News / Europe

Rural Greeks, Forgotten Victims of Economic Meltdown

Henry Ridgwell

Images of the riots and strikes in Athens have been broadcast around the world as Europe fights to save Greece from bankruptcy. But Greeks in rural areas of the country say that the meltdown is hitting them even harder - and claim they are being ignored by the government.

West Macedonia in the mountainous north of Greece. Here the cold winds of economic hardship are blowing hard.

The town of Ptolemaida owes its existence to one industry - electricity. Power station chimneys loom on the hillsides. In between, the landscape is scarred with mines which supply the factories with lignite or ‘brown coal’.

The electricity company is state-owned. It faces falling revenues and government cutbacks. For the workers, that spells disaster.

In the nearby town of Kozani, Lefteris Ionnadis helps run a local activist group, the ‘Independent Kozani Movement.’

“Our economy has depended on the coal industry for years. Most people living here were employed in the mines, and other industries were neglected. Private businesses have been struggling for decades, and rural economies have taken a big hit," Ionnadis said.

The region has the highest official unemployment rate in Greece at 17%. As one of Europe’s poorest areas, it receives large subsidies from the EU.

The government plans to sell off state-run utilities to help pay off the country’s debts.

Local people say they are frightened of what the future holds for the region.

“It’s getting really bad here. There are no jobs around. Everything is just rotten really,” said Ilias Keptanis, a resident of Konani.

“I’m a student. I am absolutely sure I will not be employed once I’m done with my studies! I am also pretty sure I will never get a pension in my life. So at the moment we are just waiting for some gift from God,” said Rafaella Adositiou, a student in Kozani.

Kozani’s Mayor is Lazaros Maloutas. He says the austerity cuts are backfiring for the Greek economy.

“5.5 billion euros are being cut from the real economy, of what is a fairly small country. If we stick only to such austerity measures, the country will plunge deeper and deeper into recession. We need investment," Maloutas said.

Campaigner Lefteris Ionnadis - who monitors the environmental impact of the mines and power stations - says the government should push ahead with plans to convert the power stations into hubs for renewable energy.

“From an ethical point of view, the electricity company should fund this transition, as they were the ones who exploited our natural resources and mineral wealth for a long time. According to our calculations, such fair compensation could create, in the next 10 years, 3,000 jobs in the green industry alone,” Ioannidia said.

The economic meltdown has sparked months of violent protests and strikes in Athens - images and stories that are beamed around the world.

Beyond the capital - in the remote corners of Greece - many people say they are the ignored victims of the debt crisis.

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