In a sun-drenched room at the foundation here that is named for his father, Nick Papandreou pondered the task confronting his older brother, George: dismantling the Greek welfare state largely erected by their father, Andreas Papandreou. “This is his moment,” Nick Papandreou, a 54-year-old Princeton-educated economist, said of George, Greece’s current prime minister. “Although it does happen to come at the worst time in Greek history.” It is a history in many ways defined — for better or for worse — by three generations of Papandreou prime ministers, all of them depicted in a large black and white photograph that hung on the wall above Nick Papandreou.
The first was the patriarch, George Papandreou, who died in 1968 while under military house arrest. Next to him in the photo stands Andreas, pipe in hand, the charismatic American-trained economist.
Andreas became a hero while exiled from Greece’s United States-supported military dictatorship in the early 1970s and then from the wealth redistribution he oversaw as prime minister in the 1980s. But he also greatly increased the country’s debt — which was 20 percent of gross domestic product when he took power and swelled to more than 80 percent by the end of his second term in 1989.
And finally there is George A. Papandreou, who was 10 when the picture was shot and was trying his best to replicate the grave mien of his elders. Now 59 and the prime minister voted into office in October 2009 after the debt crisis arrived, he is being forced to impose an austerity regime that could well reverse many of the social gains won by his father.
On Tuesday, European finance ministers meeting in Brussels were unable for a second straight day to resolve key issues that stand in the way of a second bailout package for Greece.Many political insiders in Athens question whether the current prime minister has the drive and communication skills to sell the public on the need for the cuts that the financial leaders of Europe are demanding. But Nick contends that his brother is up to the task.
Prime Minister Papandreou declined a request for an interview to discuss his father’s legacy and Greece’s current problems. As events play out here, it is almost as if the Papandreou family’s tale could have been written by Sophocles, the master of ancient Greek tragedy. Like the best tragedies, it is rich in ambiguity.
Was Andreas Papandreou, who died in 1996 after a third term of office, a Socialist firebrand who used government spending to expand the ranks of the Greek middle class and give Greeks a greater sense of pride and confidence? Or was he a scandal-prone demagogue whose notion of the Greek state as a limitless — and ultimately unaffordable — jobs bank largely explains the country’s near-bankrupt condition today?
Somewhat curiously, Athens lacks even a single statue or monument commemorating Andreas Papandreou. (The Andreas G. Papandreou Foundation, overseen by Nick, is supported largely by European Union money and private contributions.) And on one of the few times that his son George mentioned his name in public, it was to cite a warning that Andreas made in the early 1990s: “Either we make the debt disappear, or the debt will make the country disappear.”
It was the right-leaning New Democracy party, not the Socialists, who engaged in Greece’s final debt binge, which culminated in 2008 and 2009 with the discovery that the New Democracy party had hidden the true scale of Greece’s obligations. That revelation, which helped sweep George and his Pasok party into power, started the current debt crisis in Europe. But there is little dispute that the borrowing spree began under Andreas.
Nick Papandreou recalls with a shake of his head the heady days of people power in the early 1980s, when his father opened up the government: the owner of a diner in New York became the tourism minister, a plumber was appointed to run a government shipping post, and students were encouraged to appoint their own professors. “Yes, the debt went up, but there was a benefit,” said Mr. Papandreou, who has written frequently about his father and the Papandreou family. “There were hospitals and health care for everyone,” he said. “People moved up, income- and hope-wise.” But in today’s Athens — engulfed in protests, fear and alienation — it is not difficult to find people who pin the blame for their current woes on Andreas. “Andreas Papandreou,” said Jason Manolopoulos, a hedge fund manager and author of a book on Greece’s economic collapse, “corrupted the Greek psyche and gave to Greeks an entitlement culture based on their existence and not on their ability to work and take risks.”
Nick, George and their two younger siblings, a brother and a sister, came of age in Minnesota, California, Canada and Sweden because of their father’s many years as a prominent economist and political activist outside of Greece. In his writings, Nick describes his father as distant, largely absent and even abusive on occasion. But his father’s life, Nick contends, was stoked by the furies of conflict, passion and above all a supreme ability to reach the Greek people.
George could not be more different, with a character that is more diffident and that lacks the thrusting ambition of his father, Nick says. “He told me many times that he did not want to be prime minister.”
George, a child of the 1960s and even more of an idealist than his father, in Nick’s view, seeks consensus where his father sought conflict. “If you want to get psychoanalytical,” Nick said, “kids with missing fathers want to be liked. And wanting to be liked means there is no conflict. And if you don’t like conflict, then it is difficult to give orders.”
Still, Nick says his brother can do what Greece now needs.
“Andreas might have sold it better initially,” he said. “But he might also have said, ‘Oh my God, these people are losing their jobs.’ George will not yield on these reforms.”
Others are not so sure.
George Papandreou’s reticence — so at odds with his father’s personality — has probably drawn the sharpest criticism from political insiders here.
A view has taken hold that the prime minister lacks the desire to execute the hugely ambitious economic changes demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
Some people also question whether he has the communication skills — as with Nick, Greek is his second language — to explain to a revolting populace why the country can no longer afford to maintain the state that his father built. “Andreas had a capacity to sense the public mood — there was always the feeling that he was the people’s guy in power,” said Louka T. Katseli, a close political ally of Andreas Papandreou. Ms. Katseli was the economic minister under George Papandreou until she lost her job during a recent government shuffle.
Alluding to the crowds of angry protesters now camping out in front of the Greek Parliament, Ms. Katseli added: “The perception now is that we are detached from voters and society — we have not been able to explain to the people what we have done.” But not everyone who worked closely with Andreas Papandreou remembers his reign so fondly. One is Theodore Stathis, who worked closely with the elder Papandreou in the 1960s and was a member of Mr. Papandreou’s governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
Stathis recalls the days of excess in the 1980s, when minimum wages almost doubled and the government pushed itself into nearly every corner of Greek society. “He wanted to build a state with better salaries and services,” Stathis said. “But in the end the money just went into the bureaucracy and not to the people. In fact, we built up such a large state that we had to keep borrowing just to pay its expenses. This was a terrible mistake.”
Stathis left government in the mid-1990s and now works for a small financial company here. He has occasional contact with the current prime minister — most recently last year when he visited the family compound in Kastri outside of Athens to give a speech on the anniversary of Andreas’s death. He said he told George Papandreou that if he just explained in simple but blunt language that the state could no longer afford to employ so many, the people would understand. Yes, it would be hard, but what choice was there? “You cannot sacrifice the majority of the people outside government for the few inside government who are keeping their jobs,” Mr. Stathis said, his voice rising. “Politicians can be afraid. I know this. But if you tell people the truth, they will listen and they will see the results.”
So what would Andreas have done?
A difficult question, he said.
But Stathis said that by 1993, in Andreas Papandreou’s third term, state coffers were dry and Mr. Papandreou had begun to accept that the state could not live on borrowing alone. It is an acceptance, Mr. Stathis said, that the current prime minister has been too slow to grasp. “George is an honest and ethical person,” he said, picking his words carefully. “But he has lost time. Andreas would have seen this earlier and he would have moved quicker with bolder measures.”
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LANDON THOMAS Jr.