Dispatch

Austerity Bites

Parliament may claim that austerity has saved the country from a certain trip to Hades, but average Greeks would almost rather just go down in flames.

ATHENS – The crowd returned despite the burned trash on the broken sidewalks, the shattered glass on the streets, and the lingering sting of tear gas. By noon on Thursday, Oct. 20, Greeks filled Syntagma, the square across the street from the parliament building. They knew parliament would approve the latest austerity measures and they knew Prime Minister George Papandreou had insisted that the measures would save the country from bankruptcy. But it felt more like a death march than salvation.

It was the second day of massive demonstrations this week. By midday in Syntagma, old men set up stalls to sell whistles, miniature Greek flags, and the sesame-encrusted bread rings called koulouria. Bangladeshi men sold bottles of water. Protesters sprayed liquid Maalox, the stomach antacid, on each other's faces to close their pores and counteract the effects of the tear gas. Young men in black hoods, a few of them holding sledgehammers, pulled on gas masks.

Hundreds of riot police surrounded the sand-colored neoclassical parliament building. The young men in hoods wanted a fight. But in their way were about 100 middle-aged men who had locked arms, blocking a main path to parliament. The men seemed like unlikely defenders of the most hated building in Greece; they were blue-collar workers from PAME, a strident union affiliated with KKE, the country's old-school Communist party. PAME protesters never missed an anti-austerity demonstration, and they were often the first people to march, with bullhorns and bright flags, to Syntagma. They chant against plutocracy, capitalism, and bankers, but they are more likely to throw yogurt  than Molotov cocktails.

PAME has a small but hardcore following all over the Athens area. Just before the big strikes began, a few elderly PAME supporters marched along a busy street in Galatsi, an Athens suburb. They held a hand-painted banner that read "Enough is Enough!" They were trailed by a white-haired man who was driving a tiny, battered truck and chanting "Everyone hit the streets!" through a scratchy bullhorn. Vassilis Langadas, a 30-year-old technician at a mobile phone company, was drinking hot chocolate at a nearby cafe. "You've got to give them credit," he said, watching them with bemused pride. "They're my grandparents' age but they've got more stamina and faith in their cause than most Greeks."

They may be professional protesters, but PAME was hoping their call would be heard by that silent, suffering majority in Greece that says austerity is erasing people, not the country's massive debt. This fatalism is shared by nearly everyone. If this is salvation, they say, screw Europe. We'd rather go up in flames.

According to the polling firm "Public Issue," only 12 percent of Greeks support the memorandum of agreement between their government and international lenders, which imposes austerity in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans.  Austerity means pain, they say, and a loss of sovereignty. Even deputies in the ruling center-left PASOK party are questioning the tough medicine prescribed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, especially in the latest round of austerity cuts. MP Thomas Robopoulos, one of the lawmakers representing Thessaloniki, resigned his seat earlier this week saying the measures "are unfair and against the people." Home Affairs Minister Haris Kastanidis told a Vima 99.5, a private Greek radio station, recently that the demands of international lenders "were driving Greeks to an unbearable point."

The tension has been visible. Since austerity began more than a year ago, every anti-austerity demonstration has devolved into shocking street violence. Angry young men in black hoods throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot police, who then respond with volleys of tear gas that choke the rest of the crowd. These young men are usually identified as fringe anarchists -- but many Greeks also believe they're agent provocateurs, hired by police to incite violence so they can respond with force and send people running home.

Whoever the rioters are, they wreak havoc at every peaceful demonstration. Even on Oct. 19, when more than 100,000 people had filled the streets of Athens in a powerful, united show of opposition to the latest austerity measures, fights broke out between packs of militants and riot police. The fringe protesters set fire to garbage, shattered shop windows, and hacked away at the marble steps of the tony hotels around Syntagma. Armed with chunks of marble and petrol bombs, they commenced to throwing projectiles at police. Of course, police responded with round after round of tear gas.

The next day, on Oct. 20, the moderates were fed up with the chaos. And so the column of middle-aged Communists blocked the young militants armed with sledgehammers and petrol bombs. They wanted politicians to see a sea of angry but peaceful people, not explosions of violence. The kids didn't want to listen. "You have sold out to the politicians!" one yelled. "Sheep! You're all sheep!" yelled another. "Get out of the way or we'll slaughter you like sheep!"

The middle-aged men tightened their grip on each other. They clenched their jaws even as the crowd of young militants threw water bottles and garbage at them. They wouldn't move even after one of them -- a stout, paunchy man in his fifties -- was punched bloody by a bearded man who looked young enough to be his son. But as the young men, sweaty and angry, began pelting the older men with pieces of marble, drawing blood and howls of pain, the PAME ranks began to thin. The militants finally broke the cordon and ran to confront a phalanx of riot police. 

The rest of the terrified crowd ran away. They smelled fire and the familiar, chemical sting of the tear gas. "Calm down! Calm down!" a few people screamed, trying to prevent a stampede.

One of the people in the crowd was Thodoris Borlokas, who's 33 years old and has been out of work for a year. He has a master's degree in economics and used to work as a financial analyst. The recession -- the worst Greece has seen in decades -- has squeezed him out of a job. He used to be a big fan of ruling PASOK party and even of the prime minister, but like most Greeks, he now believes this government is ruining the country. Unemployment has gone from 9 percent to more than 16 percent since the crisis began. Thousands of small businesses have closed. Personal bankruptcies, violent crime, and suicides are all on the rise. Even hospitals are running out money to buy medical supplies and pay their staff.

Like most Greeks, Borlokas blames "every single politician in parliament" for the mess. But he also blames himself. "We created this monster," he said. "We elected these people, who are only good at stealing money, and we subscribed all these years to a corrupt system that allowed many of us to skip taxes and pay bribes and bankrupt our country." He knows Greece must remake itself to regenerate into an economically healthy country that relies on creativity and merit, not cronyism and clientelism, to grow into a truly independent country. But can Greeks survive the painful metamorphosis?

As he watched the Greek-on-Greek mayhem this week, Borlokas said he began to believe the Europeans wanted to poison the country and punish the Greeks. Yes, he knows Greece will go bankrupt without billions of euros in bailout loans. He also knows bankruptcy and a return to the drachma would be catastrophic for the country. But he also can't pay his bills or plan for the future. He can't find a job -- any job -- though he has sent out hundreds of CVs. And when he comes to demonstrations to make his voice heard, it's drowned out by the firebombs, tear gas, and destruction.

On Oct. 20, when the mayhem broke out once again, most of the protesters, including Borlokas, left. By evening, fires burned around parliament amid the stench of tear gas. Inside, ministers voted for the latest austerity measures after a long and acrimonious debate. PASOK deputy Vasso Papandreou (no relation to the prime minister) voted for the measures but said it would be the last time. "Enough is enough," she said. "Society is despairing."

By evening, the Greek news reported that a PAME protester, a 53-year-old construction worker named Dimitris Kotsaridis, suffered a heart attack during the riots and later died. On Friday, the government began sending out the bills for a controversial new tax that's part of the austerity measures. It will be collected through power bills, and the government says those who don't pay will have their electricity cut off. Unions promised more strikes next week to block implementation of the austerity laws. As municipal workers cleaned up the charred and scarred neighborhood near parliament, one message, in blood-red spray-paint, stood out on a blackened wall. "Stop saving us," it read.

 


 

 

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Dispatch

Pyongyang Rock City

Meet the hitmakers of the Hermit Kingdom.

PYONGYANG, North Korea — On the sculpted entrance to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, a woman, graceful as a mermaid, played the flute as she floated through a sea of stars. Out in the parking lot, locals played tennis in the September sun on a court painted onto the concrete, making do with a ball long since stripped of its green fuzz. "This is a special theater of the president!" a loudspeaker boomed.

I was here to see Samjiyon, North Korea's "newly formed popular band." This being North Korea, "popular band" has somewhat different connotations than the usual guitar-bass-drums four-piece singing about girls: Samjiyon is a collective of dozens of performers who jam on violins, pianos, and accordions in praise of the ruling Kim dynasty and the exploits of the North Korean people. It's a church band for North Korea's state religion of nationalism.

Samjiyon would be playing for the benefit of the tour group I had joined, a group of almost two dozen people from the developed world who came to see the sites of Pyongyang. Officially, North Korea welcomes American tourists. My minder on a 2008 trip warned me that when someone referred to Americans as "U.S. bastards or U.S. imperialists, I will just translate that. I hope that's OK," he said, adding apologetically, "I'm just doing my job."

Each year hundreds of Americans complete the simple application process and visit Pyongyang on package tours, which include a visit to the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the USS Pueblo -- moored in Pyongyang since 1968 and the only U.S. Navy ship held captive abroad -- and the hysterical Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which details the iniquities of the Americans during the Korean War. Tourism seems to be expanding: It is now easier for Americans to visit the country for longer than the customary four-day trip, and a government-overseen investment group recently started offering cruises.

North Korea, like Annie Oakley with tunnel vision, feels the need to prove that anything you can do it can do better. (Like Paris, Pyongyang boasts an Arch of Triumph -- only Pyongyang's, with its 25,500 blocks of white granite, stands 33 feet higher.) Nowhere, save for the country's outsized military, is this more apparent than in North Korea's cultural endeavors. The Mass Games, a staple for tourists, has the Guinness world record for largest gymnast display, with 100,090 performers. Keith Howard, an expert on North Korean music at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, recalls seeing an Italian conductor play in Pyongyang; afterward a local conductor repeated the performance, to rave reviews on local television. 

North Korea also turns out less overtly competitive cultural products. The country's publishers sell fairy tales about imperialist landlords. Its film industry -- famously favored by the country's mercurial ruler, Kim Jong Il -- turns out movies about pure Koreans suffering under the Japanese. Its largest art studio employs thousands of workers who paint pictures of steel foundries and various Kims gazing over cliffs. There is even an artist rumored to have long hair.

