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A woman waves a Greek national flag under the rain in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI | AFP | Getty Images
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Greece's financial crisis still evokes pain and fear on the streets of Athens: 'We just have to smile, pretend'

Greece's financial crisis is still hurting the hopes and dreams of the people that live in the Mediterranean nation.

The country has been in economic turmoil for most of the last decade. Years of financial mismanagement alongside a culture of clientelistic politics, where goods and services were exchanged for political support, culminated in a long-term recession.

"I still think the crisis exists. It's more than in one field now, (it's) not only (a) financial crisis, but it's a crisis of our values … I don't think it's better now … it is really a stressful period for Greece," Stavros Dimopoulos, a 23-year-old university student told CNBC in Athens.

Different governments in Greece borrowed above the country's capacity and its public debt pile became so high that in 2010 investors were no longer willing to keep on financing the Greek government. The end result: George Papandreou, the prime minister at the time, saw no other way out but to ask for a bailout — without even consulting with other European leaders.

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What followed were years of dramatic negotiations with European partners, where top politicians pulled all-nighters in search for a solution that would avert Greece's exit from the EU. Rescuing Athens was critical to the survival of the euro area, but also to avert serious ruptures in global markets, including on Wall Street.

The first bailout program in 2010 was followed by two others. This meant that from 2010 until August 2018, the country relied on international creditors to keep its finances afloat — totaling eight years of political and social unrest.

Since August, the Greek government has tried to show that austerity is over, by providing additional funds to the lower and middle classes. But ordinary Greeks told CNBC they haven't seen a massive difference in their lives.

"We love our city, we love our weather, we love the Greek people, but we are scared and afraid in a way, because the situation is not that good," Dimopoulos said about him and his friends.

"We have to try harder and harder to make our own money … Sometimes we are talking (about going) abroad: If it is going to be better for us to leave Greece or if it is going to be better to stay in Greece and try harder. It is in our minds."

You risk losing your house if you don't have enough money to pay the taxes.
Nikolas

One of the most concrete consequences of the crisis is the number of young people that have left the country. In 2016, about 20,000 people aged between 25 and 29 left Greece. About 14,000 others aged between 20 and 24 also left the country in the same year, data from analytics company Oxford Analytica showed. These figures are roughly twice as much as they were prior to 2010.

"Some kids are educated, and they don't find jobs, so they are going to (the rest of) Europe, which is a loss for Greece. But we hope they come back again in 20 years," 57-year-old Nikolas told CNBC in the famous shopping parade Ermou Street.

At its worst moment in 2011, the Greek economy contracted 9.1 percent. It managed to recover slightly by 2014, but returned to recession the following year amid a political crisis and an unsuccessful end to its second bailout program.

2019 is expected to be the country's third consecutive year of growth, at a pace of about 2.2 percent. Still, this growth doesn't seem to be making ordinary Greeks happy about the economy. Nikolas complained there hasn't been a significant improvement for people and there's still way too many taxes.

"Some people have good jobs if they are in the civil service, but the others are suffering, they are paying like 85 percent taxes, which is very hard to get by. You risk losing your house if you don't have enough money to pay the taxes," he said. "(the) long term is hard, we just have to smile, pretend."

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Corporate tax in Greece is currently 28 percent and the highest level of income tax is 45 percent for those earning above 40,000 euros a year ($45,000). But citizens are still taxed 22 percent for the first 20,000 euros they earn in a year and 29 percent for anything between 20,000 euros and 30,000 euros. The standard value-added tax on goods is 23 percent.

"I don't think the problem of Greece are the taxes, the problem of Greece is the structure of the economy, the way Greek companies are working and that the majority (of them) are too small. Without big companies we cannot improve our economy," Kostas, a 45-year old man told CNBC in the streets of Athens.

"There is an improvement in the economy, but if you are at the bottom … You cannot go even worse," he said.

Effie, a fashion designer, also told CNBC in Athens that there has not been a significant improvement in the economy. "The problem is that there are many people that don't have work," she said.

Greece's unemployment rate is still the highest in the euro zone. At the end of 2017, the unemployment rate stood at 21.5 percent, compared to an average of 9.1 percent for those countries that share the single currency.

Youth unemployment in Greece since 2007

The unemployment rate among those aged between 15 and 24 was 43.6 percent in 2017, compared to 18.8 percent in the euro zone.

The social and economic situation is difficult for the average Greek citizen. And the fact that 2019 is an election year — the first vote since the country ended its last bailout program — is providing little comfort.

Many citizens are fed up with the system and do not believe the election will bring about positive change.

"I don't believe it will help, no, any government will do the same thing," Effie, the fashion designer told CNBC. Kostas also said that a new government would do little to redirect the country's path. "We are under the idea that there is no alternative."

"It will be a bit difficult to say that something will change (with the election)."

The most recent opinion polls suggest that the opposition party has a good chance to win but not with a majority. New Democracy, a conservative right-wing party, has about 37 percent of the support, compared with 26 percent for the ruling and left-leaning Syriza party.

The election is expected in October. "I think the future is going to be difficult for everyone," Kostas concluded.


A woman waves a Greek national flag under the rain in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI | AFP | Getty Images