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Political Crisis in Greece Amidst Revolt Against Massive Budget Cuts and Tax Hikes

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Greece was rocked Wednesday by massive street protests and a strike of millions of workers against the government’s austerity plans. In response, embattled Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he will reshuffle his cabinet to try to achieve consensus on how to address the country’s crippling debt crisis. The new austerity package for Greece includes $9.4 billion in tax hikes, doubling past measures agreed to with bailout lenders that have pushed unemployment to a record 16.2 percent and extended a deep recession into its third year. We speak with Hara Kouki, a doctoral student based in Athens who has been writing about the protests, and with Costas Panayotakis, associate professor of sociology at the New York City College of Technology at CUNY. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Greece was rocked yesterday by a nationwide strike of millions of workers and hours of rioting in street protests against the government’s austerity plans. In response, embattled Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced in an address to the nation he will reshuffle his cabinet today to try to alleviate the country’s crippling debt crisis.

PRIME MINISTER GEORGE PAPANDREOU: [translated] I will continue on the same road, the road of duty, together with the PASOK parliamentary group, its members and the Greek people. Tomorrow, I will form a new government, and immediately after, I will ask for a vote of confidence from parliament. It is time for responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: The new austerity package for Greece includes six-and-a-half billion euros in tax hikes — that’s 9.4 billion U.S. dollars — and doubles measures agreed to with bailout lenders that have pushed unemployment to a record 16.2 percent and extended a deep recession into its third year. Some protesters expressed skepticism at the Prime Minister’s initiative.

PROTESTER: [translated] A cabinet reshuffle? With what? The same ministers? I remember our grandfathers used to do that. It’s the same people every time. It’s different meals, but they’re cooked in the same pot.

AMY GOODMAN: For the past three weeks, protesters have camped out in Athens’ main square facing parliament, calling on the government to withdraw its plans.

For more, we go to Athens, where we’re joined on the phone by Hara Kouki. She is a doctoral student who has been writing on the protests for The Guardian and other publications. And here in New York, we’re joined by Costas Panayotakis, associate professor of sociology at New York City College of Technology. His book Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy will be published in September.

Hara, let’s go to you first in Athens. What is happening there now?

HARA KOUKI: Hi, good morning. Well, what I can say is what happened yesterday and describe a bit what’s happening at the square, you know, because it’s quite astonishing and surprising even for us, because, I mean, it has been quite a usual thing to have protests and demonstrations in Greece, but what’s happening the last three weeks is like daily, on a daily basis, thousands of people who gather in central square of Athens, and they come from all political parties, but at the same time from non-political parties, because it’s a very anti-politic thing. And there are people who gather there, and daily they have assemblies talking about everything.

And what is clear for all those people is that they have no clue of what’s going to go on and what they want to happen. But what they all say, what we all know there, is that this thing cannot go on. So, it’s really not against the government; it’s against what has been happening for the last 30 years and that has led the country into this situation. So that’s mainly what’s going on at the streets and at the Syntagma Square.

And it’s — I have to say that it’s — there are people from all ages and all political stands. I mean, you can see mothers, you can see doctors, you can see students. You can see people of 50, 30 or 70 years old going there and trying to hear what other people are saying, trying to get help in another way of ways that has been happening until now.

AMY GOODMAN: Costas, can you explain the significance of Papandreou not being able to form this national unity government, of him saying he will reshuffle his cabinet, and what this means outside of Greece?

COSTAS PANAYOTAKIS: Yeah. I think that Papandreou has lost the confidence of Greek citizens, and he’s losing the confidence of his own party, his — the members of the parliament, the trade unions that were allied with the socialist party. And it’s pretty clear that he didn’t feel confident that he could pass this austerity package through the parliament. So he turned to the conservative party to try to create a coalition government, and he was rebuffed, although the conservative party seemed to be willing to discuss it for a while. So it also — there is an element of political theater, because the conservative party sort of is posturing as being against these austerity packages to some extent, but it’s clear that both of these parties are sort of on board and that the result has been that the entire political system has been delegitimized. And this is something that is shown by polls.

And I think this is the result of a festering European crisis, because what we’ve had is that the dominant strategy within Europe has been to protect European banks on the backs of people in the European periphery, like Greece and Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and also the expense of taxpayers in northern European countries who finance these bailouts that do nothing to solve the problem and that only make life miserable for people in countries like Greece, because of all the conditionalities and the cutbacks and the austerity that they entail.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say he is a socialist, Papandreou? Where did that philosophy and politics come out in the solutions that he has been trying to push through?

COSTAS PANAYOTAKIS: Well, I think this is part of the problem. I mean, he ran — in 2009, he ran on an anti-austerity campaign, making the obvious point that every economist knows since Keynes, that when you have a deep economic crisis, austerity is the wrong way to go, because it will make the crisis even worse. And this is why he has had problems with his party, because many in his party feel that what he’s doing is so far away from the principles of the party that he’s having — he’s having problems. So, I mean — and of course, the irony is he’s the president of the Socialist International, as well. He’s not just — so, his argument would be that, you know, he doesn’t have any choice, that basically, otherwise, the country is, you know, going to go bankrupt. But his critics would suggest that he didn’t really bargain with the interests of ordinary Greeks in mind, and he’s just going along with what the European Union and the IMF want him to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And the influence of the massive Spanish protests, throughout Spain and primarily in Madrid, on Greece and the protests there?

COSTAS PANAYOTAKIS: Yeah. They — the Greek protesters call themselves aganaktismenoi, which means indignant. And it’s sort of — it follows up on the movement of indignados in Spain. There were even apocryphal stories that there were banners in Spain that said, you know, “Be quiet. The Greeks are sleeping.” So, many Greeks took that, sort of those, as a sort of challenge, and they sort of figured that they would rise to the challenge, following the same social media — Facebook and so on and so forth. So, I think there are sort of similarities there.

