Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Greek Crisis Has Some Dreaming Of Independence -- From Athens

The only funny thing about the sad situation in which Greece finds itself is reading essays about what the Greek people ‘must’ or ‘must not’ do from renowned economists and leading academics writing comfortably from their offices thousands of miles from the turmoil. They are not the ones lurching from crisis to crisis worrying about when the money runs out, when the pharmaceuticals run out, when their pensions run out, or even if the food runs out.

Even Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman urge the Greek people to rejectthe latest proposal from the creditors and risk leaving the Euro and returningto the drachma. Surely, he opines, this would be better than submitting to the even greater ‘austerity’ required by the creditors. Greece would be free of the creditors’ shackles and resume growth quickly. Nothing demonstrates the dangers of long-range analysis better than this.

In a perfect world Krugman might be right. If, and it is an enormous ‘if’ Greece had a smoothly functioning bureaucracy, a government determined to institute sweeping reforms, a political class not wedded to corruption and cronyism, and no deeply entrenched groups from  protected business interests to pampered public service employees with a strong interest in preserving the dysfunctional status quo such a recipe might work. But, alas, we are dealing with the reality of modern Greece and not some theoretical classroom exercise. And that sad reality is that without those sweeping reforms what remains of the Greek economy, regardless of the currency in use, will most certainly contract further.

Syriza could have been an agent of change. It could have instituted long-overdue reforms and, in the process, generated the revenue to improve the welfare of the people. Instead, it has proven to be nothing more than an extension, a particularly incompetent extension, of the failed political system that has decimated Greece over the last several decades. And the sad thing is if it had committed to these reforms it could have minimized the hated ‘austerity’. And the really sad thing is that the price of this intransigence is being borne by the very people Syriza said it wanted to help – the poorest sectors of the Greek population.

It chose instead to implement its school-boy theories, which by the way have not worked anywhere in the world, and substitute revolutionary rhetoric for real achievement. In the process their hypocrisy and deceit have succeeded only in alienating just about everyone who was in position to help. It would have been interesting to see, for example, if the creditors would have taken a softer tone if the government had moved aggressively on revenue producing reforms like privatization or breaking the stranglehold of protected businesses. But all we heard were thunderous pronouncements against such steps. One could almost hear the Euro Group, the IMF and the IMF pleading with Syriza to ‘give us something to work with.’ But the only thing that emerged were half-baked demands for debt reduction. Fine, but in return for what – precisely? I can imagine Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, asking the Greek government what it would do to help itself.

One can argue that the European institutions made a serious error a few years ago by bailing out the private banks that had recklessly loaned massive amounts to Greece. How often should tax payers be required to rescue private banks that should have known better? When do they these banks have to pay the price for their mistakes? Wouldn’t it have been much better to force those foolish banks to take the necessary hair-cut to reduce Greek debt to manageable levels? The problem was only compounded when public institutions assumed that debt. All this may be true. But, as The FinancialTimes Martin Wolf puts it, those are now ‘sunk costs’ and it is time to move on.

Meanwhile the drama is played out on the streets of Greece as most economic activity grinds to a halt pending the outcome of Sunday’s so-called referendum called by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The 72-word question is a ridiculous summation of complicated financial discussions that very few people can possibly understand. The legal grounds for the referendum are not even clear, because currently there is NO deal on the table. What, exactly are people voting on? Whatever the stated question may be, most people seem to understand that the real issue in this referendum is Greece’s position not only in the Eurozone but in the European Union itself.

A friend on the island of Andros had an interesting solution to his anger at the government and the uncertainty of the current situation – independence. “We should immediately declare independence from the oppressive, idiotic regime in Athens! We could build a real economy here based on out maritime history, but including other centers of excellence such as financial and health care.” All it needs now is a Declaration of Independence. We are, after all, close to July 4th.


Sunday, 21 June 2015

"They've Succeeded In The Impossible. They've Made Jersey City, New Jersey Look Better Than Greece!"

There is, unfortunately, very little optimism about the critical meeting on Monday, June 22 with Greece and its creditors. There is very little reason to think that the institutions controlling much of Greece’s enormous debt are going to bend on their demands for economic/social reforms in Greece before releasing more cash. And there is even less reason to hope that the rigid ideologues that now run Greece have the slightest intention of implementing reforms that might help Greece but would weaken their political position.

