The world was supposed to end in 2012 – on Dec. 21 for you Mayan calendar believers and doomsday cultists – and for many Greeks it seemed like it did. Like the Flogging Molly song, it was the worst day since yesterday for people crushed by pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, coming layoffs, growing homelessness, suicides and cases of depression.
For those who lived through it – apart from the growing numbers of desperate people who killed themselves because of a relentless economic crisis – 2012 was the worst year in Greece many could remember: except for the one that’s coming.
The year 2012, the fifth of Greece’s deep recession, seemed an avalanche of bad news: austerity, pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, strikes, riots, rising crime, the ascension of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, two elections that yielded essentially the same government that had been packing public payrolls with unnecessary workers for generations in return for votes, a near-run on the country’s shaky banks, the humiliating failure of the underfunded Greek Olympic team at the 2012 London Games, corruption, incompetence, blame games, finger-pointing and so much trouble some people might have wished the world did end on Dec. 21.
This is the time of the year when news organizations list the top stories, those that defined and recorded the year and shaped it for posterity. But Greece is broke – and broken – except for politicians and the rich and tax evaders who remained above the fray and were spectators to the implosion of a society.
There was such a tsunami of trouble for Greece that there literally was almost no good news because the real heroes: NGO’s helping the poor, the soup lines set up by the Greek Orthodox Church as the government abandoned people, doctors providing free clinics and services, volunteers reaching out the disenfranchised and disaffected, people coming together to create social grocery stores and help each other were back page stories as the media concentrated on the obvious mega-stories.
In any other year, there were stories that would make a top list but were buried under the torrent of the tumultuous times in Greece. Noted film director Theo Angelopoulos was killed when hit by a motorcycle while making a film, and many notable Greeks in the arts and politics died in 2012, their names vanishing even before the next day’s newspaper, television or radio broadcast, or next hit on the website overtook them.
The over-riding theme of the year seemed greed: a government that had for years created the crisis with patronage hires turned its back on workers, pensioners and the poor; the country’s shipping industry – the world’s largest – threatened to leave the country if forced to pay taxes; at the end of the year, a growing scandal brewed in the country’s tourism office with the arrest of five people and the disappearance of 12 million euros ($15.86 million) and the political unwillingness to go after tax cheats.
To that end, GreekReporter has compiled a list of the 12 events that marked the year 2012 for Greece, too few really to provide a comprehensive look at the most difficult year the country has seen since the end of the American-backed ruling military junta in 1974, and the horror of World War II. Those that didn’t make the cut, but were part of larger issues, included the closing of scores of thousands of businesses as Greeks slowed spending almost to a standstill; the decision by the country’s largest company, Coca Cola Hellenic to move out, as did the giant dairy company Fage, the potato revolt and so many others.
The 12 stories/events that affected Greece the most then were:
- AUSTERITY BAILOUTS: After Greece’s international lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) exhausted a $152 billion first bailout, Greece got tentative approval early in 2012 for a second, this one for $173 billion, but the elections debacle and political infighting over more austerity in a $17.45 billion spending cut and tax hike plan delayed the funds disbursement, bringing Greece constantly to the edge of default and threatening the Eurozone and world markets. While a first series of $69 billion in the second bailout is finally on its way over the next few months, the additional austerity measures – which Prime Minister Antonis Samaras vowed would be the last – have set off new rounds of protests, strikes and riots. Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras said while math is on Greece’s side now that he fears social unrest could topple the House of Cards that Greece is built on now. This story will go into 2013, 2014, 2015, 201…… you get the picture
- THE LAGARDE LIST: Even more than the elections and infighting in the coalition government or the fall of PASOK, the so-called Lagarde List became the most volatile political issue in the country. It’s as convoluted as a Raymond Chandler novel and involves bitter, internecine political warfare. It started in 2010 when then French finance minister Christine Lagarde – now head of the IMF – gave a list on a CD of more than 2,000 Greeks with $1.95 billion in the Geneva, Switzerland branch of HSBC to then Greek finance minister George Papaconstantinou when PASOK was in power. He said he lost it, but after authorities vowed to find it, former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos – now PASOK’s head – said he had a copy. The names were kept private and never checked for possible tax evasion and then a brouhaha developed when investigative journalist Costas Vaxevanis published the names, was tried on privacy violation laws but acquitted, only to have the government decide to keep prosecuting him anyway. Then it turned out that the original list had some names deleted from the Vaxevanis list and three of them were reportedly relatives of Papaconstantinou, who was summarily ejected from PASOK by Venizelos – whom Papaconstantinou hinted had framed him. Even Chandler couldn’t figure this one out but it could threaten Venizelos’ leadership and the government itself. That’s what’s known as a Big Story in the journalism business, even if sex isn’t involved
