x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A morbid song in Syntagma Square

Euro Zone: Rory Jones has reached the last stop on his journey through the countries at the centre of the euro-zone crisis. He meets with some very unhappy people in the Greek capital.

Rory Jones has reached the last stop on his journey through the countries at the centre of the euro-zone crisis. He meets with some very unhappy people in the Greek capital. Above, Hector Cosmas, left, a self-employed violinist, joins a protest against the Greek government in Athens this week.
Rory Jones has reached the last stop on his journey through the countries at the centre of the euro-zone crisis. He meets with some very unhappy people in the Greek capital. Above, Hector Cosmas, left, a self-employed violinist, joins a protest against the Greek government in Athens this week.

ATHENS // The mood is sombre at Syntagma Square, the home of the Greek parliament, and the place where a group of professional musicians are performing an ode to the 30,000 public-sector workers who will lose their jobs in the coming weeks.

"It's one thing to die for Greece and another to have Greece make you die. That is what she is singing," translates Thanasi Kourkoulas as he explains why he is protesting against the government.

"We want to say we are against austerity measures and that we normal Greeks are not responsible for the debt in this crisis," he says.

Mr Kourkoulas, who is 41, is one of thousands protesting that day and night, including artists, dancers, students, government workers and the taxi drivers - of which most of the country's 40,000 are on strike for 48 hours. Protesters watch the singer crooning the morbid song, called Eleni, from the balconies at the economy ministry, where they have staged a symbolic sit-in and prevented EU and IMF officials from meeting the Greek finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos. A

high school computer science teacher, Mr Kourkoulas estimates he will earn 30 per cent less this year given income tax increases, wage decreases and one-off taxes on his home.

Despite this dreary outlook, he chain smokes as the musicians play and smiles a wide grin as if he has nothing to lose.

"Governments of recent years were taxing the normal people, not the rich, not the businesses and not the banks," Mr Kourkoulas says. "They should cut military spending, tax the rich and the banks more and also tax the church which is the biggest owner of property in Greece."

He saw his monthly salary cut three months ago from €1,200 (Dh5,967) to €950 and he has also been asked to pay a one-off tax of €200 and a tax of €500 for owning an apartment for which he is still paying a mortgage.

His mobile phone was cut off this week because he has not paid the last two bills and he has outstanding electricity bills of three months.

"They used to say we public servants are lazy in Greece, but we do not think this is the case," says Mr Kourkoulas. "There is an issue with the bureaucracy and there's an issue with corruption, but this is not our fault."

On the outskirts of the crowd, entrepreneurs trying to make a quick euro have set up barbecues selling kebabs, while wheeler-dealers move among demonstrators selling laser pens and horns.

Hector Cosmas is a self-employed violinist with a wife and two children, who earned €8,000 last year and is protesting in the square because he has been asked to pay a one-off tax of €500.

"I earn barely enough to live on, so I'm not paying this tax," he says.

Mr Cosmas is one of hundreds of artists, musicians and dancers who are angry at being asked to pay extra taxes when they barely exceed the threshold for income tax of €5,000.

A wave of new measures were introduced in recent weeks as George Papandreou, the prime minister, awaited the arrival of the so-called troika of IMF and EU figures who are set to decide if Greece is sufficiently tightening its belt to warrant another round of bailout funding.

These new measures are now hurting low-income earners.

"We're not here to be bohemian," says Christella Demetriou, 40, a music composer from Athens. "We only have enough money to just live now, we cannot afford to save money."

She says artists are now being asked to pay an 11 per cent tax on services and what they sell, on top of income tax, and if they sell through a gallery, it is 23 per cent.

"The people who ripped off the public purse have left the country and we are being asked to pay," Ms Demetriou says.

Allegations of corruption and of politicians squandering the nation's wealth are widespread among the protesters.Anestis Parousidis, 28, a student photographer, says protests have been continuing for months in Athens, but that the city is now reaching "boiling point".

"We do not want to pay anything because we did not take the money," he says. "The government steal the money, all the politicians have money in other countries."

Sitting in his office away from the fervour of Syntagma Square, Elias Spirtounias, the executive director of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce plays down the gravity of the situation in Athens, but concedes that corruption is a fact of life.

"We have had corruption for many, many years in this country," he says. "But you have to take into account we have a very large public system with many employees, so it's very easy to be corrupt."

He says the government has to come up with a credible strategy about where to take Greece- similar, he adds, to Abu Dhabi's Economic Vision 2030.

"Politicians have to explain to their people why we want a united Europe or each one takes its own path."

But back in Syntagma Square, the demonstrators have their own idea and their path is clear: "We will continue striking until this government resigns and the IMF leave us alone," Mr Kourkoulas says.

rjones@thenational.ae