            If the talks fail there is a very good chance that Greeks would rush to pull whatever funds they have left out of the banks, thereby creating the situation that would call for capital controls. Another logical consequence is that Greece would fail to make scheduled payments to the International Monetary Fund and would start on the slippery road to default and possible exit from the Euro.

            A reasonable person might think this is a scenario to be avoided at all costs. It could plunge Greece into the economic unknown and severely intensify the poverty and hardship already suffered by many in the country. But that same reasonable person would be making the same mistake that Greece’s European counterparts have been making for the past five months, i.e. believing that the ruling Syriza party has any interest in compromise or making a mutually beneficial agreement.

            All one had to do is listen closely to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s comments at the opening of the new parliament or the comments of other Syriza MPs and ministers to understand the total commitment to a failed ideology. Various Syriza MPs have said over and over again that the government should never sign a deal and that returning to the drachma with the ensuing economic chaos would be a very good thing. The Minister of Education said a key policy of his ministry would be to eliminate the concept of excellence in education. Who knows? Perhaps in his mind such a thing as educational excellence smacks too much of the dreaded elitism. Maybe he really does think a generation of morons can compete with the Chinese and Indians who have no problem promoting excellence. In his opening speech Tsipras mentioned four times the Greek word roughly translated as equalization. Only now are people realizing that his version of social and economic equalization is to drag the top down, not bring the bottom up. In his brave new world everyone is the same – they’re all desperately poor with no hope for the future. Even today at the 11th hour Greece’s finance minister Yiannis Varoufakis is saying that he hopes the creditors will fulfil their responsibilities to save Greece and, by the strange extension of his unique logic, all of Europe. Needless to say he failed to say much about Greece’s own responsibility to come up with a realistic compromise.

            In the beginning many in the European Union thought Tsipras’s opening remarks last winter were just part of electioneering. Surely, they thought, he would become more rationale in time, and separate himself from the leftist ideologues in his own party. Wrong. A Greek journalist friend in Brussels made an interesting observation early in the negotiations. “Too many people here think there is a difference between the ‘good’ Tsipras and the ‘bad’ hard left element of the party. They’re wrong. There is no difference at all.

            Perhaps the most surprising element of all, however, is the inability of very smart people in Greece to mount any opposition to these destructive developments. Where is the broad-based communication program pointing out to ordinary Greeks just how much they will suffer under new drachma regime? Why leave the moral high ground to Syriza? Perhaps there is a fatalistic acceptance of what is considered inevitable.

            I remember a dinner party last fall in Athens when a group of lawyers and businessmen were discussing what would happen if Syriza won the election. Most were modestly hopeful that disaster could be avoided. One former bank executive had a very succinct response to the question. “Train wreck. Huge train wreck. That’s what will happen. Perhaps from the rubble we can build a good economy.” That certainly was a conversation stopper.

            Another businessman, one who pays all his taxes and obeys the country’s labyrinthine regulations was beside himself with anger. “These liars will ruin everything! They are going to turn us into the North Korea of the Aegean. They have no idea of the damage they are causing for generations. Any young person in Greece with an IQ of room temperature will leave.”

            But again, why are these sentiments restricted to private conversations? Where is the leadership of the opposition? It takes more than dry speeches in parliament to counter Syriza’s bombardment of mis-information.

            An exasperated Greek-American who recently moved back to Greece is re-thinking his decision. “These idiots in government are ruining what could be paradise! They have succeeded in something I thought was impossible. They have made Jersey City, New Jersey look better than Greece. That takes talent.”

            

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Will Sunday's Elections Challenge Tayyip Erdoğan's Dominance Of Turkish Politics?

With just three days remaining before the critical Turkish elections the noise is reaching deafening crescendo levels, the streets are blanketed in party posters, and party leaders continue their furious pace around the country trying to convince voters that they and only they can put the country on the right course. And, above all else, speculation on the outcome and post-election scenarios has replaced football as the favourite national pastime.

