February 15, 2015 / 8:24 AM / in 3 years

Greeks brim with pride as country totters on the edge

Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem (L) looks at Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (R) during an extraordinary euro zone Finance Ministers meeting to discuss Athens' plans to reverse austerity measures agreed as part of its bailout, in Brussels February 11, 2015.Yves Herman

ATHENS (Reuters) - For over a fortnight, Europe's single warning to Greece has been that the chaos and misery of national bankruptcy await it unless its new left-wing government changes its anti-austerity tune.

The message of impending doom appears to have gone largely unnoticed on the streets of Athens, where a mood of hope and optimism bordering on euphoria reigns as Greeks see themselves finally shaking off foreign shackles to shape their own destiny.

"Bankrupt but free" proclaimed a banner at a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday that drew thousands. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis was isolated at Thursday's crunch euro zone meeting in Brussels, but Greek TV channel Mega's main news broadcast on Thursday gushed over him "stealing the show".

"For the first time in years I feel proud to be Greek," said Lena Dousiou, a 32-year-old who worked in a printing shop before being laid off two years ago. "We went to the Europeans with our head held high and told them 'Enough is enough!'"

Another TV feature on Varoufakis had the pop hit "Can't take my eyes off you" in the background. Far from obsessing over a potential Greek banking collapse or a euro zone exit after Thursday's talks ended without agreement, Greek newspapers ran headlines suggesting a "bridge" deal would soon be adopted. "Spring in Athens, fog in Brussels" proclaimed Efimerida ton Syntakton on its front page.

Two polls this week showed that over three-quarters of Greeks support Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's hardline stance for a wholesale cancellation of Greece's bailout program, which has alarmed Europe and left Athens dangerously close to bankruptcy.

An opinion poll this week showed 79 percent of Greeks backed Tsipras's policies and 74 percent believed his negotiating strategy will succeed, even though Greece has so far found not a single ally among 19 euro zone nations.

The mood is in stark contrast to 2012 when panic over a potential Greek euro zone exit prompted Greeks to vote in a pro-bailout government despite popular discontent with the program. Two and a half years later, the public mood has shifted from anger to the point where many Greeks feel they have nothing more to lose. Austerity imposed as a condition of the 240-billion-euro EU/IMF bailout has pushed joblessness over 25 percent and cut incomes by over a third.

"We'd hit rock bottom," said Minas Kontogeorgopoulos, 59, who works in a key-cutting shop in a dimly lit arcade in central Athens where some shops are boarded up and others bear "For Sale" signs.

"The Europeans have humiliated us. I don't know if Tsipras will succeed but someone had to tell them enough is enough."

"PRIDE AND DIGNITY"

The fledgling prime minister's resounding success on the domestic front while simultaneously horrifying policymakers elsewhere reflects the extent to which Greeks resent the "humiliation" of being told what to do by foreign powers, a common theme in the Mediterranean nation's history.

In an emotional first speech to parliament as prime minister, Tsipras mentioned the word "dignity" 11 times.

A skilled orator with a keen sense of the public mood, Tsipras has made restoring Greek pride after four years of "national humiliation" at the hands of what he paints as dogmatic foreign technocrats a cornerstone of his rhetoric.

"We declare categorically that we will not negotiate our history," Tsipras thundered in parliament to rapturous applause. "We will not negotiate the pride and dignity of this people."

While many European policymakers see the Greek problem as a mostly economic issue which Greeks must resolve by following the terms of commitments they have made to secure money, for many Greeks it is a cultural issue that taps into long held suspicions of nefarious foreign interests and victimization.

Much Greek resentment toward foreigners stems from the centuries when it was under Ottoman rule, cut off in what many Greeks saw as a backwater away from the Renaissance and other enlightenment progress enjoyed by other Europeans.

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

Many senior Syriza officials have spent years portraying Greece as a victim of foreign interests. New Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias published a book a year ago titled "Greece: Debt colony. European autocracy and German primacy".

"They are the only ones sticking up for the people," said Nikos Baltopoulos, a 47-year-old engineer. "I didn't vote for Tsipras because he seemed too radical, but maybe this is what we need. Austerity had numbed us all these years, we started accepting whatever we were told."

Additional reporting by Jeremy Gaunt and Lefteris Karagiannopoulos; Editing by Giles Elgood

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