Eurozone’s poorer East takes hard line on Greece

Slovak Finance Minister Peter Kazimir welcomed the extension of the investment plan as a "crucial step in the right direction". [European Council]

The eurozone’s poorer former communist nations, having themselves endured painful reforms and austerity programmes, are taking a hard line on Greece after its people voted to reject creditors’ bailout terms.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have long insisted they are too poor to pay for the mistakes made by wealthier Greece and that it should have stuck to the reforms and austerity measures laid out in its massive 240-billion-euro bailout.

“I hear some Greeks have pensions over €1,000 a month. That’s outrageous. I refuse to pay for their debt while they are making fortunes compared to my salary,” Bratislava waitress Martina Lelovicova told AFP on Monday (6 July) in a country where the average monthly salary is €880.

“It’s good news for the eurozone. Greeks should leave it, this will only make it healthier,” a Bratislava entrepreneur in his thirties who wished to remain anonymous told AFP of Sunday’s Greek referendum result.

Slovak Finance Minister Peter Kazimir – the first Eurogroup minister to warn after the vote that the Greek ‘No’ raised the spectre of a “Grexit” or exit from the euro – told reporters: “With the result of the referendum, a possible crisis scenario, the gradual withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, is unfolding.”

Slovakia, an ex-communist nation of 5.4 million people that joined the eurozone in 2009, has suffered stubbornly high joblessness despite brisk economic growth in recent years.

Its leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico insists “Slovakia will not be harmed as a result of Greece and its decision to stay or leave the single currency union,” as Bratislava “did not give any cash, only our guarantees” as part of previous Greek bailouts.

Having joined in January, the eurozone’s newest member Lithuania has also not paid into previous Greek bailouts.

Its leftist Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius told AFP Monday he was an “optimist that Greece will not exit the eurozone” and suggested that creditors “freeze” some debt in return for structural reforms in the public sector and tax policy.

‘Bad and worse choices left’

But not all poorer eurozone members have nothing to lose: Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted Monday that “Greece’s creditors (are) not just banks”.

“Eurozone countries poorer than Greece stand to lose up to 4.2% GDP,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Taavi Roivas for his part said Greece “now only has bad and worse choices left” and reforms “are unavoidable”.

“We expect the Greek government to understand the situation and show decisiveness and action within hours,” he added.

Having broken free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990-91, tiny Estonia and Latvia joined the eurozone in 2011 and 2014 respectively, followed by neighbour Lithuania.

All three Baltic states implemented drastic austerity measures to recover from deep recessions triggered by the 2008-09 global financial crisis, paving the way to eurozone entry and stable economic growth, now around three percent in the region.

Estonia, the eurozone’s smallest member since 2011, approved an initial Greek bailout but has since said ‘No’ and insists that all eurozone members adopt its strict fiscal discipline.

Tallinn boasts the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio of 10.6%.

“Estonians don’t really understand the Greek attitude. We are used to saving and living frugally,” Merit Kopli, editor in chief of Estonia’s leading Postimees daily, told AFP.

Maie Mets, a 72-year-old pensioner, said: “As I understand it, the Greek standard of living is higher than ours here in Estonia. It is only normal that people pay their debts.”

‘No sympathy’

Latvia was hit hard by the global financial crisis, suffering the world’s deepest recession when GDP shrank by nearly a quarter over two years.

Yet the nation of some two million bounced back after implementing austerity cuts under the terms of a 7.5-billion-euro international bailout it secured to avert bankruptcy.

“When we went through the international bailout, did anyone come to rescue us?” asked Zenija Lace, a 61-year-old Riga office worker.

“I have no sympathy for the Greeks. They should have started paying taxes long ago. If they want money from Europe, they should have started saving!” added 59-year-old Riga businesswoman Brigita Petersone.

“How is it that we could endure all of it and they can’t?”

A majority of Greeks on Sunday (5 July) voted "No" in the referendum on the country's proposed rescue package. A eurozone summit on Tuesday (7 July) will look into the fallout of the vote.

In Athens, thousands of jubilant Greeks waving flags and lighting fireworks poured into the city's Syntagma Square, as official figures showed 61% of Greek voters had rejected a deal the two sides had been close to reaching on 26 June.

>> Read: Greek ‘No’ inflicts heavy blow on EU

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