July 13, 2024

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker
Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker

Greece has been remarkably calm. Syntagma Square, the main square facing the parliament building, has not been full of protesters in weeks. The upscale hotels lining the square no longer have journalists reporting from the balconies, and the stands that had been set up to provide food and beer for people in the square have long since been dismantled.

But is this just a relative calm? Greece’s troubles are far from over, both economically and politically.  Yesterday, prime minister Alexis Tsipras announced his resignation, requiring a snap election in the next few weeks.  This is probably not a surprise to many Greeks—the ruling Syriza party became deeply divided following the results of the referendum, with many members speaking out against Tsipras’ actions. Tsipras even acknowledged the possibility of elections in one speech, but encouraged his party members to instead hold a congress in September.  It is unclear what direction Greece will go in politically after Tsipras leaves office.

The instability doesn’t stop there; the recent increase in illegal immigration threatens the socioeconomic infrastructure on various islands.  The UN Refugee Agency’s spokesperson William Spindler said that there have been 160,172 arrivals to Greece (sea and land combined).  In July alone, there were 50,242 arrivals to Greece, compared to 43,500 in the whole year of 2014. Although the spotlight has shifted  from the financial crisis, this is yet another side of the structural problems facing the Greek economy, as the Greek government is forced to use desperately-needed euros to improve the facilities and provide for the refugees’ basic needs.  

On the surface, things appear to be healing, but the events from this past summer will have long-lasting effects, and the Greeks still do not know exactly what to expect in the next few months, let alone the next few years.

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker
Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker

The July 15 referendum in Greece had the unique effect of simultaneously uniting and dividing the country. At first glance, or perhaps from an outsider’s perspective, it looked as though Tsipras had taken the needs of the people into account by giving them the right to vote. I heard Greeks say that this was their chance to unite in front of the European Union, and to show the EU (and the world) that they would not stand for the current state of economic affairs.  And once the “oxi” vote was reached, photos of revelers in Athens gave the world the impression that perhaps the Greeks would be satisfied with their decision, regardless of the outcome.

Unfortunately, the first problem with this idea is that Tsipras is facing a shaky future as prime minister.  The mentality behind putting such an important decision to the people of his country would seem, initially, altruistic, and perhaps it really was. But the fact that he campaigned for “oxi” makes the vote seem a little more partial. There was no debate and no opportunity for the public to hear both sides from trusted and knowledgeable sources. The referendum was held quickly, and it ended up benefiting Tsipras, providing him with the “no” vote he had campaigned for and buying him some time in office—even if only temporarily.

The second questionable aspect of the vote was the question itself and its implications. It was hardly specific and there was no rush to clarify it, even though the confusion was widely acknowledged.

This is, perhaps, what everybody already knows.  The referendum got all the media attention. Called out of the blue, it was a desperate move by a prime minister trying to keep his position and appease a public that yearned for something other than more of the same.  The world probably also believed that the vote would overwhelmingly be yes, a vote to keep the Greeks in the European Union and avoid the crushing possibility of a return to the drachma. But what the world did not see was how deeply divisive the vote actually was, not only within the Greek public as a whole, but also among families, friends, and couples.  Even among those who vote the same way, the vague question made their reasoning very different.

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker
I spoke with a couple in their twenties the day before the referendum was to be held.  We sat at an outdoor bar under a sky speckled with stars, slightly washed out by the light emanating from the nearby Acropolis, a continuous reminder of Greek history. I asked them if they would vote. The woman, a student at a university in Athens, said she would vote no.  She saw the “oxi” as a way to buy time, to allow Tsipras to work harder for the people and give them an opportunity at a better life.  When I asked her if she believed Tsipras to be working in the best interests of the people, she said yes, and that she trusted him.

The man, however, told me that he saw “oxi” as the better of two bad choices. There would be no positive changes, whichever way the vote went. His pessimism, juxtaposed with his girlfriend’s hope for the future, sparked a small amount of tension that followed them through three or four glasses of wine.

It seems like the Greek past is the biggest impediment to progress in the future. For some, the “oxi” vote is a defiant gesture against those who had refused to understand them before. For instance, a waiter in a restaurant that sits on the edge of the nicest part of Athens explained to me that he voted oxi partially because he was tired of his country being told what to do.  This answer is much more common than it should be. I have started to think that it is because no Greek can fully envision their future, so it is easier, or more attainable, to continually refer to the past.  

Some Greeks took it upon themselves to further entrench themselves in the past. Almost a month later, remnants of the oxi vote can be found all over Greece. In a walk through downtown Athens, spray paint, stencils, and markers spread oxi across walls of businesses and universities. There is even one on a bright white marble stone in front of the Greek parliament, where the guards dutifully change every hour. The signs of yes have dissipated since the vote, but “oxi” will remain, probably for years to come, reminding the people of the referendum and its unfortunately negligible influence on politics.  

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker
While the referendum was debated—and later passed—by the Parliament after the midnight deadline, there were at first peaceful protests that stood in front of the Parliament building.  These people did not want to accept the measures, and they were standing behind their oxi vote, hoping that their government would make a decision benefiting the public.  But the meaning of the oxi changed, becoming a violent rejection of all structure as angry youth, their faces wrapped in black bandannas, pitched molotov cocktails at riot police and shattered screens on ATM machines. That is the scene that people will remember from that night – the anger and aggression, not the masses of people unified under such a simple word.

As the referendum moves further into the past, it’s difficult to see what the future holds for Greece. Even Greeks are at a loss when it comes to guessing what may happen in the next few years.  This confusion on the part of the Greeks seems to be exacerbated by the fact that even when they get an opportunity to voice their opinions, or frustrations, it is widely ignored by the government.  The elections will be the next chance to be heard, but precedent has indicated that these opportunities are sometimes meaningless.

Oxi sign in Athens | Picture by Katherine Whittaker

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