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As Government Hunts For A Solution, Greeks Anticipate Catastrophe

People read the front pages of various newspapers hanging at a kiosk Tuesday in central Athens. European leaders have set a Sunday deadline for Greece to reach a deal on debt repayment and austerity measures.
Jean-Paul Pelissier
Reuters /Landov
People read the front pages of various newspapers hanging at a kiosk Tuesday in central Athens. European leaders have set a Sunday deadline for Greece to reach a deal on debt repayment and austerity measures.

European leaders have given the Greek government an ultimatum: Sign up for tough reforms by the end of this week or leave the eurozone. Banks have been closed for more than a week, and now there's a real possibility they could fail — and that Greek depositors could lose everything.

Giorgos Pathiakakis, who founded his sports academy in a middle-class Athens neighborhood 15 years ago, says the bank closures have stalled his business.

"We don't use cash cards in my business, and we don't use electronic banking," says the 40-year-old father of three. "We used to send a fax to the bank, and then the bank would pay our suppliers, our contractors, our employees. But for the last 10 days, we haven't been able to do anything."

Like many Greeks, he's withdrawing the daily limit from his bank — 60 euros, about $66 — to pay for bills and groceries.

Pathiakakis never thought Greece would get to this point, and he blames both the Greek government and eurozone leaders for leaving Greeks in the lurch.

"They were playing tug-of-war, with each side pulling as hard as it could, without giving each other even a little bit of space to figure things out," he says. "It's clear that neither side was thinking of us, thinking of the havoc this would wreak on society."

Pathiakakis voted no in last Sunday's referendum, but says it was in no way a vote against the euro — just a plea for less austerity. Taxes imposed by eurozone lenders for this year would claim nearly all the money in his safe deposit box at the bank.

He's terrified he's going to lose everything, no matter what comes next.

"Any new bailout agreement is going to probably going to destroy my business, forcing it to close in two years, maximum," Pathiakakis says. "But the other option, the drachma, it's an unknown. I have no idea what will happen. But I sense it would be terrible for Greece to leave the eurozone. I want to stay."

At a cafe a few blocks away, everyone is talking about what's going to happen next: Will Greece go bankrupt? Revert to the drachma, the currency the country used before adopting the euro in 2001? Will the government pull a rabbit out of its hat at the last minute?

Evangelia Kalogeropoulos, a retired accountant, is sour on the euro. She says she voted no in Sunday's referendum because she feels like European leaders have used austerity to impoverish everyone she knows.

"They've destroyed our dignity," she says. "I told myself that I'm going to vote no, knowing full well that the next day I may die — but I'm going to die with my head held high."

Kalogeropoulos is struggling. Her bank account is empty after she paid her monthly bills, and her pension, about a thousand dollars, won't be deposited until the end of the month — assuming the government even has the money for it.

"I'm on my own, so I could make it on this pension if I didn't have bills to pay, but I owe so much to banks right now" — about $60,000, she says, mostly from the mortgage on her house and some credit card debt.

What's going to happen, she wonders, if her pension fails to come through: "Am I going to be forced to ask for money from friends who have money? Will I keep borrowing forever?"

It's possible that soon, there won't be any cash left to borrow. Some analysts predict that Greece's banks could run out of money as early as next week.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.