Monday, June 10, 2019

Greece to hold snap elections after Syriza’s stinging EU defeat

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

June 10, 2019

Greece is facing a snap general election after prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his ruling Syriza party suffered a heavy defeat in voting for the European Parliament last month.

The vote will be held on July 7, almost four months before the leftwing Syriza government’s term was due to expire. Mr Tsipras tendered his resignation to President Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Monday, saying the country had “entered a prolonged pre-electoral period from the day after the European elections.”

“I believe this could presage risks for the smooth course of the economy . . . endangering the virtuous circle we have entered and the sacrifices the Greek people have made,” he said.

Mr Pavlopoulos approved the premier’s request immediately.

The European Commission warned last week that handouts legislated by the Syriza government ahead of the European vote could derail Greece’s target for a primary budget surplus — before debt servicing costs — of 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product for this year.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Tsipras pitches Greece into early election after EU poll setback

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

May 27, 2019

Alexis Tsipras wanted to be the first Greek prime minister in three decades to see out a full term in office — but heavy defeat for his ruling Syriza party in European parliamentary elections has prompted him to throw in the towel and pitch the country into an early poll.

The conservative opposition New Democracy party of Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be the favourite for the election, which is most likely to be held on June 30. New Democracy took 33 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s EU vote, compared with less than 24 per cent for Syriza.

Greek equity and bond prices rose on Monday as investors priced in the likelihood of a more business-friendly government in a country still recovering from a deep economic and social crisis. The benchmark 10-year bond yield dropped 32.6 basis points to 3.036 per cent, the lowest recorded since 2000, according to Bloomberg data.

Mr Tsipras was braced for defeat on Sunday but was taken aback by the scale of his party’s losses. Most opinion polls ahead of the vote had given the conservatives a lead of between 5.5 and 8 percentage points.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Who Is Playing Politics With the Port of Piraeus?

by Nikos Konstandaras

New York Times

May 23, 2019

Piraeus, the gritty port city that has provided Athens’s naval and commercial power throughout its tumultuous history, is the theater of a new conflict, one that pits local interests against economic development and a superpower’s global strategy. At least that’s the story that Greece’s dueling politicians are telling.

Greek archaeologists have stalled an investment of more than 612 million euros offered by a Chinese-owned company seeking to revamp and expand Piraeus’s port as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Early last month, Greece’s Central Archaeological Council, an advisory body, proposed declaring everything within the limits of the ancient city of Piraeus — most of which overlaps with the modern-day port and commercial center — an archaeological site. This would give archaeologists greater power to monitor construction projects and determine building designs in order to preserve archaeological finds.

For its part, the Piraeus Port Authority, in which China’s state-owned Cosco Shipping holds a 51 percent stake, fears that a designation as an archaeological site could cause serious delays in its project. The Chinese embassy even got involved following the Council’s proposal, seeking assurances that the port development plans will not be derailed.

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Monday, May 20, 2019

Greek banks play long game on road to recovery

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

May 20, 2019

When Martin Czurda devised a proposal last year to cut the huge pile of non-performing loans held by Greek banks, he was surprised initially to receive a non-committal response from the country’s finance ministry, given Greece’s push to improve its financial position.

“We put forward the idea of an asset protection scheme based on the GACS [state guarantee] model used in Italy. We thought it could be applied successfully to the Greek situation,” says Czurda, a veteran Austrian banker and chief executive of the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF), the body established by Greece’s bailout creditors that manages the Greek state’s stakes in the banks.

“My concern was that the pace of eliminating bad loans was too slow and that unless it could be accelerated, the country would be unable to return to sustainable growth,” says Czurda, whose fund is a minority shareholder in the country’s four systemic banks after taking part in three recapitalisations during the financial crisis.

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Alexis Tsipras: ‘We need more reforms’

by Tony Barber & Kerin Hope

Financial Times

May 20, 2019

Alexis Tsipras wears a relaxed, confident, almost philosophical smile as he contemplates the prospect of Greece’s parliamentary elections, due to be held by October 20 at the latest.

Since early 2016 every opinion poll has placed Syriza, the party he leads, in second place behind the centre-right New Democracy opposition. Many polls have Syriza trailing by 10 percentage points — a gap that implies a clear-cut defeat for the prime minister and his leftist party. But Tsipras, who will turn 45 in July, is nothing if not resilient and forward-looking.

