Odious Debt and the Betrayal of the Popular Will in Greece
After Syriza’s “treason”, Zoe Konstantopoulou, ex-Speaker of Greece’s Parliament, founds a new party to unburden Greece of its odious debt
DIMITRI LASCARIS, TRNN: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from Lesbos, Greece, for The Real News.
This week, The Real News is in Lesbos to cover the Crossing Borders Conference on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
This afternoon we’re joined by Zoe Konstantopoulou. Zoe Konstantopoulou is the former speaker of the Greek Parliament. She was elected to that position in February of last year with a record number of votes from her fellow MPs, including, surprisingly, the support of the right-wing New Democracy Party. But her tenure as speaker of the Greek Parliament was short-lived. Her position was vacated in October of last year after the SYRIZA government decided to implement an austerity program that was even more severe than [the one that] over 60 percent of the population of Greece had rejected in a referendum in July of last year.
Thank you for joining us today, Zoe.
ZOE KONSTANTOPOULOU, LEADER, COURSE OF FREEDOM PARTY (GREECE): Thank you for having me.
LASCARIS: My pleasure.
So from an outsider’s perspective looking into the Greek political system, it seems very much to be a male-dominated sport. And, in fact, I grew up in a Greek ex-pat family in Canada and I had three sisters, and patriarchy was a very dominant feature of the culture that I knew at that time, and I frankly admitted to my sisters over the years that I was the beneficiary of that patriarchy. And I wonder whether that’s something that you encounter today in the Greek political system. And if so, how does it manifest itself, at least in your case, and how have you adapted to it?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: Well, I would say there is always the tendency to oppress through sexism, but also through a mentality and a strategy against whoever represents a threat in the establishment’s systematic conscience.
I would, however, say that through the years what is extremely evident is that there are a lot of women who have managed, despite all circumstances, to make their case and to become public figures, to inspire other people and other women and constitute an example. So I would say of course there is this tendency on the part especially of those who want to maintain things as they are, but on the other hand there’s a very, very strong counter-tendency.
LASCARIS: Now, last year, after the referendum in which over 60 percent of the Greek population effectively voted to reject an austerity program that was even less severe than what was ultimately implemented, the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, called a snap election and there was a rebellion of the left wing of the SYRIZA party, and they formed another party called Popular Unity, which I understand you supported in the election that was held in September.
KONSTANTOPOULOU: I cooperated as an independent candidate with Popular Unity.
LASCARIS: And despite the fact that at least it was widely perceived that the government betrayed the referendum, the party, surprisingly, didn’t manage to achieve a 3 percent threshold of representation in Parliament. What’s your analysis as to why that happened despite the widespread discontent of the government’s neglecting of the referendum result?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: Last year there was clear treason, not just capitulation. And this treason was perpetrated by the very person who had incarnated hope and who had inspired a lot of people to stand up for their lives and for their rights.
I believe it was a calculated coup, not only against democracy, not only against the people, but also against the people’s morale, against their psychology. It was directly targeting the people’s hope, it was directly targeting their self-esteem and their self-confidence.
And it was translated into a record abstention–the highest abstention ever recorded Greece in the last 40 years. Some 48.5 percent of the voters did not even go to vote in September, and another 3 percent casted a null or invalid vote.
So I would say that this was not a surprising result. This was the result aimed at by the creditors and by those who are aiding and abetting them.
On the other hand, when it comes to the effort made by a lot of us not to give up, to fight the fight, to resist to what was happening–and what was happening was clearly a parliamentary and political cleansing: they dismantled the Parliament to do away with everyone who was saying no–our duty was to resist, but it was also evident that this was going to be a very, very hard battle to fight.
So I would say that it was not a surprise that people did not react at the same rhythm, because it was very, very difficult; even for people within the left and within SYRIZA (the previously initialed, the initial SYRIZA, the one which does not exist anymore), it was very difficult to stand on their feet and say, no, we’re still fighting.
LASCARIS: Now, since that time–and I understand this happened very recently–you formed or have been part of a group of politicians who’ve come forward and formed a new party, Course to Freedom, of which you are the leader. And broadly speaking, what are the main objectives of that party? And how does its platform, how would it differ in the most important respects from that of Popular Unity?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: Let me begin by your initial introduction. This is not a party aiming to be an initiative of politicians. This is an initiative–a party movement, as we like to call it–which aims to be the incarnation of society. So we’re really working for a coalition with the people, a coalition with the men and women, the youngsters, but also the older people who are not willing to give up their life and their freedom.
