Following a recent cabinet reshuffle, one of the “new” faces which prime minister Alexis Tsipras introduced to his roster of ministers is one which is actually all too painfully familiar for the Greeks.
Fotis Kouvelis, often referred to mockingly as “Old Man Fotis” by ordinary Greeks, was named deputy defense minister as part of the reshuffle. Kouvelis had previously served as the leader of the “leftist” Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, which participated in the governing coalition which was established following the parliamentary elections of June 2012, alongside New Democracy and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). This government helped usher in the painful austerity measures of the second memorandum between Greece and the “troika,” which had previously been agreed to by the highly unpopular non-elected government of European Central Bank technocrat Loucas Papademos.
DIMAR resigned from the governing coalition in June 2013 in the aftermath of the then-government’s shutdown of state broadcaster ERT, but the damage was done. DIMAR has all but disappeared from the electoral and political landscape of Greece. Apparently though, the same cannot be said of Kouvelis himself, who has now re-emerged in Tsipras’ government despite not having been elected.
Amazingly though, the classic Orwellian film “Brazil,” released in 1985, may have unwittingly “predicted” the Greece of 2018. Depicting a terrifying and dysfunctional retro-dystopian society at some unspecified point in the future, one of the film’s main protagonists was the “deputy minister” Eugene Helpmann, a man whose terrifyingly sinister side was camouflaged by his pathetic and “folksy” public stature.
As if Brazil’s director had a vision into the future, the side-by-side photo pictured above shows an incredibly eerie resemblance between deputy minister Helpmann (played by Peter Vaughan) and Fotis Kouvelis. However, is this the only resemblance?
The dystopian society depicted in “Brazil” was stiflingly bureaucratic and remarkably dysfunctional on the one hand, yet ruled by an iron fist by an unseen (but presumably “leftist”) government, of which the aforementioned “deputy minister” was the highest figure shown or even named to the audience. No one was at the controls. Yet the overbearing state was everywhere — as was the brutally efficient police force.
Is this really much different than the Greece of 2018, ruled by an “anti-austerity” government that introduced the third and most onerous memorandum agreement and set of austerity measures, which will remain in place long after Greece’s purported “exit from the memorandum” this August, and long after the expiration date of the current regime?
The Greek state is both purposely incompetent, with no shortage of horror stories of Greek bureaucracy and the Greek “justice” system, yet terrifyingly efficient. Elderly venders selling chestnuts on the street without a permit are harassed, intimidated, and arrested by the police, while even the smallest of debts to the Greek state are digitally confiscated from the bank accounts of the elderly and unemployed.
The riot police (MAT), which SYRIZA pledged to abolish in one of its many pre-election promises, remains fully operational today and has not hesitated to break apart demonstrations and to physically attack protesters, cracking the heads of elderly men who have the audacity to protest the continuous cuts to their pensions.
The state itself is overbearing and “paternal,” and in reality essentially inescapable. Establishing a business or corporation can be a nightmare. If a Greek owns a property which may have been inherited from relatives, or owns a car which may in fact have been purchased during better economic times, the system of taxation implicitly presumes “tax evasion” and levies a tax based upon an assumed income threshold which may not actually exist. Guilty even if proven innocent. For years, Greek households had to save receipts even for the smallest of expenses, in order to “prove” they were not evading taxes. Today, Greeks are encouraged to conduct all of their expenses electronically and with plastic cash, and are promised some paltry tax breaks for reaching a certain spending threshold using such methods of payment. Meanwhile, the state tracks all of your expenses, all in the name of fighting “tax evasion,” not much different to the universal surveillance state depicted in “Brazil,” created in the name of “fighting terror.”
For the privilege, Greeks enjoy one of the most stifling and regressive tax systems in Europe. Even staples such as orange juice are taxed at 24 percent. Instead of getting social services, health care and pensions one can live on, Greeks get a bigger, fatter state, rife with patronage hires (such as at the reopened state broadcaster ERT). Wealthy Greeks, however, simply move their money to offshore tax havens and are not investigated by the authorities, who are too busy harassing chestnut vendors and putting on a dog-and-pony show with the politically motivated Novartis scandal, which “coincidentally” rose to the forefront after the massive Macedonia rallies, to care.
Meanwhile, like his big screen counterpart Eugene Helpmann, Fotis Kouvelis is a pathetic public presence, one who exudes a timid aura even whilst supporting the most savage and onerous of austerity measures, such as those which his party helped prop up during their period of co-governance in 2012 and 2013. And it is this man who is now Greece’s deputy defense minister, at a time where Greece is facing unprecedented threats and provocations from Turkey, Albania, and FYROM, as well as an ongoing influx of migrants which is destabilizing Greek society and which may pose a national security threat.
While social media had a field day with Kouvelis’ political re-emergence and his appointment to this particular ministerial post (via the circulation of memes such as the one pictured on the left), the threats Greece is facing are no laughing matter, except perhaps for the clowns masquerading as the “leftist” Greek government.
It seems, therefore, that Brazil’s director Terry Gilliam may have unwittingly had an image of the future when producing Brazil back in the mid 1980s, an image which he then masterfully depicted on the big screen, a vision of the crisis-ravaged Greece of 2018.