Amid fear, Greeks face an impossible choice | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.07.2015
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Amid fear, Greeks face an impossible choice

Greeks on Sunday will vote in a referendum against a backdrop of shuttered banks and growing rancor. The only certainty is continued uncertainty, as Pavlos Zafiropoulos writes from Athens.

On Wednesday night, Pyrros Dimas, a three-time Olympic gold medalist weightlifter and former parliamentarian visibly struggled to hold back tears: "I have lived through hardship. I have been through it and I can get through it again. But my kids, I don't want them to go through that."

Appearing on the evening news broadcast of a major Greek TV station, Dimas was referring to his experience growing up in the Albania of the 1980s, where long lines for bread and milk were the norm. Now, in his adoptive country, which for many years was a beacon of stability and Western-style prosperity in the Balkans, such a prospect is no longer unthinkable.

These days, such an emotionally charged incident amounts to a mere footnote in the storm of debate and unfolding events that has been triggered since last Friday when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the referendum.

Greece has since joined an ignoble list of country's to miss payments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), capital controls have been imposed on the country's banks, wreaking havoc with the economy and the lives of citizens who are limited to 60 euro ($66.50) in withdrawals per day, and relations between the government and its creditors have fallen to a poisonous low. If the European Central Bank (ECB) decides to cease propping up the banks, a total collapse of the financial system could be mere days away.

Indecent proposal

Greeks are being called to vote on a proposed cash-for-austerity deal that is effectively no longer on the table after Greece's second bailout program expired on Tuesday. The government argues a "No" vote will strengthen its hand in a new round of negotiations, while a near unanimous chorus of EU leaders say that the referendum is about Greece's euro membership.

That a seemingly simple Yes/No question could be so clouded by layers of complexity and confusion is stunning even to Greeks accustomed to five years of life with the ever-present threat of Grexit hanging over every election and troika assessments like a perpetual sword of Damocles.

"It is a huge political risk," said Eftychis Vardoulakis, an Athens-based political consultant and strategist who believes that the prime minister has set a trap for himself with the referendum. "If the 'Yes' vote prevails he has already indicated he would resign. But even with a no vote it would be very, very difficult for him to get an agreement that is better than what was already on the table. And at what cost to the economy?"

Chinese torture

group of protesters Copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos

The No camp says it feels betrayed by Europe...

On Monday night in Syntagma Square, as cigarette smoke mingled in the atmosphere with Greek resistance songs, Yiannis and Athina, a young couple entering their 30's were, like Pyrros Dimas, worried about their children's future. But unlike Dimas, who has thrown his weight behind the "Yes" campaign, the couple were participating in the first major "No" rally. Like many in the camp opposed to the referendum question, they have come to view the euro more as a straightjacket than a security blanket.

"The destruction is coming. It will either come gradually or all at once. But once you hit bottom you can begin to grow again," Athina told DW. "I'm not frightened of the drachma." Yiannis, a restaurant cook, agreed. "At least our kids will live better than us."

A division runs through the "No" camp between those who want to keep the euro on better terms and those who would welcome a return to a national currency and even an exit from the European Union. But the overwhelming feeling is that Greece's creditors are harming rather than helping the country, insisting on a self-defeating austerity program that removes all hope of an economic recovery.

"I feel betrayed by Europe," says Nikos Aspradakis, 48, another rally attendee. "I'm searching for their solidarity, but I can't find it. I just want this torture to end."

Twenty-four hours later the clear skies over Syntagma were replaced by rain, and it was the turn of the "Yes" supporters to fill the square with umbrellas and EU flags. While the "No" demonstrators had largely stood with their backs to parliament, during the "Yes" rally the focus was squarely directed at the government buildings, with boisterous groups leading pro-Europe, and anti-government chants.

The "Yes" camp is also divided as to whether the failure of the negotiations was due to incompetence or if it was the government's plan all along to provoke a Grexit. But ultimately they trust the EU more than they trust their own government.

group of people Copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos

...while the Yes camp trust the EU more than its own politicians

A dangerous gamble

Indeed it is perhaps in pitting those who support Greece's EU membership against those who support the government that is the most dangerous result of Tsipras's referendum.

"It is a choice between two evils," political commentator Stavros Lygeros told DW. "The 'Yes' vote could well prevail, but it will have been under the threat of financial collapse. That will leave deep scars for those who thought that Europe stood for something else."

Polls regarding the outcome of the vote are far from clear; several surveys released this week showed wildly differing estimates as to which camp was in the lead and by what margin. However most political commentators, including Lygeros, agree that momentum is with the "Yes" camp, largely due to the deep insecurity created by the bank closures.

A "Yes" outcome would likely spell the end of the Tsipras government, which could either trigger snap elections, or potentially the formation of a unity government that would seek an agreement with the lenders in order to stabilize Greece's financial situation.

But while that may please many in Europe, few in Greece are likely to be celebrating. Regardless of the ultimate result, the country is already in uncharted waters and for Greeks the only certainty left is continued uncertainty.

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