But it is music that truly permeates North Korean life, at least the parts of it that have been approved for foreign consumption. Karaoke machines and attractive singing waitresses feature in practically all North Korean restaurants open to foreign tourists. On a recent trip plaintive music wafted out of the escalator to the Pyongyang metro, so deep underground that people sat down for the ride. North Koreans whom my group approached in parks or at tourist attractions would occasionally spontaneously break out in song.

The Kim dynasty has long fostered this kind of musical enthusiasm. Kim Il Sung played the organ at his church as a child. In his essay "On the Direction Which Musical Creation Should Take: A Talk to Creators," Kim Jong Il writes of two versions of the song "General Kim Il Sung Is Our Sun": one in E major and one in D major. Although the younger Kim prefers D, the elder Kim said, "When the song was sung in a higher key, it was better for expressing emotions richly." Kim Jong Il listens carefully and concludes that "the song expresses the writer's emotion more vividly" in a higher key.

Songs communicate political messages, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally, as a reminder of the superiority of the Koreans and their society. "You can chart the production of songs and lyrics against state editorials," says Howard. Some North Korea watchers viewed the song "Footsteps," which children in North Korea were reported to be singing last year and which praises a "Captain Kim," as a message to the people that Kim Jong Il is grooming his son Kim Jong Un -- referred to in some official propaganda as a "youth captain" -- for power. "No memo goes out about the succession, but people should know through the music," says Adam Cathcart, an expert on Asian musical diplomacy at Pacific Lutheran University.

North Korea lacks pop stars in the traditional sense. Among the country's best-known singers is Hong Yong Hee, who appears in the revolutionary opera Flower Girl -- about an impoverished rural sweetheart tormented by her landlord -- and whose face graced an older version of the North Korean one-won bank note. The band Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble has a Myspace page offering free downloads, but hits like "No Motherland Without You" and "Reunification Rainbow" would seem to have little international crossover potential. Many North Korean bands feature an accordion, borrowed from the Soviet model of culture. "The accordion is very portable," Howard says. "If you're running dance classes or singing in the countryside, you can't take a piano."

The Samjiyon band is overseen by the Mansudae Art Troupe, named for the hill where Kim Il Sung made a historic speech after gaining control of the country after World War II. Like most organizations in North Korea, Samjiyon's name comes from a story in the Kim pantheon: It was a site of awesome revolutionary fervor in the battle against the Japanese. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Samjiyon has "been appreciated by many tourists," some of whom were "deeply impressed by its instrumentalists' and singers' refined artistic talent, unaffected acting on the stage, and soft rhythmic movement." The band's New Year concert, the agency reports, boasted a "full house everyday." This being North Korea, there's no way to confirm these or many other facts about the band, much less interview its members. My North Korean guide, however, was unimpressed and didn't come to the show. "I prefer the symphony orchestra," the guide told me.

But I, for one, was excited as I sat in the theater -- the same one in which the New York Philharmonic performed in 2008 -- waiting for the band to show. Our group of Western tourists sat behind a row of Korean schoolgirls from Japan: the chongryon, or pro-Pyongyang Korean expatriates, who wore Kim Il Sung pins and giggled with excitement. They approached us for photos with their expensive cameras and flashed the V sign.

The lights dimmed. A woman came onstage wearing a sparkling white dress and praised Kim Jong Il in a trembling voice. The singers came out next, the women wearing matching monochromatic dresses, the men in suits. They performed in front of a video backdrop that shuffled among an array of revolutionary images: the Juche Tower. A North Korean flag blowing in the wind. A forest fire. A path through a field in the mountains.

Against an instrumental backdrop of trumpets, flutes, strings, and piano, the singers worked their way through songs like "Long Live Generalissimo Kim Il Sung," "Led By You, We Will Win," and "The Song of Roast Chestnuts." There was a stillness to the performers; they didn't seem to be communicating with the audience, but rather singing by rote, like a rehearsal in an empty auditorium.

After 15 minutes of this I began to get restless and looked around at the audience. Many of the Westerners sat there rapt, as if just being in North Korea were enough to make a juche-themed answer to the Lawrence Welk Show enthralling. The North Koreans, however, looked disinterested. Too well-mannered to talk, they stared at the walls or rested their heads in their hands. One woman had dozed off.

Suddenly the energy in the room changed. A tall man with a bouffant pompadour and a white bow tie came onstage. He seemed to look everyone separately in the eye as he scanned the theater, eliciting excited murmurs from the audience. The music sounded like a cross between a symphony orchestra and an Atari game. As the man sang, he moved confidently around the stage, his hands open and welcoming. The audience started clapping along. At one point, he held a note for a satisfying 15 seconds, a genuine smile on his face, and the audience went wild. I clapped along, too. Then the other performers returned. Minutes later, like the woman seated behind me, I fell asleep.

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