Wednesday, July 15, 2015

OXI and Austerity: The Secret Historical Meaning of the Greek Referendum

by Nomad

In a nation like Greece, with its long and proud history, messages can be conveyed by symbolic acts that echo and invite comparisons. The recent Greek referendum was one of those events.

Many news commentators were mystified when the left-wing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for a nation-wide referendum on the European debt payback proposals. The attitude ran something along the lines that the Greek people had no authority to vote on such complicated issues. What was the point and what did any result actually mean?

I recall one of the reporters asking if the Greek people even understood what they were voting for. It was, they said, all too complicated an issue for the average citizen to understand. 

This was, it was implied, a matter for governments, not for citizens. Despite the fact, it was past administrations and armies of faceless bureaucrats that had engineered this experiment in austerity. Never mind that it was the people who would ultimately suffer under the proposed austerity measures, their opinion counted for nothing. 
True, there were people on fixed incomes, there were countless numbers of unemployed citizens that were entirely dependent on government support, there were large numbers of Greeks who had already suffered for the last five years from belt-tightening austerity.

According to the prevailing attitude expressed by some in the media, the opinion of these people counted for nothing.

As far as the Europeans in the North saw it, the Greeks were a bunch of lazy free-loaders living in paradise who have come begging once again for more money from the hard-working German and French. Why, the Northern Europeans said, should we be supporting their frivolous lifestyle? 

Two German politicians, Josef Schlarmann, a senior member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, and Frank Schaeffler, a finance policy expert in the Free Democrats, reportedly suggested back 2010 that perhaps Greece should think about selling off one of its islands to repaid the debt. One source reported at the time:
"Those in insolvency have to sell everything they have to pay their creditors," Schlarmann told Bild newspaper. "Greece owns buildings, companies and uninhabited islands, which could all be used for debt redemption."
Austerity and the Loan Sharks
Tsipras, who was elected in January on a promise to end years of austerity, attempted to explain to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, "the money that was given to Greece never went to the people.”
To a mixture of both boos and applause, he told the parliament that “the money was given to save Greek and European banks.”

As a source reminds us that at this time, the Greek government currently owes 323 billion euros. Five years of IMF-imposed “austerity” has resulted in an increase of that debt by about 213 billion euros.
It was, in effect, nothing more and nothing less, than a form of loan sharking, a well-known feature of the criminal underworld

To this, German politician and European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, delivered what the New York Times called "a scathing verbal attack" calling Tsiparis "a liar to the European members and a liar to his own people." It was hard to remember a time when a European leader had been treated so disrespectfully.

When the outcome of that Greek referendum was so clearly against the measures, European leaders expressed a kind embarrassment and a kind of panic. There was also a faint hint that Tsipras' mischief must be punished. It was the only way to prevent a full scale revolt from countries like Spain and Portugal.

The money lenders in Europe faced the very real possibility that the European Union would shudder and collapse. With Greece no longer a member nation, nobody on either side could predict what the outcome would be. Analysts were grimly predicting a drachma-based spiral of hyper-inflation inside the country, and on the outside, a full-scale revolt from other nations along Europe's Southern flank,

Possible Consequences of an Exit
Few in the North seemed to consider the security implications of having a bankrupt non-member state on its extremely porous borders. 
The strategic consequences of a strapped Greece are hard to imagine. In terms of border control would be like leaving the doors of Fortress Europa wide open. 

A careful look at the map reveals a dangerous weakness in the European alliance. Who would be paying for border security in the event of a Greek exit? (Spain and Italy have the same problems.)

In the last years, the Syrian civil war and the collapse of law and order in Iraq has created a veritable flood of refugees into Turkey. From the Western coast of Turkey to the Greek islands, it is a matter of miles and many refugees have died attempting to enter into Europe, through Greece. 

The number of illegal migrants- even now- has left all nations along the Mediterranean scrambling.
Figures indicate that the number of illegal immigrants attempting to reach the Greek islands after departing Turkish soil were 13,165 people in the first six months of 2015, far higher than the migrants captured in the Aegean overall in 2014. In total, 12,884 migrants were nabbed in 529 operations throughout last year, almost a 100 percent increase from 2013. 
And that's just half of the problem.
According to one source:
Last January, ISIS revealed that it is smuggling terrorists into Europe by hiding them among the immigrants leaving Turkey. 
As a NATO member, Greece must be capable of defending its own borders. Under the economic burdens of European austerity, how will Greece be able to afford to maintain its military and national security?

The Reckoning
In the end, as the marathon negotiations became more and more contracted, the Greek negotiators, led by Tsipras, finally broke down and accepted the terms. The attitude that prevailed might have been low-keyed triumphalism, Tspiras would be finished when his people understood the extent of his defeat. 
But who had actually won and who had lost?  

