Greeks see little cause for joy as 8-year bailout era ends
Two street vendors talk each other outside the main fish market of Athens, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, on the day that Greece's eight-year crisis will be officially over. (Panayiotis Tzamaros / InTime News via AP)
Nicholas Paphitis, The Associated Press
Published Monday, August 20, 2018 9:21AM EDT
ATHENS, Greece -- There'll be no dancing in the moonlit streets of Athens.
For all the official pronouncements that Greece's eight-year crisis will be over as its third and last bailout program ends Monday, few Greeks see cause for celebration.
Undeniably, the economy is once again growing modestly, state finances are improving, exports are up and unemployment is down from a ghastly 28 per cent high.
But one in five Greeks are still unemployed, with few receiving state benefits, and underpaid drudgery is the norm in new jobs. The average income has dropped by more than a third, and taxes have rocketed. Clinical depression is rife, suicides are up, and hundreds of thousands of skilled workers have flitted abroad.
After the end of the bailout Monday, Greece will get no new loans and will not be asked for new reforms. But the government has agreed to a timetable of savings so strict as to plague a future generation and a half: For every year over the next four decades, governments must make more than they spend while ensuring that the economy -- that shrank by a quarter since 2009 -- also expands at a smart rate.
"Personally, I can see no hope for me in the coming years," says Paraskevi Kolliabi, 62, who lives on a widow's pension and helps out in her son's central Athens silver workshop. "Everything looks black to me."
Pensioners face pre-agreed new income cuts next year, while a further expansion of the tax base is due in 2020. But tax collection remains scrappy in a country where compliance was never strong, and the taxman's increasingly extravagant demands, coupled with often slapdash policing, only strengthened the sense of injustice.
"My pension has been cut about thirty per cent since the start of the crisis," Kolliabi said. "I have never in my life gone through such (financial) hardship as during the past two years. There were entire days when not a single customer would enter" the shop in the Monastiraki district.
Greece's once cheerfully spendthrift middle class, whose rapid growth before the state finances imploded drove a consumption-fuelled economy, has been squeezed hard by intense taxation, mortgages from the bygone days of easy credit, and job losses.
"What I see is that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer," Kolliabi said. "We used to cater to the middle class, and the middle class is dead, they can't make ends meet."
Following one of the latest rounds of cutbacks, her son, Panagiotis, now sees more than 60 per cent of his income gobbled up by taxes, pension and social security contributions. That kills any ambition for growing the business.
"The prospects for after Aug. 20 are not good," he said. "There's no way I will be able to make an investment ... to expand my business."
In the northern city of Thessaloniki, Christos Marmarinos, 55, had to close his clothes manufacturing unit after 25 years in business due to lack of customers. Instead, he plunged what funds he had into something altogether different, a cafeteria and grocery store.
"We found this way out, and employ ten people," he said. But Greece needs more than cafeterias if the economy is to pick up again and modernize, he says. "We need real investments in manufacturing."
Part of the sufferings of Greece's private sector are due to disastrous government attempts in the panicky first months of the crisis to shield from cutbacks the bloated public sector, which has traditionally been the political fiefdom and key source of votes for any ruling party.
But while considerably smaller and poorer than before the crisis, the public sector remains largely ineffective and disgruntled, providing ever shoddier services.
The one area of the economy that's undoubtedly flourishing is tourism, contributing some 20 per cent of GDP, with officials projecting a record-high 32 million arrivals this year. Greeks, however, are finding it increasingly expensive to go on holiday in their own country, while a boom in short-term rentals in residential districts of Athens has driven rents beyond the reach of many locals.
Even the governing coalition, which swept to power in 2015 promising to instantly end austerity and cancel Greece's debt -- only to reverse course and sign a new tough bailout program -- is low-key about the end of the bailout era.
"We're not planning any parties," said Costas Zahariadis, an official in the dominant leftwing Syriza party. "We don't believe we should start celebrating as if a large section of Greek society didn't have serious financial problems. But of course we won't be shedding tears over Greece leaving the bailout era."
Financial analyst Manos Chatzidakis, who is head of research at Beta Securities, says much has been done over the past eight years, although the tax and judiciary systems need further work. He said that if future governments stick to agreed reforms and fiscal policy then gradually returning confidence will allow Greece to sell its bonds at affordable rates -- even if investors initially demand high returns -- and attract investment.
The ability to tap bond markets is vital, because after the bailout program, Greece will have to finance itself, albeit initially assisted by a substantial cash buffer.
"I think it's all a question of commitment to the bailout program, to the privatizations, to everything that has been agreed" with Greece's creditors, he said. "I'm definitely more optimistic than in the past. Things had reached a point (in 2015) where they couldn't get worse."
Hatzidakis stressed that many of the bailout reforms were "unprecedented" for Greece, which took a long time to understand and implement them.
"So we should not be strict and expect everything to happen fast," he said. "It took time to reach this point and a lot of effort, which I think is starting to bear fruit."
Srdjan Nedeljkovic in Athens and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.