If confirmation were needed that this is the Asian century, a flight from crisis-ridden Athens to dynamic Bangkok would surely provide it. Thailand undoubtedly has its problems, with political conflict and natural disasters following in quick succession in recent years. But in the 20 years since I was here last it has boomed, with a night skyline to rival Shanghai’s, shiny new cars in place of the old tuk-tuks, and smart young people everywhere.
We’re here on a quick stopover to minimise the jetlag when we land back in Australia. We’ve left Greece, but Greece will never be far from our thoughts in the coming weeks and months. We were there for 10 weeks and it was my first visit, though I hope not my last. I leave with indelible impressions of a rich and ancient culture and of a warm-hearted people who don’t deserve the pauperisation the banks are trying to inflict upon them.
The rolling stoppages and protests against the Troika’s austerity measures were gaining pace as we left. Last weekend there was a militant demonstration of 35,000 in Thessaloniki where the annual international trade fair was being held. A vocal contingent raised the call for a general strike to bring down the government and reject the austerity package. This week there have been strikes by teachers as schools return after the summer break, by local government workers and by tax officers.
These union stoppages, organised by a self-serving and geriatric union bureaucracy, are designed to pressure the coalition government into saying “No” to the Troika’s demands and let off some steam. But the predictions are that the strikes will escalate in defiance of the union bureaucrats and coalesce into nationwide popular action.
As the country’s president Karolos Papoulias put it when talking to a Canadian delegation on Tuesday, Greece has had a “merciless lashing”. He added: “I think we have paid enough for our mistakes, and Europe must realise that it needs to help.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be inclining slightly more in that direction than some months ago because she’s under pressure not to antagonise her EU partners with her “Iron Chancellor” persona. The supreme court in Karlsruhe, in ruling that the EU bailout was legitimate, today put strict limits on how much Germany can contribute without going to the Bundestag, which may well say no. The Troika will have an eye to all this as it moves towards a decision on Greece and Spain.
Meanwhile the government in Athens has set up a commission to investigate how much Germany still owes Greece for the brutal wartime invasion and occupation by the Nazis in which Greece lost 13% its population, the largest proportional loss of all the occupied countries of the Second World War. Four members of the State Audit Council have been charged with going into the wartime archives to produce a verdict by the year’s end. The move is a desperate bid to restore some credibility at home and put additional pressure on the smug “Club of Brussels”.
SPAIN IN TURMOIL TOO
Greece’s debt pales in comparison with Spain’s, where Mariano Rajoy’s government yesterday upped the stakes with the EU by rejecting the conditions it wishes to impose on the country’s bailout (100 bn euros so far, with more to come). He’s making these noises because his country is on the verge of becoming ungovernable. One and a half million people turned out in Barcelona at the weekend demanding independence from Spain, and regional elections are due next month in Galicia and the ever-turbulent Basque country, while both provincial and national governments are paralysed by debt.
It is Madrid, by the way, that has “won” the dubious privilege of hosting the casino mega-complex EuroVegas. If it’s ever built, that is. Announcing his decision about the site on Monday the casino boss, Romney supporter and uber-Zionist Sheldon Adelson said the project would only proceed if Spanish authorities agreed to provide more than 60% of the finance and grant the legal tax and labour exemptions he’s demanding.
RICH AND UNPATRIOTIC
French President François Hollande appeared to come back from his summer break with a spring in his step, having resolved to do something about his growing reputation as a leader who promised much but is doing nothing. In a national address he announced that his “socialist” government would proceed with plans to tax all earnings over one million euros at 75%.
But one man was ahead of him – Europe’s richest man, and the fourth richest in the world, Bernard Arnault. At 63 he’s the boss of the luxury goods firm LVMH, that’s Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and he’s worth an estimated $42 billion. He had already decided to switch to Belgian nationality.
The leftist daily Libération greeted the news with the banner headline “Casse-toi, riche con” which roughly translates as something to do with sex and travel. Arnault is suing the paper, which is doing nothing to improve his image.
Perhaps he learned his patriotism from his childhood mentor, General François Buttner, who was also head of the military tertiary institution, the Polytechnique, when Arnault studied there from 1969 to 1971. At the start of the Second World War Buttner was with De Gaulle’s Free French army, then he defected to the Vichy regime which administered France on behalf of the Nazi occupiers. Like many collaborators, he went on to a glittering career after the war.