Greece's crisis-hit poor: 'No one was bailed out here'

The ruling Syriza party has defended its approach to Greece's economic crisis amid criticism from workers and the poor.

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    Stavros Manikas has seen his wages cut by more than half in recent years [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
    Stavros Manikas has seen his wages cut by more than half in recent years [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
    Correction 19/06/2018: This article has been corrected to reflect the bailout referendum took place in July 2015, not June, as previously stated.

    Drapetsona, Greece - Stavros Manikas, who has lived in one of the poorest suburbs of Piraeus for more than 35 years, scoffs when asked if Greece's decade-long crisis is almost over.

    A rawboned 53-year-old, the bus driver and union activist's shoulder-length grey hair shows streaks of blonde and black. Manikas sits cross-legged on his billowy couch and carefully rolls a cigarette on his lap.

    "The crisis hit the area so hard that no one throws out food any more," he tells Al Jazeera. "That's why you don't even see people digging in dumpsters here."

    Asked how the crisis impacted his own life, Manikas looks up and says sternly: "Everything changed."

    Although Drapetsona has long been a poor and institutionally-deprived area, the crisis hit the cash-strapped residents harder than middle-class and comparably well-off neighbourhoods in Athens and Piraeus.

    Speaking alongside left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in April, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that Greece would "be a normal country" by the end of the summer.

    In Drapetsona's narrow, coiling alleyways and cluttered streets, few people see cause for hope as the European Union and the Greek government promise the country is only months away from exiting its prolonged economic crisis.

    Deserted factories and shuttered small businesses are testament to the jobs that left the area. The windows and doors of many homes are boarded up.

    Meanwhile, homelessness, drug use and prostitution have grown increasingly visible, Manikas says. 

    With a son at university and another completing his mandatory military service, Manikas and his wife have struggled to make ends meet. Since 2010, he has seen his salary cut by nearly 55 percent.

    From his balcony overlooking Piraeus port, he can see boats carrying international tourists and well-off Greeks to faddish islands like Crete and Mykonos.

    Manikas and his wife can't afford a night out, and they can only muster enough money to use their car for two weeks out of each month.

    Many small businesses in Drapetsona have shuttered during Greece's economic crisis [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    "We can't go out to a cinema or a taverna because it will have an impact on our everyday life," he explains. "When my son has leave from military service, we can't afford to pay for him to travel back to visit us."

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    With utility bills and mortgage payments piling up, Manikas had to strike deals with the bank, as well as with the water and electricity companies to stay in their home.

    "We all like to read, and we used to buy books often," he says, exhaling a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, "but we haven't bought a new book since 2014."

    The crisis

    Since the global financial crisis reached Greece in 2009, Greeks have suffered from diminishing wages, soaring unemployment and increasingly harsh austerity measures.

    The parliament passed the first austerity package in February 2010, allowing for a freeze of government employees' salaries, slashing bonuses and restricting overtime work.

    A slew of austerity measures and bailout packages followed.

    In January 2015, the left-wing Syriza party made history when it won the parliamentary elections and formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a right-wing party.

    Syriza campaigned on promises to abandon the bailout programmes and negotiate a new deal with Greece's creditors.

    In July 2015, Greeks took to the ballot boxes to cast their votes on the country's bailout conditions. Upwards of 61 percent voted against the conditions.

    Although Syriza's rise to power and the referendum stoked fears that Greece could exit the eurozone, it wasn't long before the party quietly acquiesced to the terms imposed on the country.

    Not long after the July 2015 referendum, the Syriza-led government accepted a bailout package with larger cuts to pensions and more extensive tax hikes than the ones voters had rejected.

    For the past three years, Syriza has overseen a series of new austerity measures, including additional tax increases, capital controls, home auctions, growing insurance contributions and expanding privatisation.

    Syriza's inability to keep its promises has been the source of widespread frustration for working-class and poor Greeks. Strikes and protests have become part and parcel of life in the Mediterranean country.

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    "The capitulation of Syriza was a sort of defeat of mass movements," Panagiotis Sotiris, an academic and member of the left-wing Popular Unity party, tells Al Jazeera.

    "It means that an alternative can only come from political currents that oppose this programme and are in favour of breaking from the eurozone." 

    'No one was bailed out here'

    With the current bailout programme slated to end on August 20, Greece's government has expressed its hopes to regain unrestricted access to markets and implement its own economic policies.

    On Thursday, eurozone finance ministers discussed the terms of Greece's bailout exit.

    Nikos Xydakis, a Syriza parliamentarian, says many challenges lie ahead of Greece, opining that the crisis will truly end when "the country goes back to where it was in 2008". 

    With the national unemployment rate hovering around 20 percent and youth unemployment topping 43 percent, residents of places like Drapetsona fear there is no end in sight for their economic crisis.

    The crisis hit the area so hard that no one throws out food any more. That's why you don't even see people digging in dumpsters here.

    Stavros Manikas, Drapetsona resident

    While still high, those numbers mark a significant decrease from the 26 percent unemployment and 51 percent youth joblessness Syriza inherited when it first came to office, Xydakis tells Al Jazeera. 

    "However, the ... ending of the memoranda will be an important moment, a starting point of revival, of gaining back part of national sovereignty," he adds. 

    "It signals the end of some really hard, often irrational belt-tightening measures and the end of a constant uncertainty in Greek society."

    Yet, reassurances that Greece is nearing the end of several years of intense supervision by the International Monetary Fund and the eurozone have done little to assuage the concerns of some of the country's poorest citizens.

    Back in his apartment in Drapetsona, Stavros Manikas reiterates his claim that one government after another sacrificed working-class Greeks like himself throughout the crisis.

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    "People are living in abandoned homes, some are camped out under bridges. Many of the small shops in the area were shut down," he concludes.

    "I can't see any end to the crisis here… No one was bailed out here. The situation will stay like this, or it might get worse."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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