“I’m not thinking about losing the election, I’m thinking about how to win the election,” he says in an interview in the Maximos Mansion, the official seat of Greek prime ministers in Athens.

“There is a saying: if the soldier goes off to battle in order to lose, it’s better not to go to the fight . . . I wasn’t born to be prime minister. I’m not from a political family. I became the youngest prime minister in Greek history, at the age of 40.

“Life is life. In life you have to fight. This is the only thing. But the final decision is the decision of the people — it’s not ours.”

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From entrepreneurs to athletes: Six women to watch in Greece

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times
May 20, 2019

For some of Greece’s most talented women, the financial crisis was a signal to migrate to jobs abroad. Others, though, saw greater opportunities at home. Below are six high-achieving women who are building the future in Greece.


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Businesses in Greece await positive prospects

by Tony Barber

Financial Times

May 20, 2019

Emilios Markou and Alexis Pantazis, two Cypriot businessmen, defied conventional logic in 2013 and launched an online insurance company in Greece amid the turbulence of the eurozone’s sovereign debt and banking sector crises. “At that time the people who invested in Greece were contrarian investors. For us, it was a case of ‘because of the crisis, let’s come here’,” recalls Pantazis.

The success of Hellas Direct, which specialises in car insurance, illustrates that Greece can be a rewarding market for those who invest shrewdly and with an eye to the long term. “After a period of mishandling of the economy at different levels, there’s been more political stability over the past three years. We keep joking: ‘Greece is a re-emerging market’,” says Markou.

The nation’s overall investment picture is mixed. Company executives, investors and government officials speak of an improving domestic business climate and a change for the better in international perceptions of Greece as an investment destination. However, the fragility of Greek banks, the semi-reformed condition of the nation’s cumbersome public administration and the inefficiency of the legal system weigh on investors’ minds.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Greek central bank fires warning over risk of missed budget target

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

May 16, 2019

Greece’s central bank governor has warned that a package of pre-electoral handouts due to take effect next week could derail the country’s budget target agreed with its bailout creditors.

Yannis Stournaras’s warning came as parliament on Wednesday approved hastily prepared measures that the leftwing Syriza government hopes will boost its popularity ahead of EU parliament elections on May 26.

The package of cuts in value added tax and a pension bonus would cost around €1bn, according to the finance ministry.

Speaking to the Financial Times on Thursday, Mr Stournaras said first-quarter budget figures indicated that the primary surplus — which excludes debt service costs — declined by 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product compared with the same period in 2018. He forecast the trend would continue as tax collection slowed ahead of a general election due in October.

“There is no fiscal space for handouts,” Mr Stournaras said. “The government is unlikely to collect taxes at the same pace as last year, while it will have to address this year a large body of further pension claims covering the crisis period.”

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Greek government wins confidence vote

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

May 11, 2019

Greece’s minority leftwing Syriza government narrowly won a parliamentary vote of confidence on Friday night after three days of heated debate over economic policy and prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ record during four years in power.

Mr Tsipras called the confidence vote after Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the opposition leader, proposed that MPs should censure the deputy health minister for criticising a disabled psychiatrist running in next week’s elections for the European Parliament with his centre-right New Democracy party.

Syriza captured 153 votes in the 300-member parliament thanks to support from a group of rightwing and independent lawmakers who have backed the government since the collapse in March of its coalition with Independent Greeks (Anel), a small nationalist party.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Athens in Pieces: The Tragedy of Democracy

by Simon Critchley

New York Times

February 27, 2019

Our next location is a mere 100 steps from where I’m writing these essays. I pass it every day on my way to and from the library. It is the Monument of Lysicrates, built around 334 B.C.E., just about the time Aristotle returned to Athens to found his Lyceum. I always pause there, take in the view and watch the many seemingly well-fed and contented cats scattered around the place. If you let your eyes drift up from the monument, your vision is seized by the vast sacred rock of the Acropolis. It is skin-pinchingly sublime.

Indeed, New Yorkers might experience a feeling of déjà vu or double vision with this monument because you can find not one, but two copies of it atop the San Remo apartment building on Central Park West, just north of the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died. The monument was also widely copied elsewhere.

