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Greek Liberal Monitor

Mihali Stamatis – Week 8

Mihali Stamatis, 25 January 2016

After 8 weeks, my internship in Athens has sadly come to an end. It’s been an awesome experience, I have learnt an incredible amount, and so I owe a huge thank-you to Mannkal and GLM for making it possible.

Early this week I was invited to visit the University of the Peloponnese (a 3 hour drive from Athens, near the town of Tripoli), by a Professor of Economics we met in Athens. The aim of the trip was to look at how GLM could possibly foster greater ties with Australia, both in the academic and private sectors. The drive down revealed the beauty of Greek countryside, with it even snowing at one point (this was super exciting for me given I have never seen snow!). The university itself was situated next to beautiful forests, with the small town of Tripoli next door. We went for lunch in an even smaller village near by – nothing beats traditional Greek food.

There was another rally on this week (I have been told there is actually a rally every two days) and Michael Lakovidis from GLM took me down to get up close. We met with some other libertarians who had prepared small banners advocating for the reform of the pension system to move towards self-sustaining operation. For an argument that seems logical and sensible, the negative reaction from younger member of the crowds, and the almost lack of support for reform was disappointing. Yet, on the topic of reform,  the main Greek opposition party has now elected a new leader – Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a pro reformist who could represent a new turn for Greece.

As of writing this blog I am now out of Athens, and have moved north to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. Over the next week I hope to travel around the region of Greek Macedonia, and continue to find new places and learn more about the Greek Culture. For now it’s goodbye, and once again – Thanks Mannkal!

Mihali Stamatis – Week 7

Mihali Stamatis, 18 January 2016

After completing my second last week in Athens, I have come to the sad realization that I only have 1 week left! It’s going to be hard to leave this beautiful city behind!

At work this week we have been focusing on how GLM and other institutions can more effectively link the Greek and Australian economies/societies (both at academic and business levels). In formulating ways to reach this objective, we met with an economics professor of the University of the Peloponnese for coffee. I mention this because of where we met (which the professor drew my attention too) – near an iconic book arcade that had historically been famous and active. Now, it was sitting empty, with all but a few shops closed.

One of the articles I have been working on this week focuses on the difficulty living in Athens, in comparison to Australia. While Athens is an incredible city, it is unable to offer its citizens the level of prosperity we take for granted back home. Their income (price adjusted) is half of ours (not that it can be spent – capital controls), their systems force you to be a criminal (mostly tax evasion and bribery) to survive and they have a continuous cycle of uncertainty damaging every aspect of the economy (especially small businesses).

Given Saturday wasn’t too wet and rainy, I went for a walk down Syntagma (constitution) square. To my surprise, I encountered over 3,000 Greeks rallying against pension reform. While it was interesting to watch, it is also a reminder that Greece is still on the brink of crisis, with serious political divisions among the country.

Mihali Stamatis – Week 6

Mihali Stamatis, 11 January 2016

This week was back to work after a great new years break. I spent the majority of the week finishing off older projects and getting creative, designing some info-graphics. Reflecting on my time here at GLM and thinking about what I had done prompted the idea for another article. I realized that everything I had done and written on reflected a single theme, always returning to the same point of ineffective governance (no matter the initial topic).

Given it was such a nice day on Friday; I was able to work out of the office. Even though it is still winter over here, I have been lucky with the weather. Working at a café overlooking the famous acropolis in the sunshine was an incredible way to end the working week.

Good weather extended to most of the weekend allowing me to stroll around the city. I walked around the markets, port and suburbs absorbing the wonderful sights and colorful Greek culture. This week has once again provided an amazing experience, as Athens now starts to feel like a second home!

Mihali Stamatis Week 4/5

Mihali Stamatis, 4 January 2016

While I was lucky enough to receive the Christmas/new year period off work; i’ve still had some incredible experiences, with plenty to share. After spending Christmas in Athens, I boarded a plane and headed for Crete. My first stop was the old city of Chania, dubbed the ‘cultural center of Crete”. The city was amazing, buzzing even in it’s ‘off-season’.

When I was preparing to leave, I was caught off-guard with thousands of Santas taking to the streets around the old bay. This was the annual Santa run, which aims to raise money for charity – to me it provided an amusing sight (thousands of Santas drinking beer and dancing).

I then made my way to the Cretan captial Iraklion; where I was able to connect with some relatives from Australia. They still had some family in Crete that lived in a small village called Kritsa. This was different from anything I have seen thus far – it’s not a tourist zone and offers a glimpse into the traditional life. The town was busy given it was time to harvest the olive trees surrounding the village; the mills ran all day and night turning them into olive oil.

I asked my relatives how the crisis had affected these people, and the response surprised me. They have endured it with incredible resilience. Part of that is due to their strong-willed nature, but also due to their traditional life. Much of the town operates in an almost barter economy. They produce everything they need to live – vegetables, meats, bread, olive oil, and fruits. The people keep things very simple; dinner every night is simply a baked potato, bread and olive oil (but even so, they seemed happy with what they had). On top of this, the town has an incredible sense of community lost in some of the larger cities. At the coffee shops, many walk away without paying. When my relatives enquired why, the answer was that some simply had a tab, but others had run into hard times. It was not uncommon (even expected) that those regular customers that where now unable to pay would be served coffee anyway, displaying the extent of the community spirit (its notable, even as a tourist, that they have an instinct to give). This is not some forced socialism, but voluntary kindness. With these unique traits the people of Kritsa push forward with their lives, even while the economy around them withers’.

