Joe Bennett: Here's what's wrong with Athens

At first glance,  nothing seems wrong in Athens.
At first glance, nothing seems wrong in Athens.

At first glance, nothing seems wrong in Athens. No one's rioting. Rubbish isn't piling in the streets. People aren't queuing at the ATMs to bleed them dry. Old men sit and smoke at cafe tables as they have always sat and smoked, with a short black coffee and a glass of water. And sun-ripened tourists teem over the Acropolis in the heat, with guide books and cameras and plastic bottles of warm water, sweating for cultural betterment.

But look at the stray dogs. They abound in the city centre, stretched out in patches of shade. Some lie in the doorways of department stores, drawn by the air conditioning. Shoppers step over and around them, unafraid. For these are not the feral dogs of Bangkok, say. Most have collars. One's got only three legs. No dog becomes three-legged without veterinary attention. These are former pets, abandoned.

A lot of shops are advertising steep discounts and others have given up. The metal shutters have rolled down on their defeat and those shutters have become a riot of graffiti. It's not the tagging of adolescent males. It's raw political sentiment and enough of it is in English to tell the story. "Vote Anarchist: for nothing, against everything." "What goes along comes back again, policia assassina." And there is advice to Angela Merkel of an auto-erotic nature.

Greece played Germany at football a few days ago. When Germany scored, the sight of Ms Merkel jumping to her feet with girlish excitement did not go down well here. And the Germans scored four times. They were simply too good for the Greeks: fitter, better trained, more disciplined. "There is a lot of talk," a man, at a bar, told me, "of the Second World War. The Germans never paid us what they owed us."

The time to riot here is in the evening. The daytime heat is too fierce, although they've built for that heat, shading the squares with olive and orange trees, and lining the major thoroughfares with high colonnades.Cops are everywhere. Most ride motorbikes and all wear sunglasses. They gather at street corners in knots of half a dozen, like idle youths, smoking and laughing, secure with their own kind. Sometimes they drive a beggar woman away from the tourist areas, but that is all the policing you see them do.

Yesterday evening a busload of riot police was stationed in a back road off Syntagma Square where parliament is. The bus windows were metal grilles and the inside was hung with helmets and shields and body armour and night-sticks. The cops milled on the pavement in T-shirts. They were absurdly young.

Greece has just held its second election in a month. The result, a coalition that will try to keep the country in the euro. But the politicians are largely the same ones as presided over Greece's descent into catastrophic debt. There is little sense of a new dawn.

An Australian accountant I met was in no doubt how the crisis had arisen. "Take doctors," he said. "They pay no tax. None at all. Zip. It's just the way things are done here. Or not done. What they tell Brussels they do, and what they actually do, are chalk and cheese."

I don't know if he's right but there is clearly something wrong. Each morning I go for coffee up the road from my hotel. Opposite the cafe is a little square and beyond the square is a government benefit office of some sort. People start arriving at the office a couple of hours before it opens, older people mostly, the women in cotton dresses, the men in fawn slacks and short-sleeved shirts. Some bring chairs and bottles of water for the wait. In the scruffy little square there are four benches, and each bench has a sleeper on it. Others lie curled on the crabby, ant-ridden grass.

Athens has seen bad times before. In the fifth century BC the Persians invaded and ravaged the temples of the Acropolis. But 50 years later, under Pericles, the temples were rebuilt and Greece became perhaps the greatest city state in western history, a birthplace of ideas that have shaped your mind and mine, and the first democracy. The citizens and the state back then were almost the same thing. They aren't now.

The Dominion Post