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Greece: Where flouting authority is the norm

ATHENS — A pony-tailed Greek on a motorcycle pulled up onto the sidewalk, hunting for a better parking spot, and an elderly tourist with a crutch shuffled out of the way. The good-natured driver explained his illegal maneuver with a smile.

One word was enough. "Greece," he told her in English.

So it goes in Greece, a historical patchwork of Balkan, Mediterranean, and even Middle Eastern influences that failed to follow the European rule book. Scratch the veneer of slick highways and gleaming euro coins, and there's also a broad culture of cutting corners that helped push it into financial crisis.

With a May 19 deadline looming for Greek to repay its massive debt, European governments and the International Monetary Fund on Sunday agreed on euro110 billion in emergency loans on the condition Athens make painful budget cuts and tax increases.

The talk is technical. Contagion and credit downgrades, junk status and bond spreads. But go to the root, and you find this: Greeks, though fiercely patriotic, have a problem with being told what to do by the government. That could have profound consequences for the course of the crisis: Greeks often strike when told to tighten their belts.


"Greek people don't like authority. This is good and bad at the same time," said Georgios Koutsoukos, who works in the tax collection section of the Ministry of Finance and joined a protest against government steps to blunt the crisis.

The good part, Koutsoukos elaborated, is that it's OK to disobey when an injustice is in plain sight. The bad part, he said, is that things get out of hand when people ignore rules all the time. Who decides when it's good or bad? That's the hard part. As for how they got this way, Koutsoukos has no doubt: "It's a matter of history."

Short on cash, Greece has no shortage of history. Its ancestors are superstars of the ancient world. Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle and Sophocles are a few. But Greeks think to more recent times, the centuries under Ottoman rule that ended in independence in 1829, long after other European countries were refining democratic institutions.

It was a time, they say, when Greeks became allergic to state authority. Some historians agree to a trend.

"The capriciousness of Ottoman rule and the weakness of the idea of the rule of law helped to shape the underlying values of Greek society and to determine attitudes to the state and to authority that have persisted into the present," wrote Richard Clogg in "A Concise History of Greece."

In modern Greece, patronage and extended families have rivaled the state for authority at the local level, and personalities dominated charisma-driven politics in the last century. Greece is not alone, though. Mediterranean culture tends to be easygoing; Italians have a reputation for brazenly ignoring rules they consider too trivial to obey.

Greece's Harvard-educated prime minister, George Papandreou, whose father and grandfather held the same job, wants to undo the habits of the past, and present. Yet he has tailored rhetoric to his compatriots' taste for defiance, asking Parliament to support reforms that he said will deliver a "genuine revolution" in Greek history.

Despite a sneering attitude to central authority, Greeks love state jobs and the security they provide, hence the bloated public sector and labor unrest that have dragged down the economy. Greeks had seemed content with the status quo for years, unwilling to deal with their debt or strip away early retirement and other cushy benefits of a state grown soft.


At the micro level, Greek intransigence is petty and personal, a matter of running a red light without much fear of a slap on the wrist. But add it all up, and it's a threat to society. Tax evasion drains the state of well over $20 billion a year, and off-the-books transactions happen all the time. Having trouble getting a doctor's appointment? Parting with a few hundred extra euros, bank notes slipped discreetly across a desk at a clinic, traditionally ensures good treatment.

Unlike their philosophical ancestors, many Greeks don't wrestle much with their conscience. Salaries are low, they reason, so they have to make up the shortfall. And they find heroes in unlikely places.

Last year, bank robber Vassilis Paleokostas, hailed by some Greeks as a modern Robin Hood, and an Albanian cohort escaped from prison by helicopter for the second time since 2006. Facebook fan sites mushroomed, fueled by reports that he offered loot to the poor. Never mind that his accomplice, Alket Rizaj, was a convicted murderer.

The riots that broke out in December 2008 after a teenager was killed by police, engulfing urban neighborhoods in violence, have become an iconic symbol of Greek distaste, or even contempt, for state authority. The fact that nobody died in the street clashes, however, suggested a certain leniency and accommodation on the part of protesters and police alike.

The term "anarchy" comes from the Greek for "without authority," and the anarchist symbol — an "A'' in a circle, or "O'' for "order" — is a staple of graffiti at Athens protests, even if it seems an anachronism (another word from Greek).

More often than not, Greeks who have a problem with authority also have a problem with each other. Splinter groups abound. At one protest, a computer science teacher, Andreas Mougolias, said he doesn't side with activists who get violent because they are "demonstrating against the demonstration" as much as government policies.

Fallout from Greece's National Schism between the king and prime minister hurt the country in the early 20th century, and the Western-backed government fought a civil war with the communists in the late 1940s. Even Lord Byron, the British poet who assisted Greek forces in their 1820s fight against Ottoman rule, grew vexed at their bickering.

"I do not like to speak ill of them, though they do of one another," he wrote to an Italian lover, the Countess Guiccioli. He succumbed to fever and died in Greece.


Last week, in Syntagma (Constitution) Square, protesters converged on the Ministry of Finance to protest salary and pension cuts by the government. They vented briefly on police bunched in the entrance, shouting, pushing, lobbing debris and scattering when officers blasted them with pepper spray.

Content with their outdoor drama, the protesters went home.

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