Greece today is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. After 15 years of unprecedented growth -- growth that continued even after the 2004 Olympics -- being a "model E.U. member" and the 27th largest economy in the world, Greece saw its finances crumble in a very public and to many Greeks a very humiliating way, leading the country to ask for help from the E.U. and subsequently the IMF after it was clear the E.U. had no backup plan for a member state in crisis.
Public bickering among E.U. officials and a battering for Greece in the global media led to a bailout package in May 2010 to calm the global markets, ease the public's fear, and give the banks holding Greek stock enough time to figure out what to do. On the home front, however, the bailout meant a slashing of all government spending and an extreme austerity package that promised to dismantle the Byzantine labyrinthlike public sector -- the main reason behind the country's growing debt.
Curiously enough, a year later the public sector had remained mostly untouched, whereas the private sector had taken all the beatings it could, leaving foreign investments and companies fleeing the country and unemployment soaring to nearly 17%. As expected by most first-semester economics students, but strangely not by any government or E.U./IMF official, austerity is hardly a recipe for growth and the shaky economy had retreated even further going from a recession to a near depression. Many Greeks had to accept these tough measures that brought with them job losses and wage and pension cuts, hoping it was the way out of the darkness.
A year later when the country found itself in the exact same (if not) worse position, most Greeks were up in arms as their hardships and sacrifices had amounted to nothing. Most Greeks felt frustrated and hopeless as they realized the first bailout had mostly gone to German, French, and Greek banks holding Greek stocks and there would have to be another bailout to avoid bankruptcy and/or default, which could only mean even more austerity measures with no leadership or vision in sight from either the E.U. or the Greek government on how to put the economy back on track.
Inside the country, the tension had created a toxic atmosphere. Protests and strikes became part of daily life in the first half of 2011. Unemployment was high, jobs scarce, wages shockingly low, and the cost of living remained high, the illegal migrant population had swelled to out-of-control numbers, crime was up, the suicide rate had spiked, and the younger people were looking for employment in other countries, much as the older generations before them had had to do after World War II. This wasn't the future anybody had anticipated in bright and sparkling 2004 Olympic Athens.
In 2011, most Greeks felt their country had been occupied once again, as it had been so many times during its turbulent history -- this time by the E.U. and the IMF. Unable to devalue its currency, Greece had to give up much of its sovereignty in order to accept the second bailout, along with new even harsher austerity measures. As other E.U. economies collapsed in and required assistance in 2011, some hoped that the E.U. has finally realized that austerity is not the way to growth, and the new bailout does include suggestions and some hopeful ways for Greece to get back on its feet.
"Closed" occupations need to be opened; private investments need to be encouraged by easing the country's notorious red tape and the public sector needs to be scaled down and made more efficient. Greece owns the largest maritime fleet in the world as shipping, along with tourism, account for the two biggest sectors of its economy (tourism was up in 2009 -- 19.3 million visitors, up from 17.6 million in 2008, but then the economic collapse had its impact and numbers were down in 2010 with 16 million visitors); Greece has untapped oil reserves in its sea and gold in its land and ought to become a major player in renewable energy in the near future.
And yet, much as they did in antiquity, all roads in Greece lead to Athens. Many Greeks are just now beginning to realize that Athens -- with its enviable location, large port, archaeological treasures, and state-of-the-art infrastructure -- might well be the key to lead the country back into the light. Obvious tourism industry hopes aside, the Chinese government has recently made a multibillion-euro deal with the Greek government to use the port of Athens in Piraeus as the gateway to Europe, the Balkans, and Africa for its products and businesses. The government of Qatar is hoping the Greek government will accept its multibillion-euro offer for investment in the former Athens airport in Hellenikon. Their ambitious plans for this much-sought-after seafront property include a large park and the city's new business, residential, commercial, arts, entertainment and leisure center, and many other offers and developments are taking place all over the ancient city. Many refer to Athens as the "sleeping giant" of Greece's economy. It is our hope someone wakes her up sooner rather than later.
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