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When pessimism turns to protest

The devastating shooting of a young student, and the string of violent episodes that followed it, has brought Greece to its knees and laid bare a deeper feeling of discontent and anger that has been simmering among Greeks for quite a while.

Much of the international focus on the crisis has been limited to the familiar territory of recession. Yet attempting to trace the root of the unrest in the economic slowdown is a rather simplistic approach that cannot entirely explain or justify the level of the events. Similarly, the drawing of parallels with other cases, such as the riots in Paris in 2005, are no better at helping us understand the causes, since the conditions surrounding each situation are different.

It is easy to assume that the street battles, the biggest the country has experienced in decades, are able to stir Greece's political situation. To what degree though? And are they capable of producing substantial change?  

The first signs that have emerged do not look very encouraging. The majority of the political forces across the entire ideological spectrum seem to be trapped within their short-sighted self-delusional agendas, embarking on just another vote-collecting mission while lacking the will or the capacity to bring forward truly brave changes. The flag of reform has been waved repeatedly and rather light-heartedly in Greek politics in the last decades, especially in connection with the educational and health systems, but the constant failures in applying it have caused great frustration. The scarcity of alternative policies, in combination with an inefficient and disappointing media, distances even further the prospect of a real response to the accumulated discontent of the population.

The street violence and the plundering that have tormented Greek cities should not be identified as the platform that conveys this mounting disenchantment; at least, maybe not right now. Similar incidents, although of smaller scale, are not uncommon in modern Greek history. Furthermore, they can be seen as part of a wider behavioural approach in which the population tends to react and not to act, largely because this is what it has been guided to do.

It is important however not to forget that frustration and lack of faith prevail among Greeks, especially among the Greek youth, most of whom are highly educated. Such feelings can easily be identified with several aspects of every day life. The majority of those entering the productive age, with two or three degrees and foreign language certificates already under their belt, come across the sad realisation that they have to face a corrupt and complex jumble of failed policies that affects their lives in fundamental ways; abuse of official authority - expressed either by scandal-ridden politicians, citizen-hostile police or disrespectful civil servants, accompanied by a lack of jobs, low salaries, untrustworthy justice and poor educational and health systems.

And then there is the most discouraging realisation of all: that this system is being depicted as an invincible social de facto that preaches in all directions that the road to success can only be reached by passing through it. When viewed in this light, it is no surprise that Greeks are Europe's most pessimistic people, according to a study by Eurostat.

Speaking on the BBC's ‘World, Have Your Say' programme, Professor Kevin Featherstone, director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics, said the recent events have raised the question of whether Greece is capable of delivering reform. He identified as a possible source of the problem the country's lack of direction; Greece speaks with two voices and its people have "contradictory divergent demands."

Such contradictions tend to be a common phenomenon in Greece, as they seem to be deeply embedded in the population's actions, only adding to the complexity and confusion of the situation.

The debate over the shape of the Greek democracy is dominating the country's political life, with Greeks frequently and multilaterally engaging their democratic rights, as the country's record of demonstrations also suggests. Yet, that plethora of voices and opinions is rarely transformed into a concrete political act, as three political families have been voted almost consecutively to run the country in the last three decades. They look likely to carry on doing so as new members of these political dynasties are now seen as the favourites to take centre stage. The country is clearly experiencing a political crisis as the two-party system, with its almost steady rotation after the passing of two terms, does not seem to offer realistic alternatives.

Opposite the collective demands for a cleaner state with less corruption, stands the common place practise of nepotism and the use of favours, which prevails at all levels of society, from the pettiest social interaction to the most important public affairs. As mentioned before, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that those seeking an alternative way usually end up hitting an impassable wall. It is apparent that the eradication of such entrenched practices can only be brought about by a competent political leadership that will set new guidelines in order to restore trust and respond to the calls for meritocracy.

It has yet to be seen how the accumulated discontent of the Greek population will choose to deliver its message and if it will manage to trigger substantial and profound structural changes. The only certainty so far seems to be the need for new heroes and leaders. Once they are found, one can only hope that inner determination will collectively emerge too.

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