Greeks are known for smoking too much, driving too fast and living like there’s no tomorrow. These displays of excess are expressions of freedom, much like breaking rules, being disorganized and procrastinating. They’re national pastimes, and proud ones at that.
But when half of Greece is burning and innocent people die, where does responsibility begin and freedom end? “Responsibility” is a word rarely uttered even in good times, and apologizing is half way to an admission of guilt, so when something bad happens it’s purely about a pastime more popular than football — blame.
To answer the conspiracy theory, it’s not the Turks, Americans or Albanians. In response to the terrorist theory, one cell phone found in Florina and one in Imittos does not a terrorist cell make. There’s a reason many refer to Greek press reports as “news” in quotation marks; they toe the line of sensationalist tabloid.
To answer cries of arson, admittedly there is a video with two men standing on the highly contended real estate of Imittos, but absolutely no economic gain in burning villages such as Zacharo or the site of ancient Olympia. And the 32 arrests, there isn’t a criminal element among them – it’s grandma with her BBQ, juveniles ratting on rivals, etc. Stats show that arson can be the cause of up to 30 percent of forest fires, with the remainder being a cigarette or runaway ash carried by gale force winds into parched vegetation. With the majority of people in villages in August and starting fires to cook around the same time, it may explain timing. But even if arson and accidents account for a few of the 3500 fires, it doesn’t absolve the government from decades of incompetence.
A Greek government in crisis usually has three stages:1) Neglect – make empty promises, create plans that are never implemented and misuse EU funds; 2) Denial — assure citizens that the European Commission and world press are exaggerating the problem, and everything is fine; and 3) Blame — after conspiracy and arson, fault past/present ministers, emergency personnel, local municipalities and even citizens.
The fact is, Greece has forest fires every year. Therefore, foreseeable events occurring every summer of every year with the same lacking infrastructure to cope cannot be called a “state of emergency” or “national tragedy.” This is neglect.
This country was a giant piece of kindling after the driest winter on record. It appeared New Democracy knew that when they earmarked millions to improve road networks in forested areas and clear vegetation near volatile areas. But in June when a valuable forest on Mount Parnitha went up in flames and 3000 fires in 30 days followed, these were big red flags.
Even as fires were burning and the EU commissioner (a Greek) told Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis to take responsibility, the public order minister said there had been better advanced planning for the fire season this year. This is denial. The same minister could not be reached a few days later when the mayor of Kefallonia pleaded for more funds and staff to protect his island, which again went up in flames this weekend.
A 100-strong staff was promised to guard Parnitha by August, but I drove around and found only two men without uniforms in a privately owned SUV who have been serving as volunteer rangers for years and using first aid supplies and equipment bought with donations. Then two weeks ago, the Public Order Ministry announced that new firefighting aircraft were costly and unprofitable to purchase and maintain.
So can we assume the current government is unworthy of re-election? Not really, because the opposition party of Pasok is just as much to blame; they were in power before 2004.
In the 1990s, the task of fighting fires was split and left two fragmented divisions rather than one streamlined cooperative. In giving fire services the sole responsibility of fighting forest fires, personnel now lack knowledge about forest areas, location of faucets and fire prevention measures, which are the domain of forestry services. Combating wildfires as a unified force is disorganized at best.
There are also EU funds unclaimed by Greece since 2000, including 24 million for forest protection, 9 million for the Seih-Sou forest near Thessaloniki (which burned down this weekend) and 80 percent of 91.6 million for projects that never started. This is in addition to the 120 million we pay in taxes annually.
Most importantly, Greece is the only EU country to never have a national forest registry. Without it, the government cannot enforce the law when people illegally seize and develop property.
So essentially, elections come down to what people remember. Pasok is counting on people being bitter about the recent fires and voting against New Democracy. But voters might be caught off guard and forgive New Democracy if they took responsibility and apologized. It would set a radical precedent, perhaps even become a new pastime.
The good people of Greece can only hope…and there’s a fine line between hope and denial.
Kat Christofer is a journalist based in Greece and authors the blog, An American in Athens.