In Greece, Desperate Times and Offbeat Measures
(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.);
By LIZ ALDERMAN
© 2015 New York Times News Service
PARIS - Despite the European accord last month to extend a financial lifeline to Greece, Athens is rapidly running out of cash.
So it is scrambling to find new, even radical ways to fill the shortfall - including a proposal to recruit citizens and tourists to spy on suspected tax evaders.
Greece’s coffers may be empty before the end of this month, as tax receipts shrink and the economy shows signs of lapsing back into recession. Athens officials have hinted they may have trouble repaying or refinancing a total of about 7 billion euros, or $7.7 billion, owed in March to the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, or meeting government salary and pension obligations.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has tried to reassure creditors that Greece will not default. But in a sign of how desperately Greece needs money, his government plans on Monday to present a raft of measures to European finance ministers in Brussels in hopes of unlocking aid quickly.
That includes a proposal to enlist “casual” tax spies - tourists, students, housekeepers and other nonprofessional inspectors - “to pose, after some basic training, as customers, on behalf of the tax authorities, while wired for sound and video,” according to a letter accompanying the proposals that the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, sent to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, last week.
With tax arrears in Greece at 76 billion euros, the proposal is intended to scare tax dodgers and engender “a new tax compliance culture,” the letter said.
In the near term, Athens is scrambling for additional ways to pay its bills. The possibilities include borrowing from government pension and social security funds, withholding payments to hospitals and universities or dipping into subsidies for farmers.
Jens Bastian, a financial consultant in Athens and a former member of the European Commission’s task force on Greece, said such measures underscored the depth of the country’s financial problems. “The situation is dire, and this government is finding out in real time how difficult it is to meet its multiple obligations,” he said. “It tells you something about the sheer level of desperation they face to identify any funding resources wherever they can pinch pennies.”
The Brussels session Monday with the Eurogroup will be the latest in a series of crisis-driven meetings about Greece since Tsipras’ Syriza-party-led government was voted into office in January on the promise of striking a better deal for its austerity-weary citizens.