The original Monument of Lysicrates is composed of a 9.5-foot-square limestone foundation topped with a 13-foot-high cylindrical edifice. There are six Corinthian columns, thought to be the earliest surviving examples of that style, made from marble from Mount Pentelicus, about 15 miles northeast of Athens. These support a sculpture divided into three bands that carry an inscription commemorating Lysicrates — a wealthy patron of the arts of whom little else is known — and a frieze depicting the adventures of the god Dionysus and some pirates whom he transformed into dolphins. The god sits caressing a panther as some satyrs serve him wine, while others, with torches and clubs, drive the pirates into the sea.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Athens in Pieces: In Aristotle’s Garden

by Simon Critchley

New York Times

February 18, 2019

Aristotle had slender calves. His eyes were small. And he spoke with a lisp, which — according to Plutarch — was imitated by some. He wore many rings and had a distinctive, rather exotic style of dress — a kind of ancient bling.

I tried to piece together a picture of him as I arrived with my partner at the site of the Lyceum, Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s Academy, where I had visited the week before.

It is said that Aristotle was a difficult character — somewhat arrogant, thinking he was cleverer than everyone else (quite possibly true) and even criticizing his master of many years, Plato. He was a perhaps a bit of a dyskolos, a grouch, cantankerous, a curmudgeon.

Aristotle was not much loved by the Athenians. This might have been because he was a tricky customer or because he was a metic: a resident alien, an ancient green card holder; Greek, but decidedly not an Athenian citizen. Given his close ties to the Macedonian aristocracy, which was extending and tightening its military and political control across Greece, perhaps the Athenians were right to be suspicious of Aristotle.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

How Greece's PM hopes to solve his election riddle

by Renee Maltezou

Reuters

February 11, 2019

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been implementing his re-election strategy to the letter over the past six months, steering Greece out of a humiliating bailout and resolving a decades-old dispute with neighboring Macedonia.

So far, it isn’t paying off. With a general election no more than eight months away, his Syriza party is far behind in opinion polls.

That is despite two signature projects since last summer, evidence that the economy is climbing out of years of depression and willingness at last among investors to lend.

Tsipras was elected as a firebrand leftist in 2015 on a promise to reject the austerity required in the bailout.

He later caved in to the lenders’ demands and has reinvented himself as a conformist. Now, after years of austerity many ordinary voters cannot afford to keep the lights on, others are deeply indebted, and almost one in five Greeks is unemployed.

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

New hopes for reopening of famous Greek Orthodox seminary on Turkish island

by Kareem Fahim

Washington Post

February 6, 2019

American presidents, religious freedom advocates, the European Union and Orthodox Christian leaders have for years issued desperate appeals to Turkey’s government to reopen a shuttered Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off Istanbul, but to no avail.

Before it was closed in 1971, the Theological School of Halki stood for more than a century as the primary center of scholarship and clerical training for generations of Greek Orthodox leaders. Now, stripped of its educational role, its classrooms — emptied by arguments over politics, nationalism and minority rights — are kept pristine in the stubborn hope the students will someday return.

The latest attempt to sway the Turkish government has come from Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, who called this week for the seminary to be reopened during a two-day visit to Turkey. His cordial meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — despite a long history of conflict between the two nations and worrying recent flare-ups — has raised hopes among Orthodox leadership and members of Turkey’s ethnic Greek minority that a resolution to the deadlock over the seminary may finally be at hand.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tsipras seeks to mend Greece’s fractious relations with Turkey

by Ayla Jean Yackley & Kerin Hope

Financial Times

February 6, 2019

Alexis Tsipras became the first Greek prime minister to visit an Orthodox college that Turkey has kept closed for half a century as the two countries’ leaders pledged to do more to resolve several territorial and political disputes.

Mr Tsipras’s visit on Wednesday to the contentious seminary on a wooded Istanbul island was the symbolic high point of a two-day trip to Turkey and the Greek leader encouraged Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reopen the facility.

The closure of the Greek Orthodox school is one of multiple irritants between the two countries, whose relations became so bad in the mid-1990s that they were driven to the brink of war.

The two leaders have more recently found reason to mend fences, with Mr Tsipras’s visit to Turkey this week his fourth in as many years. But the obstacles to genuine warm relations are substantial.

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Athens in Pieces: The Stench of the Academy

by Simon Critchley

New York Times

February 6, 2019

The weekend traffic in the center of Athens was awful on the late January day I decided to visit the site of Plato’s Academy. Each of the narrow, slightly dog-legged streets in Plaka, the old city, was completely jammed, because recent angry protests, some of them violent, had forced the closing of roads around Syntagma, or Constitution Square.

