It’s not an easy time to be Greek and the Greek diaspora, including some 6,700 people living in Switzerland, can only watch the economic and social turmoil in dismay.
In the week that the Greek parliament voted in more austerity measures to meet the terms of the EU-IMF bailout and street protests turned violent, the anger and frustration of the Greek public finds an echo in Swiss homes.
With the stakes so high, Greeks have become armchair economists and political commentators. The ties, according to Achilles Paparsenos of Greece’s permanent mission to the UN in Geneva, are very strong and Greek expats are following events very closely.
“The Greeks love to discuss, democracy was born in Greece and the Greeks love dialogue and feel very passionate about their country of origin. A lot of them travel to Greece regularly and there is a genuine affection and interest about Greece,” Paparsenos told swissinfo.ch.
Share the blame
One of the Greek expats best qualified to talk about the situation in Greece is chief economist at Zurich Cantonal Bank Anastassios Frangulidis. It is not as simple as laying the blame on the government, he told swissinfo.ch.
“All of society has to take part of the responsibility. In the last 30 years there has not been only one government or party in power. In a democratic system every population gets the government they deserve,” said Frangulidis.
Today’s problems are the result of a sustained period of Greeks living beyond their means. “This led to a huge current account deficit which was financed for years by foreigners at a very low interest rate – until the economic crisis hit in 2008/9,” the economist added.
By passing the painful austerity package, albeit with a slim majority, the Greek government has bought some time. “We know Greece will survive the next months and won’t have default this summer but the problems remain. Based on the EU-IMF agreement, the Greeks have a lot of homework to do,” Frangulidis said.
Despite his professional distance and 20 years living abroad, Frangulidis is pained by the plight of his country and he finds the anger of the demonstrators “understandable” . “For me the Greek crisis is not only a matter of figures and information. I know the people there and I see their problems,” he said.
Theocharis Nastos of the Greek Epirotes Association of Switzerland has lived in Zurich since 1972 but he still watches the Greek evening news on television. Seeing members of his family in financial difficulty, he does blame the government for the current economic mess.
“I have built a house in Greece and I’m closely connected to my home region, as well as to Greeks here in Zurich. The financial crisis is a big subject. My brother had a clothing shop that went out of business.”
There are 120 members in Nastos’ expat club, all from the coastal Epirus region. Children learn the Greek language and traditional dance through the club. There are parties for cultural and religious events.
The Greek community in Switzerland is very active and well-organised, with around 40 such clubs and associations, according to an official at the Greek embassy in Bern. By far the largest group of immigrants lives in Zurich, followed by Geneva and Lausanne.
“A significant group of Greek immigrants arrived in Switzerland in the 1960s and there are now many successful Greeks, some of them third generation, in highly-ranked positions in Swiss society,” said the embassy worker who asked not to be named.
“We have many lawyers, doctors and scientists; there are 17 Greek scientists working at Cern alone,” she told swissinfo.ch. “There are also Swiss politicians of Greek origin, such as Josef Zisyadis, as well as people involved at a high level in business and finance".
Like many immigrants, Athanasios Komninos never expected to stay for long. His idea was to come to Switzerland for a year to learn German to improve his career chances in the tourism industry back home.
Twenty five years later, he owns and runs Athen restaurant in Bern and is more than settled. He returns “home” to visit twice a year but does not see himself returning to live, even after retirement.
“I came here of my own free will. I feel as well here in Switzerland as I would in Greece, or even better,” he said over a coffee after the lunchtime rush.
Komninos is pessimistic about Greece’s economic woes but doesn’t expect many Greeks to end up in Switzerland. “The crisis is big and will get bigger. It is certain a wave of Greeks will leave but where will they go? They will go to places Greeks already are like Germany and Holland.”
The embassy has not seen any indication that there are significant numbers wanting to come to Switzerland.
“Switzerland is always a destination, a place to go and settle down. But we have not had a growing number of people for the time being looking for information on moving to Switzerland,” the official said.
Greece has faced down street violence and strikes for the sake of financial aid it was promised and needs to avoid bankruptcy.
The European Union and International Monetary Fund had said they would refuse to pay out the next installment unless Greek lawmakers approved a new five-year package of €28 billion worth of spending cuts and tax hikes, and a €50 billion privatisation plan, before the end of June.
Parliamentarians delivered what was asked of them, in votes on Wednesday and Thursday. Global markets cheered, but anger in the streets of Athens grew – and quickly turned violent.
More than 300 people, nearly half of them police, were injured in two days of mayhem.
But Greece has only won a reprieve of a few months. The next batch of rescue loans will see it through to September, after which it will once again have to prove it has implemented all it has promised before it can receive any further funds.
Many economists say Greece's debts of €340 billion are just too big for a country of only 11 million people to handle, no matter how much austerity is imposed.end of infobox