Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Enough Is Enough

Greece is one of the few countries that has been tried, convicted and sentenced to flaying alive in the court of global public opinion. The once proud Hellenic Republic has become the flashing neon sign for corruption, tax evasion, dysfunctional bureaucratic and judicial systems, and a broken political system that misled its partners and failed to deliver basic economic security to its own citizens. Foreign politicians and pundits have been merciless in their steady drumbeat of criticism, schadenfreude, and bad jokes about Greece.

Unfortunately, other than groveling and saying mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, please dear sir give me more money, Greek leaders have done very little to counter this damning indictment.

Can I get the next loan disbursement, please?
Greek officials at home and abroad act like small woodland animals paralyzed in the glare of the headlights of a huge, rapidly moving truck labeled Troika – European Central Bank, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund.

This litany of unfavorable, condescending media coverage would be merely sad and somewhat humiliating if it didn’t affect real economic decisions from tourism to investments. The charms that make Greece a wonderful tourist destination still exist.

The Reality  .  .   .
The sun, the sea, the unmatchable islands, the mountains, the cultural heritage are still here. But given the sharp drop in tourism this year you would think Greece has suddenly become Elizabeth, New Jersey.

And the current perception of a holiday in Greece
I have spoken with several potential major investors who are very polite until I mention the word ‘Greece’. Any suggestion that Greece does, in fact, have some very interesting investment opportunities is met with words not found in a family newspaper.

The negative impact of this very public global trial seems to be lost on Greek leaders. They don’t seem to understand the broad, global dimension of the damage. Their response so far has been narrowly focused on private meetings with European leaders and bankers. I met with the press officer of a major Greek embassy in Europe and said he must be very busy meeting with the local media to share information about Greece. Absolutely not. If anyone from the media called he ran for cover. I asked how he communicated the daily messages and information he must get from Athens. What messages? What information? There were no messages, no guidelines, nothing from Athens to counter the avalanche of bad press. “Oh,” he said, “They did send me a nice poster of Mykonos once.”

The tragic irony of this non-policy is that Greece actually has a story to tell. Obviously there many critical bureaucratic and administrative reforms that remain to be done, but it is time to start giving credit for what has been accomplished. On the foreign trade side, for one, the trade deficit has declined from €33.7 bn in 2009 to €20.8 bn in 2011 as imports dropped 10% while exports jumped 56%. Interestingly, exports to Turkey have almost tripled since 2009, and that country is now Greece’s third largest export market, just behind Italy and Germany. A recent report from Goldman Sachs noted the real drop in Greek labor costs and government expenses. The Goldman report also says that much of this improvement is structural rather than merely a reflection of the deep recession in Greece.

What to do about this? The last thing Greece needs now is a program to fix the image of the country. No amount of polishing will make the antics of the ridiculous political class over the last several decades look reasonable. It’s enough to communicate effectively the reality of Greece, to acknowledge the costly mistakes of the past and to focus now on the real steps taken to repair the damage of those policies.

Greece is rich in talent at home and abroad if it wants to come out of the bunker and start communicating effectively. First, the various public and private groups in Greece need to clarify the message. Exactly what do you want to say? Selecting and training the right people to give this message would also help. While every government minister’s wife may think he looks and sounds like George Clooney, the reality more often is that he comes across on television like Mr.Bean.

No Comment

Be careful who you put in front of the public or on the box. One bad presentation can undo months of work. Mobilize the diaspora. Make better use of the dedicated and talented diplomatic corps. Take advantage of the global presence of Greek business people.

It’s time to end the open season on Greece and change the dialogue. Instead of hammering away at sins of the past and what Greece should do, start to focus on what Greece has accomplished and what it actually can do. Ultimately Greece will make the reforms required to change the economic and administrative structure of the country. They probably will never satisfy those who want to turn Greece into Bavaria-by-the-sea, but that’s not going to happen regardless. Greeks will remain Greeks and will resist being shoved into someone else’s mold.

Changing deeply ingrained perceptions takes time and money, but the cost of doing nothing is much, much greater.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Will Istanbul Get The 2020 Olympic Games?

Istanbul is one of three cities short-listed to host the 2020 Olympic Games. This is the fifth time that Istanbul has bid for the Games, and Prime MinisterTayyip Erdogan is getting a bit desperate. Unfortunately the prime minister did not help his plea for the Games when he complained that Madrid has hosted the games twice and Tokyo has hosted three Games. “This is not a fair approach,” he was quoted as saying. In fact Madrid has never hosted the Games, and Tokyo has hosted the summer Olympics just once, in 1964. Of course he could be confusing Madrid with Barcelona that hosted  the 1992 Games – something that will not go down well in the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia.

