George Papandreou mixes humor with harrowing escapades, cautionary tales
Thursday, October 17, 2013
When faced with recalcitrant opposition, you can dig in and cling to your own position, or you can compromise to create progress.
Confronted with change? Hew to the tried and true, or resolve to evolve.
If a soldier holds a submachine gun to your teenage throat, one understandable reaction is to give up on the human species altogether. Another is to decide to fight for democracy and try to improve the human condition.
Guess which set of actions describes the path taken by George Papandreou, former prime minister of Greece, who led the Mediterranean nation through its most turbulent period since the military junta of the late-’60s and early ’70s. Papandreou spoke to 2,600 people in Boston’s Symphony Hall Wednesday night in the second installment of Lesley University’s 2013-14 Boston Speakers Series. His talk came eight hours after his special visit with students in Marran Theater on Lesley’s Doble Campus.
Papandreou, prime minister from fall of 2009 to fall of 2011, described in detail the tumult attending Greece’s financial crisis, which kicked off this decade. Papandreou found himself at the helm of an economy whose deficit was a catastrophic 15 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. What’s more, Greece’s national debt outpaced its GDP, destroying the bond rating of the cradle of Western civilization, and creating panic.
“Once the bubble burst, every little sound created a stampede in the market,” said Papandreou. Worse still, Greece was suffering a “credibility deficit,” as the previous administration had been dishonest with its European Union partners about its finances. That presented a Herculean challenge to Papandreou, who was turning to the EU for loan guarantees that would provide the time necessary to take corrective action.
“My only option was full transparency,” Papandreou said. He also needed to win the support of Greece’s critics in Germany, France and two dozen other EU partners, as well as the United States.
In addition to coming clean about Greece’s finances, Papandreou rolled out a set of high-profile (and ultimately unpopular) austerity measures during the end of his term as prime minister, which had the effect of improving the national bond rating and stanching the flow of deficit spending.
“We succeeded in preventing a catastrophic deficit,” Papandreou said, adding that Greece’s cuts, when taken as a proportion of its economy, were tantamount to a scenario where the United States slashed $1 trillion of its spending.
And during this time, Greece’s parliament agreed to a 30 percent pay cut, while the administration cracked down on collusion between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, and collected unpaid taxes. (Greece used Google Earth to find “undeclared” swimming pools, in one example of aggressive tax collection.)
“The pains are beginning to bear fruit,” he said.
However, while the measures provided some important correction, ultimately they weren’t enough to save his job as prime minister. But that was hardly Papandreou’s first reversal of fortune.
Though born in St. Paul, Minn., and educated at Amherst College, Papandreou and his political father and grandfather lived as exiles during the years following the 1967 coup d’etat led by right-wing colonels in the Greek military. His life was threatened by soldiers demanding to know where his father was hiding (his father gave himself over to arrest upon seeing Papandreou in peril), and he saw his own grandfather’s funeral become a forum for anti-government protests. But Papandreou committed himself to restoring his homeland as a paragon of democracy.
Before being elected prime minister, he served as foreign minister from 1999 to 2004, during which time he worked to improve relations with Turkey, a longstanding enemy. The two nations began to come together over a disaster they had no role in: a set of devastating earthquakes in the summer of 1999.
Rather than fixating on the destruction, leadership and citizens of the two nations came together to provide aid to victims. Though relations subsequently cooled, the nations remain a long way away from past pogroms and pitched battles over territory.
“Today, the Greek islands are invaded by thousands of Turks, but this time, they’re not military, they’re friendly tourists,” Papandreou deadpanned.
Humor was as much a part of his remarks as harrowing escapades and cautionary tales. Referring to Washington squabbling, Papandreou kicked off his remarks by alluding to another “major battle being waged” — between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
He also quipped that Amherst College “wasn’t such a bad exile,” though he demurred when asked in the evening’s Q & A portion to “share a memory” from his time in the western Massachusetts “Little Ivy.”
“That’s a difficult one … at least to share,” he said, earning a prolonged laugh.
But Papandreou was serious about expressing his belief that diversity, empathy and willingness to see opponents’ side of an issue.
He extolled the virtues of a liberal arts education, which he said “allows you to expand your horizons,” rather than narrowing them purely for a career-training track. He also said having an international upbringing has underscored the value of diverse people “learning from each other,” a trait as important in politics as it is in interpersonal relationships.
“Our challenges are global but our politics is local,” Papandreou said, adding later: “No single party can carry the burden” of solving crises.
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