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Greece: More notes from a troubled country

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I was in Athens over the long weekend attending some meetings. Here are some further notes from a beautiful but deeply troubled country.

July 2, 2011: A discussion over lunch with a senior adviser to the Greek government.

On how long it will take for Greece to recover from the current debt crisis: "It is going to take us 10 to 12 years to work our way out of this. And then we'll be okay."

On the former employment practices in the Greek public sector: "The conservatives hired over a hundred thousand people into the public sector. Hired with nothing to do. Hired just to reduce unemployment. Many thousands of them were hired on temporary contracts. In the circumstances we face, we can't renew or retain these people. They don't like that. So they protest, and I can understand why."

On what happens next: "We are going to go through a very serious program of attrition -- for every eight who leave we'll hire one to address emergencies and needs. And we're going to hire through merit from now on -- we'll take people into the public service who know what they're doing."

On whether Greece will ultimately have to default on its public debt: "Absolutely not. We are going to implement what we've agreed to and then we're going to respect it. We must not default and we are not going to default -- the consequences for Greece and maybe for Europe are too serious."

The Greek government's basic fiscal strategy: "We need to get into primary surplus as quickly as we can. We'll achieve that within a year or two. And then we'll be able to cover interest, and start paying down the principal. It will take 10 to 12 years. Our people are going to have to accept a change in our lifestyle, in our quality of life. But then we'll recover and we'll be where we want to be and have to be."

On how Greece really compares to other countries: "German private debt is higher than Greek public debt per capita. U.S. public debt is higher per capita than in Greece. But we are in primary deficit and they're not -- that's the fundamental difference and the fundamental problem. Therefore we have to deal with it decisively, and we have to deal with it now."

July 3: A visit with the anti-austerity protestors.

To judge from some of the media reports, demonstrations and riots have swept all of Athens. In fact, at least in mid-evening on July 3, the action is concentrated in the square in front of the Parliament buildings in downtown Athens.

With the government's enabling bills passed, the unions and their big battalions have retreated from the field -- they had made a big splash last week. What remains is a little village made up of perhaps 50 tents, mostly occupied by what look like university students and a smaller number of dedicated-looking activists.

The protest village and the government seem to get along at some level -- a neat row of port-a-potties is in place to keep everyone comfortable.

The activists have set up a little woodworking shop in the southwest corner of the square to build new signs and banners and so regularly renew their messaging. The basic message is very clear: Greek citizens should not be made to live through a generation of austerity to keep the party going for international speculators and rentiers.

Vendors wander the crowd at night, selling food, water and green-light laser pointers. These seem to be a hit with the demonstrators, who use them to dazzle the eyes of the business travellers and wealthy tourists staying at the King George Hotel across from Parliament. The hotel-dwellers stand on balconies to look at the demonstrators. The demonstrators try to blind them with their laser pointers. Class warfare fought with light beams.

Knots of police stand around in all directions, a block or two away from the square. They're young, lightly-equipped tonight, and fit-looking. A notable number of them are women.

Directly in front of the Parliament buildings, a hundred demonstrators gather around a small group with bullhorns, taking turns chanting slogans at the building.

Volunteers dressed head-to-foot in Greek flags direct traffic at nearby intersections, trying to help unsnarl the gridlock the demonstrations have caused.

Children and older looking people wander around. At least on this night, the protest has gone back to being a family event.

July 4: Another ever-reliable cabbie poll

On Greece's plan to sell $50-billion in public assets in a fire sale, to help pay down debt: "Look, if the country is bankrupt and the politicians need my money, then take my house. Take my house, because I can always work and get another house. But don't give the telephone company, the power company and the ports and everything else to foreigners. That is stealing from our children. That means there is nothing left for them."

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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