By Dr. Andrew R. Novo 
For worse, Greece cannot seem to shake itself from the news. Its pernicious financial crisis has defied the abilities of politicians, economists, financiers, and even German bankers. Anyone attempting to navigate the miasm of Greece, founders on the country’s painful realities. There are three critical realities undermining a resolution of the Greek crisis: the economic, the political, and the historical. While the first two are familiar and constantly in the news, the last is critical and largely ignored, but will have substantial impact as Greece tries to claw its way back to solvency.
Greece’s economic reality is both simple and familiar: the country is broke, poor, and over-leveraged. They have massive debts and no realistic prospect of paying off those debts. Greek labour is not competitive; the Greek state’s revenues are insufficient (partly due to endemic tax evasion); its public sector is a bloated and unproductive drain on limited government revenues. Greece needs bailout money if it is to continue to pay its debts, but that money is contingent on stinging austerity measures. The austerity measures have caused widespread unrest and contributed to the uncertainty surrounding both Greece’s economy and its politics. Strikes and protests are endemic. They shut down the country’s commerce, its industry, and a strike by public employees is even threatening next week’s elections.
The political reality in Greece is contentious. The two dominant mainstream political parities—the center-left PASOK and the center-right New Democracy have failed to satisfy both domestic concerns over austerity and international concerns over reform. Their policies suffered a sharp rebuke during the May elections when voters fled the two stalwarts for radical alternatives on both the left and the right. After the May deadlock, new elections have been called for June 17 and New Democracy is now running neck and neck with the anti-austerity Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). The June election will determine whether Greece will be able to remain in the Euro (at least for the short term) or whether continuing external pressure combined with domestic opposition will push the country back into the arms of the drachma. But politics in Greece is a contentious business and is following the economy in becoming an embarrassment. This was graphically illustrated last week when a member of Golden Dawn (the neo-Nazi and stringently anti-immigrant party, which took more the twenty seats in the May election) threw water at a member of Syriza and slapped a Communist deputy during a political talk show. The political reality in Greece is now uncertainty—the worst reality for financial markets. While New Democracy and PASOK will probably be able to scrape together enough votes to maintain the austerity program, nothing with Greece is guaranteed.
Part of the problem is that politics in Greece is very hard to predict, largely because the current political system is not only contentious, but new. Greece’s economic future is fundamentally tied to its political process. Greek politics, in turn, is a prisoner of its history. Although Greece is referred to as the “birthplace of democracy” with numbing frequency, functional, elected, democratic government in the Greek state is a recent phenomenon. Greece’s recent, and relevant, history is one of instability and violence.
Political violence between right and left in modern Greece goes back to the 1940s when communists and nationalists fought a bloody civil war not unlike the one in Spain during the 1930s. The civil war brought a military dictatorship to power, supported—thanks to the dynamics of the Cold War—by Great Britain and the United States. American involvement in Greece became an imperative after that, and the United States pumped in millions to rebuild the country and keep it within NATO. A combination of bickering within the left, external support for the right, and an unhealthy dose of local election rigging kept the alliance of the military, the monarchy, and the right in power from end of the civil war in 1949 until the election of 1963. This election brought the left, under the leadership of George Papandreou Sr., to power by a narrow margin. Almost immediately, opposition powers began to plot their downfall. In 1965, the king succeeded in removing Papandreou, but the shadow prime ministers serving at the monarch’s pleasure were replaced just two years later by a military coup. The seizure of power by the military brought a sharp reaction from the world, but in the years of the Cold War, it was par for the course. Democracy had been so dysfunctional and ineffective in Greece that some citizens placed substantive faith in the military.
The Regime of the Colonels pledged integrity, honesty, progress, and meritocracy, only a brief detour before the return of true democracy, and failed to live up to its promises. Supported by some factions within the United States Government, the coup shared similarities with American interventions in the Middle East and Latin America during the same period. A coup in Europe, and a regime characterised by exiling, imprisoning, and torturing political opponents, was something new.
Ironically, it was the junta’s attempt to liberalize and taken a few tentative steps down the path toward democracy that proved to be its downfall. Measures toward liberalization prompted a second coup by hardliners in 1973. Greece’s subsequent diplomatic debacle over Cyprus with the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 completely discredited the military regime and sparked a return to democracy. Sadly for Greece the new democracy was nearly as corrupt as the old. Patronage, nepotism, corruption were again in evidence, leading in fits and starts, to the political dysfunction currently plaguing Greece.
As Greece continues to look for answers to its economic problems, we cannot forget its painful and ineffective political history. The birthplace of democracy has suffered decades of failure in implementing a system of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Today’s Greek politicians would do well to remember these hard facts and to work more constructively toward a practical solution for Greece’s crisis. While a military coup is an almost impossible denouement, frustration among Greeks with Greek democracy is genuine. The failure of politicians to deliver could lead to shocking results at the ballot box if not this election, then possibly in the next.
Andrew Novo is Assistant Professor of Strategic Studies at the College of International Security Affairs, Ft. Bragg. He studied Classics at Princeton University before obtaining a master’s degree in International Relations and a PhD in History from St. Antony’s College, the University of Oxford. Dr. Novo has taught at the European University (Nicosia, Cyprus) and Georgetown University and lectured at the University of Cyprus and the United States Military Academy at West Point. His research interests include ancient and modern Mediterranean history, grand strategy, and military history. He has published two books, When Small Countries Crash (2011) detailing financial crises in small economies and Queen of Cities (2010), a historical novel on the fall of Constantinople.
 The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.