Just a few years ago, Greece came close to defaulting on its debts and exiting the eurozone. Today, the country’s economy is showing new signs of life.
Just a few
years ago, Greece came perilously close to defaulting on its debts and exiting
Today, thanks to the largest sovereign bailout in history, the
country’s economy is showing new signs of life.
for promises that Athens would enact aggressive austerity measures, the
so-called troika -- the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the
International Monetary Fund -- provided tens of billions of dollars in
From the perspective of many global investors and European
officials, those policies have paid off. Excluding a one-off expenditure to
recapitalize its banks, Greece’s budget shortfall totaled roughly two percent
last year, down from nearly 16 percent in 2009.
Last year, the country ran a
current account surplus for the first time in over three decades.
And this past
April, Greece returned to the international debt markets it had been locked out
of for four years, issuing $4 billion in five-year government bonds at a
relatively low yield -- only 4.95 percent. (Demand exceeded $26 billion.)
August, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the country’s credit rating by two
recent comeback masks deep structural problems.
To tidy its books, Athens
levied crippling taxes on the middle class and made sharp cuts to government
salaries, pensions, and health-care coverage.
While ordinary citizens suffered
under the weight of austerity, the government stalled on meaningful reforms:
the Greek economy remains one of the least open in Europe and consequently one
of the least competitive.
It is also one of the most unequal. Greece has
failed to address such problems because the country’s elites have a vested
interest in keeping things as they are.
Since the early 1990s, a handful of
wealthy families -- an oligarchy in all but name -- has dominated Greek
politics. These elites have preserved their positions through control of the
media and through old-fashioned favoritism, sharing the spoils of power with
the country’s politicians.
Greek legislators, in turn, have held on to power by
rewarding a small number of professional associations and public-sector unions
that support the status quo.
Even as European lenders have put the country’s
finances under a microscope, this arrangement has held.The
fundamental problem facing Greece is not economic growth but political
To the benefit of a favored few, cumbersome regulations and
dysfunctional institutions remain largely unchanged, even as the country’s
infrastructure crumbles, poverty increases, and corruption persists. Greek
society also faces new dangers.
Overall unemployment stands at 27 percent, and
youth unemployment exceeds 50 percent, providing an ideal recruiting ground for
extremist groups on both the left and the right.
Meanwhile, the oligarchs are
still profiting at the expense of the country -- and the rest of Europe.
many economic crises that have troubled the eurozone, Greece’s meltdown stands
It came about not because banks overextended themselves, as was the case
elsewhere, but because the government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis,
whose New Democracy party held power from 2004 to 2009, lost control of public
In 2003, just before Karamanlis took power, Greece’s debt-to-GDP
ratio stood at roughly 97 percent. At the end of his tenure, the figure had
ballooned to nearly 130 percent.
Ironically, Karamanlis had campaigned as a
reformer, promising to shrink the civil service, open up the economy, and clean
Once in office, however, he bowed to special interests. Over the
course of his five years in power, Karamanlis appointed an estimated 150,000
new civil servants, pushing the total number of public-sector employees past
one million people, or 21 percent of the active work force.
During roughly the
same period, public health expenditures jumped from just over five percent of
GDP to around seven percent; public spending on pensions grew from 11.8 percent
of GDP to 13.0 percent.
The economic boom following the 2004 Olympics in Athens
helped Karamanlis narrowly win reelection in 2007.
But in his last two years in
power, struggling with a majority of only two seats, he falsified economic
performance data in a desperate attempt to win a snap general election.
party lost in a landslide.Karamanlis
acted not so much out of recklessness as weakness. Three structural forces, all
the result of long-term trends in Greek politics, limited his room to maneuver.
The first was the civil service, which was incapable of carrying out any sort
of reform project. Its decline had begun in the 1980s, when political parties
took on increased responsibility for staffing the government.
In theory, the
shift was meant to counteract the bureaucracy’s conservative bent, a product of
the Greek Civil War of 1946–49.
But political interference soon became a
permanent feature of central administration, with ministers appointing cronies
almost at will.
Within a decade, the civil service had doubled in size. In 1994, a
reformist minister named Anastasios Peponis managed to pass legislation
introducing an examination-based hiring system, but the process was widely
Over the next ten years, Parliament amended the law 43 times.
