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A Glorious Past Can't Protect Greece's Future
04/23/2015 | By Alan Kohler | ABC.net.au
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The view from my hotel balcony in Athens sums up Greece's current contradiction: the glorious remnants of its past to the right, and boarded up shops and graffiti directly in front, writes Alan Kohler.

The first thing that struck me about Athens was the graffiti: it was everywhere. And we're not talking Banksy or street art here, but messy scribbles. The second were all the boarded-up buildings and the third thing was the rubbish in the streets.

Athens is not quite third world, but close, and then you look up and see the magnificent Acropolis and you get a glimpse into the Greek soul, and its deep contradiction - the coexistence of today's mess with its glorious history.

Well, its glorious ancient history anyway. More recent history has been patchy, to say the least.

In the 1960s Greece was the coolest nation on earth. There was Maria Callas, Jackie and Aristotle Onassis, Olympic Airlines, the world's best airline for a while, and Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek, teaching us all to dance and have fun.

But the Greeks got carried away with it all, didn't they, and started voting left-wing after years of right-wing stability. So a group of rightist army officers drove their tanks into Athens in 1967 and staged a coup, which was then, shockingly, legitimised by the King.

The military dictatorship ruled Greece for seven years and ended with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Modern Greece reached its zenith exactly 30 years later when it hosted the Olympic Games in Athens, brilliantly. Everyone said they couldn't get it finished in time, but they did - and it worked.

Three years earlier Greece had been accepted into the eurozone. Its application, based as it was on cooked books and lies, had been an emotional, nationalistic one, motivated by a sense that Greece's past was fundamental to Europe, so its future must be too. But it was not economically sensible, and they now realise it was a terrible mistake.

In any case, while the United States was invading Iraq and the world generally was absorbing the implications of the 9/11 attacks on New York, Greece was riding high.

After that it was a long way down. The Olympic aftermath was fumbled and the infrastructure that was built for it was not well used. Five years later the economy was in crisis, and ironically it was the son of the man who took Greece into the euro, Andreas Papandreou, who was landed with its consequences.

Immediately after becoming prime minister in October 2009, George Papandreou had to announce that the government was effectively broke and needed a bailout. Just two years later he was out as PM, having announced a referendum on eurozone membership, and then having to cancel it three days later in a storm of protest from both inside and outside the country.

The centre-left having stuffed it up, it was the centre-right's turn again: Antonis Samaras of New Democracy won the June 2012 election (well, it was the second one - the first was a stalemate) but by the end of 2014, the budget was back in surplus, the economy was growing again and Greece even sold some bonds at a yield of less than 5 per cent. For a while there, things did look to be back on track.

So by the election on January 25 this year, Greece was ready to take a chance on another charismatic politician - really for the first time since Andreous Papandreou - and gave the most seats in Parliament to an extreme left-winger, Alexis Tsipras, and his party of Marxists, called Syriza, although he had to form a coalition with the extreme right to take power.

In other words, the centre of Greek politics had collapsed and government was in the hands of a messy, unstable coalition of the two extremes. Rather than alternating between the centre-right and centre-left, the Greeks ended up with both the left and the right in government at once, and extreme versions at that.

Needless to say, it is not going well and Greece is heading back in recession and crisis, and the government is facing default and of being kicked out of the eurozone.

Peter Economides, a global marketing and branding expert who made a seminal speech on "Rebranding Greece", says that in trying to become Europeans, Greeks forgot about being Greeks.

In a way, Greece's problems are captured by the view from my hotel balcony. Directly across the road is a derelict, boarded-up building, covered in graffiti; up on the right is the magnificent Acropolis, brilliantly lit up, at great expense, at night. It looms accusingly over a dirty, exhausted city.

Looking at it, you understand that Greece really is the soul of Europe, where it all began. But somehow it got left behind. There is a vast cultural disconnect between ancient and modern Greece that simply does not exist elsewhere.

Germany, France and Italy all have a firm place in Europe based on their old characteristics: German efficiency, Italian design, French style. Greece has yet to find a modern character and role that works, and its ancient history is not enough.

What's more, there is no national consensus. The coalition between the extreme left and extreme right is merely the illusion of national unity, and the opposite of the sort of consensus on which German politics is grounded.

The Germans and French pay their taxes because they are on board with the national plan; Greeks simply refuse to pay tax and demand ever-increasing benefits from the government. As a result the government is destitute and can't pay its debts, but the Greeks don't seem to see the connection between that and their own behaviour, or they just don't want to.

Individually Greeks truly are wonderful people, but together they are a total stuff-up.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-23/kohler-a-glorious-past-cant-protect-greeces-future/6414600

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