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Greek fears grow beneath looming shadow of bankruptcy

As Greece struggles with poverty and unemployment, some prepare for drachma’s return while others voice their desperation

Nine months before his death, the great Greek film-maker Theodoros Angelopoulos felt compelled to admit he was scared. “I’m afraid of tomorrow,” he told state television in what would be his last interview. “I read a book recently about Argentina and what happened when it went bankrupt, and it was tragic.”

Greece, he feared, was also heading for economic collapse. “It’ll be much worse than in Argentina, an ancient tragedy, terrifying … I am not a politician. I can’t speak about solutions but this is an appeal, an appeal for something to be done.”

Since Angelopoulos spoke to the cameras in May, there have been riots, cliffhanger votes and a new “national salvation” government in Athens. European Union summits have come and gone in Brussels. But Greece, the country at the centre of Europe’s worst postwar crisis, has kept on moving. And not in the direction anyone would have liked.

Last week, as speculation grew over the debt-choked nation’s ability to escape default next month when a €14.5bn (£12bn) loan repayment must be made, the drama entered a new act, one more frightening than any seen so far.

Amid mounting mistrust between Athens and Berlin, European policymakers began to voice doubts about Greece’s place in the EU. Bankruptcy could no longer be ruled out. Nor could its by-products, chaos and fear.

“I’m really worried. I think there is a risk that we will go bankrupt and I’ve thought a lot about being prepared,” said Dimitra Partheniou, 61, in Athens. “I’ve gone through all the scenarios: of there being no food, of people being attacked as they go to the supermarket, of banks being looted. And I’ve decided that if that happens we’re moving to Poros [an island] because there, at least, we’ve got enough land to cultivate tomatoes and corn.”

With an unemployed daughter and several friends out of work, Partheniou readily concedes that she might be more anxious than most. None of her friends, lunching after work in a subterranean taverna, believe bankruptcy is upon them – even if the country’s economic crisis dominates the conversation. Like most Greeks, hit by repeated rounds of austerity, they are too busy surviving to contemplate such things.

“It will never happen. It would be terrible. Europe would never let it happen. There would be civil war,” said Constantinos Trikaliotis, a chauffeur in his 50s. “But what I want to know is why is it that ordinary people have to pay for this crisis? Why is it that none of these economic measures have worked?”

Last week, in the wake of another dramatic vote on yet more unpopular belt-tightening, many Greeks were asking the same. How had it got to the point where their own prime minister, Lucas Papademos, was forced to announce that Greece was “a breath away from ground zero”? How could it be that under the guidance of the EU and the International Monetary Fund, with one of the harshest economic reform programmes in western history, it had come to this?

“People are dazed, almost dizzy with it all,” said economics professor Theodore Pelagidis. “No one has experienced default. They can’t conceptualise what in practical terms it would mean to wake up in the morning and hear the prime minister say such a thing, if indeed it ever got to that.”

What Greeks do know is that they have been consigned to one of the worst recessions ever seen in Europe. And they also know the vultures are circling. “I don’t think we’re going to default but I do think we’ll go through a very deep recession for the next 10 to 15 years,” said Nikitas Simos, who runs a cafe-bar on Koufonissia, an Aegean isle. “For the past 20 years Greece experienced a false euphoria, a false prosperity. But not everybody, you know, was part of the party. Not everyone avoided taxes. And what people outside forget is that with all these measures most people now are really suffering.”

There are those still enjoying the high life. Rich Greeks have taken their money out of the country, pouring an estimated €20bn into banks — mostly in Cyprus but also in Switzerland and Germany. Others have taken their holdings home, hiding money in safety deposit boxes or under mattresses.

At the beginning of the crisis, wealthy Greeks, often hauling suitcases of cash, flew to the UK where they snapped up prime properties in central London, so much so that estate agents called them the “new Arabs”.

Sensing the return of the drachma may only be months away, some have now begun selling their homes overseas in the hope of picking up prime real estate in Greece at dirt-poor prices.

“I know a lot of people who have taken their money abroad,” said Vasso Priovori, a French teacher who retired last year at the age of 65. “The only thing anyone ever does is think about the economy. We’re all so-called experts now. And if you ask me, I think all this talk about bankruptcy is really about Europe and the Germans pressuring us to do what we have to do, which is make all those changes.”

On a pension of €1,000 a month, Priovori considers herself lucky. After two years of tax increases and wage and pension cuts, low-income Greeks are on their knees, with poverty and unemployment soaring.

Six out of 10 Greeks under the age of 30 are now out of work, with overall joblessness at an unprecedented 21%. “I worry about social tension but the Germans are Europe’s paymaster, they rule the game,” said Alexandros Papillias, a former accountant, buying vegetables in Athens’ municipal market.

“If they wanted to expel us from the EU, they would have done so by now,” he said. “But it does feel as if we’ve become part of an economic experiment. None of the measures [imposed by the "troika" of the EU, European Central Bank and IMF] have got us anywhere. It’s almost as if nobody knows what they are doing.”

Standing at the next stall, his eyes streaming in the cold, 48-year-old former shop designer Vangelis Messitis certainly knew what he was doing. “I’ve been homeless for the last three years,” he said. “And I’ve come here looking for some bones. I do it every day to feed my wife and child. I’m hungry and I’m cold and I’m bankrupt, please write that. Bankrupt. Greece is bankrupt too. It’s just a matter of putting a signature to a piece of paper.”

He began to walk away, but then stopped. “Don’t forget me,” he yelled. “People like me don’t want the euro. We’re begging for the day when the drachma comes back even if that frightens us, too.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds