Fear Dimitra

How one 62-year-old grandmother explains the Greek crisis.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

ATHENS — After a year with the same old crowd of anarcho-leftists and labor unionists at the endless anti-austerity protests in Athens, I finally met a Greek who might well be the poster woman for the economic crisis.

Dimitra is a 62-year-old grandmother who lives in the once-fancy, now-bedraggled central Athens neighborhood around Victoria Square. She runs a mini-market that supports not only her, but also her underemployed daughter and two grandchildren. It’s about to go under. She has always paid her taxes, even as her tax-evading friends have ridiculed her, and never spent more than she could save. But the austerity measures have driven up her tax and utility bills, so her savings are running out. And if that wasn’t enough, her neighborhood is now filled with drug addicts and gangs. She’s afraid to go out after dark because she’s gotten mugged more times than she can remember. "I am wearing out," she says.

For many years, Greek politicians didn’t pay attention to people like Dimitra. They should have. This silent majority — the Greeks who followed the rules, paid their taxes, and lived within their means — are now paying for debts racked up by a corrupt, inefficient, and clientelistic political system that gave them almost nothing. The government shouldn’t fear the aganaktismenoi, the slogan-chanting Greeks who have camped out for weeks in Syntagma Square in a sit-in anti-austerity protest modeled after Spain’s indignados. They should fear Dimitra, and every other Greek like her who has quietly given Greek politicians the benefit of the doubt and, after this year of austerity gone nowhere, finally lost patience with them.

Greece’s many problems, of course, predate the embattled government of George Papandreou. The center-left PASOK party that his father, Andreas, founded was elected in October 2009 on a mandate to expand government — until it discovered that the country was more than $400 billion in debt. Now, a year of austerity measures in exchange for emergency bailout loans to keep the country from going bankrupt has done little to calm markets or creditors, and it has cut deeply into Greeks’ disposable income and their sense of security. Papandreou’s government will pay the immediate price, even after surviving Tuesday’s midnight confidence vote.

But even with early elections, which look increasingly likely as faith in Papandreou’s government plummets, the main opposition center-right party, New Democracy, is widely viewed by voters as equally ineffective. "The debt crisis should have been a time for political parties — and political movements — to unite to save the country, but instead they have remained attached to their vested interests even as the ship was going down," says political analyst Dimitris Skalkos. "It’s like they can’t see past their own rhetoric to actually work to get us out of this mess."

Domestically, the mess has many layers, including a stagnant, almost Soviet-style economy that favors patronage over meritocracy, a culture of corruption that has squandered public money, and a recent rise in illegal immigration that’s been badly managed by both the Greeks and the Europeans, leaving thousands of unemployed, undocumented, and increasingly desperate migrants stranded in Athens. In the last year, a troubling increase in violent crime has also egged on once-marginal neo-Nazi gangs, whom some longtime inner-city residents now see as a more effective security force than municipal and Greek police.

"People don’t feel safe anymore, in any way, and it makes them tense, angry, suspicious," says Father Maximus, the priest at Aghios Panteleimonas, a cathedral in a central Athens neighborhood of the same name that has seen some of the worst crime in the past year. "I don’t know what to tell the elderly women who show up crying, bruised after an Afghan or African migrant has mugged them on the way to church. I don’t know what to tell the teenage prostitutes from Africa who show up here, begging for help and a way out of the trap of their lives, or the homeless migrants squatting outside the church. There’s no order, and in this atmosphere anyone who is a victim can also be a villain."

I met Father Maximus, a Greek who lived in Germany and likes to play improvisational jazz, at his church earlier this year. Like other Greeks who have lived abroad, or like diaspora Greeks like me, he held on to the idea that Greeks stuck together in tough times and always opened their hearts to strangers. "It seems like we lived in some kind of nostalgic fantasy," he told me, as we walked through his battered neighborhood. Things have really devolved in the last year here, he said. Many pensioners refuse to leave their homes because they are scared of getting held up by xenoi, the "foreigners" from Africa and Asia who now outnumber them in the neighborhood. In response, right-wing gangs police the streets and have attacked makeshift basement mosques while Bangladeshi migrants worship inside.

