Where has all our money gone?
The world thinks that the crisis in Greece is because of widespread tax evasion. But Labrini Athanasopoulou, a 30-year-old Athenian tells me that her father, a high school teacher, and her mother, an accountant, paid taxes throughout their working life. Both are now retired and faced with a drastic cut in their pension.
Labrini feels that this is cruel. She is very angry. She wants to know where is the money of all those millions of middle-class Greeks like her parents, who worked hard for decades and paid their bills. At their age, it is unfair to see the healthcare facilities of her parents curtailed and their pension reduced to half of what is their due. Her family, like so many others in the country, spent this winter without heating, and they are unable to afford petrol anymore.
Labrini has two brothers. Both have jobs, but no salary. One brother is an electric engineer and the other a computer scientist. Both work between 6am and 8pm, and have children to feed and educate. How they manage to do so is a long, heartbreaking tale.
Stelios, Alexis, Christos, Iliana, Margarita, Michalis, Giannis, Matina, Maritzeni... all friends of Labrini are jobless. Their disadvantage is that they are too well-qualified. The public sector is broke and the private sector has jobs for skilled workers, but not for college graduates. Today the unemployment rate among young people in Greece stands at 40 per cent.
Labrini says that a society has got to be in big trouble if it complains that too many of its citizens are over-qualified. She is livid over an economy so messed up that it looks upon college graduates as a liability.
For the moment, Labrini is luckier than her friends. A year ago she dropped out of her unpaid PhD programme in Athens half way after a research institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia, offered her a three-year contract. But she continues to fume at the thought that her future is in the hands of people she has come to loathe. Youngsters like her are filled with shame at the thought of Greek politicians begging for money around the world. It is unbearable to see the same lying politicians who have looted the people's money borrow even more. And who will repay the debts but the people?
There are cuts in minimum wages, healthcare and education, which, coupled with an increase in taxes, are making the already poor poorer. Thousands of public sector workers have been suspended and bonuses scrapped. This has led to social unrest and street protests, even as the troika of International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB) reluctantly lends money to Greece, making it seem as if it is doling out charity. "We don't want your money," the young say to the EU, insisting that it is jobs that they want.
Labrini was born in the same year that Greece joined the EU. She is a child of the boom period of the 1980s and 1990s. After the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, the country's pride had peaked, and there was rapid economic and social change. Tourism and shipping contributed to a boom in the economy.
During this period, Greece went on a spending spree. But even as money poured out of the national treasury, income-generating measures did not match up. The government continued to spend more than it earned. No reforms were carried out. The ruling elite did not favour disturbing the status quo.
"Some 12 years ago, I got interested in politics," Labrini says. Even at that time she noticed how unfair and unjust the political system was. But her family and friends had enough, and they provided her the security she needed. Then recession hit in 2008, a year that filled the people with further disgust and dissatisfaction with the political elite that was caught in corruption scandals involving millions of euros. Ever since, it has been all downhill for the Greeks.
It is unbearable to see the same lying politicians who have looted people's money borrow even more
Labrini is unable to describe the suffering today. "This economic crisis is like an avalanche brought upon us by our own politicians," she says, adding that the problem is not confined to Greece alone.
A day will soon come, she predicts, when all of Europe will be out on the streets protesting like the Athenians already are against a continent-wide system that favours a few rich at the cost of the majority of the people.