It’s called Course of Freedom because it represents a struggle that is ahead of us, a struggle to liberate our country from the memoranda regime. The memorandum regime is a totalitarian, authoritarian regime. We need to reverse it. And when we are talking about a reversal of the memoranda regime, we’re not just talking about reversing this government; we’re talking about reversing all political forces which have served this regime and all economic interests and all elites who are allied in order to support this totalitarian and totally undemocratic establishment.
We have our founding declaration as our trajectory, and we have a vessel as our symbol. This vessel has six sails, and each sail is in the shape of a “D”. Each “D” represents one value, one principle for which we’re fighting (of course, these are “D”s in Greek, “Δ”): dimokratía–democracy; dikaiosýni–justice; diafáneia–transparency; dikaiómata–human rights; diagraphí tou chreós–abolition of the debt; and diekdíkisi ton yermanikón otheilón–claim of the German reparations to Greece owed since the Second World War.
These are our six primary goals, but we have a much broader declaration which talks about the main aims, in order to regain freedom for our people and human rights and liberties for each and every one.
LASCARIS: So I just saw a poll that came out–I believe it was the Kapa polling agency which did it–which showed that the Course to Freedom Party is now enjoying the support of I believe it was 3.2 or 3.5 percent of the population. And it seemed, based upon my monitoring of polls in Greece recently, that potentially the creation of this party has eaten into the support of Popular Unity. It had been at about 2.5 percent, and this poll indicated it was about 1.8 percent. And, of course, whether there’s a relationship is unclear. But are you concerned that especially given the 3 percent threshold, that this may precipitate further fragmentation of the left, and the broad objectives that are shared amongst the left parties in Greece might not ultimately be achieved because of that fragmentation?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: I would say the exact opposite. What Course to Freedom aims at is not the division but the multiplying of our forces. And we have to be very, very clear at this point: the left has absolutely no future if it decides to only talk about itself. The left right now needs to realize that our primary goal, our primary focus has to be on the society. We need to support the society to stand on its feet because there’s no left and there’s no future and there’s no democracy upon a devastated society.
Let me also say that Course to Freedom is not only addressing left-wing believers, left-wing citizens. We’re appealing to the people’s democratic beliefs, to their patriotism, in the sense that emanates from our constitution, which talks about our country and democracy as a true content of respect for human rights, on transparency, on justice, on social justice, and respect for social rights. We’re appealing to the people’s radicalism. We’re appealing to the people’s sense of resistance to what is trying to dominate their lives and our future.
Personally, I never hid my identity as a leftist. I never hid my identity as a person coming from the social movements and believing firmly in the social movements. I do believe my duty at this point is to do everything in my power so that the people regain their belief in themselves, they reactivate themselves on the first level, and then we can ask them to join us. But right now it’s very, very important to get them to act for their lives and for democracy.
LASCARIS: And this is all happening in the context of an enormously consequential event in the United Kingdom, the Brexit vote. And moments ago we were at the Crossing Borders Conference, and you made some very interesting remarks about Brexit and its implications for the future of Europe. What good do you see in that result, and what are the potential dangers lurking in that result?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: I’m someone who has a lot of trust in the people. I do believe in the people’s power, and I do trust that the people, when given the power, can to make the right decisions for themselves and for the others.
And I think it’s very telling that the Greek people, a people who had never been given the right to have a referendum ever since 1974, when asked about their lives, when asked about their dignity, when asked in a context of complete propaganda and economic terrorism, they were in a position to make a brave and glorious decision: they were in a position to say no to extortions, no to the memoranda, no to imposition; they were in a position to say no to everything that was supposed to be widely accepted.
And I would say that this No has been a glorious moment in our recent history. It’s in my view the most glorious moment in the history that I’ve lived as a person. And this is why it was on 5 July, one year after this No, that Course to Freedom deposited its founding declaration with the Greek courts.
The British referendum came at a point which was crucial for the aftermath of the Greek referendum, because what the system, this regime, is very working very, very hard to achieve is the people’s retirement, their self-retirement, their disappointment to a point where they resigned from their lives and they admit to themselves or they convince themselves that there’s nothing to do, that there’s no point in resisting when you’re a No and your vote means nothing. This is the central propaganda. And this is a propaganda which has achieved a lot in the people’s morale, and this is a situation which has strengthened the memoranda regime, of which the E.U. institutions, namely the European Commission and the European Central Bank, are an intrinsic part.
It was therefore very important to have this regime and to have this establishment contested, defined by another people’s vote, by the British people’s vote. And I do believe that the outcome, the vote for exiting the European Union, is a very important moment in the European history where the establishment trying to dominate is taking a blow.
