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Europe

Financially strapped Greeks quietly prepare for the worst

After years of doomsday deadlines, Greeks have become immune to panic. They worry about their country's dismal financial state, but more handwringing is occurring abroad. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

Pantelis Chatzisinakis is not prone to panic. For the past 14 years, the 38-year-old accountant in Athens has been trying the balance the dwindling finances of his clients, who include everyone from freelancers to medium-sized businesses. He spends a lot of time calming people down, trying to convince them that it can be done, despite the difficult math.

But he notices that Greeks, like their government, are faced with difficult choices. "My clients are asking themselves, should they buy groceries or pay their tax bills? Should they pay their loans or their electricity bills or their water bills?" he says. "People are so tired from all these years of economic deterioration. So when they hear someone saying, the country will go bankrupt, they don't know what it means anymore."

Indeed, five years into the debt crisis, Greeks have been hearing doomsday warnings about chaotic defaults and a woeful return to the drachma nearly every day. "There's been more or less constant speculation during that time about whether Greece will remain in the eurozone, about whether it will default, so that means a big part of the population has just tuned out," says Nick Malkoutzis, editor of Macropolis, a political and economic analysis service focused on Greece and the eurozone.

There are no protests, no signs of mass dissatisfaction with the four-month-old government, an amalgam of leftist academics and activists and right-wing populists with little political or governing experience. And Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told reporters in Brussels earlier this week that eurozone finance ministers have not discussed imposing capital controls on Greece. "It defies the logic of having a monetary union," he declared.

Greece made its latest payment to the International Monetary Fund Tuesday, but he warned of an urgent cash crunch ahead: Greece could run out of money in two weeks, he said.

'Crying wolf'

So while there are no signs of overwhelming panic on the streets, some Greeks are quietly making contingency plans for a worst case scenario, Malkoutzis says.

"If you look at bank deposits from the beginning of December, when uncertainty started to peak, you will see a huge upsurge in the withdrawal of bank deposits - 15 percent, or around 25 billion euros, and most of this was withdrawn in cash," he says. "People are worried about capital controls or a euro exit."

It contrasts with the picture presented in public opinion polls, which show that most Greeks don't believe Greece will exit the eurozone. The same polls also show a strong majority of Greeks who want to retain the euro as their currency.

"You've got part of the population that's worried about its savings and the future of Greece and another part that feels, because of what they have lost over the last few years, they don't have that much left to lose if Greece leaves the eurozone," he says. "And there's also a part of the population that feels commentators and European Union politicians have cried wolf a few too many times. So they're not heeding warnings, they're not taking them seriously."

'Heard it before …'

Some Greeks, like Christos Tsakirios, a commercial fisherman on the Aegean island of Leros, say the warnings sound like blackmail. "For years, we have been hearing that we are on the verge of some abyss, that we will go bankrupt and there will be no money in cash machines and there will be tanks protecting banks so people won't run in and take their money out before it's worthless," he says. "And in the end, our politicians just agree to more austerity measures and then we are the good little student again. It's like a broken record."

Tsakirios has struggled in the last five years. He considers himself lucky to still be working, but it's harder to sell his catch these days. "Many people don't buy fish because they think it's too expensive," he says.

He says he supports the anti-austerity government pushing against more budget cuts and tax hikes, moves which he believes have trapped the Greek economy into a death spiral.

But he says he also cannot imagine Greece outside of the eurozone, isolated from the rest of Europe. "Most Greeks I know don't believe it will ever happen," he says.

Malkoutzis, the analyst, says this year could prove to be more perilous for Greece than 2010 and 2012, when the fear of a Greek eurozone exit sparked protests, international handwringing and alarmist headlines. "You have an inexperienced government which is at odds with Greek lenders over a whole range of issues, and this causing considerable consternation," he says. "And Greece is simply running out of money. If there isn't a deal in the next few weeks, and there is no other way to address the issue, then default will become a reality."

Backing for the government

Chatzisinakis, the accountant, says he doesn't believe the eurozone will allow Greece to have a messy default and tumble out of the currency union. He sometimes listens to the TV news, "where talking heads are warning us that we will starve, that there will be war, that we will destroy ourselves if we go bankrupt," he says. "And I think, I can't even picture that happening."

"I am an optimist," he says. "I know it's tough, I know our government is in a terrible negotiating position, but I don't think our fellow eurozone members will let an impasse become so entrenched that it destroys an entire country."

He says most of his clients feel the same way, though one client has most of his money in Switzerland and periodically transfers just enough to live on to his Greek account. "He's been afraid of a Greek bankruptcy and eurozone exit since the beginning of the crisis," he says. "But the rest of my clients, they don't have enough money to put savings in the bank, let alone overseas."

He and most of his clients support the new government's tough negotiating stance, hoping it will end the austerity measures that have shrunk the Greek economy by a quarter and tripled the unemployment rate. But Chatzisinakis also worries that the government is winging negotiations that require meticulous diplomacy and hard-nosed math. "I'm afraid they don't know what they're doing," he says. "If they don't, I don't want to think about what might happen."

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