Greece on the Skids

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, October 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

Greece on the Skids


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey

The prime minister must remake his country. Fat chance.

The cocktail reception for the prime minister of Greece was to be held in the Rotunda of the Pierre Hotel in New York City, where trompe l'oeil frescoes show New York socialites mingling with ancient deities. The setting, a prelude to a $1,000-a-plate dinner, would have been a fitting backdrop for the launch of George Papandreou's weeklong visit to the United States. The Minnesota-born politician, after all, is almost as American as he is Attic. His critics say he's imperious, trying to reinvent a whole people. And much of the financial world has decided his extraordinary efforts to save Greece from collapse (and Europe from financial chaos, and the world from another massive economic shock) are, like the frescoes at the Pierre, a thin facade meant to fool the eye.

In the event, Papandreou didn't even make it to the party. Just hours before he was to fly from London to New York, he suddenly canceled all his appointments at the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.S. Treasury, and headed back to Athens. At an emergency cabinet meeting his government agreed to cut tens of thousands more public-sector employees from its payroll, albeit gradually, and to tax incomes as low as 5,000 a year. In return, Greece probably will get a desperately needed 8 billion, paid from a massive rescue fund set up by the IMF, the EU, and the European Central Bank (now known as "the troika"). But the pressure continues for Papandreou to cut ever more deeply into the public sector (jobs, benefits, pensions)--and thus into the core support of his Socialist Party.

At cabinet meetings, the atmosphere of doom hangs so heavy in the air that ministers sometimes seem just to be going through the motions of debate. "There is a sense of inevitability," says one. The medicine has to be taken. But as another senior Greek official asked aloud, "Will the medicine kill the patient?"

It's at times like this that Papandreou's friends like to talk about how cool he can be under pressure, and about one particular incident from his childhood. In 1967, when Papandreou was 14, the Greek military seized power, and soldiers went to his house in Athens looking for his father, former Socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou. They couldn't find him, but they figured he was still around. So one put a gun to young George's head. "Andreas, come out, wherever you are hiding," said the officer, "or I will shoot your son." Harvard economist Richard Parker, a family friend since 1973, says that was "George's introduction to politics." (Andreas did show himself.)

"George had to make deep decisions as he was growing up about what kind of man he would be," says Parker. "For a long time he resisted going into politics." In fact, this son and grandson of prime ministers is something of a stranger in his homeland. For much of his childhood his father was teaching abroad or in exile. He lived in the United States, Canada, and Sweden. He went to Amherst College, Stockholm University, Harvard, and the London School of Economics (he occasionally still makes mistakes in Greek grammar). In many circles, despite his dynastic credentials, "he's seen as an American-Canadian-raised kid who doesn't basically understand the Greek character and is trying to do reforms the way you might do them in Denmark," says John Psaropoulos, former editor of the English-language Athens News. "His heart is in the right place, but he's kind of hapless." The term "consensus builder" is used against him these days, as are analogies with the ever-compromising American President Barack Obama.

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