Outside a shop adjacent to the Bank of Greece headquarters on Stadiou Avenue in central Athens a middle-aged man lies asleep on the pavement beneath a stale, grey blanket, oblivious to the January cold and the commuters exiting Syntagma station nearby.
In the derelict shop doorway another body lies motionless against heavy steel shutters strewn with graffiti that claims their neighbour “ruined Greece” and insisting “the time for change has arrived”.
The contrast between the ornate grandeur of the bank with its high golden doors and frosted windows vividly captures the harrowing social and economic decline Greece has suffered in recent times. Such stark images of deprivation are everywhere. Derelict buildings abound. Unemployed men inhabit every street corner, beggars proliferate and the few shops left are outnumbered by temporary stalls outside.
It is easy to forget the Olympics was held here in 2004. But one in four people have lost their jobs since then. The official unemployment rate is 27 per cent; for young Greeks it is 65 per cent. The national minimum wage was cut to ¤400 a month, state pensions were also cut in half, salaries are down 40 per cent and taxes are up. Greece has debts of ¤319 billion which amounts to 177 per cent of its annual GDP. Everyone knows it cannot pay them back.
People burn wood because they can’t afford oil or electricity. Volunteers provide care to people the Greek NHS turns away. At one facility, patients no longer eligible for state medical care receive medicines, psychiatric support and dental treatment. Hundreds attend the clinic every week.
“I look forward to the day when centres such as ours are no longer necessary,” says Eleni, the receptionist. A new Syriza supporter, she shows me round the modest facility proudly before adding: “But I know that will not be any time soon.”
The economic situation outside Athens is no better. The poignantly named city of Drama is traditionally a place where the conservative New Democracy does well. Not any more.
Yiorgos Savridis complains: “We have no money for heating or for bread. Fifteen years ago, 17,000 people worked here in the factories. Now only 800 are left. Nine out of ten businesses here have folded.”
The latest polls put Syriza [The Coalition of the Radical Left] 5.5 per cent ahead of New Democracy. This would mean Alexis Tsipras would be the next prime minister. He intends to stop Greece’s repayments to the European Central Bank, insisting the debts are unpayable and cites the 1953 precedent where German debts were cancelled by the post-war Allies. He wants a similar deal for Greece. The ECB argue Greece must pay back all its debts in full and continue its austerity programme. The stage seems set for a profound confrontation.
Colin Fox is leader of the Scottish Socialist Party and ex-Lothians MSP