Markos Kounalakis

Greece today feels like old Soviet Union

Those urging a “no” vote in the upcoming euro referendum rally at Syntagma Square in Athens on Monday.
Those urging a “no” vote in the upcoming euro referendum rally at Syntagma Square in Athens on Monday. The Associated Press

This familiar country has suddenly turned unfamiliar. I spent time here in the mid-1970s during college and played semi-pro basketball in Athens. My parents come from Crete and I speak the language.

But I’m feeling lost after an 11th hour political move by radical leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to call a snap referendum, shut the banks and campaign for rejecting a multinational lending program calling for more painful economic austerity.

“What are we voting for? I don’t really know,” said housekeeper Maria Moriati, voicing a common sentiment.

The opposition parties say the referendum scheduled for Sunday is simple: Should Greece keep the euro as its currency or not? The answer could ultimately decide whether Greece remains in the European Union.

The country is wracked by uncertainty and fear, but not panic. It has endured the humiliation of economic depression and cycled through governments as a result of financial crises. The bank closures are the final indignity and have raised the level of uncertainty to new levels.

This anxiety has transferred to me, too, in spite of the warmth and beauty of this country and its people. Suddenly, instincts – not necessarily rational – that lay dormant inside me have risen to the surface. It has to do with seeing long lines at gas stations, going to ATMs that no longer dispense cash or finding out that my credit card is no longer accepted.

While summer soothes the nerves and softens the blow, this week leading up to the referendum is exceptional and the anxiety index is off the charts for those living in fear of this weekend’s vote outcome.

“If I vote ‘yes,’ I will put myself in a position where I can no longer pay my tax bills and maybe have to close up shop,” said Vespa dealership owner George Stanathiotis.

Those who are against the radical left SYRIZA party and its political tactics – including European politicians who refer to the current Greek leadership as “clowns” – are piling on the indignities.

The last time I felt this anxious about getting goods was 1991, when I lived in the old Soviet Union. The daily reality made credit cards worthless since they could not be used except in certain “hard currency” shops and high-end establishments with international clientele. Cash was king, and Western currency – dollars or Deutsche Marks – were gold.

This was also true during my time living in Czechoslovakia or visiting East Germany. The reality is that chronically bankrupt economic and political systems eventually lead to a system of barter and black markets. Can Europe really be heading down this path?

Across Greece, ATMs are empty. People walk up to the machines and leave shaking their heads in disbelief. Credit cards are not widely accepted outside international hotels, shopkeepers preferring transactions that circumvent banks and don’t require receipts. Getting gas means waiting in lines of people who are also carrying large plastic jerry cans for extra fuel.

Perhaps it is the economic conditions this week that take me back to living behind the Iron Curtain. There, my rule of thumb was if you see a line, get in it. I would join grandmothers and others who earned their keep by being professional queue standers, waiting for whatever it was at the other end. Irrational, perhaps, but I have lived in countries where shortages of goods were a given and where Marxism was a ruling ideology, if not a guiding principle.

I prefer California.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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