George Papandreou Defends the Decisions that Drove him from Power

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. The financial crisis in Greece is not over. This week officials held talks with creditors trying to convince them to forgive up to 50 percent of the country's debt. That would help Greece avoid a default. Despite all the bailouts that is still a possibility. This has been a painful year for Greeks. They're coping with drastic austerity measures. It's also been a painful time for the former prime minister, George Papandreou. He stepped down in November after his call for a referendum on the austerity measures threw financial markets into turmoil. Well, today, Papandreou says a lot still hangs in the balance.

George Papandreou: Well, it's been a crisis management year. In the end this is a question of how we govern our world, not only Greece, but the Eurozone. This is a question of democratic governments, how in fact, our citizens can be protected by the changes and the mood of the markets very often go beyond what we in nation states and democracies or control overseeing.

Mullins: In homes across Greece the austerity measures are taking hold, the ones that you pushed through at great political expense. Let's talk about this new property tax that's just begun to be levied with electricity bills in Greece. If people don't pay their power, their electricity is going to be cut in the middle of the wintertime. How do you justify pushing this measure through parliament?

Papandreou: This property tax is a progressive tax, it puts the burden much more on the rich and much less on the poor, and if there's somebody that doesn't have the money then this will be taken into account of course, so that we don't have problems concerning for example, cutting off the electricity. But those who do have the money, they will have to pay. Now, it should've taken place over the last 10-20 years.

Mullins: And very likely that Greece wouldn't be in the position that it's in today that you faced if it had taken place over the last 10-20 years. According to your own government there are 15,000 people who have defrauded the country of what would be the equivalent of $51 billion. These are tax cheats. How is that ever gonna change?

Papandreou: That's not an easy thing because this is not simply a question of passing a law, it's changing a whole machinery.

Mullins: Exactly, a whole mindset.

Papandreou: And even a mindset because of course, what somebody would say, why should I pay taxes when these big shots here that have a lot of money just are able to beat the system, so why should I be the one to take the fall? So I think there's a sense of justice we have to restore inside our society. And I think this is a wider issue around the world now, is with the financial crisis, you can see this with the banks, you can see this with the financial system, why people are saying you know, why am I taking the fall when these other guys are able to get away with murder in a sense.

Mullins: Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but do you regret offering to put out the austerity measures to a referendum to a democratic vote?

Papandreou: Not at all, I think that putting out this to referendum would basically say the Greek people have their fate in their own hands. We would make a decision, it would be a serious decision. I believe we would have won the referendum in the fact that Greek people would have said yes, we do want to remain…

Mullins: Well, that was the big question because if it didn't win then the domino effect would take hold and everything else might collapse, that was the fear.

Papandreou: Well, that would've been a democratic decision. That would've been a decision of the Greek people if they didn't want to remain within the euro…

Mullins: But it would affect…

Papandreou: That is not take on the responsibilities, that would be the question, not the euro itself, but that would've been a democratic decision which everybody would've had to respect.

Mullins: Right, I'm sorry, but Italy would've had to respect it, Spain would've had to respect it, Germany and so on.

Papandreou: Absolutely, but this is important because we have to realize that living in a globalizing economy there are forces that go beyond politics and beyond our democracies. And that's undermining our sense of empowerment that the Greek or other people should be feeling. No matter what good formulas we may have as leaders, in the end if they don't have the support of our citizens they will not work.

Mullins: You've got two children and I wonder, since you are the third Papandreou to lead Greece, when you look to your children whether or not they become leaders themselves, how will you describe this period for you as prime minister, now former prime minister, in a country in crisis?

Papandreou: My family tradition is a struggle for democracy. My grandfather was jailed. He was almost executed six times in his life, and exiled fighting for democracy. My father was jailed twice again, by dictatorships fighting for democracy. I lived as a young kid in exile – Sweden, Canada, the United States, England, in different parts of the world until the dictatorship fell. I think we have very important decisions to make and but this is not just a Greek problem, these are problems now that the world around talk about and I think that's why we have movements like the Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Democracy in the states and other parts of the world where the younger generation is saying you know, we want a voice. And we should give them a voice.

Mullins: Are you gonna run again?

Papandreou: That's another question, I've been running all my life, but not always in politics; running for different causes or running for what I believe in. I'll stay active, but how I will, that's a question that I'll have to answer at some point.

Mullins: George Papandreou, former prime minister of Greece and the leader of the Greek Socialist Party, very nice to talk with you.

Papandreou: Nice talking to you and I wish you the best for the holidays that are coming up.