By Ferry Batzoglou and Jörg Diehl in Athens
Small business owners in Greece have long been the backbone of the economy and reliable taxpayers in a country where tax evasion is rampant. That, though, is now changing. Self-employed workers like Angelos Belitsakos have had enough of rising taxes and have begun to revolt.
The people who could ultimately give Greece the coup de grace are not the kind to throw stones or Molotov cocktails, and they have yet to torch any cars. Instead, they are people like 60-year-old beverage distributor Angelos Belitsakos, people who might soon turn into a real problem for the economically unstable country. Feeling cornered, he and other private business owners want to go on the offensive. But instead fighting with weapons, they are using something much more dangerous. They are fighting with money.
Belitsakos is a short, slim and alert man who lives in the middle-class Athenian suburb of Holargos. He is also the physical and spiritual leader of a movement of businesspeople in Greece that is recruiting new members with growing speed. While Greece's government is desperately trying to combat its ballooning budget deficit by raising taxes and imposing new fees, people like Belitsakos are putting their faith in passive resistance.
The group's slogan is as simple as it is stoic: "We Won't Pay."
Working 12-Hour Days, Seven Days a Week
This business owners' absolute refusal to pay any taxes resembles an uprising of the ownership class, rather than the working class, a rebellion of the self-employed business owners who have long been the backbone of Greek society. These are not the people who weaseled their way into Greece's oversized civil service; these are people who put their money in the private sector, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Or so Belitsakos says.
Standing in his small store, Belitsakos makes a sweeping gesture and says that the people in his movement no longer have a choice. "The state will kill us," he says. "We're acting in self-defense." Then he starts to do the math. Over the last two years, his sales have massively shrunk as 60 of the tavernas and restaurants he used to make deliveries to have terminated their contracts with him. At the same time, the government has raised the value-added tax (VAT) twice while imposing a never-ending series of new fees. He mentions the €300 ($406) one-time fee for the self-employed, a two-percentage-point boost in the VAT, a €180 solidarity levy for the unemployed and a property tax that is "easily a few hundred euros every year."
The taxes are part of Athens' last ditch effort to avoid drifting into insolvency and to live up to the promises of austerity it delivered to the European Union. The country's vast debt means it is already reliant on the steady drip of aid it receives from a €110 billion rescue package passed last year, with a second such package likely to be passed this fall. But each payment from the fund is dependent on progress being made on the effort to clean up the country's finances.
That progress has been halting at best. In an effort to move the process forward, the government of Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou has recently announced it intends to cut thousands of more civil servant jobs. And it introduced a controversial one-off property tax which has angered many. Several other taxes and fees have also been introduced.
Belitsakos calls them "charatzi," a word from Ottoman times that can perhaps best be translated as "loot" or "compulsory levy." The term is meant to indicate taxes levied arbitrarily and without justification, such as the tithe once paid to feudal lords. "But I can't and won't pony up. It's wrong," Belitsakos says. "Don't you understand?"
A Common Type of Revolt
The situation finally drove Belitsakos to write a letter to the head of the local tax authority in the name of his group. "We see ourselves facing a whole series of new taxes," he wrote. "We are protesting and enraged." He went on to charge that the only purpose behind the new fees was the "dispossession and impoverishment" of the Greeks and that he was now forced to resist. Briefly put, he wrote: "We won't pay."
Belitsakos says the tax official he handed the letter to was understanding and friendly. The fact that the civil servant put on a brave face might have something to do with all the TV cameras that were present. But, in a place like Greece, it is also entirely possible that the official was simply not all that surprised that someone would announce they were evading their taxes.
As well-known analyst Babis Papadimitriou puts it, the average Greek may well love his country, but he views the state apparatus as a power that one can and should plunder. Papadimitriou says that while the European average for VAT taxes that are evaded is 10 percent, the rate in Greece is roughly 30 percent. About a third of the entire economy happens off tax-authority radars.
These days, even communists, unionists and leftists are raising a public outcry against the new taxes. This week, Aleka Papariga, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Greece, said that the only way to stop the complete bankrupting of the people was for them to not pay the "charatzi." In fact, financial resistance had now become the supreme civic duty, she said.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Greek Economy Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis said: "The question is how we can create a feeling of solidarity. One for all and all for one, that's what it's about now." Still, Chrysochoidis would not answer his own question. For the moment, he said, it doesn't look like the government can count on many of their fellow Greeks being willing to sacrifice themselves for the interest of the state. In fact, people are abandoning the government in droves.
Belitsakos, the beverage distributor, can't and won't play a role in rescuing his country no matter what. The reason has nothing to do with patriotism. Instead, it has to do with his mistrust of the government in Athens and "international financial capitalism" and the fact that, despite having once studied mathematics, he still can't fathom the amount of money at stake here.
Belitsakos stresses that his plan is to refuse to pay any and all taxes and fees. If he has to, he says he will either go broke, to jail or both. He is convinced that there are thousands upon thousands who think just like he does and that, in the end, the Greeks will win this battle that they never chose.
The only question is what they really have to win.