Read the German version of the article here.
"I installed that there myself," says the Greek tax official, pointing to the cable jutting out of his laptop and taped to the floor. If he didn’t pay for it out of his own pocket, the local tax office where Yannis* works wouldn’t have an Internet connection. But without it, he can’t access the databank with the legal texts serving as the foundation for his tax statements. The government in Athens unfortunately doesn’t provide any printed copies either. They can’t even provide him a modern PC, which is why the Internet cable Yannis installed leads to his personal laptop brought from home. He also bought the printer himself, he says, pointing to one on the shelf next to him.
In front of his door in an office as cheerful as boiler-room basement, there is a pile of six heavy trash bags packed full with tax files. Yannis calls it his "archive." But as useful as it might be for him to rummage through older files looking for evidence of tax evasion, how is he supposed to achieve anything under such atrocious working conditions?
Three months ago, Yannis’ problems became the problems of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Or at least they should be. The election victory of Mr. Tsipras’ leftist party Syriza was considered a political watershed in Greece. It was the first time an outsider had managed to take power, breaking the hold of the political caste that had run the country into the ground over the past few decades. Mr. Tsipras promised voters that he would overhaul the ramshackle Greek state, root out corruption and nepotism, and end the austerity policies he considers lethal for the Greek economy and harmful to the country’s poor.
Mr. Tsipras has put much at risk. Greece is politically isolated within the European Union, as he has ruined ties to Athens’ closest allies. With Brussels refusing to cough up more cash, the country faces bankruptcy and its continuing membership in the euro zone is far from certain. This week, the government decreed that municipalities and state-owned enterprises needed to transfer their cash reserves to its coffers, so it could still pay its bills.
For the past three months, this new government has been in office. Considering the challenges it faces, that isn’t a long time. But after three months, it’s still legitimate to ask if things are at least going in the right direction. How is Greece being governed – and for whom?
Last week in the Greek parliament: MPs run with furrowed brows through the corridors and canteen. Cigarette smoke wafts out of offices into the ornately decorated hallways. Many here work from dawn till midnight each day, according to members of the parliamentary press corps. It’s hard to get access to Syriza MPs – most either want to either follow the debate on the floor or speak in front of their colleagues themselves.
Parliament is debating the third batch of legislation the new government wants to pass. The first was meant to ease the country’s "humanitarian crisis" that austerity policies – keenly promoted by Germany – supposedly have caused. Among other measures, the first initiative offered subsidies to Greek citizens unable to pay their electricity bills. The second was aimed at watering down penalties for those owing back taxes. And the third, now being passionately debated in parliament, is meant to improve conditions in Greece’s cramped prisons. In particularly, all those imprisoned for not paying their debts will be freed.
Aren’t there more pressing matters? The nearly bankrupt nation’s tax offices don’t have access to the tax code and the government is preoccupied with prison policy and lessening punishments for tax debtors?
No, counters Syriza MP Triantafyllos Mytafidis, who has agreed to a coffee in the party’s break room. "It’s about measures for survival," he says. "What we’re doing here is the minimum necessary for the people. These are our reforms. The reforms demanded by the E.U. will come later." Greece’s national emergency must come first, according to this way of thinking. Certainly, whatever repayment ultimatums coming from its European creditors are not the priority.
And in a pinch – some say here – there’s always the Russians and the Chinese. They have deep pockets and in geostrategic terms, Greece has plenty to offer in return. High-ranking Syriza politicians were recently talking of billions from Moscow that could "turn the page" for Greece. There’s talk of a pipeline funneling Russian natural gas to Europe via Greek territory. The resulting transit fees could be paid almost upfront, immediately easing the country’s cash problems.