations. How much they’re responsible for the current situation isï¿½it’s still hard to tell. But what’s interesting is they’re still behaving in this predatory way, speculating on the debt, speculating on the currencies. And it isï¿½it should be obvious that it’s very cannibalistic.
FREESTON: German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented on the role of the bankers in the crisis, saying: “The debt that had to be accumulated during the financial crisis is now becoming the object of speculation by precisely those institutions that we saved a year and a half ago. That’s very difficult to explain to people in a democracy who should trust us.
SPANNOS: It’s kind of like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house. You create an incentive to want to burn down their house. And that’s what these banks are doing. They’re basically burning down these economies to collect on the bets that they wagered. And it should anger people, and many Greeks are angered.
FREESTON: Despite Chancellor Merkel’s show of empathy to the Greek dilemma, Germany has led the EU in opposing a bailout for Greece. This brings some to question the German government’s motives. As an export economy, many major German businesses benefit from a falling euro. Nikisianis believes this is the opposite of what Greeks were promised when their government adopted the euro in 2001.
NIKISIANIS: The main promise was then that if we are part of the European Union, but mainly part of the Euro group, we won’t be affected by the terrifying international economical, social, and political instability. But I think that it can be proved this year that it’s not true. It’s not a matter of the name of your money; it’s not a matter of being, or not, a member of the European Union; it’s a matter of the policies that they are deciding. If we do not support the income of the working class, possibility of the society to buy things, to live better, we will just continue the cycle of the crisis. It’s something that we have seen in other countries, that they have been obliged to follow neoliberal recipes like those that the International Monetary Fund have imposed to them, or like those that nowadays European Union imposed to Greece.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.