Athens’s identity crisis

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Athens’s identity crisis

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All eyes are on Athens this week—but the Greeks don't seem to know what they want. New Democracy tent, Syntagma © Tomas Hirst

The cab from the airport to the centre of Athens feels almost like travelling through an alien world. Though the landscape is at times breathtaking, it was hard to shake a sense of unease as roadside billboards passed by the window.

Not that billboards are themselves unusual. What marked these out was that each and every one was either ragged and empty, or else carrying posters so old that the sun had bleached them illegible. If they’re selling anything, it’s the vivid reality of decline. Whether a direct symptom of Greece’s problems or not, they serve as an eerie reminder of the country’s economic plight.

It is an impression that the capital city is struggling to shrug off. As the Greek people went back to the ballot box on Sunday the choice they faced appeared to be stark—keep taking the pain of austerity policies or abandon them and face expulsion from the euro.

At least that was how a number of high-profile figures sought to characterise the situation. Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said that an exit from the euro would be a “great catastrophe” for the country while Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup, warned that the consequences of voting for the far left were “unforeseeable.”

Such interventions have not been welcomed by everyone—many I spoke to here said they felt like an attempt to influence the vote. They were seen as attempts to convince those already suffering most from Greece’s dire economic situation that voting against the bailout conditions would make their situation worse.

No doubt many who voted for the anti-austerity parties will claim that what looks to have been a concerted campaign against the left-wing Syriza party helped their centre-right rivals New Democracy to victory yesterday. But not everyone sees it this way.

The manager of a coffee shop beside Athens’ Syntagma Square said fatigue might have played as big a role as fear in this election re-run.

“People were not happy about these elections. We’re not scared, it just wasn’t easy to know who to vote for. Perhaps it’s people outside Athens who are scared,” she said.

A split vote to reflect both the fear and the anger of the population might seem apt, but the most telling aspect of the election was the silence that followed. What was being discussed by the rest of the world as a final reckoning for Europe failed to draw more than a couple of dozen people to the square in front of Greece’s parliament building as the results rolled in.

Greece’s problems may have broader significance for Europe and indeed further afield, but we neglect local context at our peril.

Unemployment in Greece rose to 22.6% in the first three months of this year, while youth unemployment increased to a shocking 52.7%. Few would view more than half of 15-24 year olds out of work as a sustainable situation.

It seems that right now those empty billboards could serve as a metaphor for Greece itself—a country struggling to find an identity both integral to and distinct from its partners in the eurozone. Irrespective of who is governing, this is an identity crisis in dire need of resolution.

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