ATHENS -- Is the worst over? After the severe economic hardships of the last few years, this is the question Greeks are today asking themselves. The answer is unclear, however.
Walking through the Plaka district of Athens, the restaurant tables and the shops brim with tourists. But not only tourists; young and old Greeks, too, seem to have rediscovered the night life. The worry beads are less counted; the wine flows a little more easily.
The scene is in stark contrast to two years ago when I last visited Greece. Then, the effects of the Great Recession were palpable on the faces of the shopkeepers and waiters as they stood aimless, like people stranded on a strange planet. At the height of the recession, unemployment stood at nearly 30 per cent; for those under 25, 60 per cent. Suicide rates skyrocketed. Small children were being left on doorsteps with notes pinned to their garments by parents saying they could not take care of them.
So, at least anecdotally, things seem to be improving, a belief held by some Greeks I talked to. This is a narrative the governing coalition, headed by the arch conservative New Democracy party and its PASOK (social democratic) supporters favour going into the European elections scheduled for May 22-25. They argue Greece has come through the crisis -- thanks, of course, to their financial stewardship -- and things will continue to improve: no more bailouts, no more austerity measures. They warn voters to be wary of the upstart left-wing party, Syriza.
Two years ago, Syriza seemed ascendant. Syntagma square, the heart of Athens' political life, was the site of ongoing protests by thousands of Greeks and young Occupiers drawn from across Europe and North America who saw Greece as the main front in a war with global capitalism. People camped out in the square, passing out pamphlets and talking with each other about protests in other cities. There was a sense of excitement.
If the protests had a focal point, it was a shrine to Dimitris Christoulos, a 77-year-old man who had committed suicide only weeks before, a personal protest against what was being done to his country. Today, the tree on which was then posted teddy bears, photos and writings in his memory remains, but these decorations and the protesters are gone. In their stead, people go quietly about their daily routines, catching subway trains and buying lottery tickets, hoping like all gamblers against hope. On the day I was there recently, a young born-again Pentecostal recruiter handed me a pamphlet, offering another kind of hope. At least for him, the concerns of this material world have given way to those of the afterlife.
So, is the worst over? There have been some important changes. Efforts to tax the wealthy show signs of success. Tourism, as noted, has rebounded. But unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially for the young; a lost generation. New democracy's claims aside, Greece still requires enormous financial aid -- money it will later (again) be required to pay; and public-sector layoffs continue, contributing to an ongoing crisis of weak demand. And -- still worrisome -- the fascist Golden Dawn, though weakened, remains a force among some elements.
Trying to make sense of it all, I asked a Greek colleague what he thought. I prefaced my question by noting my observations of the seemingly renewed vitality I witnessed in the Plaka, and how it contrasted with two years before.
"I know the economists say it has gotten better," he said. "But most Greeks do not believe it is over. Still, they are tired of being depressed. And so they have returned to what comes naturally to them: to enjoy life, even in the face of an impossible situation."
Trevor Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute. He is currently travelling in Greece and Turkey.