An economy on the brink is as scary as any goblin conjured for Halloween. But that is what former prime minister of Greece George Papandreou faced when he took office in 2009. He resigned in 2011 to make way for a unity government to better deal with debt and austerity programs. Born in the United States, he spent much of his youth here, graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts. Both his father and grandfather were also prime ministers of Greece. He is married with two children. At 61 he continues to use his voice to bring awareness to global issues and champions Greece's assets. He was in Pittsburgh recently to kick off the Pittsburgh Speakers Series presented by Robert Morris University. The second speaker in the series, humorist and author Bill Bryson, will take the stage at Heinz Hall at 8 p.m. Wednesday. For information: www.pittsburghspeakersseries.org or call 412-392-4900.
Did your father encourage you to seek public office?
I actually wanted to avoid getting into professional politics during most of my youth because I'd seen both my grandfather and father in politics. My grandfather was jailed six times during his life fighting for the principles of democracy, and my father jailed and exiled twice in his life. I lived through a dictatorship where I had a gun pointed at my head when my father was arrested. You become quite politicized and quite involved with wanting to see your country change.
I also think living abroad, living in the United States, I saw the potential my country had and felt we can change. There are many things we can do, and that was basically my slogan when I became prime minister.
Because you were born in the U.S., did you ever consider running for office here?
[Laughing] I think I had decided going back to Greece, being a small country and being a country which had much potential to change, that this is where my efforts would have more of an impact. Initially I had not thought about getting into politics in Greece or the United States. As time when on, I got involved in a number of movements such as adult education and civic education in Greece after the dictatorship. This sort of brought me in a natural way into Greek politics.
How hard was it to resign when you did?
Obviously, there was a lot to be done in Greece and we had only begun with two years of reforms. Because of the crisis, because of our basic mandates, we were able to put through many reforms.
For example, we consolidated local governments, kind of like having 50 states and cutting them down to 13 to have stronger regions. We reformed the pension system. We reformed the education system so that it was sustainable. We brought in new tax laws. But, yes, there is much still to be done. Greece has potential in developing high-quality tourism as well as sustainable and renewable energy such as solar and wind.
How much responsibility does the Greek citizen have for the economic crisis?
That's a good question. ... I would say the vast majority of Greek citizens did not have any direct responsibility concerning this crisis. As a matter of fact, the private debt of Greece (of individuals and companies) is not very heavy. It was much more the debt of the government and in that sense the previous government had mismanaged the economy. They had overdrawn and overborrowed.
So ultimately do you blame the former government for the problems?
There is a combination of issues here. Yes, the former government mismanaged the economy, and secondly we are in a one currency zone. If one of the states in the U.S., like Pennsylvania or Maryland, had problems with its debt, that doesn't shake the U.S. dollar. You have a strong federal government, so the U.S. dollar is strong.
In the Eurozone we don't have a federal system. It's a quite incomplete system where there are different borrowing rates, which makes it much more difficult. So we were in new territory and the difficult architecture of a European Union, which is not a complete union. It was like a herd of cattle. At the slightest noise they would think it was a rattlesnake and start stampeding.
This is exactly what happened with Greece. Even though we did have a problem, we are only 2 percent of the total GDP of the European Union. We were seen by the markets as a sign of a possible new recession or even depression in Europe and contagion and worldwide recession, which put a lot of the burden on Greece.
How do you feel about worldwide summits and forums on economics and climate change? Do they have an impact, or are they just photo ops?
Let's turn that question on its head. We have global issues, issues that not one country alone can deal with. Take climate change for example. We haven't stemmed the issue of climate change. We are behind the curve if you talk to many, many experts. I know sometimes this is disputed in the United States, but something like 99 percent of the scientists around the world agree we have now gone beyond the tipping point. Sooner or later, it will really whack us in the head with terrible problems as far as climate change is concerned.
Now, if we don't get together and work on these issues -- United States can't do it alone. Europe can't do it alone. China can't do it alone. ... If we don't cooperate, we will start competing with each other over the cheapest of resources, which means we won't develop new types of energies. We need to cooperate. We need some rules and regulations to do this. We need more summits, but I would say I am not happy with the summits. I would expect more cooperation and more political will. There is a lot of talk but no action.
It raises the question of trust. Citizens around the world don't seem to have a lot of faith in government, whether it's corruption or broken promises. But in Greece corruption has been a big issue.
People expect that politicians can solve these problems, but I feel politicians are less and less empowered even if they are democratically elected to make changes because it is beyond their own constituency or their own nation to deal with these issues.
Because there is a lot of concentration of wealth and power in this global economy, sometimes local politics gets captured by or even corrupted by major lobbies, and some of these interests, whether it's the energy sector or media or whatever. That makes our citizens much more frustrated with politics. One of the major challenges which I'm working on now is: What does democracy mean in today's globalizing world? I come from a country where democracy was born going back to the ancient Athenians and Greeks. There are lots of lessons to be learned as to how we reinvigorate, rejuvenate politics and make sure politics becomes something where we can actually imagine a better future but also implement it.
So is there anything you miss about being prime minister?
I always felt it was an honor to serve. Many people ask me, "Weren't you unlucky to be prime minister at that very difficult moment for your country?" I feel lucky to have served my country in its most dire moment of the past decades. Serving my country is what I want to do. One can do that from the position of prime minister, but one can also do it as a citizen of the world.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.