As we all discovered in the British elections last month polls can be misleading. They can miss underlying trends by asking the wrong question or taking at face value what people tell the pollsters. Polls in Turkey are even more useless. And the media merely takes the side of whoever owns that particular outlet. If the media owner owes his fortune to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) it’s a safe bet that his broadcast outlet or newspaper will claim that Turkey without President Tayyip Erdoğan will rapidly go down tubes. And if the owner is brave enough to oppose Erdoğan you can bet his TV station or newspaper will lay all of Turkey’s present and future problems at his doorstep.


Election posters cover all available space

Nonetheless, even with all these caveats, your fearless correspondent has asked a number of people from different walks of life about their predictions for these elections.

One expat who has been in Turkey for a number of years offered one of the more cynical opinions.

“The AKP will definitely get enough votes and deputies to change the constitution to give Erdoğan what he wants. Erdoğan and his henchmen will do whatever is necessary to keep the Kurdish party (HDP) just below the 10% threshold for entering parliament. This may be a cynical reaction, but I have learned never to underestimate Erdoğan’s ability to generate, one way or another, the outcome he wants. Too many people are confusing what they hope will happen with what will happen.”

The other extreme came from another friend who admittedly has no love for AKP, but has been observing Turkish politics for several decades.

“This time AKP will get only 35% - 38%. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will get 28% - 32%, the nationalist party (MHP) will get 14% - 17%, and HDP will get 12% - 15%. With this scenario AKP will definitely fail to get enough deputies to form a single party government. Even worse for them is that a group of 50 – 60 AKP deputies could split off and form an independent group inside the parliament.”

A Turkish cab driver in New York was more succinct. “The country has finally woken up. Those b…… won’t even get 40%. They’re just frauds and phonies.”

A London-based young Turkish professional also believes the AKP vote will fall to the low 40% level and that HDP will succeed in entering parliament. But he warns not to forget the Gülenists, referring to followers of the Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen who are accused by Erdoğan of running a parallel government within Turkish state institutions. “They hate Erdoğan and are running as independents in many districts. Some of them will enter parliament and cause problems for AKP. Watch the post-election manoeuvring. That will be fascinating.”

An Istanbul housewife who typically supports CHP says she will vote for the Kurdish party this time. “I have been trying to convince all my friends to vote for HDP. It’s critical that they cross the 10% threshold.  I think that AKP’s vote will fall to just above 40%, still the biggest party but not powerful enough to force a constitution change. CHP could get as much as 27%, MHP around 17% and HDP could get 11% - 12%.”


The all-important ballot box

Another long-term expat who accurately predicted the outcome of last summer’s presidential election agrees that AKP’s vote share will drop sharply this time.

“They will probably get somewhere around 43%, CHP 26%, MHP 17% and HDP between 10% - 11%. The actual HDP votes will have to be quite a bit higher than the final number because of potential election fraud. They could lose a lot of votes because some of Erdoğan’s more fervent followers will try anything to make sure HDP stays below 10%. AKP will be close to getting enough deputies to form a single-party government, but won’t have enough to change the constitution.”

One of the intriguing things about this election is the persistent rumours of sharp tensions within the AKP that could lead to post-election re-alignment of alliances. One rumour gaining some traction is that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is tired of Erdoğan’s constant interference and wants to assert his own power. According to this scenario he would not be at all unhappy if Erdoğan failed to the constitutional change allowing for a strong president. He could then put Erdoğan back into his box and carry running the government in a rational fashion with his own people. Davutoğlu has gone out his way, for example, to state that his plans for economic reform and growth are far different from Erdoğan’s.

Tayyip Erdoğan has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, and desperately wants to consolidate his position by changing the constitution to create a strong executive presidency enabling him to rule with no checks or balances. Even though he is not running for anything this time, this election is in large measure a referendum on him. But Turkish society has changed a great deal since 2002. It remains to be seen if Erdoğan’s old father-knows-best approach will work with an increasingly assertive group of voters. One can only hope that massive fraud does not derail the results and plunge the country into chaos.


Monday, 18 May 2015

Erdoğan Needs To Be Very Careful At This Point

A possible sign that Turkey’s notoriously inaccurate election polls may for once be on the right track is the increasingly shrill and often bizarre behaviour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the run-up to June’s general election.

