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The debt crisis has led to all Greeks being pigeonholed as liars, cheats, tax dodgers and beggars. Facts have been a major casualty in this stereotyping but so has the opportunity for an alternative point of view to be heard. Minds have been made up and judgments have been passed. Even some members of the Greek diaspora have hurled invective against their brethren, displaying self-loathing for a people who have supposedly blackened the name of Greece and sullied the legacy of the ancient Greeks.It shows how quickly reputations can be ruined.
In 2004, the Greeks were earning praise from around the world for being worthy torchbearers of the ideals born in Ancient Olympia. Of course, few people outside Greece then were concerned about what organizing the Athens Olympics cost. It’s only when you’re broke that people become experts on what you should or should not have spent your money on. It also gives them license to address you with all kinds of epithets. So, Greeks were labeled corrupt en masse with no regard for the fact that the serious graft was carried out by a small group of politicians, public officials and businessmen, and that much of it took place with the help of foreigners from countries that today preach to Greece about how it should follow the righteous path.
There was a poignant moment this month when on the same day (April 11) there were significant legal developments in Munich and Washington regarding the payment of kickbacks in Greece. In Germany, two former managers at Ferrostaal were charged with paying bribes of more than 62 million euros to win submarine orders in Greece and Portugal. In the USA, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $70 million to settle charges that it paid bribes to win business in Greece and several other countries. It was a reminder that claims that Greeks are somehow more genetically conditioned to be corrupt than others are as racist as they sound. It takes two for an illegal transaction to happen and Greeks were never short of willing partners from abroad.
All these suspect deals were paid for by Greek taxpayers – the same taxpayers that now stand accused of being immoral themselves thanks to the misconception that tax evasion in Greece is a “national sport.” The truth is that it’s a game played by a minority, albeit a significant one. Civil servants and private sector employees, who make up roughly three quarters of the country’s 4.4 million workforce – have their wages taxed at source and contribute their fair share.
There is, however, considerable tax evasion among the 1 million or so self-employed – particularly the top earners in that group – and among businesses, where entire sectors such as gas stations enjoyed a free ride for decades. This is starting to change but it does nothing to alleviate the exasperation felt by millions of Greeks who have always paid their way but are nevertheless regarded as swindlers.
If these people are not being branded cheats, then they are accused of being accessories to the plundering of public coffers, the haphazard handing out of state sector jobs and the construction of a corrupt state by voting for governments that carried all this out with impunity. This charge is difficult to deny, at least in relation to the years that Greece has not been under a dictatorship or operating as a foreign protectorate. Each citizen has to accept a portion of the blame for the country’s plight but that portion cannot be equal among all. There are those who have profited directly from their political choices and they must carry the heaviest burden.
In reality, Greeks have no more of a predilection for poor rulers or bad governments than people elsewhere. Nor do they have a pathological tendency to lie, which is another accusation that has been thrown at them as a result of the furor over the country’s economic statistics. Again, this is a misinterpretation of the facts because Greece’s dodgy deficit forecasts revealed an institutional weakness within the eurozone rather than a weakness of character among Greeks.
Greece, as a country, broke the rules but the price is being paid by a lot of people who are innocent of the charges of corruption, selfishness and mendacity indiscriminately leveled against them. Those who criticize and curse Greece should be in no doubt that Greeks are suffering for the mistakes of the past: they are losing their jobs, having their wages cut, paying higher taxes, seeing their pensions slashed, watching their labor rights being eroded and are living with constant uncertainty about what the future holds.
Contrary to popular belief, many of these people have followed the rules, paid their taxes, made their pension contributions and stood for what is right. Some of them have been snared in the cogs of a misfiring and malfunctioning system. Some have their hands full trying to eke out a living in trying circumstances. Others have given up hope of being anything more than hostages to the egoism of the few. But there are those who keep the hope alive, who persevere and remain true to their beliefs.
By Nick Malkoutzis