Public-sector unions continued to determine promotions and transfers and almost
always blocked disciplinary proceedings against their members, even for serious
Ministers with little incentive to think about the needs of their
departments beyond the next election cycle became even more powerful. Highly
qualified civil servants rarely rose to positions of influence. Morale
collapsed. Then there
Simply put, Karamanlis had little control over his party. Due
to the structure of the Greek electoral system, most politicians campaign in
multimember constituencies and often run against members of their own party. By
the time Karamanlis took office, competition had grown fierce in the country’s
three largest and fastest-growing cities -- Athens, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki
-- which together account for 96 of the legislature’s 300 seats.
contentious environment, television exposure and private money became
especially crucial to electoral success.
And with access to wealthy donors and
media elites, politicians from these urban constituencies could become national
players without having to rely on party machines.
Many owed their election to
influential oligarchs; others, to professional associations or trade unions.
Karamanlis’ supposed allies in Parliament therefore had few incentives to act
on his agenda.
barrier to Karamanlis’ reforms, however, was opposition from the media. Most
Greeks get their news from television, and eight private channels, all
controlled by well-known businesspeople, share over 90 percent of the market.
Some of the owners, such as Yiannis Alafouzos, who founded the Skai media
group, are shipping magnates whose businesses rely little on state contracts
But most have their hands in a broad array of businesses that
depend heavily on government patronage. Vardis Vardinoyannis, a lead investor
in Greece’s largest television station, Mega, controls two petroleum companies,
Motor Oil Hellas and Vegas Oil & Gas, in addition to holding a significant
stake in Greece’s biggest bank, Piraeus.
Other Mega shareholders include George
Bobolas, whose gold-mining operation relies on government licenses and whose
construction company built facilities for the 2004 Olympics, and Stavros
Psycharis, whose business interests range from printing to real estate to
nearly all of Greece’s television stations and newspapers, has long operated at
But as a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006 explained, the owners
don’t care. They keep the stations afloat “primarily to exercise political and
economic influence” -- to ensure, in other words, that they continue to profit
from the government.
That’s why the country’s 11 million citizens have so many
television channels and newspapers to choose from -- Bobolas and Psycharis each
own newspapers, as well -- and why independent journalists have so few outlets
for their work.
of affairs is relatively recent. Until the late 1980s, the government held a
monopoly on all broadcasting. But the oligarchs never had to purchase their
broadcasting licenses; they took them.
In 1987, the political opposition
launched a number of radio stations meant to challenge the state’s media
monopoly. Wealthy families responded by setting up their own full-fledged
television studios, and the government ended up handing them temporary
television and radio licenses.
Two decades later, nothing has changed. Athens
has never allowed stations to compete fairly for channel frequencies or
subjected them to basic regulations.
Instead, Parliament renews the supposedly
temporary licenses every few years, as it did most recently this past August.
television stations do generate some revenue from advertising sales, often as a
cover for payoffs made in exchange for friendly coverage.
Greek banks, for
example, spend lavishly on television spots and provide large loans to the
country’s media conglomerates.
In return, the media steer clear of them. When
Reuters published damaging allegations in 2012 that Michalis Sallas, the chair
of Piraeus Bank and a one-time socialist politician, had funneled sweetheart
loans to his own family businesses, the Greek media printed Sallas’ response
without revisiting the charges themselves.
And this past August, most of the
media downplayed reports that Greek prosecutors were investigating the former
Piraeus Bank executive and former Bank of Greece governor Georgios Provopoulos.
Just as the
oligarchs and their political allies use the media to avoid public scrutiny, so
they rely on government regulations to retain control of the state.
past three decades, two highly organized interest groups have profited the most
under Greek law: first, elite professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and
engineers, and second, unionized employees of utilities owned wholly or
partially by the state, such as the Public Power Corporation and the Hellenic
The memberships of such groups are not large. Greece has
only about 40,000 lawyers, 60,000 doctors, and 87,000 engineers. Public-sector
employees number around 600,000. Yet what these groups lack in numbers they
more than make up for in organization.
By leveraging their ability to drive
voter turnout in key urban constituencies, the professionals and the unions
have won extraordinary privileges.
For example, many professional associations
can set standard prices for basic services, a form of collusion that is illegal
in many economies but not in Greece.
They are also permitted to self-regulate.
When accusations of malpractice arise, the associations themselves have the
exclusive right to discipline their members.
