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'This Is Dignity?': Confusion and Anger Reign on the Streets of Athens

VICE News is in the Greek capital ahead of Sunday's momentous referendum, where the opposing camps are making their voices heard and simultaneous rallies will be held tonight.

by Andrew Connelly
Jul 3 2015, 12:29pm

Photo by Petros Karadjias/AP

"Either you give in to ultimatums or you opt for democracy. The Greek people can't be bled dry any longer."

It was with these emotive sentiments on national TV on Thursday evening that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras encouraged Greeks to vote "no" in Sunday's referendum, the meaning of which completely varies wildly depending on whom you ask.

On paper, it is a vote on whether to endorse the terms of the country's next financial bailout, yet this package expired on Tuesday at midnight after Greek and EU negotiators failed to make a new deal. The Eurogroup meeting of eurozone finance ministers then refused to extend it or hold further talks until after the referendum.

Yet members of Greece's opposition parties and European Union (EU) officials claim that the plebiscite really amounts to a judgment on whether or not the country keeps the euro currency and remains inside the EU. The Greek government denies this, arguing that a "no" vote would merely give them a strengthened mandate to secure Greece a better deal on restructuring their estimated 242 billion euro ($269bn) debt.

A tumultuous week for Greece begun on Monday when the government ordered the closure of banks and imposed a 60 euro daily limit on ATM withdrawals in an attempt to limit Greeks emptying the nation's banks. 

On Tuesday, Greece also became the first developed nation ever to default to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a 1.5bn euro loan. 

On Thursday, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has previously described austerity as "economic waterboarding," pledged to resign if Greece voted "yes" on Sunday and there will be pressure on Tsipras to do likewise in that eventuality, possibly triggering another election.

Related: 'Greeks Do Not Accept Shackles': Country Gears Up for a Major Referendum

Newspaper front pages showed throngs of frantic pensioners queuing outside banks as elderly people without credit or debit cards were suddenly left without money. This sparked outrage that was partially quelled on Wednesday when around 1,000 banks were opened to pensioners without cards, allowing them to withdraw 120 euros for the rest of the week.

VICE News spoke to Kiriakos Bistaros, who is camping outside the Ministry of Finance where he used to work as a part-time cleaner on a monthly salary of 325 euros. Bistaros gestured to Varoufakis, the finance minister who suddenly appeared and entered the building surrounded by a throng of TV cameras.

"Sometimes he speaks with us, I think he wants to help but the power is in the hands of the EU, not us. I'm voting 'no.' I want to stay in the Eurozone and the EU, but not like this," Bistaros said. "I haven't worked in over two years. If I didn't have my family to help, I don't know how I would eat."

Athens is crawling with journalists filming Greeks lining up at ATMs. Dimitris, a banker at the Piraeus Bank, sat in a café opposite such a snaking line and told VICE News: "I have already done my turn at 6.30 this morning, I waited 20 minutes to get my money. This is dignity?"

'This is not our debt. We didn't create it. Somewhere we lost the right to govern our lives.'

Despite his frustration, Dimitris is still voting "yes." He explained: "I'm pretty sure people don't know what is at stake. The same romantics who think that by voting 'no,' debt will disappear and democracy will flourish, are the same people who will be rioting outside the parliament if we vote 'yes.'"

Syntagma Square is the epicenter of modern Greek street politics and has been the scene of violent showdowns between riot police and anti-austerity protestors over the last five years. On Thursday afternoon, a small contingent of "no" supporters gathered around a stall.

Unemployed student Vasilis Gavalas told VICE News: "A vote for 'yes' will be the end of Greece, it will mean that I will accept austerity measures and accept to be colonized by the European Union. Greece will be reduced to nothing more than a protectorate. "

Helen Drahaliba, an unemployed designer added: "I hope as many people vote as possible, but many living in the villages might not be able to spare the money or time to cast their ballot. Also, in usual circumstances we are informed about these decisions months in advance. Here, we had one week."

Outside Evangelismos General — the largest hospital in the country — radiologist and union secretary Vivi Paschali posted anti-austerity signs on the gates.

"We've seen a spike in mental health problems and suicides here. These austerity measures bring poverty and poverty brings sickness," she told VICE News. "This is not our debt. We didn't create it. Somewhere we lost the right to govern our lives."

Outside the Panormou metro station, tourism development manager Eugenios Dendrinos frantically handed out "yes" leaflets and struggled to be heard over the "no" campaign's loudspeakers and bouzouki music. Dendrinos frowned: "That's the problem in Greece — the loudest voice prevails."

Watch the VICE News documentary, Greece's Young Anarchists here.

In 2014 the tourism industry employed nearly one fifth of the workforce and made up 17 percent of the country's GDP. Dendrinos worries that the political instability could change this: "Obviously it will be more difficult if people come to Greece and are not sure if they can get money out or not, or whether there will be turmoil or not. People just want to go somewhere to relax."

International bank account holders are not affected by the credit controls, though some ATMs around the city have run out of money. Dendrinos continued: "If we show a negative vibe towards our European partners, why should they co-operate with us? A 'yes' vote will make future discussions much easier. You need to make compromises in negotiations, a 'no' doesn't do that. People don't understand what they are voting for, they are being asked to make a decision on something highly technical, and so this referendum is not for everyone, it is for the few people that can understand. Anyway, if we Greeks can't be united and respect each other's choices then the outcome doesn't matter."

Related: Greek Banks Close for a Week Before Crucial Debt Repayment

On Thursday evening in Syntagma Square it was the turn of the Communist Party, who have called for a boycott of the referendum, to hold their rally. One of the attendees, Orestis Panteloglou, an unemployed journalist, told VICE News:

"We don't believe in the questions of the referendum, it's a false choice. If you just say no to the euro and go to the drachma, then it just means I count my poverty in another currency. Before we had illusions but at least we had money in our pocket, what do I have now?"

Panteloglou pulls out 70 cents.

"The closure of the banks didn't affect me because if I could withdraw 60 euros a day, I would live like a king! For two years I've been unemployed. For the last year I had no income — my mother gives me money from her pension, and I'm married with one child."

The referendum has also inflamed class tensions in a country where the civil war of the 1940s is still in living memory. On Friday evening, both "yes" and "no" camps will hold large simultaneous rallies in central Athens.

"What scares me most in the rivalry that is developing. It's a lose-lose situation but we are forced to choose sides," added Panteloglou.

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew