By Ludmila Kopecka and Ekaterina Batueva*
The financial and economic crisis in Greece has led to a variety of negative consequences in the economic and social spheres of life: the rate of unemployment is estimated to be 20 percent (even higher among the youth), the amount of homeless people on the street has risen dramatically, public spending cuts are increasing, and the pressing absence of hope and security for the future is damaging public confidence in government and society.
The current socio-economic situation in Greece thus reflects on Greeks themselves. And views of the crisis can differ between Greeks living in Greece and in Greek community in the diaspora- in the case of the present article, those in the Czech Republic. The Greek community in this country should be assessed in terms of its specific historical and cultural background. Against this context, contemporary interviews with Greeks – living both in Greece and in the Czech Republic – provide insight into the current perception of the crisis and how it is affecting the public.
Significantly, this evidence indicates that there is a discrepancy between what the world media tends to present as the infamous ‘Greek crisis,’ and the actual opinions of Greeks regarding the situation in their country in 2012.
The Greek Financial Crisis and its Impacts on the Population
Throughout 2012 the Greek crisis, and what it allegedly says about Greeks and the Greek political class, have been a major topic of discussion in world media and in everyday public life (particularly, in Europe). Greeks have generally been depicted as lazy workers, tax evaders, as expecting to retire earlier than other Europeans do, and finally as interested in working primarily in the public sector. This perception has influenced the proposals for action among European governments and banks to “rescue Greece”- namely, that terms should be severe.
Among the main causes of the Greek crisis are internal, connected with poor management and economical imbalances, and external (in regards to the lack of response while the crisis was escalating), as Georgios Kouretas and Prodromos Vlamis argued back in 2010 (.PDF). While talking about the internal causes one should mention populism, parallel economy, patronage and ethnocentrism which have contributed greatly to the socioeconomic state of Greece these days.
Impacts on the Population: Unemployment and Health Issues
While the economic impacts of the crisis (like state debt and austerity measures) have been discussed frequently by media and in the public discourse, the social impacts of the crisis have not been sufficiently highlighted. These social impacts should not be underestimated, as they can lead to dangerous and unpredictable consequences for communities and the nation in general.
One of Greece’s biggest problems has been unemployment, with all of its consequences. According to the Hellenic Statistics Authority earlier this year, the unemployment rate for the 15-24 age group is estimated at around 43 percent, and 23 percents for those between 25-34. If a large percentage of the youth is unable to enter the job market in the next few years, a choice will arise between staying in a Greece beset by long-term unemployment, or else going abroad to find a better future. Experts state that seven of 10 young people are considering leaving the country to work abroad. Robolis believes (.PDF) that this period probably will be remembered someday for an emigration wave, as was the case in the 1960s, when the unemployment rate was around 25 percent.
The situation with unemployment is worsened by the absence of any “support system” for the unemployed, in terms of skills trainings, requalifications, and psychological assistance.
Also with the crisis, many people have lost their jobs and with them, money, homes and hope for a better future for themselves and their children. Society has seen an increase in suicide levels and even traffic accidents; access to the health care services is limited, and the number of medical personnel insufficient to solve these issues and to respond efficiently.
Illegal Immigration, Segregation, Marginalization, and Shop Closures
The poor economic state of Greece nowadays is being influenced as well by the chronic flow of undocumented migrants through the Greek-Turkish border and by sea. Greece, together with the other Mediterranean countries is considered the “perfect transit country” for people searching for a better future somewhere in Europe. More than one million immigrants are currently living in the country, out of which 400,000 immigrants are estimated to be undocumented. With the crisis making jobs hard to find for everyone, immigrants are affected to the greatest extent. Joblessness has a tendency to lead to poverty, homelessness, depression and absence of legal ways to improve the situation, and in the end an increase in the crime rate.
In an interview with a local NGO in Thessaloniki that works with immigrants, the statement was made that the majority of immigrants from Albania, who are known for their hard work and integration skills, are trying to return to Albania if they do not have family in Greece. Immigrants from the other countries are trying to leave as well as soon as they have a chance.
The population in Greece is in a state of anger, absence of hope and insecurity. Nobody can be sure where the limit of the austerity measures lies, and with them the salary and pension cuts. Many people are living by limiting their food and other needs to a minimum. Segregation and marginalization have become the new faces of the Greek society: vulnerable groups are living below minimum standards, such as drug addicts, the unemployed and migrants. During a crisis such as the present one, such a situation can have serious consequence for a community in terms of creating parallel societies, absence of interactions, growing disparities and increasing dissatisfaction with the state, all of which can lead to large-scale depression and radical tendencies.
One more particularity of the socioeconomic situation in Greece today is the increasing number of homeless people on the city streets. Due to family networks and community connections, Greeks were long able to avoid this situation. With the modern era and its developing individualism, the bonds among people, their families and communities are becoming less important. The crisis has left a lot of people unemployed, and incapable of paying back outstanding loans for goods and properties; some can still sell and live from this, while others just find themselves on the outskirts of life, facing a new reality of homelessness.
Finally, all around Greece numerous businesses have been shut down or are at the edge of their capacity to survive. A capital city long known for its antique monuments and luxury shopping streets, Athens has changed dramatically. The flourishing trade and shopping centers are closed, and more and more often one can see the “for sale” tables on different assets. The ghettoisation of the city that began more or less 15 years ago is now acute, with an ethnically divided Athens now home to districts populated distinctly by Nigerians, Egyptians, Poles, Romanians and Pakistanis, and so on.
Volunteerism Makes a Comeback
At the same time, one surprisingly positive trend during the crisis can be seen, and that is a new spirit of volunteerism. This has become more visible and widespread, as suffering has led to compassion and a desire to help others. Some of the organizations are trying to promote volunteerism for people while they are unemployed, while other are trying to deliver assistance, food and shelter for those who are in need.
So, How Do Greeks See the Crisis?
To arrive at a clearer picture of the Greek perception of today’s crisis, the views of Greeks residing in the Czech Republic and in Greece will be presented below. These views derive from unique interviews taken by the authors during 2012.
First of all, however, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the Greek heritage in the Czech Republic, before moving on to an assessment of data gathered from new interviews with representative individuals.
The Greek Community in the Czech Republic: Historical and Cultural Background
The initial reason for emigration from Greece in the 20th century was the 1946-49 Civil War. By mid-1946 the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which had operated openly as a legal political party, came under heavy pressure from Greek right-wing elements, leading to an armed rebellion. Its underground activities intensified, and in those areas under KKE control, local administrations were established with quasi-governmental fiscal, security, and judicial functions. In December 1947, the KKE set up a Provisional Democratic Government of Free Greece in the mountains of northwestern Greece for the purpose of administering the Greek territory under Communist control. This “shadow government” collapsed with the failure of the Communist-led military campaign against the Greek national government in August 1949.
From these destroyed areas of Greece, citizens were expelled to different states like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the USSR, often without the possibility of choice. Emigration was chaotic and in the majority of cases members of the same families were resettled in different countries.
Greek citizens arrived in Czechoslovakia through Yugoslavia; they had been settled at the beginning in Bulkes village, in Serbia’s Vojvodina region. But, after the split between Yugoslavia and Stalin, Tito decided to expel the refugees- considered potential opponents of the regime. Czechoslovakia decided to take in the deported Greeks, who in total amounted to approximately 14,000 people. First came children up to 15 years; they had been transferred in freight trains to Sturov and then to Mikulov, where the Red Cross had established a receiving centre (Otčenašek, 1998). After a temporary stay in this centre, children were sent into different camps in Czechoslovakia. In the years 1948-1949, more than 100 ‘Greek children’s homes’ were established.
Through 1948, approximately 3,500 children had come to Czechoslovakia. By 1952, 2,719 children were living in children’s camps. Children were provided with assistance in regards to psychological problems and the general adaptation process.
For better adaptation, the staff was of both Czech and Greek nationalities. Usually, the latter were Greek women who had come as an accompanying escort and who tried to replace a mother’s care for these children.
A major part of these immigrants was originally from agrarian mountain regions of Northern Greece, where education and literacy were at a low level (Sloboda, 2002). Furthermore, during the Civil War it had not been possible to go to school in Greece, and thus many children began their studies only in Czechoslovakia (Otčenašek, 1998). After one year, adults from different countries started to come and finally the group of Greek immigrants had included all age categories; there were children, youth, adults and old people. In regards to social background, the group was homogenous, coming from the agricultural areas.
In the beginning, emigration from Greece to Czechoslovakia was considered a temporary measure. That was the reason why the government of Czechoslovakia was trying to isolate immigrants away from general Czechoslovak society. When the main part of immigrants had come to Czechoslovakia, Greeks were settled in the Northern Moravia region. It is interesting to point out here that Greeks were settled in places where Germans had previously been living- areas like Jesenik, Sumperk, Bruntal, Opava, Vsetin, Karvina, Ostrava and Novy Jicin. Greek refugees were employed mainly in the engineering, metallurgical and textile industries.
Greek migration can be understood in terms of forced migration of a political and military nature (Otčenašek, 1998). The completely new way of life which the exiles had to face challenged their political and ideological beliefs, their national consciousness and their social and family roles (Apostolidou, 2009). According to Sloboda, Greeks kept a very strong ethnic identity, which was based on the consciousness of common origin, language, emigration destiny, Greek dance and food (Liolios, 2002, Otčenašek, 1998) and strong relationship with Greece, even though due to alleged political and ideological reasons they would not be allowed to return to their state for a long time. Only with a 1982 law passed in Greece (that specified those who were Greek by ethnicity) did they get the right to return to Greece. Thousands of Greeks then used this chance because of the strong attitude to their country of origin.
However, after 1990, in a totally new political climate, Greek businessmen and students had started to arrive to the Czech Republic and settled. The end of Communism meant new opportunities for Greeks in central and eastern European countries now ‘open for business’ to foreign investors.
According to the Czech Statistical Office, the Greek community in the Czech Republic stood at 3,219 people as of 2001. However, according to non-official data the size of the Greek community is estimated to be over 7,000. This represented community is social diverse and according to Liolios (2002) intellectuals and businessmen are very actively engaged in minority issues.
The most significant organization which unites the Greek community is the Association of Greek communities in the Czech Republic (AGCCCR). This is a non-profit organization, which includes 11 Greek communities. Among the significant activities of this organization are intensive language courses, regular meetings of seniors from the whole country in Šumperk, visits to relevant monuments, courses in Greek dance, exhibitions and so on.
Compilation of Opinions on the Greek Crisis among Greeks in the Czech Republic and in Greece
The following information derives from interviews with the Greek community in Prague and with Greeks in Greece (five persons from each category). Respondents were chosen according to the snowball sampling methodology, and therefore factors such as age and gender of respondents were not necessary. Within the general framework of the research on this topic, it was however relevant that the respondents freely identify themselves as Greeks, and have the wish to express their opinion about the contemporary socio-cultural situation in Greece.
All of the respondents who live in the Czech Republic travel to Greece quite often (a minimum of 2-3 times per year) and are well informed about the situation there. Even in the cases of those born in the Czech Republic, the sense of belonging to Greece could still be seen in their answers: the crisis and bad socio-economic conditions seemed to be taken by respondents as a personal tragedy. Moreover, many of them have relatives and friends presently in Greece, from whom they often get the latest information about the current situation.
For all respondents, without exception, the current socio-economic situation seems catastrophically bad, hopeless and horrible. One of the respondents compared the situation to a war: “No doubt, we are at war here, maybe a ‘pacifistic’ one, a psychological one, a financial one, but for sure a war.”
Some blamed the politicians, others the banks (or both) for the bad things that have happened. Nevertheless, no one specific general opinion was voiced by Greeks living in the Czech Republic, nor those in Greece. Interestingly, one respondent saw the reason for the crisis as lying in the modern Greek mentality:
“The reason for this (crisis) is corruption and the ‘bonds mentality’ [i.e., an entrenched patronage system]: let’s say I have an uncle, who is working somewhere in a public sector on a senior position; therefore, I’m expecting from this guy that he’ll take care of all the family. This ‘theory’ applies to political parties as well- candidates promise potential voters things which would satisfy their private interests, not the common interests of the nation.”
One of the respondents living in the Czech Republic claimed that there is actually no crisis in Greece, and that it is just a political game designed to help Germany amass more exports through a devalued euro; nevertheless, this respondent accepted also that it is necessary to make changes, especially in the sector of state employment.
Perceptions of the Media
Other means of getting information about the current situation in Greece include the media, Czech and Greek alike. But what emerged from the respondents’ answers was that there is a big difference between the Czech and Greek media in regards to the presentation of the situation in Greece. One of the respondents stated: “in the Greek media you can get reliable information, but in the Czech, only what suits the whole ‘European concept about the Greek crisis.’”
Another respondent had a similar point of view: “the Czech media follows orders from the German media and gives ‘wrong’ information about the situation in Greece.” One of these respondents even claimed that the Czech media is on the side of the banks, Germany and France against the Greek side. Another respondent even didn’t want to compare these two resources because it made him ‘sad’ to think about it.
Respondents who live in Greece tended to usually get information only from Greek TV and newspapers because of the language barrier, but always remain curious about what’s written in the international mass media about the situation in Greece too. As mentioned, the common feature among our respondents is that they take the current situation as a personal tragedy and are very sensitive about their country’s image in the rest of the world. A few of the respondents who live in Greece constantly asked whether “bad things” were written and said about them in the rest of Europe.
It is important to mention that none of our respondents living in Greece believe in what their local media reports. One of the respondents even mentioned that the local Greek media is full of propaganda: “the TV media channels have used propaganda in favor of all the Greek governments of the past 40 or so years. The former government (PASOK) which was rather tyrannical and not even close to being socialistic as a political party, has controlled for decades at least one major Greek channel (MEGA).”
Quality of Life: Negative Assessments
All of the respondents compared the situation before the crisis and today, highlighting the huge deterioration of socio-economical conditions of the population. As one of the respondents noted:
“Before the crisis the quality of life was on a very good level, but all of the people were living at the expense of the future… and now it’s horrible, especially for the young people and for the future generations.”
The opinion that many people were living in a way they really could not afford was expressed by one more respondent. This respondent even compared Greeks with Americans in that lifestyle: “before we were like Americans; we put our dreams and hopes in money we didn’t have. And now most of the people realized how stupid it was to have five or 10 credit cards from every bank, to make the new cards pay off [the debt on] the old ones.”
Some of the respondents who live in Greece also noticed that the lifestyle has changed dramatically, not only in the connection to consumption, but also in relation to how people have started to act and spend their free time. Smiling, dancing, family gatherings and sustaining a general good mood are parts of Greek culture, which have been almost destroyed by crisis and poor socio-economic conditions, according to some of these respondents from Greece.
“Living under the Greek sun makes you think positive,” said one respondent from Greece. “Automatically the Greek climate boosts anyone’s mood. But now we’re not the same as we used to be four or five years ago. There’s no need to prolong what I am stating here, for it’s obvious that when people of a nation need to live in search of work and money in order to pay taxes and their current loan obligations, they have no life…. how can you be creative when you don’t have anything on the table to eat? How can you have a genuinely good time when you know that your neighbor is suffering?”
One of the most important parts of life for Greeks is the connection with the whole extended family. But according to the answers of respondents, especially those living in Greece that sphere of life has been affected by the crisis too. People who have at least a slight chance to emigrate or move to bigger cities within Greece seem to be trying to do so; therefore, family bonds have started to weaken. According to one respondent, “people start to vanish into the big cities, and when something goes wrong and they are lost or die, nobody cares or knows about it.”
Respondents also have mentioned how the bad economic situation influences the psychological condition of people living in Greece. Some of their relatives started to get ill more often, and to fall into depression due to instability and permanent money shortage.
When we were talking about the future of Greece, most of the respondents were quite skeptical and pessimistic; however, they also offered few ways, from their perspectives, for the country to get out of the crisis and for the improvement of the socio-economical conditions of people living there. One of the solutions suggested was to find a strong leader who will not be afraid of the banks and who can lead the country in the right direction. Another solution was to get rid of debts and to change the government. One other idea was to change the Greek mentality in regards to corruption. And one family (living in Greece) did not see “any future,” but only predicted that the things would become worse and worse.
All of the respondents without exception agreed that the way things are going now is not leading the country anywhere and, even though respondents came up with a number of solutions, they were quite skeptical that changes could really happen. The majority of respondents see these ideas as unrealistically utopian. It is thus not a surprise that after desperate attempts to escape the crisis, some people seem to have lost faith. But not all of them: a few respondents from Greece were confident about a bright future for their country, stating that it just needs time and strong courage.
Only one respondent living in the Czech Republic stated that he believes in a bright future for Greece and that the Greek people can handle the situation, noting that similar challenges had already happened many times in history.
According to the available research data, around 87 percents of the sample Greek population understands the real situation together with the pre-conditions of the crisis. Moreover it disagrees with the government measures and does not see the solution to the crisis as being achievable in an easy way.
Further, it was expressed that the media’s image of Greeks, Greece and the Greek crisis have given birth to a new trend in stereotypes, which were mentioned above. However, manipulating such stereotypes in the political discourse or as a common general assessment of the population makes it almost impossible to talk about the Greek crisis from any other point of view than the majority has, due to media and official discourse.
Rather, politicians, media and officials would be better off using reliable data, such as statistics and knowledge of the Greek reality when talking about the sensitive issue of the crisis.
For the Greek population, whether in Greece or abroad, the crisis is broadly considered to be a great personal tragedy on an individual level, even though they do understand that their politics and behavioral models had to some extent led the country to such a state. The current mood of public anger, hopelessness and insecurity continues for the majority of the population. Segregation and marginalization may continue, as the current trends in Greek society can lead to dramatic and unpredictable consequences for a whole generation; therefore, while public discourse and media are largely devoted to talking about the financial and political crisis, the social impact of the crisis should also be a topic of primary focus.
*Ludmila Kopecka is a researcher from Russia in the Social Anthropology Department at Charles University in Prague. Her PhD thesis is concerned with the topic of student migration from Russia to the Czech Republic. She also conducts research on other national minorities and migrant communities in the country, and works as a freelance journalist.
Also based in Prague, Ekaterina Batueva is a researcher and lecturer in the Regional Studies Department at the University of Economics. Her PhD research examines the impact of migration flows on the regional development of Northern Greece. Ekaterina also teaches seminars on development assistance, cultural anthropology, migration and minorities’ studies, regional sociology and management of non-governmental organizations. She is the co-founder and project coordinator at a Prague-based NGO that works on the social inclusion process and peace-building.
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