Greece Hits Bottom: A Clash of Cultures on the Aegean

By in Athens

Part 2: Come What May

A woman in Athens walking by a slogan reading "We Are at War." Zoom
REUTERS

A woman in Athens walking by a slogan reading "We Are at War."

For now, surveys indicate that up to two-thirds of Greeks support the austerity measures passed by the Papandreou government. Support for his party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), is at 48 percent, higher than it has been in decades. Still, the same figure illustrates a split in Greece -- between those who realize the time has come for belt-tightening and those who want things to remain as they have been, no matter what the consequences are.

Kostas belongs to the latter group. The 38-year-old tax official, whose job won't allow him to provide his last name, is vehemently opposed to the austerity measures. "It's not the civil servants that are the thieves," he says. "It's the others." For this reason, he participated in the recent labor disputes "on principle" as well as in last week's general strike. And he'll do it again, too. As he sees it, these are "defensive actions." "But a strike alone," he says, "can't block the state's way forward."

Including benefits, Kostas' after-tax income is €1,900 ($2,600) a month. His wife, likewise a tax official, earns the same. He says that, with the introduction of the reforms, he, his wife and their three-year-old son will have to make do with at least €500 less per month. "That is a huge problem for our household budget," he says.

Still, they are relatively privileged. They earn more than the average Greek salary of €700-€900 per month and, as civil servants, they can't be fired or laid off. And, the bloated Greek bureaucracy is a major part of the problem. One out of every four people working in Greece is an employee of the state.

The Art of Survival

As Alternative Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas says, the government finds it "only natural that there are also counter-reactions and resentment." He adds: "We have to convince our population that we will proceed in a way that is as socially just as possible. That those with less won't be squeezed, and that those with more will be asked to contribute more to the rehabilitation. It's an issue of credibility."

In essence, though, it's not merely a question of tax and pension system reform aimed at getting the country back on track. Rather, it is an offensive against an ingrained culture and mentality. It's about the art of everyday survival in modern-day Greece.

Such survival has long been dependent on who you know -- and how much you are willing to pay in bribes. The system is known as "fakelaki" -- a word meaning "little envelope" and which refers to the bribes regularly demanded of Greek citizens to "expedite" service. In reality, of course, no fakelaki often translates to no service. Sums of money stuffed in envelopes are passed across desks to secure appointments, documents and permits. It's a playful form of corruption that is firmly anchored in everyday Greek life.

Like Gyros and Tzatziki

In a recent survey, 13.5 percent of Greek respondents admitted to paying fakelaki; on average, they said they paid €1,450 ($1,970) a year. In reality, though, the numbers and sums could be much, much higher. In Greece, cronyism and bribery go together like gyros and tzatziki. As television sports reporter Dimitris Malisiovas says, there are two important things in a Greek's life: "knowing someone in the right position and tipping."

As one German who does business in Greece says, you "practically can't get a driver's license without some fakelaki," adding that you certainly won't get one on the first try. The way it regularly works, he says, is that you will have "two testers, each of whom gets €100." And for an important operation, you'll often have to fork over up to €4,500, even if the cost itself is already covered by medical insurance.

Officials estimate that, of the 25 million houses and buildings in Greece, 10 percent of them are completely illegal and 80 percent are partially illegal, expanded or renovated without a permit. Bribes, of course, cleared the way. Then there is the practice of collecting the pensions of those who have passed away. The most recent census found that pension checks of between 40,000 and 60,000 deceased people, some of whom have been dead for years, were still being cashed. As one civil servant explains, dead people are responsible for notifying the pensions office of their deaths themselves.

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