- ELECTIONS: After a first round balloting in May failed to give any political party enough of the vote to form a government and saw the humiliation of the ruling dynasties of the New Democracy Conservatives and PASOK Socialists, a second round had to be called, further delaying a pending second bailout and setting off new rounds of social unrest and political instability. When New Democracy leader Samaras won the repeat election on June 17, he still didn’t have enough support to rule outright and had to bring in the now-marginalized PASOKites and the tiny Democratic Left that turned against its principles to give the government enough seats to control Parliament. Waiting in the wings though is Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the major opposition party the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) who said the government may fall and that he’ll end the bailouts and austerity and bring back the Old Greece
- AKIS TSOCHATZOPOULOS – With the arrest of the former defense minister on a series of financial crimes charges that could involve as much as a billion euros ($1.3 billion) stolen from contracts, the unthinkable happened in Greece: a politician charged with corruption was arrested and jailed until his trial, although cynics said the government is biding its time until the statute of limitations runs out and believe he will not be fully prosecuted nor face a long jail sentence
- PENSIONER SUICIDE – When 77-year-old retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in the head on April 4 under a tree in Athens’ main center of Syntagma Square – the scene of relentless protests and riots against austerity and across the street from the Parliament – it seemed the world finally realized how much weight ordinary Greeks were under. He left a note blaming the financial crisis and fearing he could no longer live a decent life and for weeks people left notes and mementos on the tree and it seemed his death would galvanize a movement. It didn’t happen, but the shot still resonates
- PSI – Until Venizelos mentioned the phrase Private Sector Involvement, which became known as PSI, it was an arcane term that few people who couldn’t tell a hedge fund from arbitrage could understand. Its effect was crushing: PSI meant Greece would impose 74 percent losses on investors, including small bondholders in the Diaspora, some of whom were wiped out by putting their faith in their homeland. It helped Greece get some temporary relief by writing down $134 billion in debt, but locked the country out of the private markets for years and wiped out Cypriot banks, forcing the island’s leaders to seek a bailout similar to Greece’s
- MERKEL COMES TO TOWN – Many Greeks blame German Chancellor Angela Merkel for insisting on harsh austerity measures for their country, even though she supports continuing aid in return. So when she visited in Athens in October, scores of thousands of protesters turned out, some in Nazi uniforms, but they were kept far away as she and Samaras engaged in a mutual political affair in their private talks where neither mentioned any sense of outrage in the streets
- GOODBYE, PASOK – In 2009, then PASOK leader George Papandreou won the Prime Minister’s office as his party got 44 percent of the vote. Venizelos took over the party early in 2012, put all his considerable weight behind continued austerity and support for the Samaras government, and has taken the Socialists to the bottom of the political barrel, with barely 5 percent of the vote and fading fast. It was the near-end of a party that had dominated Greek politics for more than four decades
- BANKING CRISIS – After a near-run on the banks during the political uncertainty at the elections, the institutions were pushed to the edge of insolvency with the PSI and had no money to lend, bringing the economy to a screeching halt in many sectors. The banks need 50 billion euros ($69 billion) in recapitalization, money that will be coming from a second bailout from the Troika. But there’s a ticking financial time bomb: many Greeks can’t pay what they owe and nearly 25 percent of bank loans and credit cards are in default, a loss of nearly $62 billion the banks seem unlikely to recoup, and threatening to undermine their ability for reinvestment in the economy when they get a huge government injection. If they don’t lend it out, the economy could stall indefinitely and thwart a recovery
- GOLDEN DAWN – From out of the dustbin of history, with only 0.29 percent of the vote in 2009, the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, ultra-religious, far-right extremist, jingoistic neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party capitalized on the economic crisis and moved into a political vacuum, winning nearly 7 percent of the vote and 18 seats in Parliament. It has been soaring since, gaining more popularity with every assault on immigrants that critics blame on party members, as well as attacks on other Members of Parliament it deems enemies. The ascension of the party has been a major news story outside of Greece and not just in Europe, but around the world and seen as symptomatic of many of the country’s ills: corruption (the worst in Europe); cronyism, incompetence, inefficiency and the continuation of politics as usual while workers, pensioners and the poor suffered – the classes that have been targeted by Golden Dawn with free food and vigilante patrols, boosting its force.
- IMMIGRANTS: Chased by Golden Dawn, arrested by the government, despised by many Greeks who see them as outsiders or criminals, immigrants continued to pour into Greece in 2012 even though many drowned in the attempt as they tried to reach the country by sea from Africa, Turkey or the Middle East. Sensing anti-immigrant sentiment, the Samaras government continued a roundup of suspected illegal immigrants, a sweep known ironically as Xenios Zeus, a Greek phrase for hospitality, and started packing them in detention camps before deportation. NGO’s and human rights organizations decried the procedures as well as rising racism, assaults on immigrants, the condition of some camps, and a new border fence along Turkey.
- UNEMPLOYMENT: The jobless rate record kept being broken, hitting 26 percent overall, but with more than 55 percent of those under 25 unable to find work and many deciding to flee to other lands for work, a better future and new life, robbing Greece of many of its youngest and brightest, as well as thousands of professionals, including doctors and dentists and others who gave up on finding work in their own country. With projections the unemployment rate could hit 30 percent in less than two years, Greece could have the highest rate in the western world and undercut any attempt at economic recovery by the government, although Samaras said he would create new jobs.