In the basement of the COOP anti-war café in Berlin, in an almost conspiratorial atmosphere, we met with Marianella Kloka from Pressenza Athens for the Greek-German exchange. She is a long-time activist and human rights expert and has closely followed the situation in Greece in recent years. This is the start of a platform of direct communication in order to counter the misinformation and misconceptions of the media and politics.
“This year was a very important one in my life. A milestone.” Marianella begins before telling us the whole Greek tragedy from the beginning of the crisis while describing especially the moods and opinions of the Greek people. “The main feeling in recent years, accompanying the first and second memorandum, you can best describe as indignation and anger.
“Anger against what?” asks one participant.
“It was clear that the governments were not serving our interests. We were told to deal with a debt that we did not understand where it came from and as a result of national spending that we weren’t asked about. There was no transparency and this was a very clear demand from the people who were protesting. The politicians were not being held accountable for what had happened. The people did not understand how such a high amount of debt could accumulate. Debt audit was our demand and we wanted also an economic investigation into the Olympics and, during the end of the 90s, the national welfare system funds that were speculated with on the stock market”.
“So we formed the protest of the Greek ‘Indignados’, which was fiercely attacked by the Greek police with a lot of gas, after about two months of gatherings in 2011. Then the movement stopped and tried to organize a kind of non-violent resistance in different places. In this period most of the protests and rallies had a very violent ending, because of the involvement of the infiltrators (people on a mission to mess things up in order to cause a savage police response).”
It was interesting, that before the signing of the second memorandum there was already the proposal for a referendum by George Papandreou, another guest remembers. He had to resign shortly after. “Yes, there was immediate intervention by the French and German governments. It was the worst nightmare for the institutions that the people decide about their destiny and imagine: he was replaced by an ex banker!”
“In the year 2012, after the second memorandum, we reached the depths of darkness,” Marianella continues. The Greek population realized that they had no control over the politics of their country and that the attacks of austerity policies against the most vulnerable in society would worsen. “It was absolute hopelessness.”
And here something interesting happened. Greek citizens began to help each other. They developed alternative ways. For example, the state would cut the electricity of those who could not pay their taxes, and in many places people started to tap into the power supply lines. In public transport, people gave their still-valid tickets to others. There was collection and sharing of food and gatherings of medical supplies. Marianella regards these activities as examples of non-violent resistance. She thought: “If we try to empower the people, it could be an answer.” And the government was worried. The participants of the discussion were shocked to hear that the police and politicians tried to forbid these demonstrations of solidarity. To cook publicly in a square for poor people was not allowed anymore. Exchanging tickets was made illegal. “They were afraid people could use it to develop an independent social platform.” Marianella assumes. And in fact, networks were formed. But rather than a common strategy, there was more a common frequency. People wanted to respond to the situation. Social media of course helped a lot.
Worse was how fascist parties like Golden Dawn gained ground in this time by working at the grass roots. They organised medical care for retired people, food for school children, and they gained a high percentage in the elections of 2012. “The rising nationalisms in Europe are dangerous”, another person mentions, “the more Europe is in crisis, the more irrational ideas come up that present the illusion of solving the problems by shutting off their own country.”
During this time, Syriza also gained strength. It was a political movement from the street. “Some Ministers of the Syriza government were personally known to me because I met them in the protests or in different occasions advocating for social and human rights.” The European election in 2014 was the first sign that Syriza could indeed have a chance. They won the region of Attika in the local government elections. Hope was starting to grow again because this party emphasized in all its meetings and in their program that they would bring an end to austerity. “The people believed in the necessity of reforms. A fair taxation system, a better administration, more transparency, fighting corruption.” But they should be reforms that emerged from the people, not imposed by external powers. Syriza proclaimed in their programme of 2014: Frequent referenda, no forced reforms. We will tear up the existing MoU.
“A frequent criticism in Germany after Syriza was elected in January was that the coalition did nothing after they came to power: Look, now they are in government and they do not perform!” one participant states. Marianella counters that this was not true. Immediately after being elected and forming a coalition with Anel they started some interesting projects. They enacted a law for migrants to gain faster and easier citizenship, they also gained control over the police force, replacing riots with peaceful demonstration since then. “A very good measure was the proposal for debtors to arrange the payment of their debt in one hundred chunks. This was very positively received by the people and many started to pay back the debts.”
“Did you hear about the Debt Audit here?” Marianella asks back. Some participants said no, some said, “yes, but presented in a negative way”. The parliament chair, Zoe Konstantopoulou, convened a commission consisting of experts, including people from the EU and the UN, to check which debts of Greece were legitimate and which were undertaken by corrupt institutions without transparency or examining the sustainability and could therefore not be burdened on the Greek people. The final report says that about one third of the debt is “illegitimate, illegal and odious.” The report was published in the internet in Greek and English. “For the Greek people it was a first example of transparency.”
In the press, Greek and foreign, the Greek Debt Audit was generally degraded. The Greek press is absolutely neoliberal, says Marianella. They give little information, and a lot of opinion, no good journalism. When Marianella was asked to explain the Greek situation, she therefore concentrated only on data and facts: 62% unemployment among young people, 3 million people without health insurance, 91% of the money of the “aid” packages went directly to banks in interest payments and to save them.
When the referendum was proclaimed, the banks shut down. This was a shock. “Most of the people did not even have money in their bank account.” Marianella laughs. In this time, which was a personal turning point for her and when she began to write a diary (which lead to the start of the Greek edition of Pressenza), the people became more flexible in their heads. “Everybody discussed with family and friends how a life without money is possible.” This was very good even if it was not out of choice but out of necessity. It gave the opportunity to think “out of the box”.
Where is Greece now? An important indicator is that there was 46% abstention in the recent elections, says Marianella. That is two million fewer voters than in the referendum. “How can you govern a country, in which half of the population turns their backs?” The election campaigns were only about who is more able to implement the third memorandum. Now the Syriza-Anel coalition government are rolling back one good economic measure after the other, the same measures they themselves introduced at the beginning of the year.
There was however one positive sign in the elections. Everyone feared a rise of Golden Dawn on the islands, through which 400,000 refugees have passed this year. But it did not happen. On the contrary. It was Syriza that won on the islands. “This result shows that especially there, where people came into direct contact with the refugees, human power was more important than the power of propaganda. They regard the people as what they are: men, women, children, fleeing from a war zone.”
“The existing structures are destabilizing. I believe that we are experiencing the end of representative democracy. Not only in Greece.” Marianella says that we must develop alternatives and break out of our familiar paradigms. There are for example many interesting ideas about how to use new media for direct democracy, she explains.
What does she think about a Grexit? She had no conclusive opinion about it, Marianella says. But: “For me, Europe is more than a currency. To go out of the Euro does not mean to leave Europe. When it is helpful, as it is now for example, we should seriously think about it. What makes me a bit reluctant is that I lost faith in the existing government, and either in or out of the euro, someone must work on reforms, transparency and a fairer administration system”.
The participants agree that the basis of Europe should not be economic interest. Europe is in crisis and cannot find a way out of its conflicts with its existing structures. This is the reason why we want to continue these discussions in order to think together “out of the box”.
Thank you Marianella for these vivid descriptions!