Still, pedestrians were out in impressive force, filling the streets, intent on enjoying their Saturday shopping. Athenians take their weekends very seriously. Pantelis, my cabdriver, threaded his way delicately around people suddenly lurching, seemingly semi-oblivious, into the street and the constant chorus of motorcycles appearing out of nowhere and disappearing noisily into the distance.

Once past the clogged junction at Monastiraki Square, we pushed more easily along Ermou Street and headed northwest. We came to an area scattered with warehouses and former factories. The cab stopped by a huddle of abandoned buses. Ahead of us was what looked like an open area of greenery. Pantelis pointed and said, “Akadimia Platonos.” This must be the place, I thought.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Athens in Pieces: The Art of Memory

by Simon Critchley

New York Times

January 30, 2019

There is an ancient tradition relating to the art of memory, which legend says began with the poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.E.). Simonides was giving a recitation in the dining hall of the house of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, when he was called outside because two strangers wanted to speak to him.

When the poet exited, the strangers were nowhere to be found, and the dining hall suddenly and violently collapsed. Scopas and his guests were crushed to death and disfigured beyond recognition. But Simonides was able to identify each of the corpses by remembering the precise place where they were sitting or lounging before the calamity.

With this association of memory with place, or “topos,” the idea of mnemotechnics, or the art of memory, came into being. In order to recall something, one has to identify a locus either in the interior palace of one’s memory or by constructing an exterior, physical memory theater. Various attempts to build such memory theaters punctuate antiquity. It is a practice picked up again in the Italian Renaissance and continued into the architecture of Elizabethan theater — like Shakespeare’s Globe — and beyond.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Greece plots return to debt market with new bond issue

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

January 28, 2019

Greece plans to tap the international bond market for the first time since emerging last August from its third bailout programme, it was announced on Monday.

The country revealed plans to issue a five-year syndicated bond following a sharp fall in yields on the country’s debt. The bullish performance has come after the minority Syriza government ratified a deal to change Macedonia’s name, ending a 28-year dispute with its Balkan neighbour.

Yields on the benchmark 10-year bond declined to a four-month low on Monday, trading at 4.07 per cent. The five-year bond was trading at 2.85 per cent, just above a six-month low of 2.83 per cent last week.

“This issue was hanging in the balance last week while the government was scraping up extra votes to push the Macedonia deal through parliament, but the timing now looks good,” said one analyst in Athens.

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Friday, January 25, 2019

The Greek parliament votes to end the Macedonian dispute

Economist
January 25, 2019

Despite demonstrations and riots, the Greek parliament on January 25th voted to ratify a deal with Macedonia that ends a 27-year-old dispute over its name. “We are one step before a historic event,” said Alexis Tsipras, the embattled Greek prime minister, who has been accused of treachery by the opposition. “Nationalism in the Balkans has led to disasters...I believe the time has come to escape nationalism.” His plea succeeded. The change was approved by 153 of the 300 members of parliament, two more than needed.

The vote means that only technicalities remain before Macedonia formally changes its name to North Macedonia. One step is the formal ratification of a protocol by Greece by which it assents to its northern neighbour joining NATO, though this is not expected to cause any problems. The deal that brought all this about, which was signed in June by the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers, has already seen Greece lift its objection to Macedonia opening negotiations on EU accession. The agreement is a compromise. Macedonia has to change its name to suit Greece but its people will still be known as Macedonians and their language Macedonian, without the addition of the word “North”.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

How Greece’s Alexis Tsipras went from firebrand to statesman

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

January 24, 2018

Alexis Tsipras, Nobel laureate? The idea being touted for Greece’s prime minister by some of his senior officials might seem far-fetched. But Mr Tsipras can certainly expect international acclaim if, as expected, Greek MPs ratify a deal to end one of Europe’s longest bilateral disputes.

In a knife-edge vote, Greece is poised to sign off on Thursday on a plan for its neighbour, officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to change its name to “North Macedonia”. Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian premier, has already won his parliament’s approval for the arrangement, which satisfies Athens by dropping an implied claim on the Greek region of the same name. The deal is strongly backed by the EU and Nato, which want to bring Macedonia into the western orbit.

Even if the Nobel committee does not consider Mr Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, the 44-year-old Greek prime minister is barely recognisable as the leftwing firebrand who threatened to denounce Greece’s eurozone bailout, ban German politicians from visiting Athens and pull the country out of the euro if its creditors rejected his demands for debt forgiveness.

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