Jochen Bittner

There are, put simply, two Greeces: one official, one unofficial. Official Greece is dysfunctional; unofficial Greece works quite well. The official, theoretical Greece has checks and balances. The unofficial, reality-based Greece turns a blind eye when people break rules and dodge taxes.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Greece’s Split-Personality Problem

    by Jochen Bittner

    If the way we deal with money is the way we deal with life generally, what does this tell us about the underlying problems facing Greece?

    During a recent trip to Athens, I put this question to Leandros Rakintzis, the general inspector of public administration. What does the Greek debt crisis tell us about Greece itself, and vice versa? His answer unfurled as a Socratic dialogue, culminating in one word: mentality.

    Mr. Rakintzis, who was a judge for 38 years and now serves as the state’s internal watchdog, can regale you for hours about the lack of efficiency of the Greek public sector, clientelism, corruption and the bizarrely uneven distribution of civil servants throughout the country resulting from decades of political patronage. For this veteran of government oversight, this all boils down to a clear Greek worldview.

    “We think we are clever,” he said. “And being clever, we believe, means not to have to work to get money.”

    “Excuse me, Mr. Rakintzis,” I protested as my cliché alert went on. “I know many Greeks who work very hard for very little money.”

    Sure, he replied. And exactly this was the problem. “The social conditions don’t allow the people to develop themselves.” By “social conditions,” he means a Greek state that works only in theory. Rules that suffocate any business foolish enough to follow them. A tax system so complex that not even accountants can comprehend it fully.

    There are, put simply, two Greeces: one official, one unofficial. Official Greece is dysfunctional; unofficial Greece works quite well. The official, theoretical Greece has checks and balances. The unofficial, reality-based Greece turns a blind eye when people break rules and dodge taxes.

    I know this sounds harsh, and is perhaps what one would expect to hear from a German. But through countless interviews, this is what I heard from Greeks themselves, who insisted that the underlying reason for Greece’s financial crisis was a widespread lack of respect for the rules, and for the state itself.

    Stavros Lygeros, a journalist with the daily newspaper Kathimerini, asked me to imagine two cafes that open on the same street. The first sticks to the rules: The owner issues receipts to his guests, he bans smoking, his kitchen undergoes regular health checks. The owner of the second restaurant does none of this, because he knows the local policeman.

    In Germany, he said, the government would quickly shut down the second cafe. But in Greece, it’s the first cafe that loses, because it spends time and money following rules that, in practice, don’t have to be followed.

    To explain why, Mr. Lygeros sketched out what he called the “sinful triangle”: the economic elite, the political class and the media. It starts with the media outlets, owned by rich businessmen. In turn, the newspapers give publicity to certain ministers, and certain ministers give favors to the businessmen. What governed Greece, Mr. Lygeros said, was an unwritten contract: The people at the top don’t bother the people on the street, as long as the people on the street don’t bother them.

    Greece has made efforts to change; it now has an alternate minister (akin to an assistant secretary in the United States) for administrative reform, George Katrougalos. He agrees there is a deeply rooted mentality problem. “The Greek state, due to its clientelist nature and its failure to provide efficient social services, is still conceived as hostile by an important part of society,” he told me. What is needed, before any reforms can take root, is a fundamental shift in that mentality.

    Historians have no trouble identifying the roots of this split between the people and the government. They point to the long period of Ottoman occupation of Greece, the civil war that ripped the country apart after World War II, and the military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974. Greeks don’t just perceive the state as hostile. For much of its recent history, it was.

    Can this vicious circle be broken? And, above all, by the current coalition of left and right radicals?

    Actually, the change is already there. What a majority of Greeks elected in January was not so much radical ideology in the form of the Socialist Syriza party, but a radical break with the political status quo. The Greeks are fed up with the unlawful cafe’s succeeding over the law-abiding one. They want the country’s financial collapse to trigger a moral collapse that will usher in a new sense of collective responsibility. For every corrupt civil servant in public office, you find a younger, ambitious one who sees his work as a fight to win back the country.

    An impressive and healthy patriotism is blossoming in Greece’s town halls and tax offices. Even people who have no great sympathy for Syriza agree that the party’s disruptive election offers a unique last chance for the nation to find a new, positive, identity. Syriza, a new party, has a real chance of using its innocence to reset the country — provided this innocence does not turn into helplessness.

    This change will take time, more time than Greece’s creditors in Berlin, Brussels and Washington are willing to give. The deep spending cuts the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have demanded from Greece have not always been helpful. They have done almost nothing to cure the deeper problem. And there is no sign that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or Christine Lagarde, the head of the I.M.F., is willing to spend money on the slim hope that the Greek government will eventually transform the country.

    This may mean that a Greek departure from the eurozone is inevitable, and that Greece will have to rebuild its state on its own. Regardless of how much patience the rest of Europe has shown Athens, regardless of whether Germany and the eurozone give up on Greece, this is no reason for the Greeks to give up on themselves.


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