Moreover, special taxes fund their
health-care and retirement accounts: since 1960, the pension fund for lawyers
and judges has collected a stamp duty on all property transactions amounting to
1.3 percent of each sale price.
And for decades, the doctors’ pension fund
benefited from a 6.5 percent charge on the value of all drugs prescribed.
year, Athens eliminated the charge at the troika’s request. But it has yet to
dispense with any of the other taxes, which continue to redistribute millions
of dollars from the poor to the wealthy.
many of whom are self-employed, are also among the country’s leading tax
In a pathbreaking study published in 2012, the economists Nikolaos
Artavanis, Adair Morse, and Margarita Tsoutsoura used data from a large private
bank to assess how much money Greek professionals hide. One of their most
telling findings was that lawyers, on average, spend more than 100 percent of
their declared incomes on mortgage payments alone.
consequences have been few. In 2010, legislators proposed a bill that would
have forced the government to audit professionals who reported annual incomes
below roughly $30,000. But the measure failed, and in fact it never had a
chance of passing: according to Artavanis, Morse, and Tsoutsoura, many members
of Parliament would have likely faced audits themselves.
At the time, 40
doctors, 28 educators, 43 engineers, 40 finance professionals, and 70 lawyers
were serving in the legislature -- occupying 221 out of 300 total seats.
of state-run enterprises have secured a parallel set of privileges, in large
part due to their loyal support for the center-left Panhellenic Socialist
Movement (PASOK). In return, the party helped abolish the use of competitive
hiring exams in the 1980s and create thousands of new government jobs.
also ensured that those who worked for state-run enterprises received more
generous pensions than any other public-sector employees -- something that is
still largely the case, despite recent cuts to government spending.
for instance, the Greek government made an open-ended promise to prevent cuts
to the Public Power Corporation’s pension fund. In 2012, at the height of the
financial crisis, this commitment amounted to over $800 million.
TALE OF TWO
In any open
society, the wealthy and the well-organized are bound to hold outsize sway.
There is nothing inherently wrong with large businesses exercising influence
given their large stake in the economy.
Nor is there any reason that
professionals shouldn’t earn high incomes commensurate with the demand for
their services. But Greek institutions are too weak to hold such interests in
check or to uphold even basic standards of law.
accession to the European Union, in 1981, was supposed to improve things. EU
membership, however, did not weaken traditional Greek hierarchies; it
It was while the Greek economy was catching up to the rest
of Europe -- providing the oligarchs with new sources of credit and cash --
that the country’s institutions began to break down.
Greece now ranks near the
bottom of European countries when it comes to social mobility and near the top
of rankings measuring inequality -- a problem that Greek politicians and the
media have almost entirely ignored. Even at the height of its spending before
the crisis, Athens offered few benefits to the poor.
Today, over 90 percent of
the unemployed receive no government assistance whatsoever, some 20 percent of
Greek children are estimated to live in extreme poverty, and millions of people
lack health insurance.
Moreover, after seven years of recession, none of the
major political parties has proposed any serious reforms to the welfare state
or to the health-care system in order to achieve universal coverage.
even expanded a pilot program to offer free lunches at public schools.Greeks with
nowhere to turn have begun to gravitate toward radical political movements.
Golden Dawn, a neofascist party with an anti-immigrant and anti-European
platform, seized on popular discontent to gain 18 seats in the 2012
In September 2013, Greek authorities arrested its
founder, Nikos Michaloliakos, on charges of forming a criminal organization.
Meanwhile, Syriza, an ascendant far-left coalition, wants to rip up Greece’s
European bailout agreement, nationalize the country’s banks, and cut its ties
out Greece without demanding fundamental reforms, the European Central Bank,
the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund have only
strengthened the status quo.
Even worse, the troika has lined the pockets of
the very forces that brought about the economic collapse in the first place.
And Greece is not an isolated case.
European bailout funds have had a similar
effect throughout the smaller economies of the eurozone, including Ireland,
Spain, and Portugal.
Leaders in these countries, too, have spent European funds
to maximize their short-term political advantage; meanwhile, Brussels has
proved incapable of combating cronyism and criminality.
Now that European
integration has brought the continent’s economies closer together than ever
before, no member state can be indifferent to what happens in the others.
Without addressing Greece’s deep inequalities, then, Europe will never fully
find its way out of crisis.
Professor of Law at Oxford University
published at the “Foreign Affairs” (issue Nov.-Dec. 2014)