At first, Tuesday’s meeting looked like a thousand other upmarket business events: suits gathered at Claridge’s hotel in London’s Mayfair for a day’s discussion of how to reform Greece and its economy. But listening to the presentations from Greek ministers and officials about the airports, the ports, the land they were auctioning off to the highest bidder, the real purpose of the day came into sharp focus. Here, in an art deco room with five chandeliers and too many mirrored surfaces to count, was the beginning of a classy firesale.
The men from Athens were not calling it that, of course. “A professionally run privatisation plan” is how George Christodoulakis, the man in charge of Greece’s asset sales, preferred to describe it. But even he conceded that the pace and the scale of the government’s scheme to flog €50bn (£44.8bn) of assets within the next five years had been forced on it. “One can say: Is this the best time to sell assets?”
If the prime minister, George Papandreou, is to get the next slug of a loan from Europe and the IMF, he needs to get the parliament in Athens to agree to an unprecedented programme of spending cuts, tax rises and an auction of national assets. That fact was never openly acknowledged in the London summit of Greeks and foreign investors – but it was the drumbeat to all the lengthy sessions about privatising Greece’s energy and motorways and the gambling industry. “In the middle of a crisis is always the opportunity for new investments,” said Aris Syngros, executive chairman of the Invest in Greece campaign, from the stage. “The crisis gives the opportunity for big wins.” The big wins, of course, would go to those who snapped up Greek assets at bargain prices.
In an interval, the music from Zorba started up and it was hard not to imagine plates being smashed on the ground.
While the London-based financiers and businesspeople nodded through the presentations, news came in of the protests: hundreds of thousands out on a general strike against the austerity and the privatisations; teargassing; people injured. Which was more representative of the future for Greece, I asked Syngros: the demos or this agreeable meeting to carve up the economy?
“Those people in Syntagma Square are just a tiny minority,” he snorted. “They are public servants who have lost their privileges and the unemployed who are worried about some calamity. The silent majority in Greece know we made mistakes and that we need to change the structure of our economy.”
So much for the salesman’s pitch. What did the prospective investors think? “Bullshit,” said Stephanie, a young Greek-origin woman whose family business is commercial shipping. “What happens if Greece defaults on its debts? Or if it leaves the euro? How would any company feel about owning drachmas?”
A private-equity investor whose firm had already bought a hotel chain in Greece brought up the usual gripes. “The Greek government is a very willing seller but who would be a willing buyer in these circumstances? What about the corruption, the bureaucracy?”
And what about the politics? In Greece last week, I met workers at the Piraeus port authority. They had already seen one of their terminals go to the Chinese and hundreds of staff lose their jobs. Now they worried about them coming for another bite – and more unemployment. Privatisation raised cash upfront, admitted port employee Anastasis Fzantzeskaki, but it also sacrificed income. And with it, the young lost the chance of a career. “Our parents gave us a better society,” she said. “We’re giving our children nothing.”
A local trade unionist drove me to the crest of a hill overlooking the Chinese-run facility – lit-up, smart and bustling, it made a sharp contrast from the other industry nearby, which the government had run into decline. There, in Athens, were two models of capitalism side by side: one state-led, flush with hard currency and looking to invest; the other straining under the competition of the free market and now on the auction block.
Back at Claridge’s, the Greeks knew much of the interest for their goods was not in London at all. “A lot of the money for our assets is going to come from China, India, Brazil,” said George Gourdomichalis, another shipping merchant from Athens. “That’s OK: they’re societies growing up.” Coffee break began. In the conference room, a record by the Greek pop singer Monika started up. “Tell me why you don’t call me anymore.” she sang. “Don’t you want me anymore?”
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