Another interesting observation I made in the rural areas of Greece, is that taxes are often not paid. However, if an individual needs a road built to link areas (that would usually be done by the government), they would pay for it themselves. It’s an unusual system, where the community recognises government incompetence and uses the would-be taxation money to do what the government should.

From Kritsa I made my way to Rethymnon, another beautiful port town. Each town, being only 1 hours drive apart, still have their own distinct cultures. With a ton of amazing memories I headed back to Athens, ready to start another week of work!

Mihali Stamatis – Week 3

Mihali Stamatis, 22 December 2015

As Christmas approaches, Athens is becoming more alive and exciting. Christmas lights decorate the city, and people fill the streets.

For the majority of the week I was working on two articles to be published by GLM. The first looked at the issues currently preventing positive political change in Greece. I focused on three perspectives: funding, media and public opinion. My conclusion was not favorable, but explains much of current Greek politics. In order to receive enough funding and media support, one must break the rules (both legally and ethically). These include accepting bribes from abroad, dealing with the business elite and manipulating the public with an array of false promises. Those who are honest and ethical are never likely to get elected, as they are at a fundamental disadvantage. The second article I have begun writing focuses on the difficulty of receive capital in Greece – even for a well-planned successful business.

On the weekend I decided to travel to Kalambaka, leading me to the famous Meteora – a group of monasteries on incredible mountains (popularized from its feature in a James Bond film). It was an incredible sight, proving to be the highlight of my trip so far. I managed to engage in conversation with a Monk (via the translation services of another tourist), who suggested that I come live in Greece. On further consideration he changed his mind, declaring, “there is no money here in Greece”, a phrase that proves too true today.

Next week is set to be amazing, with Christmas just around the corner, and the city filling with holiday spirit!

Mihali Stamatis – Week 2

Mihali Stamatis, 14 December 2015

To start the week, I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Equity Investment Forum – a conference looking to further develop Greece’s equity markets, and stimulate innovation. Of particular interest in the event were speakers from Israel, who outlined the policies they had undertaken to achieve the highest start-up per capita of any nation. Overall the event outlined some interesting issues and features of Greek financial markets, and suggested that government policy could provide a country with the initial push towards innovation.

To my delight, a champions league soccer match was on this week. I attended the game, Olympiakos vs Arsenal. The atmosphere was incredible, given it was an elimination round, providing a once in a lifeline experience.

On Thursday, I was able to attend Orange Grove’s “The Squeeze”, an event run by the Dutch embassy looking to foster potential entrepreneurs in Greece. Eight start-ups were given the opportunity to pitch their businesses to a panel of highly qualified judges, who would pick the best two (they received prizes of 15,000 and 10,000 euro). The event was interesting and entertaining, having a similar feel to the ‘Shark Tank” television show. It however did get me thinking about the issues of starting a business in Greece – taxes, regulatory nightmares and a public sector that rejects destructive (to existing industries) innovation. As my colleges have outlined to me, unfortunately at this time there is little reason for promising start-ups to incorporate in Greece.

On the weekend I decided to travel out of Athens for a couple of days. I went to Nafplio, Greece’s capital during the war of independence, in the 1800’s. The city is beautiful and offered a rich amount of history and culture. From there I was able to go to the ancient ruins of Mycenae. I visited two sites, Mikines and Tiryns (both world heritage sites), which feature in Homer’s famous Iliad (story of Troy) and Odyssey. These sites provide a constant reminder of Greece’s impressive and influential history. They show a time when Greece was a world leader in innovation and exploration, something events like “the Squeeze” and the Equity investment forum are trying to reestablish.

Mihali Stamatis – Week 1

Mihali Stamatis, 7 December 2015

Landing in Athens, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Tourism has died down for the winter, so I was intrigued to see what mood the city would present. While many storefronts are shut, and economic recession is visible, the city is still alive and thriving. Streets are full with people, noise and Christmas cheer. I spent my first few days before work exploring the city, which is heavily fixed around its ancient monuments. Exploring the Acropolis, the local mountains (giving incredible views of the city) and the museums, produced plenty of memorable sights.

Starting work with the Greek Liberty Monitor (GLM) I wrote a brief article on my perceptions of Greece from abroad. This is important, given these perceptions (too often based on fact) have prevented the flow of much needed foreign investment in Greece. It is immediately interesting to get perspective on the crisis from those who have lived through it. Picking the minds of my peers at GLM, revealed stories about the ridiculous nature of the legislation and governance in Greece. These include stories of the famous “fakelaki”, the bribe given to a public servant. This appears almost a requirement when working with the public sector.

Since then I have begun working on a collaborative paper calling for independent monitoring of the Greek bailout terms and implementation. Structural reforms are clearly necessary for the growth of the Greek economy, including tax simplification, privatisation and an overhaul of an ineffective public sector. Yet due to mainly political issues, the result of the bailout has left lasting austerity measures (i.e. raised taxes), but few positive structural reforms. This is the issue that GLM hopes to help resolve, pushing for more oversight of both Greek and European bodies. This will help ensure agreements are not just politically convenient, but transparent and beneficial for long-term change.

Furthermore I was able to watch GLM record a piece in their “Greek Success Stories” project. Here they film interviews with successful business owners in an effort to counter the perception that it is impossible to do business in Greece. These businesses extend their operations to markets all around the world, with some of them even having a presence in Australia.

While that concludes my first week, I am excited to get back into it. With multiple conferences and events lined up, next week is ensured to be an eventful one.