Greece prepares sale of state assets as economic outlook grows more bleak
With fears of the country slipping into 1930s-style Depression, Athens will sell anything at home and abroad to raise much-needed cash
An unprecedented clear-out is now under way in Athens after the government announced it will sell anything it can do without - and in this debt-choked nation that means letting go of islands, royal palaces, prime real estate, marinas, airports, roads, the state-owned gas company, lottery and post office. Indeed anything, really, that can be sold.
On Wednesday, the nation learned the downsizing would also include diplomatic residences abroad - starting with the Victorian townhouse that was once the Greek consul general's residence in London. "There is a decision to lease and sell properties that for various reasons are not being used," said Gregory Dalevekouras, spokesman at the foreign ministry.
The sell-off emerged just a day after the finance minister revealed what most Greeks feared, but had never been officially told - that with national income projected to fall 25 per cent by 2014 their economy is not just shrinking but slipping inexorably into a 1930s-style Depression. And officials are now working frantically to get the mother of all fire sales off the ground.
High-end estate agents are already being sounded out to sell the 920 square metre consular residence in London's upscale Holland Park.
Property experts say homes similar to the 115-year-old stucco-fronted townhouse can fetch rents of £25,000 (HK$315,000) a week and sell for as much as £12 million. Richard Branson, a neighbour, put his own home up for sale for £17 million last year.
Since the outbreak of Greece's great economic crisis in late 2009, the country's diplomatic presence abroad, like so much else, has been dramatically scaled back as governments have sought to rake in expenditure. The general consulate in London, home to a thriving Greek community, was one such victim.
In what will be surely be sad news for another British resident, Constantine, the former king of Greece, officials have also let slip that the Tatoi Palace, the ousted royal family's historic estate at the foot of Mount Parnitha, will be sold off too.
The property, acquired by the family in 1871, was originally set in gardens laid out to "provide the typical charms of both the Greek and English countryside" and, as such, comes with some 40 outbuildings, stables, a swimming pool and several royal graves. Shortly after it was built outside Athens, Prince Christopher wrote that it was the only place where "we could forget that we were not supposed to be ordinary human beings".
The sell-off, which will include buildings in Brussels and Belgrade, Rome and Nicosia, is part of a privatisation campaign that may the most ambitious yet conducted in Europe. With Athens' debt load still at a whopping 166 per cent of GDP, the country has agreed to raise €19 billion (HK$239 billion) by 2015.
Earlier this year, the cash-strapped culture ministry said it would make the Acropolis more "readily available" for photographers and film crews.
For many Greeks, the new drive is the most humiliating development yet in a process of brutal fiscal realignment that has seen poverty and unemployment hit record levels. "Foreigners have been allowed to occupy our country and now they are going to buy up our country at rock-bottom prices," said Notis Marias of the anti-bailout Independent Greeks party.
But government officials starting with Kostis Hatzidakis, who, as minister of development, is leading the campaign, said desperate times called for desperate measures. "We are in a war situation and we are all soldiers in civilian clothes," Hatzidakis said.