In 2014 Greece will enter its seventh year of recession, with unemployment having reached a historical high of 27.5 percent and youth unemployment surpassing 65 percent.
While the Greek government has for months insisted that economic retraction and consequently prolonged austerity are coming to an end, the latest news from independent sources has played down any optimistic scenario for the years ahead. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) prediction of 0.4 percent contraction contrasts with the Greek government's forecast of 0.6 percent growth in 2014.
The OECD also pointed out that the recession in Greece had been “much deeper than expected,” and that debt would not fall below 160 percent of GDP before 2020, which was the level of debt in 2010 when Greece started implementing a harsh austerity program in exchange for rescue money.
More Austerity for Now
The last arranged bailout portion for Greece is due in mid 2014, and another political and economic arrangement will be necessary afterwards. Meanwhile criticism about the failure of the implemented structural adjustment program is rising in and outside the country.
Still the Troika (the body responsible for overseeing implementation of austerity in Greece made up of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and European Commission) expects the Greek government to push ahead with additional property taxes, home repossessions due to unpaid loans, and a painful reform of its civil sector.
This includes firing 15,000 employees by the end of 2014 and suspending about 12,500 civil sector jobs by the end of this year. Suspension means being out of work a year with 75 percent of your full salary, and then if no alternative employment positions are found, losing your work. Many believe that more jobs will eventually be lost.
It is the first time in a century that Greece has attempted to unravel its ineffective civil sector, and this has not happened without widespread reaction from workers. Technical schools providing career opportunities to children from low-income families will be abolished, and another 2,000 teacher jobs suspended. In all 2,200 school guards and 3,500 municipal police have also been suspended. Six small hospitals in the broader Athens area have been shut down. About 1,250 medical staff have been suspended or transferred to other facilities.
Welfare State Unravels
The Ministry of Education has planned for the suspension of administrative staff from the country’s universities, causing a long term strike at the country’s two biggest institutions since the end of September. Academics accuse the Ministry of horizontal and unjust measures that will immobilize the administrative function of universities and devalue degrees.
Hospitals drivers jobs, responsible for internal documents and moving patients, have been abolished. The biggest insurance fund, EOPYY, has also been abolished, putting 8,500 administrative staff and 1,200 doctors on temporary suspension. Most of them will return to work in a new structure that will not function as a health services provider anymore but only as a purchaser of services on the private market. Doctors will either have to move to public hospitals or enter the private market.
These health sector reforms are generally denounced by doctors who express worry about the capability of the system to keep supporting the population. About 27.7 percent of Greeks are estimated to have no access to any kind of medical insurance. The only place they can seek help is the public hospital, but come January 2014 a general ticket of €25 for hospitalization in these structures will restrict access further.
Independent groups of people have organized parallel structures to care for those who fall out of the protection net. Volunteer medical clinics or other solidarity centers have mushroomed around the country, acquiring increasing importance while the state withdraws from offering welfare services. The Metropolitan Medical Clinic of Elliniko and the Social Solidarity Clinic in Thessaloniki have been two of the most characteristic cases that grew from small neighborhood structures to organizations that treat hundred of patients every week.
Freedom of Press Under Pressure
The sudden closure of public broadcaster ERT last June was a shocking experience for the wider public. It was also the first obvious step in the direction of shrinking the public sector, with indiscriminate horizontal cuts. About 2,000 workers were fired; some of them have been re-employed by the new “Public Television” created to replace ERT, but not accepted as a lawful alternative even by the European Broadcasting Union. The closure of ERT has become a symbol of austerity’s negative impact on social and democratic rights throughout the country.
On a different and more positive note, reporter Kostas Vaxevanis, who was indicted for publishing a hidden list of possible tax evaders known as the “Lagarde List,” was acquitted after a series of trials. His case has attracted attention about the pressure on journalists who report corruption and politics in Greece, and has provoked serious criticism from abroad.
According to the 2013 Press Freedom Index, issued by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Greece dropped 14 places—down to 84—on a list of 179 countries, which the organization termed “a disturbingly dramatic fall.”
Cracking Down on Immigrants and Refugees
At the beginning of last summer Greece put in place a new asylum service and began serious efforts to create a system of first reception centers in order to improve the quality of control of population influxes and asylum seekers management. The effort to put in place a functional migration policy was combined with a long-term operation locking up large numbers of undocumented immigrants throughout the country for up to 18 months, as a deterrent for new arrivals and a push factor for those residing in the country informally.
Detentions not only in camps around the country, but also in inappropriate spaces at local police departments, have been characterized as inhuman. Conditions are often inappropriate, and the long-term period of detention is in contravention of European regulations. In the last few months human rights violations have included push backs of those in need of international protection, most notably Syrians.
Cracking Down on Right-Wing Extremists
The murder of 34-year-old Pavlos Fyssas on September 17 has forced the Greek government to step in and dismantle some of the structures of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn. Since then a lot of information has surfaced regarding the ties of extremists with the economic and clerical establishment as well as security structures most notably the police.
The leader of Golden Dawn and many prominent members of the organization have been indicted for forming a criminal organization, and their aim to organize a motion against constitutional structures is under investigation by authorities. Still the problem of the radicalization of a big bulk of the population seems far from resolved. Following a small drop in the polls after the crackdown on its leadership and evidence came to light of right wing extremist acts, Golden Dawn’s popularity is rising again in the polls.
A big part of support services provision to vulnerable population groups has directly or indirectly been left increasingly to civil society and community structures. In the past NGOs played a complementary role that concerned mostly the immigrant population but through the crisis and with the disappearance of state support structures, this is changing.
NGO clinics such as Praksis and Doctors of the World have provided health services to immigrants for many years but now the Greek population is increasingly turning to them for support as well. New organizations have entered domains previously unknown to Greek civil society. A good example is the grassroots group Boroume, which provided a successful platform for reducing food waste.
Still, most provisions of services by NGOs remain largely dependent on European Union or other funds available under programs with limited duration affecting the sustainability of the structures. As a result of the crisis many of these organizations have evolved a much more upfront and politically oriented discourse in their criticism towards government policy and political choices in their field of expertise.
In the field of human rights and rule of law, some advocacy organizations, like the Hellenic League for Human Rights have become strong advocates in explaining how austerity is today the main threat to social solidarity and respect for human rights.
Another Year of Crisis Ahead
The year ahead is going to be another year of crisis for Greek society, with many who worry that Greece’s social fabric has reached breaking point. The danger of implosion and radical backlash remains, particularly while the country assumes the European Presidency for the first six months of 2014. The current government has shown austerity implementation fatigue, and the combination of local and municipal elections with the European elections in May 2014 provides an opportunity for frustrated voters to take revenge at the ballot box.