In Greece, I don’t think it’s — as Hara was saying, it’s not just young people. And it was probably not in Spain, either. But, I mean, it’s amazing that the movement in Greece, how you have people who are from all walks of life and all backgrounds. And it’s not the usual suspects that were more likely to be found in the protests last year, where you had mainly unions and left-wing parties and so on. So I think the program has really been hurting people in a very sort of severe way, and it is becoming clear to everybody that this program is not working. The predictions of the government, the predictions of the IMF have not been materializing, so people are saying enough is enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Hara, the level of the protest and the police response to that protest?

HARA KOUKI: Yeah. Well, I wanted to say that I agree with how Costas views the frustration, but my — I mean, my point of view is different, because I’ve been living here, so it’s more like emotional or firsthand experience. So, what I can say is that, as I said before, I think that the protests and demonstrations have not been — I mean, they were not just people, the usual people, that have been participating until now, but they are people that have never been in the streets before. So those people, during the last three weeks, have been massively into the streets. So we had like, for the last three weeks, like million — half a million of people gathered in the square.

And we would not expect police brutality because of that. But not — what happened yesterday is that there was extreme police brutality. There was much tear gas thrown at the people. There were people, you know, crushed into each other, crying, that could not see. So, I don’t really — I mean, what my — in my personal view — personal view, I’m not representing anyone — what happened is that we understood that, you know, the political leaders or representatives are quiet in the case, at a loss, because they cannot really control what is happening, because obviously, I mean, by brutality or violence, you cannot control these things. And what happens is that you create more hostile feelings, you know, on behalf of the people, that you cannot control the situation, you just treat them violently as that.

So, what I wanted to say, another thing I wanted to add is that yesterday at the demonstration, there were, I just said, a half-million people in the streets in Athens. When rumors were spread that the Prime Minister was discussing reform of the government or a new coalition of government, what people said — and I mean, what all people said — is that we don’t really care about that. I mean, everybody knows that even if the government changes or if there is a new head of government, this is not going to change the way things are on and the way things are going to be done in the next few months. So, even if that happens, you know, the problem at issue is not going to be solved. We all know that what is happening on the streets at this moment is not going to be solved with a new coalition government. So that’s something that is totally — you know, it’s totally commonsense for everybody here. It’s not — maybe it’s not really shown in the media, but that’s something I can say that’s obvious for all of us, that something most radical must happen in order to change the things — the way things go.

AMY GOODMAN: Costas, from our headlines a year ago, the New York Times reporting Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the European financial crisis by enabling governments to hide their mounting debts. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped Greece obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. Goldman Sachs is said to be the most important of more than a dozen banks used by the Greek government to manage its national debt using derivatives. Can you comment?

COSTAS PANAYOTAKIS: Yeah. I think what we have — I was talking about how it is a European crisis, but it is really a global crisis. And what the current crisis has shown is basically the incompetence, but also the cravenness of the political and economic elites that are running the world, and that, basically, this is the problem we are faced with. And basically, ordinary citizens in Greece, in Europe, in the United States are now being called upon to pay for the sins of — you know, of banks and politicians who failed to regulate them. And in this sense, there are a lot of parallels in the kind of rhetoric that is used in Greece to justify austerity and the rhetoric that is used in the United States or the state of New York, and so on and so forth, the same kind of patterns of attacking, for example, public state — public sector workers and saying they’re privileged and they are the cause of the problems. So, there is like a sort of global class war going on, and a lot of themes are similar. And so, I think there is a pattern there.

AMY GOODMAN: Hara, what do you see happening right now? I mean, could the government collapse today?

HARA KOUKI: Well, what is happening now is that you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I mean, you have this thing, that you wake up in the morning and you don’t know — I mean, maybe the government has collapsed, or maybe there is a new state of things going on. You know, it’s totally unpredictable what’s going to happen.

What you know now and you didn’t know like two months before is that now what you do in the — I mean, you are not closed in your own space, private space, anymore. So you have gone on the street, and you have met other people speaking. So what we know now is that what we do and what we say can have an impact on a political level, because, as Costas said, you have been used to be agate of what’s happening and that you bear responsibility as a private citizen and a, I don’t know, an individual. But now, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but the thing is that the people at this level, at the political level, cannot ignore the way people feel and how they’re facing our problems. So, I’m not going to say that I’m optimistic, because maybe the government saying this and that does not equate with an optimism feeling, but I’m optimistic on this perspective, that, you know, people’s voices are heard, and not only in Greece, but also in Spain or in Portugal or in the United States. So, that’s what I think that’s happening at this moment. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, if you ask me that.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is, Costas, the conservative party of Greece, and what will this mean?

COSTAS PANAYOTAKIS: Well, the leader is called Antonis Samaras, and he’s playing a sort of — a kind of strange game where he supports many of the specific neoliberal free market policies and privatization, and so on and so forth, that the government is trying to push through, but on the other hand, he sort of realizes that these policies are very unpopular, they are not working well, so he tries to present himself as being also critical of it. And one of the things he — one of the conditions he said for a coalition government yesterday was that a coalition government would be temporary, and he would try to renegotiate the terms of the austerity package. But I basically agree with Hara that, you know, a coalition government would not solve the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Costas Panayotakis, professor at CUNY, City University of New York, his book Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy will be published in September. And Hara Kouki, thank you so much for being with us in Athens, Greece, has been writing about the protests for The Guardian and other publications.

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