An unidentified pensioner sits on the ground weeping outside the national bank. Source: AFP
AN ELDERLY man looking slumped and defeated on the footpath outside a bank has become the despairing face of the Greek financial crisis, with cash reserves in the troubled country perilously low.
The sobbing pensioner was photographed sitting on the ground outside a branch of Eurobank in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, with his account book and identification discarded beside him. A security guard and staff member from the national bank were seen hauling the man to his feet as hordes of customers queued up to withdraw their money in the background.
But many will have left disappointed, after Constantine Michalos, head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, told the UK Telegraph that reserves were down to just 500 million euros ($700 million).
He said the country was in an “extremely dangerous” situation, with companies unable to import any of the raw materials needed for production.
“We are reliably informed that the cash reserves of the banks are down to 500 million euros,” he said. “Anybody who thinks they are going to open again on Tuesday is daydreaming. The cash would not last an hour.”
Banks in the country have been closed in the past week, but exceptions have been made to allow pensioners to claim a 120 euro ($177) down-payment on their July pension.
Photos of the distressing scenes outside the national bank emerged as the country prepares to go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to accept a debt deal with EU lenders. The terms of such a deal will involve draconian austerity measures including spending cuts and tax increases — but a ‘No’ vote could trigger a Greek exit (‘Grexit’) from the eurozone.
European leaders have been highly critical of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza government in their handling of negotiations.
An employee and a security guard help the crying customer to his feet. Source: AFP
Retirees and young people have been among the hardest hit by Greece’s economic woes, with lenders now calling for reforms to the struggling pensions system.
A honeymooning Greek couple were this week left penniless and hungry in New York when their credit and debit cards were declined. They were saved by strangers from two Greek Orthodox churches in the city’s Queens borough, who gave them money to survive until their flight home.
The retiree in the photo, Giorgos Chatzifotiadis, had queued up at three banks in Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki on Friday in the hope of withdrawing a pension on behalf of his wife, but all in vain.
When he was told at the fourth that he could not withdraw his 120 euros, it was all too much and he collapsed in tears.
The 77-year-old told AFP that he had broken down because he “cannot stand to see my country in this distress”.
“That’s why I feel so beaten, more than for my own personal problems,” Chatzifotiadis said.
The image of him sitting outside the bank, openly crying in despair with his savings book and identity card on the floor, was captured by an AFP photographer illustrating how ordinary Greeks are suffering during the country’s debt crisis.
Recounting how he had gone from bank to bank in a futile attempt to collect his wife’s pension, Chatzifotiadis said when he was told at the fourth “that I could not get the money, I just collapsed”.
Both he and his wife, like many Greeks in the north of the country, had spent several years in Germany where he “worked very hard” in a coal mine and later a foundry.
And it is from Berlin, which is being blamed by many in Greece for its hard line stance in demanding the government impose more austerity measures for fresh international aid, that Chatzifotiadis is receiving his wife’s pension.
“I see my fellow citizens begging for a few cents to buy bread. I see more and more suicides. I am a sensitive person. I cannot stand to see my country in this situation,” he said.
“Europe and Greece have made mistakes. We must find a solution,” he added. But Chatzifotiadis feels he can do little to change the situation, and he is not even sure if he would be able to vote at Sunday’s referendum on whether to accept international creditors’ bailout conditions.
European leaders have warned that a ‘No’ vote would also mean no to the eurozone.
Pointing out that the polling station is 80 kilometres away, Chatzifotiadis said: “I have no money to go there, unless perhaps if my children would take me in their car.”
Tsipras is urging Greeks to vote ‘No’ on the bailout deal’s terms, despite having already apparently walked away from a deal.
Greece on Tuesday made a last-minute proposal for another bailout worth nearly 30 billion euros ($43.87 billion) to follow the two rescue programs worth 240 billion euros ($355 billion) it has received since 2010.
But eurozone countries declined to hold any more talks until the outcome of the referendum is clear, and EU leaders have been queuing up to attack the Greek government.
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said he felt “betrayed” and “deeply distressed” by Athens’ “gamesmanship”, while International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde urged “a bit more adulthood” from Greece.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German, called Athens’s tactics “really annoying” and “tiring”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s paymaster, was more measured, but German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble accused Tsipras of making “untruthful claims that are not remotely related with reality”.
Latvian Finance Minister Janis Reirs went further still, telling local television: “We can now observe the policies of Syriza — intimidation, blackmail, lies.”
But Greece’s government has hit back, with Tsipras taking to Twitter to accuse Europe’s leaders of “financial asphyxiation”, “extortion” and “coercion”.