In the same story in the Hurriyet Daily News the prime minister also introduced a new issue, religion, into the selection process. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics. . . People will ask ‘Why? What is missing in these countries?’” he said. True enough, but it’s not altogether clear why that is a relevant point. Also, Qatar proved that nothing is missing in Moslem countries when it bid successfully for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar played on its role as bridge between the Arab world and the West, but religion per se was not a featured part of its presentation.

The prime minister’s ‘chip-on-the- shoulder’ or ‘you-owe-us’ approach might play well in Turkey but it is less clear how it will influence members of the International Olympic Committee. This is deeply unfortunate because in many ways Istanbul would be a superb setting for the Games. Turkish construction companies are among the best in the world, and I have absolutely no doubt that high quality facilities would be built in plenty of time. Even Istanbul’s chaotic traffic would be tamed by draconian measures that people would accept because the Games would be sold as an issue of national pride – a critical point with manyTurkish citizens who harbour deep suspicions that their country is underappreciated. Istanbul offers some of the finest hotels in Europe, and the views are unsurpassed. There would be crash courses in several foreign languages to help the thousands of volunteers speak enough to guide visitors to the right venues. No, the physical aspects of the Games would pose no problems at all. But there are other potential drawbacks.

One of these is political. What will Turkey do about the Republic of Cyprus, for example? Currently the island of Cyprus is divided between the European Union member and internationally recognized – except  by Turkey – Republic of Cyprus in the south and the isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Turkey -- in the north. No Republic of Cyprus plane or ship is allowed into Turkey. Will Turkey change this policy by 2020? Will Turkey insist that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, if it continues to exist by that time and not just become the 82nd province of Turkey,  be allowed to send a team?
Divided Island Of Cyprus
 Another key issue is the very infrastructure of Turkish sport. Winning medals is not an overt criterion for selection, but it doesn’t hurt. A story in the Turkish daily Radikal bemoans that thus far in these Games Turkey has not even “entered the Bronze Age.” Turkey sent a team of 114 members with much fanfare, but so far this large delegation has not managed to win a single medal of any colour. This might change with the traditional Turkish sport of wrestling, but more than one week into the London Olympics the rewards for all the show and expense are slim. 
Dejected Turkish Weightlifter
As Radikal points out this is by no means the fault of the athletes themselves who are dedicated and train as hard as anyone. The newspaper faults the officials who put great pressure on the athletes to “win a medal, and win it now!” I wonder if these same officials realize that it takes much more than overbearing officials and willing athletes to win medals. Do they have any idea of the depth of support required to win medals? Financial support, development programs, coaching, fitness training, psychologists, diet, equipment are all key factors in developing successful international sport programs.

Turkey has tried the short cut of getting medal contenders from the athletic equivalent of eBay, but that doesn’t really demonstrate a country’s commitment to sport. It worked with the great weight lifter Naim Suleymanoglu who was a native of Bulgaria who was persuaded to move to Turkey where he won numerous Olympic medals. But it hasn’t been very successful in most other cases.

And then there are the opening ceremonies. Turkey has the vast opportunities to draw on millennia of culture in Anatolia as well as the deep well of artistic talent in the country. 
Opening Ceremonies In London
But one has to wonder if officials would take a lesson from the opening ceremonies in London that demonstrated the difference between patriotism and jingoism, the difference between genuine pride and insecure arrogance, and, most of all, the value of whimsy, of not taking oneself too seriously.

The Queen, James Bond, And The Corgis
Turkey’s hard working athletes deserve a chance in the international spotlight. It would be useful if the officials took real steps to make that happen rather than rely on whinging rhetoric.

Update (11/8/2012): The Turkish team improved in the second week of Olympic competition with a bronze in wrestling, a silver in Tae Kwan Do, a silver in women's boxing, and a very impressive gold and silver in the women's 1500 meter race. Well done, but the question remains as to whether the country's sport infrastructure is developed enough to build on this. Scandal-marred Turkish football does not set a promising example of administrative competence.


Note: Readers of this blog might also be interested in following my posts in the online beyondbrics section of The Financial Times at http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/#axzz22ghkHDsC. My posts can be found by entering my name in the search panel.