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Austerity Remains a Bitter Pill for Greeks to Swallow


Soup kitchen volunteers hand out food in central Athens, which has seen high unemployment and a steady decline in living standards for most Greeks, April 25, 2017.

The prospect of an economic doomsday for Greece may have diminished in the past week, but citizen Angelika Dinkel doesn't much care.

Following months of negotiations, the Greek government last week agreed to further austerity measures in order to access loans from its $94 billion bailout program..

But as she waits in central Athens for a church to open and a hoped-for handout of maybe $5 — or even $10 if she's lucky — the 60-year-old's mind is focused on day-to-day survival.

There may be talk of a light at the end of the tunnel for a country traumatized by seven years of economic turmoil, but on the streets of Athens they seem a world away from everyday reality.

“There's no reason to pay attention. Things are just getting worse," says Dinkel, who struggles to scrape together the $50 a month she needs to stay off the streets.

“No one thought it could be this bad.”

A volunteer delivers bread and other supplies to homeless persons at the ''Shelter of Love and Solidarity'' in central Athens, April 25, 2017.
A volunteer delivers bread and other supplies to homeless persons at the ''Shelter of Love and Solidarity'' in central Athens, April 25, 2017.


A disconnect

The race is now on for Greek officials rushing to create a bumper package of new legislation agreed to during the negotiations.

These include a cut in taxes, the opening up of energy markets and a further slashing of pensions.

Pending approval from the Greek parliament in the coming days, it is expected the agreement will be ready for the next meeting of eurozone finance ministers on May 22.

There, hopes are that $8 billion in rescue loans will be approved, allowing the country to make a crucial debt repayment in July.

The markets have been largely cheered by the news, while there have been other positive signs too — last month, the country posted its first overall budget surplus in more than two decades.

Yet little of this is being felt on the ground, where poverty and homelessness remain all too prevalent.

“I don't think [the latest agreement] will improve the daily lives of people,” claims Aliki Mouriki, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the National Center for Social Research in Athens. “People are seeing further cuts in things like their pensions, so why would they be happy? Some segments of the Greek population and businesses may be happy over [the reforms] as the economic climate has less uncertainty, but this is not reflecting on daily lives.”

Volunteers of the soup kitchen ''O Allos Anthropos'' (The other Man) deliver free food for all at Monastiraki square in central Athens, April 25, 2017.
Volunteers of the soup kitchen ''O Allos Anthropos'' (The other Man) deliver free food for all at Monastiraki square in central Athens, April 25, 2017.


Sense of betrayal

The Greek leftist ruling party Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras may have emerged with a deal, but the moves have already sparked new protests.

Meanwhile, many consider these latest steps just another act of weakness or betrayal by a party that swept into power on an anti-austerity ticket in 2015.

Though emergency funds from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) helped pull Greece back from the brink of collapse in 2010, this is the third such bailout, and many Greeks are of the opinion that the country's supposed medicine of reforms and austerity is actually proving to be its poison.

Chrysa Lazaridou, who runs a bakery not far from the city's towering ancient Acropolis, has been keeping an eye on recent developments.

Despite the inclusion of “counter measures” against the austerity — including rent subsidies for low income families — she feels the agreed package represents more of the same when it comes to Greece's current place in the world.

“I thought [Alexis] Tsipras would be different, but in practice he's not,” she said.

“All the decisions made here are made outside of Greece in the European Union, while politicians and businessmen will be the ones to profit.”

Vanishing savings

Meanwhile, other signs of progress remain tentative.

Amid the bailouts, reforms and austerity, the unemployment rate has declined from a peak of nearly 28 percent.

However, in recent months it has climbed once again to 23.5 percent — still the highest in Europe — while Friday the European Commission is set to revise its prediction of growth in Greece over 2017 from 2.7 percent to 2 percent.

Panagiotis Lappas, approached by VOA in central Athens, is a banking lawyer who often deals with families overcome by debt — something he sees with increasing regularity.

"Their savings have vanished after seven years," he explained.

He was circumspect about the latest agreement, stating it was neither “pleasant nor necessary, but maybe now we have no other choice.”

However, in Lappas' view, the time for austerity is over. More needed to be done, he thought, to stimulate growth and attract investment by lowering business rates.

He also called for debt relief, an issue still at the heart of the debate among creditors regarding Greece, and a pre-condition demanded by the IMF for its participation in this bailout.

Eyes abroad

Tsipras has talked up the deal as “balanced and sustainable,” but he may find the Greek public even harder to convince than his own party, or those holding the purse strings.

Syriza is badly lagging behind its competitors in the polls, though the true test will come in the country's elections in 2019.

Meanwhile, for one teenager not yet old enough to vote, the answer may not lie with Tsipras, or any of his political rivals.

Clutching his skateboard in Athens' Monastiraki neighborhood, 17-year-old Alberto Frangou feels little allegiance to the idea of the EU and is scornful of Greek politicians.

“I hate them, they've not helped us," he said, telling VOA that he feared entering a job market where youth unemployment was measured at 48 percent in January.

Instead, he is considering another option, one that potentially spells more trouble for Greece in the coming years.

Between 2008 and 2016, around 450,000 mostly young and educated people left the country in search of a better future.

“If things don't get any better, then I will just have to go elsewhere,” he told VOA.

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