Since storming to power in 2002 the AKP has swept every election with overwhelming majorities and maintained its strong grip on single-party government. Now, due a host of factors including a weak economy, fatigue with President Tayyip Erdoğan, corruption and disunity within AKP that tight grip is being challenged. One of the main threats is coming from the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) with its charismatic, pop-star-like leader Selahattin Demirtaş. If Demirtaş can lead his party over the absurd 10% barrier to enter parliament it can pose a serious threat to AKP’s ability to rule by itself without a coalition.

The panicked response of AKP to this threat indicates that the polls showing HDP close to the 10% goal might just be accurate. Elections in Turkey have always been raucous affairs with accusations of wholesale vote rigging, threats of violence, massive demonstrations, and lots and lots of loud noise. But this one is going even further.

AKP minions, led by Erdoğan who is supposed to be above such things as president, are busy labelling the Kurdish party as:

·                     Terrorists
·                     Atheists
·                     And my favourite, ‘Zoroastrians’. For those of you whose knowledge of Zoroastrians is as limited as mine I recommend a wonderful book about remnants of ancient Middle Eastern religions called Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell. He writes that the Zoroastrian faith dominated Persia until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. There are only a very few Zoroastrians remaining in modern Iran, but, even so, Erdoğan now counts them as an existential threat to Turkey in the form of a Kurdish political party.

Assaults on the HDP are growing beyond verbal absurdities. So far there have more than 50 attacks on HDP election offices across the country. Yesterday there were serious bomb attacks on two HDP offices in the cities of Adana and Mersin. Two senior AKP officials condemned the attacks, and no one has claimed responsibility. And no suspects have been found.
 
Scene after bomb at HDP office in Mersin
A sign of AKP desperation is the fact that Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister and official head of the party, has been almost completely side-lined. He is perceived as a weak campaigner, and Erdoğan has gladly leapt into the breach with his almost daily fire-and-brimstone speeches about the catastrophe that awaits Turkey if the AKP fails to win enough deputies to form a single-party government.

In another indication of AKP nervousness, some party stalwarts are demanding the few remaining opposition media outlets be shut down and their assets confiscated.

            Then there is the very strange incident of rumours about a possible Turkish military incursion into Syria, an incursion that could cause the elections to be postponed thereby staving off potential embarrassment for the AKP. These rumours were quickly followed by the surprise decision of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army to take a 15-day medical leave. It is well known that the army is firmly opposed to any such Syrian adventure, and the absence of the Chief of Staff makes any move into Syria very difficult. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this one, but it will be quite a while before anything resembling the truth emerges.

            Even more serious are the mounting concerns about voter fraud. With the judiciary and the theoretically independent election commission firmly under government control many people are concerned that the results will mysteriously turn out to be in AKP’s favour, regardless of the actual vote. A friend in London recalled that in the last election there were more votes cast in several districts than the total number of registered voters in those districts. There are also leaked reports of massive government efforts to ‘control’ the results. Opposition parties say they will send thousands of monitors to the polling sites, but it is not clear how effective they will be.
 
Iran faced widespread protests after the flawed 2009 election
            This is where Erdoğan has to be very careful. It is one thing if HDP legitimately fails to surpass the 10% barrier. It is quite another if the party suspects that electoral fraud kept them out of parliament. Erdoğan should remember the 2009 eruption of the Green Revolution in Iran following the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Similar accusations in Turkey would go viral in a matter of moments leaving the so-called Kurdish ‘peace process’ in tatters. 

Erdoğan may or may not like the results of this election, But one hopes he realizes that nothing would improve Turkey’s democratic standing in this troubled region more than letting the results, whatever they may be, unfold without interference.


Saturday, 9 May 2015

"If You're Going To Shoot Me, Shoot Me! Just Get On With It!"

ATHENS -- Fatigue, exhaustion and frustration seem to have descended on Greece like a cloud, dampening the natural exuberance and underlying optimism of many people. They are simply worn out by speculation on the outcome of endless negotiations that achieve nothing, the daily struggle with total uncertainty about their economic future, and the barrage of contradictory proclamations from an inexperienced government. “We are on the verge of an agreement with the creditors! There is no agreement! We might agree to privatise some state assets. We will NEVER sell or lease a single state asset!” And so it goes. Meanwhile hapless citizens are caught in the middle of a frightening maze.