I do believe that we’re facing history in the making, and I do believe it is our responsibility to demand even more democracy, even more instances where the people are given the opportunity to pronounce themselves on the way the European Union has been operating, and also to reject the way the European Union has been operating and reject the very functions and the very aims of the European Union as it stands right now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this establishment has been built upon large rates of abstention and it has been built on the side of democratic procedures around it.
LASCARIS: One of the things I want to explore with you before we let you go is the question of the odious debt. You’ve been at the forefront in this country in investigating legitimacy of Greece’s staggering pile of debt and in exploring ways in which to relieve Greece of this crushing burden. What, broadly speaking, have been the findings of the commission that has investigated this? And where do we go from here in terms of dealing with that debt?
KONSTANTOPOULOU: When I was elected president of Parliament on February 2015, in my inaugural speech I talked about the necessity to audit Greece’s debt. This was actually one of SYRIZA’s intellectual commitments, political commitments, and it was a political commitment going back to what had been a social demand, a demand stemming from the social movements back in 2011, when the people said, we do not owe, we do not pay, we do not sell, because, as you know, what is being demanded of Greece and of Greeks is that they sell off the totality of the public property, the public assets, the public wealth.
On April 2015, a truth commission on public debt was founded through president of Parliament decree. It was a decision I took within the frameworks of the regulation of the Parliament. And this was actually an initiative that no European state had ever taken before. This was the first and up to now it’s the only debt auditing commission established within the European Union framework at a state level.
The commission worked very intensively. It was composed of both experts and citizens wishing to contribute to its works, and it produced a preliminary report in June 2015, so before the capitulation.
And this report showed very clearly that the Greek debt is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s not the outcome of the people having spent more than they could afford. It’s not the outcome of the people having lived beyond their means, as the media and the system were propagandizing. Rather, it is proven that the Greek debt is very closely linked to corruption cases involving armaments deals, and it’s also very closely linked to unconstitutional and undemocratic practices aiming at covering up a debt which is serving private interests and elites’ interests. It was proven that back in 2010 a decision was taken at the level of the International Monetary Fund to save German and French banks rather than save the Greek people, and so they decided to maintain and even aggravate Greece’s debt in order not to provoke damages to German and French banks, withholding Greek state bonds. It was proven that public expenses in Greece for 30 years, from 1980 to 2010, have been kept below, well below the European average in all fields but defense expenses. And it was also proven that from the money given to Greece from 2010 to 2015, 92 percent was directed back to the creditors.
So this whole preliminary report reveals the debt system which is not serving the people. It is not serving the Greek society. It is not serving the Greek economy. It is not serving any European society or economy. Rather, it is serving very, very narrow and corrupt interests operating within Europe and beyond.
This report was in the hands of the government back in July 2015. Tsipras decided not to use it. He has never offered any explanation why he didn’t use it. The committee made the second report in September, analyzing why the Greek debt is illegal, illegitimate, odious, and unsustainable not only when it comes to the debt up to 2015, but also when it comes to the third memorandum debt, the one linked to the Tsipras deal, the capitulation deal of July-August 2015.
The committee was subjected to a literal political persecution by the new Tsipras government. The committee reports were removed from the Parliament website. Then its offices were removed. Then its works were unilaterally declared stopped. And then there was a change of locks in the committee archives and a confiscation of the committee members’ personal archives.
I would say that this only reveals the fear of this regime, this only reveals how important the committee works are, and this only makes us more–this makes us more decided to continue with the committee works. And back in March 2016, the committee met in Brussels and we decided to move on. We decided to disobey the new president of Parliament’s dictates.
LASCARIS: Presumably you’re doing this without government financial support.
KONSTANTOPOULOU: And without government’s permission.
KONSTANTOPOULOU: And we decided to transform the committee into an association. So what we’re doing is we’re taking what came from society as a social demand, became a political engagement. Then it was transformed into an institutional obligation and an institutional initiative. Now this initiative is going back to the society. It’s returning to the people. It’s becoming an association, and it will continue the debt audit and it will continue the struggle.
LASCARIS: Well, I know you you have to head off out of Lesbos today. And we’ll be watching with great interest the evolution of Course to Freedom. And I hope that we’ll have an opportunity to speak to you again as matters unfold.
KONSTANTOPOULOU: It will be a pleasure.
LASCARIS: Thank you very much, Zoe.
KONSTANTOPOULOU: Thank you, too.
LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
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