A troublesome memory lingers following a recent visit in Greece. During a session on leadership I tentatively asked the participants of an MBA class what might happen if George Papandreou, Greece’s Prime Minister until recently, were to enter the room. A normally polite, inquisitive and respectful group of students got quite animated and several suggested that they would “lock the door, give him a good beating and send him home.” Reflection on the strength and meaning of such feelings proved well-nigh impossible. Indeed, it is impossible for someone who has not been to Greece and is unfamiliar with the Greek media to imagine the depth of feeling against George Papandreou and the personal animus that he is currently attracting.
Deep-seated enmities are, of course, not unknown in Greece but the speed with which many of Papandreou’s former supporters and admirers have turned against him and the vitriol heaped on him are quite remarkable. A man who received 44% of the popular vote in Greece’s elections a mere 2 years ago is currently held responsible for much of the undoubted anguish that is currently afflicting Greek society. The wildest accusations are levelled at him from having personally profiteered from the economic meltdown to being a foreign agent. More generally, he is viewed as having swindled the electorate in 2009 by having made promises while fully aware of the economic situation (Did any politicians elected in other countries fail to make promises that they could not keep?)
Undoubtedly, Papandreou made several mistakes in the wake of the economic melt-down and many promises that he was unable to keep. Yet, remembering how he was seen until a few months ago as “the best of a bad bunch of politicians, the only one with integrity”, his current demonization reflects something deeper than his mistakes. It is the result of the wider inability of Greek society, at every level, to accept any responsibility for today’s dire economic and political state and its continuing search for scapegoats. Remembering the man who talked with dignity and distinction at his father’s funeral, the man who worked tirelessly for human rights, the man who prevented catastrophic confrontations with Greece’s neighbours as Foreign Minister, the man who led with courage and diplomacy the Socialist International, and even the boy who was taught in the classroom next to mine, I find this vilification deeply troublesome and a symptom of our total immersion in the belief that we have been wronged.
Talk to any Greek today, from the taxi driver to the university professor and from the trade unionist to the independent professional and you will be talking to someone who sees themselves as profoundly wronged. Wronged by the government wronged by the European leaders, wronged by his/her organization, wronged by various ‘closed shops’ that are lining their own pockets, wronged by international capital, and above all wronged by George Papandreou. You will find it hard to talk to a Greek who will acknowledge even a scintilla of responsibility for today’s crisis.
A crisis, however, is an opportunity. During a crisis changes that would have taken decades can be implemented in a matter of weeks. If Greece is to see better future it will come if we Greek people realize that we all had a part in what has happened and must now work together, having learnt from the errors of the past. If we are to prosper again, it must be because we collectively do a good job – cleansing the public sector, investing in the future, working hard to recover from the current misery, paying our taxes and supporting each other in hours of need. We now need all the help we can get; from our European partners, from Greeks living abroad, from potential partners who are willing to work with us in any initiative, political, economic, scientific or cultural. And we ought to show a little respect and gratitude towards those who are willing to help us.
It will be very difficult for George Papandreou to recover his political standing. Undoubtedly he made mistakes, as most politicians would have when leading in totally uncharted waters. The current electorate will not forgive these. His reputation in the longer term, however, will be much more equivocal, as historians struggle to assess his role in the calamity that afflicted the country in the last few years.