Greek society in free-fall

By Elena Becatoros

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1 2012 8:38 p.m. MDT

In this Oct. 4, 2012, file photo, riot police clash with protesters inside Greece's Defense Ministry in Athens.

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. "The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May," it read, "Please respect their work."

Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country where about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven't seen a paycheck in months. What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.

To the casual observer, all might appear well in Athens. Traffic still hums by, restaurants and bars are open, people sip iced coffees at sunny sidewalk cafes. But scratch the surface and you find a society in free-fall, ripped apart by the most vicious financial crisis the country has seen in half a century.

It has been three years since Greece's government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported. It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it spreading.

The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of (euro) 240 billion ($313 billion), slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.

The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.

Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis. Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to "clean up" what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.

"Our society is on a razor's edge," Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said recently, after striking shipyard workers broke into the grounds of the Defense Ministry. "If we can't contain ourselves, if we can't maintain our social cohesion, if we can't continue to act within the rules ... I fear we will end up being a jungle."

Living standards

Private businesses have closed down in the thousands. Unemployment stands at a record 25 percent, with more than half of Greece's young people out of work. Caught between plunging incomes and ever increasing taxes, families are finding it hard to make ends meet. Higher heating fuel prices have meant many apartment tenants have opted not to buy heating fuel this year. Instead, they'll make do with blankets, gas heaters and firewood to get through the winter. Lines at soup kitchens have grown longer.

Justice

On a recent morning in a crowded civil cases court in the northern city of Thessaloniki, frustration simmered. Plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers all waited for the inevitable — yet another postponement, yet another court date.

Greece's sclerotic justice system has been hit by a protracted strike that has left courts only functioning for an hour a day as judges and prosecutors protest salary cuts.

For Giorgos Vacharelis, it means his long quest for justice has grown longer. Vacharelis' younger brother was beaten to death in a fairground in 2003. The attacker was convicted of causing a fatal injury and jailed. The family felt the reasons behind the 24-year-old's death had never been fully explained, and filed a civil suit for damages. Nearly 10 years later, Vacharelis and his parents had hoped the case would finally be over.

But the court date they were given in late September got caught up the strike. Now they have a new date: Feb. 28, 2014.

Vigilantes

In September, gangs of men smashed immigrant street vendors' stalls at fairs and farmers' markets. Videos posted on the Internet showed the incident being carried out in the presence of lawmakers from the extreme right Golden Dawn party. Formerly a fringe group, Golden Dawn — which denies accusations it has carried out violent attacks against immigrants — made major inroads into mainstream politics. It won nearly 7 percent of the vote in June's election and 18 seats in the 300-member parliament. A recent opinion poll showed its support climbing to 12 percent.

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