Behind Athens' beauty, crisis weighs on minds and politics

Luke Baker, Reuters, 22.01.2014

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With the sun shining on a clear day, water flowing in the fountains and well-dressed locals queuing for warm koulouri bread in the square, it would be easy to conclude that Greece isn't doing all that badly, thank you very much.

But the numbers don't lie.

Over the past four years, as Greece has struggled to get its finances in order and quell the world's worst debt crisis, public sector salaries have been cut by a quarter, minimum wages slashed as deeply and some pensions reduced by 40 percent. According to World Bank figures, per capita income has fallen from a high of $23,430 in 2007 to just $18,580, back to levels last seen in 2001 - more than a lost decade. [...]

"You don't see people laughing that much anymore," says Janis Emmanouilidis, a political analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels, who grew in Greece and visits the country regularly both for work and to visit family. "It may seem superficial, but the truth is that people have lost their positivity. There's a psychological strain, an extremely negative psychological impact, that you don't see. "And at the same time, people struggle to pay their bills, to fill the car with petrol, to settle their taxes. While there may have been some fat to cut, there isn't any left for most people. There is no more buffer." [...]

Even if economically the worst may be over, Greeks still feel intense frustration and disillusionment. The expectation is that they will express that via the polls, with the first opportunity the European Parliament elections in May. PASOK, the once dominant socialist party has been all but wiped out, its support falling from 44 percent in 2009 to single digits. Syriza, a radical left group, and Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist movement, have seen their support surge. Samaras's centre-right New Democracy is trying to hold the middle ground.

"There's an extreme polarization of politics going on," said Emmanouilidis, describing how outwardly normal middle class people are talking about voting for Golden Dawn because they like the idea of a party that wants to settle scores. "The country is going through a radical transformation of its economy and its political system, and we don't know what the end state will be for politics, economics or society." [...]

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