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Greece: Can’t pay, is paying

Zoe Konstantopoulou, ex-speaker of the Greek parliament, speaks to Fanny Malinen about alternatives to austerity after the capitulation of Syriza

February 1, 2016
7 min read

‘There is mobilisation. People are looking at ways to defend themselves, to ally with social movements and political initiatives. I would say we are in a new era, where little by little but in a decisive way the social movements are being reconstructed,’ Zoe Konstantopoulou, former speaker of the Greek parliament, reflects.

She is one of the MPs who left the governing party Syriza when prime minister Alexis Tsipras accepted the third bailout programme last summer and called a snap election. She says this was held ‘with the support of and in communication with the creditors, in order to do away not with austerity but with those members of the parliamentary group who wanted to implement the initial commitments and programme of Syriza’.

The strategy was successful: almost half of the voting population abstained and Syriza won. Konstantopoulou says that at the time of the election, the Greek people had not yet realised the impact of the third bailout.

Just like previous agreements with creditors, it has brought harsh austerity. The latest nail in the coffin of the party’s past resistance was a law making it easier for banks to seize people’s homes. It was passed in late November, not long before I spoke to Konstantopoulou in Barcelona. Other measures have included cutting pensions, facilitating privatisations and raising VAT.

By then, the new austerity measures were starting to hit home, Konstantopoulou said, making people realise the government’s true colours. A general strike on 12 November brought tens of thousands onto the streets.

Konstantopoulou still believes in the political institutions. ‘It has always been my contention that if the parliamentary synthesis reflects the society a lot can come out of it,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, at this point there is no radical anti-austerity force in parliament, so our only field becomes the field of social movements and mobilisations. But I think we should reconquer the institutional field,’ she adds.

Debt audit: an unused weapon

As the speaker of the parliament, Konstantopoulou used her position to institutionalise important work started in the social movements. In particular, she initiated the Greek Debt Truth Commission. It examined the country’s contracts with its creditors, concluding that the debt was illegitimate, illegal and odious and should not be paid (its reports can be found at cadtm.org and greekdebttruthcommission.org).

Since 2011, there had been a grassroots campaign for a debt audit, which inspired her to establish the committee. Its report could have been a powerful weapon in the rejection of Greece’s debt. But even though it was published in June, in the heat of the negotiations, Tsipras chose not to use it. Instead, he gave in to the creditors’ demands.

For a long time Konstantopoulou had believed that Tsipras would resist the pressure from both creditors and those within the party who from the outset had advocated a ‘noble deal’ – but as we now know, that did not happen. ‘It was well after the capitulation that I got a full idea that this was not Tsipras bending under pressure, this was Tsipras trying to disguise a deal he had previously agreed upon under this pressure.’

What happened with the debt audit highlights the difference between Tsipras’s promises and actions. One of the initial commitments of Syriza, it was announced in March and started its work in early April. Konstantopoulou says that the audit committee was extremely well received and there was widespread interest in its work, which was broadcast by the official parliament TV channel.

‘The reaction within Syriza was inexplicable. There was a clear satisfaction among the members of Syriza, but a very ambiguous stance among the MPs.’

When the committee was created, the prime minister and president were present, as were nearly all the members of the government. When the preliminary report was published in mid-June, a petition signed by 55 members of Syriza’s parliamentary group called for it to be discussed in parliament. But even after agreeing to it, the government never set aside a date for the discussion to take place.

‘When it was clear parliament was about to dissolve, I provoked this discussion on 25 August. But most members of Syriza and all other parties abstained from the discussion, so there was never the appropriate number to have it,’ Konstantopoulou explains. Despite this, the committee continued its work, issuing another report on the third memorandum after the September election.

The new speaker has removed the debt audit reports from the parliament’s website, tellingly reflecting the new direction of Syriza. But Konstantopoulou is adamant that the work will continue outside parliament – the committee is currently figuring out the practicalities. Konstantopoulou is also involved in a Europe-wide initiative for a ‘Plan B for Europe’, whose first meeting in Paris took place in January (www.euro-planb.eu).

Future options

Konstantopoulou sees several options for the future of Greece. Usually, the debate focuses on leaving or staying in the Eurozone, but she emphasises that there is no universal view that this is the main question.

She believes the creditors’ blackmail has brought a ‘complete annihilation of democracy’. She says this was also the case in Cyprus in 2013 and will happen again if it is not brought to an end. ‘It is clear that the euro is being used as a blunt weapon against the European population, and this should not be the purpose of any currency.’

Konstantopoulou says you are obliged to come up with ways to protect the population and society when faced with such an attack. ‘The solution of a national currency is one. There are plenty of others as well: a parallel currency, IOUs, digital currency, etc. And of course the currency is not the only question – there is the question of supporting production, reforming the taxation system that right now is favouring the same oligarchs and corrupt interests, enhancing public expenses for education, healthcare, justice, social security – and on the other hand reducing extreme expenses in the field of armaments.’

As an example of how intertwined Greek finances and international financial institutions are with the interests of corrupt elites, Konstantopoulou talks about the ‘Lagarde list’.

This was the Greek part of the list of accounts in the Swiss HSBC branch connected with tax evasion. ‘It was given to the finance minister who introduced the memoranda, Mr Papakonstantinou, by the then French minister of finance, Christine Lagarde, current director of the IMF. This list was scandalously not registered through the finance ministry’s protocol. It was not and still has never been used,’ Konstantopoulou explains.

Papakonstantinou himself went on trial for removing his relatives from the list but received only a light suspended sentence. There has still been no action on the over 2,000 names, including politicians, oligarchs and those implicated in public sector deals.

‘There has never been a political will to collect taxes from those who really should be accountable to render them,’ Konstantopoulou says. She calls it ‘scandalous’ that the IMF knew about the list and discouraged its officials from looking into it, while simultaneously implementing harsh austerity measures and tax inequality. ‘There is a common lack of political will to have a really effective tax system, and a common political will to always attack the poor and the general population instead of those profiting from it,’ she says.

But Greece’s taxation system is currently controlled by the Troika – the IMF, European Commission and the EU. An equal tax system remains one of the alternative paths Greece could take if it reclaimed its sovereignty from the creditors. Refusing to pay the debt as illegitimate could have enabled this – but after the failure of a supposedly anti-austerity government to do this, it is once again up to the social movements to exert pressure for real change.

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