Saturday 30 October 2010

Parachutists at the Astir Palace

A world-famous parachutist* was in town last week. I didn’t know Jeffrey Sachs, a proponent of economic “shock therapy” in Eastern Europe in the early-1990s, visited Athens until I read his column in the New York Times, In Athens, New Beginnings.

Professor Sachs drank long and deeply of the PASOK Kool-Aid at the Astir Palace, where he attended the launch of the Mediterranean Climate Change Initiative. Dr. Sachs had this remarkable finding to report:

Yet Papandreou has done something even more difficult and remarkable. He has insisted that Greece look decades ahead to protect the fragile Mediterranean environment while building skills and technologies for a new era. 

Dr. Sachs was apparently not aware that holding international conferences in 5* hotels are one of PASOK’s few genuine achievements. Every month, it seems, another grand initiative is launched at another sparkling event. Has anyone forgotten George Papandreou’s Road Plan for Balkan Accession by 2014, delivered just a few days after winning the October 2009 elections? If holding conferences or making empty promises were an Olympic sport, Greece would be a gold medalist.

It is of course doubly ironic that Dr. Sachs singles out Papandreou’s apparent commitment to the environment for praise. Is he not aware that Greece has one of the worse environmental records since joining the EU in 1981? Greece has consistently flouted the letter and the spirit of EU environmental legislation, and today finds itself paying fines or losing cases in the European Court of Justice for a wide variety of offenses, from illegal landfills and releases of carcinogenic PCBs to violations of the Natura 2000 directive.

The environmental scandals affecting this country have not yet been fully investigated, let alone prosecuted or solved. The illegal toxic waste disposals in the Asopos River which [continue to] cause mercury, chromium and dioxide poisoning have been widely documented, but no substantive legal action taken. The high occurrence of cancers and birth defects around DEH’s power plants is well-known, but monopolist DEH continues its commitment to high-sulfur coal-burning power generation. The eutrophication of inland seas such as the Corinthian Gulf or lakes such as Lake Kastoria, Koronia or Ioannina due to pesticide run-off is painfully apparent to both sight and smell. The fact that Greece has a disastrous record in recycling or litter prevention is evident on every street, every beach and forest, and every country road.

If George Papandreou wants to save the Mediterranean environment, I suggest he ends his conference circuit, sells the government jet, and starts implementing existing Greek and EU law right here at home. There is more than enough work to do for the next 15 years, without attending a single conference or making any more promises. We’ve heard far too many of them already and frankly, we are tired of paying for them. And Dr. Sachs should take parachute lessons elsewhere.  

* A parachutist in this context is an amicable journalist/pundit, usually (but not exclusively) an elderly white male, who flies into Athens for 2-3 days, stays at the Astir Palace or the Grande Bretagne, and then flies out to write profound articles about Greece.

© Philip Ammerman, 2010s


  1. A friend asked a very relevant question in response to this post:

    "You know I read what you write, but isn't there any light at the end of this tunnel or is this even a tunnel?"

    I've been asking myself these same questions. I ask myself: at a time when more and more Greeks are becoming homeless or unemployed or going hungry, and when hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are in desperate straits here, what should the government be doing?

    Should it be spending millions of Euros holding vastly theoretical conferences? Should it be borrowing EUR 1.5 bln from the European Investment Bank to sink into the State Railways Organisations, which is EUR 10 bln in debt and has no commercial future? Should it be closing crony capitalist deals for Skaramanga or Astakos which will only result in more state subsidies or misused assets? Should it continue to tolerate massive corruption in the tax offices, customs authorities, and other organisations? Should it proceed with firing thousands of temporary workers hired under ND, and then hiring thousands of its own supporters?

    Greece is bankrupt - morally and financially. After the deaths of the three employees at Marfin in May 2010, there was a real climate of anger. Even politicians such as George Papandreou were talking about reducing Parliament from 300 to 200, ending Parliamentary immunity, expanding audits of financial assets to include wider MP families, etc.

    Just seven months later, we are back to business as usual. The local elections feature the same old tired, anodyne slogans and the same old mediocre faces. The political theatre of the Parliamentary committees investigating the scandals of Siemens and Vatopedi have produced -- predictably -- no result.

    Not a single elected official has been put in jail or had to pay back any significant fines, and please note that the DM 400,000 fine on Mantelis is truly insignificant compared to what PASOK stole during his tenure. Akis Tsohatzopoulos: does anyone remember him?

    Most worrying of all, we see all the symptoms that caviar socialism is back on the agenda. ERT announced the hiring of 740 staff. DEH is hiring. The Prefecture of Pireaus hired 60 people just before the elections. The Parliament has hired new staff. There are many other similar events going on we are unaware of.

    PASOK excels at holding nice meetings and conferences -- witness the cabinet meeting at the Thessaloniki exhibition or this latest Mediterranean initiative -- at a time when the public interest would be better served by saving money, cutting useless expenditure, and focussing on what we are legally- and morally-required to do.

    It's the first time in my life I see so many homeless people in Athens. Elderly people - grandfathers, grandmothers, entire families. The free meal centres run by the municipalities and churches are full, with 85% of participants apparently now Greek, in contrast to just a year ago where the majority were immigrants.

    If you go to Kolonaki and stand outside Aghios Dinissios, or walk through the park outside Evangelismos, you will see older people and families begging and sleeping out in the open. Winter is here.

    To have glittering conferences at 5* resorts today is an insult. It shows a fundamental lack of awareness of what is going on, and a fundamental lack of respect for basic human and citizen dignity.

    It shows that grand promises which Greece will never be able to fund take priority over the basic task of implementing the laws we have already passed, yet ignore.

    The PASOK and ND elite which has run this country into the ground is alive and well, and it seems there is no democratic alternative whatsoever.

    If you believe the rhetoric of this elite, everything is, or shortly will be, fine. If you believe what your own eyes tell you in the centre of Athens, or looking objectively at the economic numbers, we are in fact at the edge of the cliff and have already slipped halfway off.

  2. Wow, it sounds like things have become really bad over there. Are the illegal immigrants you talk of mainly from Africa, and are they given any legal status as refugees over there? I ask, as I wonder how a country with so many domestic problems copes with this problem too.

  3. I believe the immigrants are mainly from SE Asia and Africa. From what I see of TV footage, they are Iraqi and Afghans (fleeing from violence in these countries) but from a range of other countries as well.

    As to how it copes: the question is how any country or society should cope with fundamental questions of human decency and dignity. Leaving the problem to fester as entire families live in the open parks or deserted ruins of Athens is not a solution. If we have refugees in Greece, we should take care of them.