By Daniel Steinvorth in Athens
An aluminum bowl filled with pasta, a bottle of water and a bread roll. "The most important thing is that it quiets your hunger," says Yannis. The 63-year-old is leaning on the wall of a building on Sophocles Street spooning up his lunch. He spent the last half-hour waiting in line outside a soup kitchen in downtown Athens. He says he doesn't have any money for food, adding: "I earn 500 ($600), of which 200 goes to rent alone."
Yannis numbers among the more than 400,000 people in the greater Athens area that rely on free food for their daily survival. He doesn't harbor any illusions anymore -- either about his future or that of his country. "I don't know how they expect to keep squeezing people like me anymore. There's no more to squeeze. Should I throw myself off a high-rise to unburden the state?"
People like Yannis can say what Greece's social reality feels like these days. In particular, he can convey the frustration that has come to grip almost all levels of society. Many have had to accept layoffs, losing up to half of their income and pension cuts, on top of which comes an endless stream of new taxes and fees. They've had to watch as stores shut down and entire city neighborhoods become run-down. They've also observed how pharmacies have turned to dispersing medications for cash only, and seen the number of drug addicts and suicides rise.
Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), recently visited Greece. She says she saw a country in which people are "losing hope." She added that people told her that they "are frightened to have children because they will not be able to support them."
Playing for Time
Indeed, it's hard to find any trace of hope in Europe's No. 1 crisis state. People here are preoccupied by a single question: Are there even worse things to come?
Since inspectors from the so-called troika -- made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- arrived in Athens on Tuesday, tensions have been high in Greece. The group is preparing a final report that will determine whether the country has made sufficient progress in its belt-tightening and reform efforts, earning it the right to receive more bailout funds -- or whether the money spigot will be turned off and Greece will be allowed to finally go bankrupt.
The Greek media has been full of reports about rumors that the IMF will no longer take part in additional financing for Greece because there have been too many delays in making reforms. Greek officials, however, have argued that several austerity and reform measures have been slowed by the two national elections in May and June, and they want the country's lenders to give it two more years to achieve the budget goals to avoid an even deeper economic slump.
The media has also criticized speculation that Greece's exit from the euro zone is becoming increasingly likely, calling it irresponsible. "Stop the negative rumors," ran the headline of one commentary in the daily Kathimerini. "Nothing positive will happen in this country unless the looming threats of Greece exiting the euro zone disappear completely." That almost mirrored the sentiment of Wolfgang Dold, Germany's ambassador to Greece. In an interview with the Sunday paper To Vima, he had previously warned against giving in to "the temptation to exit the euro."
The Greeks are anxiously following the work of the "men in black," as the troika inspectors are colloquially known here. Right after their arrival, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced plans to merge or shut down 200 inefficient public organizations to save an estimated 40 million. An additional 9.5 billion are also supposed to come from more wage reductions for public-sector workers and a range of cuts in social services. In a speech before parliament, Samaras said that the real issue was re-establishing Greece's trustworthiness in the eyes of its creditors, adding that he was confident that the country would be able to shoulder its burdens if given more time to do so.
No Plan B
Given the country's catastrophic economic situation -- with a recession of 7 percent and unemployment of 24 percent and rising -- Samaras has been hoping for new negotiations. But Athens probably won't be granted any.
For this reason, the well-known political columnist Stavros Lygeros is counting on the worst. "Our economy is lying on the ground and is kicked once again with every additional savings measure," he says. "No society can bear that for long." In order to escape the vicious cycle of savings diktats, recession and rising debt, he says that Greece actually needs extra time -- and a plan for a radical fresh start.
Still, when asked what will happen if the troika makes good on its threat to cut off the flow of money to Athens, Lygeros is somber. "Nothing was planned for this case," he says. "Every country has a Plan B, but not Greece. Our politicians have totally acted like exorcists on this issue. They believe that as long as they can ward off the evil -- that is, the return to the drachma -- then the problem has been taken care of."
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