legacy not wholly in the modern West. Roughly three-quarters of Greek businesses are family-owned and rely on family labor, making meritocratic promotion difficult for those outside the family. Tax cheating is rampant. The economy suffers from a profound lack of competitiveness, even as Greece is mainly a service economy, relying on tourism, in which manufacturing constitutes a weak sector. Of course, these features have much to do with bad policies enacted over the years and decades, but they are also products of history and culture, which are, in turn, products of geography. Indeed, Greece lacks enough productive land to be an agricultural power. Then there is political underdevelopment. Long into the 20th century, Greek political parties had a paternalistic, coffeehouse quality, centered on big personalities -chieftains in all but namewith little formal organizational support. George Papandreou, the grandfather of the recent prime minister of the same name, actually headed a party called the “George Papandreou Party.” Political parties have been family businesses to a greater extent in Greece than in other Western democracies. The party in power not only dominated the highest echelons of the bureaucracy, as is normal and proper in a democracy, but the middle -and lower- echelons, too. State institutions from top to bottom were often overly politicized. Moreover, rather than having a moderate left-wing party and a modern conservative one, as is common throughout Western Europe, in Greece through the early 1990s there was a hard-left party, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which during the Cold War openly sympathized with radical Arab regimes like Hafez al Assad’s Syria and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, and a somewhat reactionary right-wing party, New Democracy. The drift of both those leading parties toward the center is a relatively recent affair. And so the creation of late of a hardleft party, SYRIZA, and a hard-right neo-Nazi movement, Golden Dawn (vaguely reminiscent of the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974), both harbor distant echoes of
Greece’s mid-20th century past. Ironically, while Greece’s extreme economic crisis created these radical groupings in the first place, if these new parties fare badly in the upcoming poll it might indicate a firm rejection of extremism by Greek voters and a permanent turn toward the center -toward political modernity, that is. There is a tendency in all of this to throw one’s hands up at the specter of the Greeks and declare them too much trouble than they’re worth, at least for Europe. But such an attitude reeks of hypocrisy, even as it denies Western self-interest. When Greece joined the European Union in 1981, its economy was manifestly not ready; Brussels had made a rank political decision, not an economic one -just as it would in admitting Greece to the eurozone in 2002. In both cases, the ground-level, domestic reality of the Greek economy was swept aside in favor of an abstract quasi-historical vision of Europe stretching from Iberia to the eastern Mediterranean. Of course, Greece, during the 1980s -when I lived there for seven yearsmight have used the influx of cash from the European Union in order to discipline and reform its economy. Instead, then PASOK Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou used the money to swell the ranks of the bureaucracy. Thus, did Greece remain underdeveloped, and the dream-gamble of Brussels failed. The saddest irony is that the sins of the hardleft Andreas Papandreou were visited upon his well-meaning, center-left son, George, who had his short tenure as
prime minister from 2009 to 2011 poisoned by his father’s economic legacy. But Western self-interest now demands that even if Greece leaves the eurozone -and that is a big “if”- it nevertheless remains anchored in the European Union and NATO. For whether Greece drops the euro or not, it faces years of severe economic hardship. That means, given its geographic location, Greece’s political orientation should never be taken for granted. For example, the Chinese have invested heavily in developing part of the port of Piraeus, adjacent to Athens, even as Russia’s economic and intelligence ties to the Greek area of Cyprus are extremely close. It has been speculated in the media that with Greece short of cash and Russia enjoying a surplus, were the Russians ejected from ports in Syria in the wake of a regime change there, Moscow would find a way to eventually make use of Greek naval facilities. Remember that Greece and Cyprus both have modern European histories mainly because they were claimed by Western powers for strategic reasons. In other words, from the point of geography and geopolitics, Greece will be in play for years to come.
*Robert David Kaplan is an American journalist. His writings have been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers and publications.
European Business Review (EBR) magazine, Issue 2 of 2012