Debt and foreigners, part of ancient Greek tradition

MARATHON, Greece Mon Jul 11, 2011 5:13am EDT

MARATHON, Greece (Reuters) - Modern Greeks may be suffering under the weight of debt, but they can hardly claim it to be a new experience.

Before launching himself upon invading Persian forces on a plain near this bucolic town in 490 BC, the great Athenian warrior Kallimachos pledged to sacrifice a young goat to the Gods for every enemy that was killed.

Like modern Greek leaders, however, Kallimachos rather underestimated what it would take to meet his obligations. His troops slaughtered some 6,400 invaders.

The Athenians didn't have that many young goats. So they spread the repayment and legend has it that it took them a century to honor the pledge.

In addition, Greeks do not have to look far to be reminded of foreign intervention in their affairs -- be it from Persians, crusaders, Ottomans, Germans or indeed, the International Monetary Fund, which with the European Union is demanding strict austerity in exchange for bailing out Greece's massive debt.

Marathon, in east Attica which gave its name to the endurance race after a runner took news of victory over the Persian invaders at the Battle of Marathon to Athens, is one example.

A more modern reminder lies nestled in the hills a little to the south in the suburb of Dionysos. Nearly 10,000 World War Two German war dead rest in crypts, killed in fighting in Greece.

On the whole, Greeks blame the current crisis -- one that has seen unemployment rise sharply, growth contract and financial markets walk away -- squarely on decades of mismanagement and corruption by both major political parties.

In other words, it is a home-grown mess.

But there is also underlying resentment at foreign involvement in their national affairs, feeding into a decades-old, perhaps centuries-old, popular belief that other countries are gunning for Greece.

"They want some of our islands from us," said farmer Costas Dimas as he sipped ouzo in the shade in the traditional Berdema (Confusion) Cafe near a pretty, sun-drenched square in Marathon.

He was referring to calls from German politicians and tabloid papers for Greece to sell its islands and maybe even the Acropolis in Athens to pay its roughly 350-billion-euro debt.

Such suggestions, whether serious or otherwise, trigger shrill reactions in Greece and stoke resentment.

BYZANTINE CONSPIRACIES

In a snack bar around the corner, an otherwise friendly seller of the traditional souvlaki dish complained, on learning that a foreign journalist was present, that British and other foreign papers were responsible for damaging Greece's profile.

Some populist journals abroad have focused on what they say is Greeks' laziness, their early retirement and what they deem to be comfortable pensions. Greeks accuse such papers of crude and offensive racial stereotyping.

Much Greek resentment toward foreigners lies in the centuries when it was under Ottoman rule, cut off in a backwater, many Greeks will say, from the Renaissance and other enlightened progress enjoyed by other Europeans.

But there is also simmering discontent with Germany's occupation, some of Britain's colonial exploits and the role the United States played in both the 1944-49 Civil War and the brutal 1967-74 military dictatorship.

In the current climate, Germany and the European Union are the target of much of the anger, primarily because they are the paymasters and are demanding austerity action from Greece along with the IMF in exchange for money.

"IMF Out" graffiti can be seen scrawled on walls in Athens along with posters telling EU leaders that opposition to cuts is not about to go away.

A young Cretan, meanwhile, told Reuters last week that if Germany paid properly for all the damage it did to Greece during World War Two, there would be no debt problem.

Reparations from Germany have been paid, but some say this was not enough given that Greece was one of the hardest hit of occupied countries, being left with famine and civil war.

Greece is also a country where conspiracy theories spread as fast as its wild fires can at the height of summer.

Oliver Stavrakis, a 20-year-old student in the Cretan city of Iraklio, said he was being told that the EU, IMF and others were using Greece as a guinea pig.

"At the university, lecturers say Greece is (just) a lab animal," he said, adding: "They give us a crisis and then think of how to get out of it."

Not everyone peddles the anti-foreigner line.

"Thank God they are there," said jeweler Yiannis Mendronis, in the town of Fira on the island of Santorini, when asked about the EU and IMF.

But many Greeks are wrestling with a dilemma. They want the EU/IMF money, of course, to pay off their colossal debt, but are deeply uncomfortable about the strings that come with it.

"Now we have no control," Denis Xanthopoulos, a shop-keeper in Santorini's town of Oia, said resignedly of the terms and conditions for austerity.

"It's like someone coming into your house and saying you mustn't eat steak, you must eat beans."

(Editing by Peter Millership)

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