“If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me! Just get on with it,” cried one anguished citizen. “I’m tired of this mess. We’ve been dealing with it since 2008 and there is no end in sight. I just want it over with, one way or the other.” One housewife said she hardly leaves the house these days. “I sit home on my sofa all day watching TV hoping to see some developments. Nothing.  All I’m doing  is wearing out sofa fabric.”

How many Greeks feel at the moment
More galling perhaps is the loss of self-esteem. “We used to be proud to be Greek. We were considered the home of democracy, the worthy heirs of the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and the great playwrights. Now Greece is considered just another unruly little country stuck onto the bottom of the Balkans. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re Greek these days,” says one Brussels-based Greek.

In the current, rapidly deteriorating economic situation cash is king. No one knows if the banks and all their ATM machines are suddenly going to close. Tourists are advised to bring lots of cash. Many businesses are forced to pay cash for raw materials because suppliers limit credit to only the largest of companies. The central government has stripped municipalities of their spare cash in a desperate attempt to meet pension payments and pay creditors.

The Syriza government swept into power in January with the promise that it would stand up for the ‘little man’, roll back the hated austerity program, and force the country’s creditors to renegotiate a much more favourable package of repayments. This simply hasn’t happened. A lethal combination of inexperience, arrogance and party disunity led the new government to badly overplay its already weak hand.

For four months the Greek people have been living on promises of a better tomorrow. But that tomorrow keeps receding further and further into the distance. Faced with an intractable Eurozone making demands that a fractured, internally chaotic Syriza simply cannot deliver the government faces some unpalatable choices that could rip the party into its constituent parts.

            Some more bizarre members of the ruling party want to dump the whole negotiating process. They openly call for leaving the Eurozone in favour of the old currency, the drachma. They ignore the horrific costs of such a move for the average citizen they claim to represent. Among other things, this move would certainly reduce food supplies in the country. Greece imports about 75% of everything it eats and drinks. How are the stores going to pay for these goods with a sharply devalued drachma? How is the present generation of Greeks going to react to shortages it has never seen?

One ruling party MP, Costas Lapavitsas, blithely, almost cheerfully, admits – from the safety of his academic sinecure in London – that going back to the drachma would, of course, entail a return to rationing of most of life’s basic items – a condition Greece escaped decades ago. I'm not sure how most Greeks would react to standing in line with their ration cards waiting for their daily bread. He also says that Greece should re-align its foreign relations away from Europe, and by implication the United States, and cosy up to such economic power-houses as Venezuela, Iran and China. Never mind that Iran is working hard to re-join the Western world and that Venezuela is flat broke despite its vast oil reserves. Tough to see Greece doing much of deal with China after repeatedly refusing to let a Chinese company buy the portion of the Port of Piraeus it doesn’t already own. Maybe he meant Greece to copy that other Asian powerhouse -- North Korea.

While most of the world has moved on from this Stalinist economic view, it does represent a strong faction within the government, and demonstrates clearly why any agreement with the Eurozone could split the party wide open. This partly explains the hesitant, confusing approach of the Greek government toward any deal with its creditors to keep Greece in the Euro. The Syriza government itself may not have a clear, unified approach. Who speaks for the government?  Ministers are constantly contradicting each other. The government is caught in a bind. Sign a deal, break up the party. Reject a deal, lose Greece. That’s a tough choice for a party filled with people trying to run a country on the basis of revolutionary rhetoric more suited to university agitation than actually running a real country.

Does Tsipras even want a deal with the creditors?
Unable, or unwilling, to make that choice the party may resort to a referendum to solve the dilemma. Let the people choose whether to stay in the Euro or return to the drachma. Fine in theory. Difficult in reality. How exactly will the question be worded? Will the banks have to be closed during the period of the referendum to stop massive withdrawals? Will capital controls have to be imposed? Will people clean out the supermarket shelves and start hoarding just in case the country goes back to the drachma? The only thing that is clear at this point is that the resilience and endurance of the Greek people are stretched to their limits.