Many in those gangs belong to Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, a fringe fascist group despised by most Greeks. In provincial elections last October, exasperated residents in crime-ridden Athenian neighborhoods helped elect Chrysi Avgi’s leader, Nikolas Michaloliakos, to the Athens municipal council because he promised to crack down on crime and kick out migrants, who were presumably responsible for it. Michaloliakos has been known to greet his fellow council members with a Nazi salute. While Chrysi Avgi has no prospect of winning parliamentary seats, "its appearance in politics does show that, as support for the two main parties in Greece have weakened, the space for the fringe has opened," says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University who follows developments in his homeland closely.

One party already in parliament, the Popular Orthodox Rally, has rallied support by playing on Greeks’ increasing fear of foreigners. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, an Amherst-educated economist who was Papandreou’s college roommate, got the most applause from his fellow conservatives during an anti-austerity speech last week by saying he would roll back PASOK’s citizenship law, which gives citizenship to the Greek-born children of migrants who have lived here legally for five years. "It’s an uneasy time, and it’s disappointing that prominent people are scapegoating immigrants to explain away our problems," says Anna Triandafyllidou, who studies migration as a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

Most Greeks are not xenophobes, but the crisis has made this somewhat parochial culture more insular. Many are recoiling from Europeans, especially the Germans, who are judging them, often unfairly, for being lazy spendthrifts with an entitlement complex. Others are recoiling from the IMF, whom they fear is trying to take over Greece. I’ve seen flyers for the "buy Greek" movement, which aims to stoke both national pride and the economy by promoting Greek products. A few conspiracy theorists are also reaching for a dated anti-Americanism that assumes an Evil Empire United States, with President Obama as Darth Vader, is bringing Greece to its knees because they want to pillage it. "We have hidden reserves of oil and gold," a mechanic named Yiannis told me at a recent anti-austerity demonstration. "The big powers want to take it all away from us."

Many Greeks are also recoiling from Papandreou, a genial, Minnesota-born sociologist from one of Greece’s most prominent political families, because they don’t think he’s Greek enough. "Why can’t Jeffrey eat a souvlaki with the rest of us?" sighed Dimitris, a 50-year-old wedding photographer who protested outside Parliament during Tuesday’s confidence vote, pointedly using Papandreou’s nickname to signal his "otherness."

It’s notable that Papandreou saved his government last week by replacing his finance minister with Evangelos Venizelos, his biggest foe in the party, and a political veteran who is a familiar face in Greek politics. Venizelos, a constitutional law scholar and former defense minister, is known as a brilliant, if vicious, political strategist who speaks beautiful Greek.

To her great credit, Dimitra, the grandmother, was fighting this insularity when I met her last month. She was stout and direct, with short gray hair, schoolteacher glasses, and a disarmingly girlish smile. She wouldn’t tell me her last name, saying she didn’t like reporters, but she stuck by me during a memorial service for Manolis Kantaris, a 44-year-old Greek man who had been robbed and stabbed to death early last month as he was loading his car to take his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth. Dimitra didn’t know Kantaris, but he had lived in her neighborhood, and she wanted to leave flowers at the makeshift shrine marking the spot where he died. Witnesses told police three "dark-skinned foreign men" had killed him. A Bangladeshi man was stabbed to death in retaliation. (Police have arrested two afghan migrants on suspicion of killing kantaris, but no one has been arrested in connection to the Bangladeshi man’s death.)

The crowd at the memorial service was already angry by the time I showed up. "Foreigners get of Greece!" they chanted, and waved Greek flags and chased a hapless African migrant who was dumpster-diving for food and soda cans to recycle for money. Gangs of sweaty young Greek men rolled up their flags and held the poles like clubs, ready for a fight. When the crowd broke into an angry rendition of the national anthem, Dimitra refused to join them. "This is not my country," she said, crying. "Why have we ignored our problems and let them boil over into something this ugly?"

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