Austerity has given them a new sense of foreboding

When mission heads representing the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) fly into Athens on Sunday — for the start of a review upon which the future of Greece will hang — what they will find is a country teetering on the edge: its people divided as never before; its mood brittle; its streets the setting for running battles between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis. And unions girding for battle.

After six years of recession, four years of austerity and the biggest financial rescue programme in global history, it is clear that Greeks have moved into another phase, beyond the fear, fatigue and fury engendered by record levels of poverty and unemployment.

There is a new sense of foreboding: a belief that they might never be “saved” and, worse still, could turn against each other. This week’s murder of the hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the far-right Golden Dawn party highlighted that fear. Nervy, bespectacled and intense, Stamatis Stefanakos (41) is typical of the new type of activist Greece’s economic crisis has spawned. For the past year, the computer scientist has volunteered at food banks and participated in the burgeoning solidarity movement now taking root in local neighbourhoods. He has witnessed, first-hand, the “quiet desperation” of ordinary Greeks pushed to the brink by draconian cuts, escalating taxes and loss of benefits.

Greek officials make no secret of the fact they are investing hope in Germany, the main provider of bailout funds to date. “After the elections there everything will change,” said one well-placed insider. “The new government will be able to relax the pressure.” But few are persuaded.

With joblessness nudging 28 per cent, Greece’s largest labour union, GSEE, this month predicted it would take at least 20 years before employment returned to pre-crisis levels. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s fragile coalition hit back, describing the forecast as the “worst possible scenario, designed to predict catastrophe and create a false impression”. But in a country which has seen its economy contract by 25 per cent since 2008, it is the union and not the conservative-dominated government which has been proved more accurate in its predictions.

Fears are mounting that unless Greece is cut some slack it will tip into the sort of left-right strife that kept it divided, bloody and poor in the 1940s and internationally isolated during the seven years of military rule that preceded the restoration of democracy in 1974. No party has profited more from the crisis than the vehemently anti-immigrant Golden Dawn. In the last three months, support for the extremist group has jumped from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

“Greece today is at the door of the madhouse. Democracy is endangered,” the columnist Panos Amyra warned in the pages of Eleftheros Typos , whose views often reflect those of the governing centre-right New Democracy party.

Four years of relentless cost-cutting has not been without result. Greece has balanced its budget to the point it is now on track to achieving a primary budget surplus once debt repayments are made. That, says Mr. Samaras, will allow it to return to markets and relinquish dependence on international aid. Greek officials hope that once a new government is installed in Germany, Berlin will also agree to discuss debt forgiveness — widely seen as the only possible way of making Athens’ € 321 billion debt load sustainable. But much will depend on political stability and that is far from given.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013