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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, French President Francois Hollande and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker take part in a euro zone EU leaders emergency summit on the situation in Greece in Brussels, on July 7, 2015. Yves Herman—Reuters

Greek Debt Crises Haunted by Balkan History

Jul 10, 2015

Things can always get worse, and few places prove it like the Balkans. Twenty years ago this week, President Bill Clinton’s national security team was struggling to come up with a plan to save or replace the failing three-year-old United Nations “peacekeeping” mission in Bosnia. On July 6, 1995, Serb forces overran the UN-protected “safe-haven” of Srebrenica and slaughtered more than 8,000 men and boys in the worst European massacre since World War II. Even now, some 1,200 people remain missing in the scattered mass graves of eastern Bosnia.

Today’s Balkan crisis in Greece is not nearly so acute. A last ditch effort to avoid chaos is afoot as European creditors and the self-described radicals now ruling in Athens race towards a Sunday deadline for a deal to avoid economic collapse. A deal looks increasingly likely, but with some on the right still looking to teach Greece a fiscal lesson and others on the left urging Athens to rebel against its creditors, it is worth remembering there is plenty of room for more pain.

Banks remain closed and runs on products that can retain value have begun. If there is no deal by Sunday and Greece is forced to drop the Euro to pay its international and domestic bills, food and medicine shortages and fast-rising inflation are likely. In that event, says former U.S. Ambassador to Athens, Charles Ries, “You’ll see further hardship in the middle and lower classes, incomes will be worth less and household income will go down.” With little credibility left for the Greek government on the world markets, printing money may be the only way to fund public payments and rapidly rising inflation could further impoverish the country.

Where economic collapse leads the way, political unrest sometimes follows, and scared Greeks rightly worry that social order and stability are in danger. Greece, for all its historical claims as the font of western democracy has a more checkered recent political past. A civil war between the Greek government and communists backed by Yugoslavia and Albania followed World War II, and a right wing military coup took power from 1967 to 1974, relinquishing control only after the debacle of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. A radical left-wing terrorist group, November 17, attempted for years to violently overthrow successive democratically elected governments.

To be sure, Greeks have a strong national identity and sense of their own history, and view their country as integrally tied to Europe. Both Ries and another former U.S. ambassador, Nicholas Burns, see prospects for a deal to avoid a Greek exit from the Euro increasing, and both think political collapse is unlikely. But the recent referendum over whether to accept a European bailout showed “a country very badly divided,” says Burns. “I don’t think the state will break over this,” he says, but Greeks “do have a tradition of demonstrations and angry political discourse” that “could really roil the politics.”

Crucial to stability in the event of a worsening economic crisis are the leaders of the far-left alliance, Syriza, and that is the primary cause for worry, says Burns. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has “driven the country into a ditch,” but is taking no responsibility for his actions, says Burns. Syriza’s leadership, “Strike me as highly ideological [and] quite inexperienced,” says Burns, “And I just worry that they haven’t shown the kind of sophisticated, calm leadership that you’d want in a real national crisis.”

Some observers in Greece see signs of the fraying of liberal political consensus in the current disarray. Prosecutors in Athens have launched an investigation into coverage of the recent referendum by local media, and statements by Syriza leaders, including the Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis, have further fanned concerns. Nor do the nationalist sympathies driving much of the outrage against austerity necessarily fall naturally on the side of pluralist democracy: right wing political groups, including followers of “Golden Dawn,” have been arrested for violent attacks on members of the political left in recent years.

With the possibility of economic collapse imminent, it seems Syriza’s leaders and Greece’s international creditors may be able to reach a deal. It is certainly the most reasonable course of action. But as the world pauses to remember the dead at Srebrenica, it is worth remembering that especially in the Balkans, many have died assuming that things couldn’t get any worse.

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