ATHENS – After two years of mostly staying silent as Greece has imposed waves of pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, and 150,000 layoffs in return for $152 billion in bailout loans to keep from going bankrupt, the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, has written to interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos that the austerity measures are “a larger dose of a medicine that is proving deadly.”
Greeks have seen their property and income taxes double, other taxes skyrocketing while their pay has been cut an average of 30 percent as the country’s leaders, now headed by a coalition government, are desperately trying to save Greece from failing, which most analysts say is probably impossible given its staggering $460 billion debt.
The austerity measures have created a recession now in its fifth year, with 19.2 percent unemployment, the closing of more than 100,000 businesses with another 50,000 expected to shut this year, the fastest rate of increase in suicides and homelessness in Europe, and scenes of despair in Athens and other cities with thousands of people sleeping in the streets. The nation’s electric company even shut off the power to people in frozen villages in northern Greece for some time because they hadn’t been able to pay a doubling in property taxes. The power was restored after an outcry, but the government said people who won’t – or can’t pay – will have their electricity turned off.
Greece is surviving on rescue loans from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank which ordered the austerity measures to insure investors and banks would be paid back. Greece is suffering the pains of generations of packing public payrolls with political hires in return for votes, which has technically bankrupted the country, although the privileged rich and elite have gone largely untouched and are profiting.
In his letter, Ieronymos suggested that Greece should not agree to more austerity in return for a second bailout of $169 billion – which analysts now say could be at least $20 billion short of enough to save the country. The Archbishop pointed to the growing numbers of suicides and homelessness, with formerly middle-class citizens and those who had jobs now finding themselves on the streets, and said desperation was growing.
“Greeks’ unprecedented patience is running out, fear is giving way to rage and the danger of a social explosion cannot be ignored any more, neither by those who give orders nor by those who execute their deadly recipes,” he wrote. Greeks have protested, gone on strike and rioted for nearly two years, to no avail, as the government keeps administering punishing austerity measures on the orders of the Troika.
Ieronymos said he was encouraged by the way that people had pulled together and the extent of the help that Greeks are offering to those who are worse off, but he said he was anxious that the situation would worsen if more austerity was piled on, as the Troika has demanded. The lenders now want Greece to eliminate the minimum wage of $988 a month and eliminate the two months annual bonus private sector workers get, although the head of the Troika’s task force in Athens said he doubts whether Greeks can survive any more pay cuts or tax hikes. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who wants to be the candidate for Prime Minister for the PASOK Socialist party that was chased out of office more than two months ago, has been the prime engineer of tax hikes, including making people earning as little as $6,700 a year pay taxes while 4,152 people on a list of those who owe more than 150,000 euros each to the government have not yet paid.
As Germany has suggested the EU appoint a budget czar to oversee Greece’s finances – which Greeks fear would be a German – the Archbishop said the country should not give up its sovereignty, even in return for rescue loans that have nearly destroyed the country instead of saving it.
“It seems clear now that our homeland’s drama will not finish here but may take on new, uncontrollable, dimensions,” he wrote. “There are, at the moment, demands for even tougher, more painful and even more unfair measures along the same ineffective and unsuccessful lines as in our recent past. There are demands for even bigger doses of a medicine which is proving deadly. There are demands for commitments that do not solve the problem but only put off temporarily the foretold death of our economy. Meanwhile, they put our national sovereignty up for collateral. They mortgage our wealth but also the wealth we could obtain from our land and seas. They mortgage freedom, democracy and national dignity.” The newspaper Kathimerini said it was almost unprecedented for an Archbishop to intervene so forcefully in political and economic issues, especially Ieronymos, who has a reputation for not speaking out, especially on non-religious issues.