Beautiful island landscapes, the Acropolis, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato – of course, it is Greece that is being referred to. More recently, however, global newspaper pages have been filled with news about a frantic electorate demonstrating outside and decisions being made inside Athen`s parliament building. For almost five years, Greece has been shaken by waves of recession, an impending economic crisis and discussions in the European Union about the country`s precarious future within the euro zone.
Georgios Xezonakis talked with Utblick about what it feels like to be Greek these days. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the Department of Political Science and the Quality of Government Institute at Gothenburg University. In 2008, the year the American investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Georgios earned his Ph.D. from the University of Essex. Back then, virtually no one anticipated the recession that was about to afflict the Greek economy. Now, with the magnitude of the economic crisis becoming apparent, Greece`s future – and Georgios` eventual return home – seem fraught with uncertainty.
Did the economic crisis have anything to do with your decision to leave your home country?
I have been away for almost ten years now. My home is Crete, where I try to go back twice a year to see my family and friends. Once for Christmas, and then also for the summer holidays, which makes sense when you come from a place like Crete. In 2008, when I finished my Ph.D. in the UK, I was thinking about returning home. Back then, nobody in Greece had any idea of what is coming, and neither had I. Also, my family was expecting that I would come back but then again, they were not surprised I didn`t. The issue was that the job opportunities in my work field in the university were not the best back home. It was not great then, and it is impossible now. But I wanted to research more intensively, and abroad I had this opportunity. I will be in Sweden for two more years for sure, and then we will see. Of course, I miss home every day: the people, the weather and the food and my family. But I try to get that whenever I can.
How do people react when you tell them you are from Greece? Any hugs?
The only thing I come across is either a general curiosity of what is going on back home, or sympathy. And empathy, well, I am not sure if people could know what it is like to be Greek right now, really. Then again, it is even difficult for me to be empathetic. I always say that my family and friends are in a difficult situation, but maybe I have no idea how they feel and how stressful this is for them.
For almost five years now, we have been reading about the economic crisis, the recession, the rising unemployment rate, the lay-offs and wage cuts, the protests, … What does it feel like to be Greek these days?
It is sad. Right now, utmost desperation is part of being Greek. We all thought that Greece had achieved a certain level of development. Looking back at Athens in 2004, the time of the Olympics, I really don’t think you could have found a much better capital anywhere else in terms of a positive feeling about things. Of course, the Greek state has always been a chaotic one. But now, eight years later, people`s feelings have deteriorated to an extreme, together with the state. This has become a situation nobody thought we would ever be in.
I have this philosophy in life that things can always get worse. And things can get worse than they are right now. Athens is pretty much… (can I say fuck in this interview?) … fucked right now. But due to inherent characteristics of how the Greek society is organized, at least in the rural areas outside of Athens, people still seem to manage. There is a high rate of home-ownership, and people help each other: if you are in need, and someone who grows potatoes is around, he is your friend and you will end up with 50 kg potatoes without knowing what to do with them. And of course, families tend to stick together and help each other a lot. It sounds like small things, but it is all part of a culture of solidarity. This is important in Greece, because there is no state to rely on.
Do you feel more Greek or more European?
I guess I feel more Greek, whatever that means. I suppose being European is my rationality, and being Greek is my sentiment.
But there are some things that are frustrating about Greece. We have this small-time mentality that we are something much bigger than we really are, something much bigger than we have ever worked to be. We have this idea that they cannot kick us out of Europe because they are afraid or because we invented Europe, whatever that means. Sometimes I wish we did not have the Parthenon, because then we would not have been able to say: well, at least we built the Parthenon once. Ever since, we have not done much, to be honest. We tend to have this romanticized image of Greece that comes along with the feeling that this should not have happened to us.
And whether we stay in the EU or not… Right now, there is too much uncertainty surrounding the decision of saying; okay, we have to let Greece go. And this kind of situation favors the status quo. Let`s leave things the way they are right now, because you just don’t know what will happen if you do X. Maybe a couple years ago, it would have been a better decision for us to say: ok, we go bankrupt and stay out of the EU. But there are not only economics involved here.
How did Greece get so entangled in this economic mess?
There is a sentiment in Europe that Greeks are responsible for what is happening to them. Yes, the crisis can be attributed to how we operate financially at an international level. But then again, we cannot really compete with others in Europe just because we have the same currency, can we? It makes you think; why didn`t this happen to others?
Of course, you have to face yourself, saying; okay, one of the main reasons for this mess is that we have not tried to reform institutions, and we always used the state as a way to engage in cliental relationships.
But, what I don’t see at all is this idea that Greeks are lazy. For the most part, the situation today is a failure of the state, not of the people.
The philosophy of my parents` generation would be something like: we grow up, get married, have children, and then, whatever we do from now on, is for the children. So they tried to build a house for the next generation, and provide them with education as much as they could, and that`s it. Everything they do is directed towards the children and their future.
Now, my generation is basically annihilated in terms of future prospects. But because of our parents, at least some of us will manage. But I see that if this goes on for too long, or if it gets even worse, my family and a lot of people close to me would have problems dealing with it.
But nobody I know back home actually lost his or her job. Of course, people have to manage with a lot less. When you lose 40% of your income, you feel it, big time. And what has changed also is the feeling of security. There are many people who feel like they will lose their job soon. There is still some sense of optimism, but whenever I go back there, the talk is dominated by what is going on in terms of economic depression.
What do you think when following the news of what is going on back home? What crosses your mind when looking at other countries` coverage of the situation in Greece?
By now, every day I am frustrated when reading news from back home and I go mental. We have identified the problems, but we seem to stray away from the solutions and focus mostly on power-games between different political parties and still old-politics style. There are things in the political system or the public administration that will drive you through the wall sometimes. The political party discourse in Greece or the way tax collection works just makes me go crazy.
When I do go back home to Greece, the first thing people want to know is: what do they say about us abroad? They are a bit self-conscious about it. I just tell them that by now, people are fed up with reading about us.
But what has been really frustrating and disappointing is to see exaggeration in the news that our current economic crisis is all a cultural flaw. It is not, it is an institutional flaw. So I don’t really pay much attention to cynical headlines abroad. Rather, I try to see things from different perspectives.
In Greece, you have to be present to cast your ballot during elections. What would have been your choice in this summer`s parliamentary elections?
It would have been a difficult choice to vote. I would have gone for left or center/left. There need to be new players if we are going to change this whole situation and the state as such. But the system has been very polarized, down to the question of whether you are for what we call the memorandum, this thing with the European Union and the IMF and so on, or against those measures, those cuts. I cannot say that I am in favor of cuts, but I also cannot say that I am against taking measures to reform. So I find myself in this limbo situation, as generally in life.
Although I cannot vote because I am abroad, I still feel empowered. People in academia can write articles to voice their opinions and so on. But still, a state should have managed to organize a way that citizens living abroad can vote.
On the other hand, to be absolutely honest, I also think that even though you should vote where you have a stake in the situation. And my only stake is what my family has at stake, but I don’t really have a personal stake. And that would probably mean that by voting, my decision would affect other people, but it will not affect me, whatever happens.
If you were to meet Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, how would you react?
Well, I would not want to shake him, but I would say that people surrounding him are inefficient and incompetent, and ask if he has any real ambition of changing what is going on.
But then again, if he were to ask me in return, ‘what should I do?’, I would have to think long and hard about it. If anything, I could say: don`t care about political costs, just be bold.
With a crisis, there is always some possibility of change as well. Does Greece have some chance of becoming a phoenix-like state, ascending out of the ashes of recession and reforming its system?
It does not seem so right now. Actually, I am not very hopeful. If you ask people in the QoG institute what it takes for countries to break out of this vicious circle of bad institutions, the answer is that it takes a strong shock. I am not sure yet if we have had that kind of shock. Even in this situation, what I see happening in the political system especially is not very promising. Whatever it is, I don’t think we are there yet. I don’t see the transformation.
And with Greece right now, it is kind of like, ‘well, let`s just sell everything now’. All the state-owned companies, everything in public ownership; let`s sell it, too. I don’t think that’s the solution. Being a big state, in terms of GDP and how much is being spent, has nothing to do with corruption or bad government. If anything, it is positive; the bigger the state, the better.
Besides that, I don’t see anything happening in the public administration right now that would give me confidence. Moreover, education will be worse, and health care will be worse as well. I don’t see any way out of this for a long time.
What needs to happen for you to decide that you will go back?
Well, anyone who is abroad has this idea that someday, I will go back home. I just don’t see how I can go back to Greece, unless I switch professions, which is not something I want to do right now. It is a kind of dead-end situation, but then again, it only seems so.
For me, it does not really feel like a dead-end because it is basically a matter of priorities. Do you want to continue doing what you do in terms of your job, or is it a priority to go back to Greece and deal with what comes with it, having to change jobs and possibly accept financial set-backs?
My priority right now is to do what I am doing, I enjoy working at the university, and I value living in Gothenburg. Here, it is possible to predict your day in some sense, like reliable bus connections to and from work. Things are very well organized in terms of your dealings with the state. I have a good job here, and for now, it is a nice place to be.
Text: Lena Kainz
Photo: Jenni S. Lindberg