Air of Optimism Pervades Athens Even as Country Heads for Showdown in Brussels
By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG and NEKTARIA STAMOULI published at Wall Street Journal
Feb. 8, 2015 4:10 p.m. ET
ATHENS—The Greek capital, weary after years of raucous protests and economic upheaval, has been seized by an unfamiliar emotion in recent days: optimism.
The defiant, antiausterity position taken by the just-elected government toward Greece’s creditors has given new hope to many Athenians, even those who didn’t vote for the leftist Syriza party, which came out on top in last month’s election.
Market strategist Stephen Wood offers insight on how the potential impact of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s plans to reverse a series of austerity measures on investors. Photo: Getty
“People in Greece had to deal with so many difficulties during the last five years that they now feel they have nothing to lose,” says Chrysa Stratou, a 52-year-old psychologist. “The only thing left for Greeks is to battle.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the Greek government’s firm rejection of the terms governing its bailout has been met with a mix of consternation and outright hostility.
At home, Syriza is more popular than ever, with polls showing approval for the ruling coalition’s policies shooting to about 70%, a record for any Greek government. In last month’s election, the upstart party won 36% of the vote, unseating the political establishment that ruled Greece for decades.
Greek Leader Tsipras Pledges to Press Ahead on Undoing Austerity Measures
Some Greeks worry that the growing public support for Syriza could lead the government to overplay its hand in negotiations.
Europe has lost its patience with Greece, they warn, and isn’t willing to grant Syriza the kind of concessions it is demanding. But amid falling wages, deflation and an unemployment rate over 25%, most Greeks are convinced that the country’s malaise can’t get any worse.
“The reality is that Greece has only fallen from the 50th floor to the 40th floor,” said a senior government adviser. “There is still a long way to go.”
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is betting that his popular mandate will help break the resistance Greece has faced in Berlin and other European capitals to relaxing the country’s austerity program.
Speaking in parliament late Sunday, Mr. Tsipras vowed to make good on pledges to rehire government workers and help the poor. “We see hope, dignity and pride returning to Greek citizens,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t disappoint them.
Members of the Greek government applaud Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, after he delivered his defiant speech during the policy statements of the government at the parliament in Athens on Sunday. ENLARGE
Members of the Greek government applaud Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, after he delivered his defiant speech during the policy statements of the government at the parliament in Athens on Sunday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Greece is expected to present a formal proposal to its eurozone partners at a finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Wednesday on how to keep the government afloat.
Last week, a tieless Mr. Tsipras and Finance Minister Yiannis Varoufakis shuttled across Europe searching for allies. They want permission to spend more and are also asking creditors to forgive some of Greece’s debt or alter the repayment terms to lower the cost and give the country more time.
The initial reception to their ideas has been frosty.
Time is running short. Greece’s bailout agreement with Europe expires at the end of February. The new government has refused to ask for an extension because doing so would force it to embrace a set of conditions under the current bailout that it rejects.
“The bailout failed,” Mr. Tsipras said Sunday.
Instead, he wants an interim-financing agreement to give Greece time to renegotiate its bailout program. Government officials warn they could run out of money within weeks if Europe doesn’t agree to a deal.
Germany is insisting that any deal come with ironclad commitments by Greece to continue overhauling its economy to make it more competitive.
In Athens, few appear worried the brinkmanship will backfire.
An air of confidence has descended on the city that locals say they haven’t seen in years.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in parliament in Athens on Sunday. ENLARGE
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in parliament in Athens on Sunday. PHOTO: REUTERS
Young office workers and students crowd bars and restaurants downtown and in the fashionable Kolonaki district, chatting and laughing late into the night over beers and wine.
“Since the new government has come to power I think everything is better in Greece,” says 37-year-old engineer Kostas Nikolaou.
Such euphoria isn’t only rooted in the government’s willingness to take on Europe. Syriza has promised Greeks that it is burying the old-style cronyism and corruption that many say precipitated the country’s fall.
To ordinary Greeks, the political class that ruled the country was distant and aloof. The new regime, true to its working-class image, has abandoned many of the perquisites and trappings of power in Greece, from chauffeur-driven luxury sedans to bodyguards.
Mr. Tsipras told parliament on Sunday that the government was selling its fleet of cars for ministers and one of the prime minister’s airplanes.
The armored BMW that was used by the former deputy prime minister, for example, will be put up for auction. His successor, Yannis Dragasakis, drives his own car—a subcompact Volkswagen .
“For the first time, we have a Greek government,” said the proprietor of a tea shop in downtown Athens, patting his heart. “The occupation is over.”
Within hours of taking power, Syriza ordered riot police, who stood at the ready by the busload, to decamp from the city’s center. Gone too are the barricades in front of the parliament building.
In recent days, only two policemen stood guard at the main entrance to parliament. Gone too are the security checks on the road leading to Maximos Mansion, the prime minister’s office. Instead, children and tourists linger to watch sentries in traditional Greek garb perform a high-stepping changing-of-the-guard ceremony.
Even personal security details for top politicians—some 2,000 bodyguards—will be reassigned.
“We must show that we aren’t afraid of the people,” said Giannis Panousis, deputy minister for citizen protection.
The new leadership’s everyman style has resonated across the political spectrum.
“Tsipras is new, fresh, young. He’s today,” says businessman Nikos Vasiliou, a longtime supporter of New Democracy, the center-right party that was ousted by Syriza. “We want them to succeed.”
Mr. Tsipras called Sunday on Greeks “to respond to the national effort, given the suffocating pressures” and settle their unpaid tax bills.
Write to Matthew Karnitschnig at email@example.com and Nektaria Stamouli at firstname.lastname@example.org