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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Austerity-hit Spartans resent Athens - from the BBC

House guests this weekend, so rather than my own entry, I thought I'd share this article about Sparta today from the BBC.

BBC News, Sparta

The BBC's Paul Henley detects stirrings of dissent in Sparta as middle-class Greeks hit by the country's economic woes aim their ire at the Athens government.

Yiannis did not expect to be back in his sleepy home town of Sparta, in the Greek Peloponnese, at the age of 30. He sees his return as a personal defeat. Up until 18 months ago, the business graduate had a career in Athens for a finance company. But his job was a casualty of a national economic collapse that dwarfs most others in Europe and, ever since, he has been unable to find work. He ended up moving back in with his parents where he grew up. Having made constant unsuccessful applications for work, he says the growing feeling of uselessness is reducing him as a person.

"Now" he says, "I can't dream as I did before, I can't be optimistic about life or have any real ambitions. Perhaps my only chance is to move abroad."

War against Athens

Yiannis is one of a group who call themselves the "Indignant Spartans" and who went on a 250km protest march to Athens. The three-day march, in May, was a vent for their anger and a way of publicly underlining their belief that ordinary Greeks had been betrayed by their political elite and by the murky world of international finance.

About 10 of the group are sitting around a table, at dusk, at a friend's pavement cafe. They are, frugally, drinking water in the shadow of a statue of Sparta's ancient king, Leonidas, a symbol of the days when Sparta waged a bitter war against Athens. These days, much of that bitterness is returning.

The "Indignant Spartans'' stories are a microcosm of the troubles facing citizens everywhere in Greece, as another national austerity package kicks in, living costs and taxes rocket, consumers rein in spending, wages fall and jobs are lost.
And although the calm, olive and palm tree-lined streets these Spartans inhabit, amid the constant hum of cicadas, seem a world away from the tear gas and the pitched battles outside parliament in Athens, the spirit of provincial rebellion seems to be growing fast.

Vasilis, who is 33, puts it like this: "Sometimes during the past two months I have started to understand how easy it would be to turn, in an instant, from being a good, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen - into a terrorist."

He is not the idle, state-reliant Greek familiar from mocking articles in the foreign press recently.
Vasilis is an entrepreneur who built up a highly successful business chain from scratch during a working life which began, he says, at the age of 12 and has regularly involved 18-hour days. In the past year, he says he has lost €800,000 ($1,150,000; £700,000. Vasilis's restaurant and catering business faces bankruptcy. A single cafe became a collection of restaurants and a mobile catering business with regular wedding and business contracts. As customers began to trail off, Vasilis put his capital into a scheme to build a hotel on the coast. But the scheme was reliant on government-approved loans and grants which disappeared in the crisis. The hotel was never finished and he is looking bankruptcy in the face.

"I feel very angry inside," he says. "When you try to do the best for your country and your children and your neighbours, you still get treated like garbage by the authorities," he says. "It is psychological violence. Maybe the terrorists we see on the television - this is the process they have gone through."

His words are greeted with nods around the table.

Constantina says she has been independent since she was 17 and now, at the age of 43, finds herself borrowing money from her parents. She set up a graphic design business eight years ago. Labels for agricultural products and flyers for local shops are her mainstay. Constantina's graphic design business is starved of business All her clients are desperate to save money. She feels penalised by a tax system she predicts will be the final straw for her business within the next year.

"Maybe marching is the only way I can remain an active citizen of this country," she says.

George, who is 45, is a secondary school teacher and one of those supposed to feel thankful for the relative security of his job. "I do not feel at all lucky," he says. Civil servants' salaries were a number one target in the cuts and that will continue." He feels the faith he had in the future has gone. A house he was building for his family has been left a concrete shell. "The next few years will be the hardest of our lives," he says. "The Ministry of Education has already begun closing schools."

"The situation makes me want to revolt," says Panagiotis, a pastry chef in his 40s. The business he set up with his nephew is at risk from a dramatic loss of customers recently and a simultaneous hike in costs. The macaroons, mini ice-creams and chocolate eclairs he makes are among the first to be crossed off people's shopping lists in difficult times. The handful of people they employ have already taken pay and some could soon be made redundant. "I worry for my family," he says. "What will happen if I can not pay back the loans on the business? I want to go out into the streets and shout about it."

His words are a thinly-veiled warning to Athens: "I want people to understand that my personal revolution must become a national revolution."

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