Moreover, there was a twist, a twist of the knife. The terms were, according to some, more stringent than what had been offered prior to the referendum. Had he submitted without a fight things would have been easier.
Some Greeks who were spending hours at ATMs trying to rescue (in 60 Euro drips) whatever savings they could were now talking about the humiliation that German-led Europe was inflicting on the Greek people. 

Austerity has already come at a heart-breaking cost to the Greek people. It has caused a breakdown in public health infrastructure, leaving nearly a million of its eleven million people without access to healthcare. An Independent article from last year noted:
academics found evidence of rising infant mortality rates, soaring levels of HIV infection among drug users, the return of malaria, and a spike in the suicide count.
The new proposals will mean that this pattern will continue and most likely grow worse. George Katrougalos, the Greek deputy interior minister, told Al-Jazeera that austerity has "practically destroyed Greece."
"We have lost one-fourth of our GDP, practically one in three people are unemployed, half the population is around or below the threshold of poverty"
Katrougalos claims that there is something more going on- an agenda by some in Europe:  
"to destroy the first left government in Europe in order to show that there is just one economic policy in Europe - neoliberalism - and that there is no alternative."
The goal isn't fiscal stability or good governance, but submission and absolute surrender of sovereignty. If that assessment is true, it will not be the first time that Greece has faced such threats.

OXI!: The Day Greece Stood Up to Fascism 
Looking back, for the Greeks, the purpose of the referendum couldn't have been clearer. The symbolism was something of an inside joke that every Greek would understand.
In a nation where historical timelines are on a completely different scale than the rest of the world, Greeks see patterns that pass by the rest of us. The year 1940 on that scale is like a few hours ago. 

In that year, it seemed as though nothing could stop the Axis powers from the complete domination of the European continent. When the rest of Europe had already fallen to fascism, Greece and Great Britain were the last exceptions. 

By the end of that year all that was about to change. At dawn on the morning of October 28, 1940 the dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini issued an ultimatum to the Greek government led by Ioannis Metaxas. (The dictator Metaxas himself was hardly a champion of democracy, having gone from general to Minister of war, to interim prime minister. Following unrest, he seized power in 1936 with the king's blessing.)

Mussolini's ultimatum was quite simple. Mussolini ordered that Greece surrender its sovereignty and allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory. Under the threat of war, Italy would occupy certain unspecified "strategic locations" and Greece would thereafter become a protectorate of Italy. Greece was to become little more than a puppet state, run by outsiders. 

For Metaxas the ultimatum came as a shock. All of his efforts to avoid any direct confrontation with the growing power of the fascists had come to an abrupt end. His efforts to keep Greece out of the conflict had clearly been based on wishful thinking, miscalculation and misplaced trust.

When the Italian envoy presented the demand, according to the legend, the reaction was a defiant "OXI!" or in Greek, "No!" The pride of Greece would not be sacrificed to appease the bullies of Europe. If this is where democracy in Europe began, then it was perhaps fitting, the pragmatic Greeks said, that Greece should also be the place where it dies. 
On that morning of October 28 the Greek population took to the streets, regardless of their political affiliations. The crowds defiantly began shouting 'ochi'. They would not be bullied in submission by threats. 

In fact, this answer came as no surprise to Mussolini who- on the very day- launched an invasion of the country from the north. With a force of about 87,000 men and was increased to about 565,000 troops,supported by 463 aircraft and 163 light tanks, the Italians surged across the Greek border. 

The British fleet came to Greece's aid as far as was possible. Warships attempted to protect the islands of Corfu and Crete. The Turks - rather surprisingly given the history of conflict between the Greece and Turkey- also answered the Greek call for help, marching into Thrace and eastern Greece.

Greece unexpectedly gave robust defense of the nation and launched an effective counter offensive. So effective that the Italian army was forced to retreat, losing ground in Albania to the Greek army.
A temporary stalemate was maintained until in spring of 1941, German and Italian forces combined to put an end to the Greek resistance. 

In April of that year, the Germany army rapidly pushed its way across the Greek border through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. The Greek army was overwhelmed and on 27 April, Nazi forces hoisted the flag over the Acropolis in Athens.

With the Nazi flag on display, the German message was clear to every Greek. There would be a heavy price to pay for any defiance to the fascists. Germany and her allies had won and the neutrality and the sovereignty of European nations was, from this point on, at an end. 

Today in Greece 28th of October- the day the Greeks stood up to fascism and paid the heavy price- is a special day full of pride for Greeks all over the world. It is a public holiday and is commemorated every year with military and student parades. Most of the public buildings and many private residences are decorated with Greek flags on this day.

The decisive vote of the Greek referendum on the European austerity measure- the overwhelming "OXI"- is a reminder to every Greek of that history. 

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