Greece Can Learn a Thing or Two from Its Former Socialist Neighbors

A few days ago, I read an interesting post by a friend from business school. The topic of the post was the Greek crisis. That, by itself, is not too newsworthy because we get a daily dose of Greek economy updates from BBC, France24, Reuters, CNN, and the likes. What makes the story interesting (and almost unique) is that my friend, Stefanos, is reviewing his compatriots’ current state of affairs from the perspective of Greeks’ longest-standing neighbors — the Bulgarians.

Being a Bulgarian myself, I read his post with a very critical eye. And I couldn’t help but agree with what he had inferred. Bulgarians are no strangers to economic instability, political weakness, widespread corruption, and failing industrial behemoths. The country had endured more than 40 years of Communism, followed by the “free for all” transition period during the 1990s. That latter period marked the times when lots of people had to re-learn everything they knew about economics and doing business, some “clever businessmen” got rich fast and easily by engaging in dubious business endeavors, and the economy was on the verge of cracking under the pressures of hyperinflation.

My previous paragraph justifies, I believe, Bulgarians’ inclination to offer comments and informal advise to their fellow Greek neighbors who have fallen on bad times in the past two years. Bulgarians know only too well how a system that discourages anyone from working hard, offers a false sense of entitlement to all kinds of exorbitant benefits, and rewards fraud and corruption, can lead the economy and society into a state of almost complete disintegration. And, so, Bulgarians observe and comment.

My friend, Stefanos, has been very wise to recognize that fact and spend some time reviewing commentary posted on popular Bulgarian news sites. I am not that familiar with the Greek reality, but I trust his judgment (given that he is a Greek himself). Therefore I was pretty amused to hear from him that he found the comments he had read very insightful and pertinent. Kudos to him for being the brave one to tell his proud compatriots that they can learn from their neighbors! The Balkans has always been a fragile place, the “powder keg of Europe” as historians like to call it, so making a statement that a neighboring nation can serve as an example to one’s own people will oftentimes be interpretted as “national treason” by some of the prouder and more conservative in the region. But Stefanos had the courage to do that. And I hope there are other Greeks like him who look at the experiences of Bulgarians and other nations from the former Eastern Bloc to get some ideas on what leads to destruction, and what leads to progress. Perhaps this could help them put an end to the downward spiraling of their economy.

The Greeks are enterpreneurial and creative by nature — like any other Balkan people. You can see that by looking at the countless successful small and medium businesses run by Greeks outside of Greece. What is stopping them from replicating that entrepreneurial success at home is the stale and archaic societal structure that is suppressing productivity and making any effort to build something new too costly. Those same causes have been stopping Bulgaria from progress for more than half a century. So, by looking at their neighbors, Greeks can identify the elements of society and economy, and culture that need to change.

All this sounds like a great advice, but could also be pretty confusing. So what exactly defines the stale and archaic society? Where do you draw the line between traditions that you want to keep in order to preserve your national identity and old habits that need to give way to progress and innovation? I don’t think I can provide a straightforward answer to these questions. This is a topic that merits public debate at all levels of the society — Greek politicians should ask themselves these questions, as should public sector workers, as well as taxi drivers, hotel owners, university students. The point is Bulgarians should not provide the answers to the questions; they should instead provide the spiritual guidance and hope for Greeks. After all, Bulgaria managed to step on its feet enduring 4 devastating wars, 40 years of Communism, and a lost decade of lawlessness and crony capitalism – all within the confines of a single century. What stops Greece from raising from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, after coming to terms with the negative effects of several decades of excessive squandering? Nothing really — the Greeks only need to demonstrate the will and perseverance to change.

So this is my proposed solution — not very straightforward and simplistic, unfortunately. But then again, if you are looking for a quick fix, you need not look any further than the advice coming from top-ranked Bulgarian politicians. As Mr. Borisov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, recently stated during his official state visit in Prague (Czech Republic): “Every country, which is in trouble, and is asking for assistance, must lower wages and pensions to the Bulgarian level and they will immediately tame their deficit.” The truth most likely lies somewhere between Mr. Borisov’s quick fix and my convoluted prescription. But one thing remains clear to me. The Greeks have existed as a nation for thousands of years and their strong spirit will find a way to overcome the current economic and societal malaise — as long as they overcome some of the artificial national pride and look around at their neighbors for some lessons in economic and societal “Shock Therapy.”

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