What Greece has become

Ray Hartwell Contributor
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The sight of spray paint and the smell of urine are not welcome in any neighborhood. And when — as in Greece right now — they are common in a country’s capital city, around the finest public malls and buildings and along the swankiest shopping streets, they are a bad omen for all.

The Greek Parliament building, with its striking sentries guarding the tomb of the unknowns, is in the heart of Athens. Just across from it is the largely open plaza of Syntagma, or Constitution Square. Three of the city’s finest hotels line one side of Syntagma. At the foot of the square, along streets such as Ermou, lies a chic area that is the Athens equivalent of the Rue de Rivoli or Fifth Avenue. Fine shopping and upscale offices abound in one direction, while in another locals and tourists stroll to the shops and tavernas of the Plaka and the path to the Acropolis.

As I saw firsthand this summer, Syntagma now sports a forest of radical political banners. For weeks assorted protestors — who call themselves “indignants” — have been squatting in a scruffy tent city.

Spray paint is everywhere: on the marble steps leading up from the plaza to the front of Parliament, on walls and columns along the surrounding streets and on storefronts in the nearby shopping district. The odor of urine is common, not just in back alleys but along the sidewalks of major streets such as Ermou, Nikis and Amalias and in front of the Parliament and along the walk to Hadrian’s Arch.

The “indignants,” also described as “hooded youths,” have damaged public and private property throughout much of downtown Athens. Windows have been broken, spray paint mars storefronts, marble walls and columns have been smashed. The steps of the luxurious Athens Plaza Hotel have been badly chipped by hammers, the chunks of marble presumably thrown at police — who, by the way, did little or nothing to prevent the wanton destruction.

Banners everywhere proclaim the tired slogans of the hard left, often in English for the convenience of the visiting press. The “solution is revolution” (see photo below), Merkel and Sarkozy are “Nazis” (see photo on next page), and of course those opposed are labeled as “fascists” — never mind that the party in power and pushing the adoption of austerity measures is … the Socialists. Naturally there are generous helpings of spray-painted obscenities directed at the IMF (“International Mother F*ckers”), the EU and the U.S.

On the night of Sunday, June 19, anyone wishing to talk to the crowd of protestors was given three minutes to speak over the booming public address system. In our hotel a block off of Syntagma, I could hear this until after 3:00 on Monday morning. For those in the hotels surrounding the square, there was no escape from the serial rants by communists, anarchists and leftover sixties losers.

Of course, about 10 days later there was also no escape from the tear gas, when the looming parliament vote on austerity measures triggered another round of destructive rioting. The escalating protests were accompanied by the year’s fourth general strike. This disrupted utility services and transportation throughout the country, except for the metro lines into Athens, which the unions operated in order to bring more protesters into Syntagma.

The tear gas was so pervasive that it seeped into offices several blocks from Syntagma. The nearby hotels were giving out face masks and damp wash cloths to guests, encouraging all to stay indoors. Some hotels invited into their lobbies children and elderly Athenians who were caught in the tear gas clouds. Not good for tourism, not good for Athenians generally.

According to press reports, some 5,000 police officers were in downtown Athens at the height of the protests and violence. Yet fewer than 20 people were detained and fewer than 10 were arrested. The failure of the police to prevent the violence and property destruction was lamented by numerous Athenians with whom I spoke. They noted, logically, that the failure of the police either to prevent the destruction or to arrest and punish those who smashed windows or hammered apart marble columns and steps simply encouraged more of the same.

The banks in downtown Athens all now have “air lock” entrances. That is, customers must enter the bank one at a time, stepping first through an outer door into an enclosed compartment, where they are observed and photographed before the inner door opens to admit them to the lobby of the bank. A very slow and frustrating process (required also when exiting) that would not be in place absent serious security concerns.

Organized but unannounced strikes caused frequent electricity and water service outages while I was in Athens. These were often timed for late afternoon, to maximize discomfort for tourists checking into hotels, for restaurants preparing for evening meals, etc. Of course, Greeks (especially the elderly) were also seriously inconvenienced by these actions, but many were told by unsympathetic strikers that they should have known what to expect and been prepared.

All of this added up to bad news for the tourism industry and bad news for the Greek economy as a whole. Hotel bookings in Athens are reported to be down by 30% from last year, when bookings were down from earlier years. More cancellations occurred, I was told, with each additional strike.

Greece has lost 250,000 private sector jobs during the current recession — an enormous number of lost jobs for a country with only 10 million people. In Greece, as in the U.S., it is a sore point that all job losses have been in the private sector. There has been no loss of government jobs, which appear sacrosanct. In short, the productive private sector is at risk and civil servants are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be laid off.

Greece is not the U.S., but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons we can learn from Greece’s experience.

Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer whose opinion articles and book reviews have appeared in The Washington Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He can be reached at rayhartwell@rocketmail.com.