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June 29th, 2017

Insight

Greece says yes to no

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 9, 2015

   Greece says yes to no

Judging by the returns from Sunday's vote in Greece, there is no judging.

Voters there were asked to decide whether to accept Europe's terms for still more credit after those terms had expired -- even while Greece's erratic government opposed the very deal it had put on the ballot. Sure enough, the voters did. Though just what it all means seems as elusive as it was before the election. If not more so. This could go on for a while -- like indefinitely -- before the fog lifts.

The one thing clear is that Greece's "governing" party stays in, which can only mean more misgovernment. And even less clarity. To call the mood in Greece defiant would be a vast understatement.

As for Europe's central bankers, they seem just as unwilling to budge, even if they frame their statements more diplomatically, that is, in the usual banker-speak. A language so full of reservations and evasions that light seldom if ever penetrates it. Gloom prevails. In its own way, each side competes with the other to be more negative about prospects for a deal.

Ochi, or No, turned out to be the most popular word in the Greek language Sunday, just as it was in 1940, which is when Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas had a one-word reply to Mussolini's demand that the Greeks step aside and let him occupy their country: Ochi! Not just No but Hell, No!

The plan had been for the Italians to hold Greece so their German allies could proceed to invade Russia in the early fall of that year without having to worry about their rear. But the Greeks had different ideas. Outnumbered 10 to 1, the Greek army -- and people -- not only refused Il Duce's ultimatum but crushed the Italian war machine poised to invade their country, capturing thousands of prisoners and crushing Mussolini's best Alpine division.

So the German invasion of Russia had to be delayed till winter had begun to set in. And as every invader of Russia since Napoleon has discovered, the most decisive commander in any Russian campaign is General Winter.

The moral of that story and proud piece of history: This is not a people to be bluffed or bullied. Greek voters sent the same message to Europe's central bankers Sunday -- even if no one could know just what the deal they rejected meant, if anything.

The convoluted proposition that appeared on the ballot was certainly Greek to me. And it doesn't seem to have been very clear to the Greeks, either. But it was clear enough for them to say Ochi! And by an overwhelming margin. Seldom have so many said No so loudly.

It was all enough to make a puzzled observer at this remove wonder if this was an election or a Marx Brothers comedy, full of wordplay that canceled itself out, sound and fury signifying nothing.

On second thought, Sunday's referendum was more a Marx Brothers tragedy in which all the players not only lose but have no idea what the game is about.

For now the Greeks will continue to spend money they haven't got, and the Europeans will go on dunning them in a fruitless effort to collect a worthless debt. There doesn't seem to be any end to this endgame.

Meanwhile, Greeks cannot buy or sell, collect their pensions or conduct business in general. Such is life without a dependable medium of exchange. Every day, every hour, is a challenge.

The only thing clear is that the Greeks still refuse to be bullied. Which is reason enough to say Yes to their No. Having just celebrated our own Independence Day, it would be churlish not to welcome another people's show of independence -- even if it's a show without substance.

Maybe things will be clearer after Europe's leaders have held their summit, press conference and bull session -- and come up with still another way to do pretty much nothing. But right now clarity is about as rare as money in Greece. For this isn't just a crisis, it's an indefinite one. And the word of the day, or maybe year, remains: Ochi!

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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