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"I’m not happy paying taxes to a corrupt state"

While Greeks currently have many problems, getting a seat in a restaurant isn't one of them

(swissinfo.ch)

To speak of a national depression is perhaps an exaggeration, but the debt crisis in Greece is affecting almost everyone, with the poor being hit particularly hard.

But the middle class is also tightening its belt and putting money aside for an uncertain future. swissinfo.ch spoke to Swiss citizens living in Athens, who are angry, disappointed and sceptical of politicians.

“More and more people are sleeping rough – above all illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh. That’s sad,” Lisa Hamuzopulos told swissinfo.ch.

“There’s someone [asking for money] at practically every traffic light, but I can’t give to everyone…”

The 58-year-old from eastern Switzerland has lived in Greece since 1999. She is married to a Greek and runs the café in the Goethe Institute, a non-profit German cultural institution with centres around the world.

Lara Bachmann, who works in the Hellenic American Union cultural centre as an e-learning co-ordinator, also sees illegal immigration as a major problem.

“The countries in northern Europe should help those in the south. Greece can’t support all these people,” the 33-year-old from Ticino, who has lived in Greece for five years and is also married to a local, told swissinfo.ch.

Bachmann has a good job – and although her salary has gone down as a result of higher tax deductions, she still describes herself as privileged. “But everything has got more expensive – you pay attention to what you spend money on.”

Nevertheless, she has no desire to return to Switzerland, even if the situation gets worse.

“It’s so lonely there – here people look after one another,” she said.

Leaving the country

The official Swiss representation in Athens is also feeling the effects of the debt crisis.

“We’ve had more Swiss or dual nationals applying for passports so they will be ready in case they want to leave the country,” consul Peter Himmelberger told swissinfo.ch.

For the first time a slight return migration trend has been seen, with about 1-2 per cent of the 3,400 Swiss nationals in Greece deciding to return to Switzerland.

The reason is the current crisis, Himmelberger said. “We don’t know how many of the 3,400 have problems, because not all of them come to us. We have had individuals who asked for financial help in returning.”

What’s more, he added, increasing numbers of Greeks were applying for work permits or information about entering or studying in Switzerland.

This is unsurprising, considering 46 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed, according to latest figures.

German courses at the Goethe Institute are booked out, and demand is also high at the Hellenic American Union for certificates in English.

Uncertainty

Evidence that the crisis is hitting Greece hard can be found just by looking around the city: many beggars, taxi drivers hanging around waiting for customers, Roma, Pakistanis, pensioners selling lighters, flowers or lottery tickets.

People say crime has got worse in the centre of the city. Countless shops and local businesses have closed or are on the verge of closing.

Many people can no longer pay their heating or electricity bills. Lisa Hamuzopulos said she’d read about a boom in blankets and sleeping bags.

While life is relatively good for Hamuzopulos and Bachmann, it’s no longer worry-free.

Hamuzopulos said there was a lot of uncertainty – even if things had calmed down a bit since the appointment of the transitional government on November 11.

“When people talk on the bus, it’s about money. Everyone wants to know how much extraordinary tax everyone else is paying,” she said.

“Distrust towards the state is enormous. Loads of money has disappeared – that makes people angry. I’m not happy paying taxes to a corrupt state.”

Safe haven

For Madeleine Arvanitis, vice-president of the Swiss Community of Athens, the greatest fear is the return of the drachma.

“That would be the worst thing that could happen – all our savings would lose value,” she told swissinfo.ch.

It’s no wonder that several Swiss citizens told swissinfo.ch they had moved their money to the safety of Switzerland.

Concerns

Arvanitis is angry and disappointed – above all with the government and the two main parties, New Democracy and Pasok.

“I no longer feel represented by the two big parties. I voted for Pasok for 27 years – I don’t know how I’ll vote next time.”

Her biggest concerns are for her two grown-up children. “My son has worked for two years as a lawyer and earns just over €1,000 (SFr1,230) a month.”

The 28-year-old still lives with his parents – getting an apartment of his own is not on the cards, unless he starts a family.

“Young people are disenchanted and want nothing to do with politics,” she said.

Inspection

On December 12 international austerity inspectors visited Greece for talks on a second rescue loan package agreed weeks ago but not yet finalised.

Officials from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were due to hold meetings at the finance ministry later in the day.

Greece was granted an initial €110 billion (SFr135 billion) bailout package by its European partners and the IMF in May 2010. The loans staved off bankruptcy and in return Greece imposed tough austerity measures to cut its budget deficits.

But it soon became clear that the loans were not enough, and in October a second €130 billion deal was agreed. The second deal also provides for a €100 billion debt writedown by private holders of Greek government bonds, on which talks are under way with banks.

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Greek capital in Switzerland

According to the Greek Finance Ministry, around €38 billion (SFr47 billion) left Greece for Swiss banks between January 2010 and June 2011.

Athens says there is around €280 billion of Greek funds held in Switzerland, which has meant an annual loss of SFr10 billion in tax income for the Greek treasury.

This is in contrast to the Swiss National Bank (SNB)’s figures: SFr2.2 billion of Greek funds held in Swiss banks up to the end of 2009. The SNB acknowledges that this does not include investments in financial bonds.

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(Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch

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