Every Jan. 6, Greeks celebrate Epiphany with a ceremony full of symbolism and hope. All over the country, priests throw a gold cross into open water and young men dive in to retrieve it. The winners get a blessing on the spot; everyone else takes home some holy water for a trouble-free new year. Newly elected Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou attended ceremonies on the Aegean island of Lesbos this year, but with Greece sinking under debt and a huge budget deficit as fast as a priest's crucifix, Papandreou is going to need more than holy water to get through 2010.
Shortly after Papandreou took office in October, his socialist government revealed that Greece's finances were in far worse shape than the previous government had let on. The 2009 deficit was nearly 13% of GDP, more than four times the euro zone's 3% limit. The European Commission blasted Greece for the faulty stats, and ratings agencies downgraded Greek debt, sending yields on government bonds skyrocketing. Over the past two months, as fears have grown that Greece's poisonous finances could infect the rest of Europe, the euro has slipped by almost 7% against the dollar. The Greek crisis is proving to be a crucial test for the long-term viability of Europe's common currency itself. Nouriel Roubini, one of the economists who predicted the global financial crisis, and his colleague Arnab Das argued in a Feb. 3 opinion piece for the Financial Times that unless Europe works out some formal rules to deal with individual states' problems, "doubts about EMU [Economic and Monetary Union] sustainability will return in every downturn. Sooner or later these doubts will be validated."
Athens has scrambled to calm jittery investors and skeptical European Union partners that it can clean up its mess without any assistance. In mid-January the Papandreou government, which has to raise $75 billion to close its gaping fiscal shortfall, announced an ambitious three-year austerity plan to reduce the deficit to 2% of output by 2013. "Greece is playing by the euro zone's rules and it will put its house in order," Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou tells TIME. "To borrow words from an ad: Watch this space."
Problem is, though, the markets are finding it tough to trust Athens. At the World Economic Forum in Davos rumors swirled despite assurances to the contrary by Greek and E.U. officials that Greece was on the brink of a default and would need a bailout from Brussels or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or even get booted out of the E.U. altogether. "If any other country was making the kinds of adjustments that we are, it would be applauded," says Papaconstantinou. "In our case, they are not sure we are actually doing it."
The sense of urgency may finally be hitting home. "Greeks have realized, in the last 40 days, that this is no joke," says Eftichios Vassilakis, vice chairman of Aegean Airlines, Greece's largest air carrier. "We are at a critical moment. Some like to say that Greeks respond best when we're at the edge of the cliff. Well, we're definitely at the edge of the cliff." Some Greek business leaders hope that the medicine, though bitter, will produce a healthier economy. "The crisis was inevitable," says Ioannis Kamatakis, CEO of MLS Multimedia, a technology company that produces GPS systems and translation software. "It represents a unique opportunity for Greece to turn the page."
Still, Greeks are bracing for the coming pain. With the economy already in recession, firms are trying to figure out how to survive until the crunch is over. Projects have been put on hold and credit is tight. Many are likely to lose their jobs, while budget cuts and tax hikes will further dampen the economy. "Everything is frozen," says financier Paul Papadopoulos. "It's a wait-and-see scenario."
Most Greeks agree that the tax system (see following story) and the bloated public sector, nicknamed "the country's sickest patient," are at the root of Greece's current problems. In a country of 11 million people, almost 850,000 workers are employed by the state, which means they receive 14 monthly paychecks instead of 12. Many enjoy a work day that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. "The state must change the mentality of the public employee," says one investor and economist, Timos Mellisaris, who calls Greece's public sector "the last communist frontier." Greeks like to point out that the state started to put on serious weight in the early 1980s when the current Prime Minister's father Andreas, who would dominate Greek politics for the next 15 years, first swept into office. "The state has an irrational control of the economy," says Yannis Stournaras, director of research for the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, a nonprofit, independent think tank. "We need nothing less than a revolution in the public sector."
According to an 80-page finance-ministry plan released on Jan. 15, that revolution will reduce spending by cutting operating expenses by 10% and freezing wages and new hiring. The plan also calls for an improved tax-collection system and the creation of an independent statistics service, which should make it harder for officials to manipulate data. Parliament has passed a 20% tax on alcohol and tobacco, and other tax hikes are rumored. This worries executives like Doros Constantinou, the CEO of Coca-Cola Hellenic, which sells soft drinks in 28 countries. "An increase in taxes will have an impact on disposable income," he says. "That's not a good thing."