The Robin Hoods in this northern Greek town sport rubber gloves, fuses and orange stickers.
Nearly two years of pay cuts, job cuts and tax hikes have pummeled living standards in debt-crippled Greece and the country is facing record unemployment and a fourth year of recession in 2012. On a personal level, that means many in Veria can’t pay for basic necessities such as electricity and end up getting cut off from the grid.
That’s where the “Citizens of Veria” activists step in.
The group illegally reconnects needy households back to the electric grid in a direct challenge to the country’s dominant power provider, the Public Power Corporation.
“By cutting off power, (PPC) punishes young children, elderly people and generally those who can’t cope without it,” said activist Nikos Aslanoglou. “We decided that we had to reconnect them. We’re not hiding, everybody knows who we are.”
He says the group has so far reconnected dozens of households, particularly in the villages and small towns outlying Veria.
Greece sank into a financial crisis in 2009 after it emerged that authorities had been falsifying financial data for years. The fallout from that blocked the country’s access to bond markets. Greece only escaped bankruptcy with a euro110 billion ($147 billion) international rescue loan in May 2010, and when that was not enough, a second, euro130 billion ($174 billion) rescue deal that awaits final approval.
In return, the government has promised to slash bloated budget deficits through harsh austerity measures.
As jobs become rarer and worse-paid, many in this northern farming region are falling through a weakening social safety net. In the village of Agia Marina, 9 miles (15 kilometers) from Veria, activists recently reconnected the house of a disabled, 34-year-old single mother, who lives with four of her five children.
As they left, they placed an orange sticker on the electricity meter that reads: “Citizens of Veria. Social solidarity. We are reconnecting the power.”
The woman’s eldest daughter, a 19-year-old student, said before the activists came her siblings — aged from 6 to 18 — had to study by candlelight or with oil lamps in an unheated house.
“Our only income is a euro400-euro500 ($535-$668) welfare payment every two months,” said the student, Vasso. “PPC disconnected us because we owed them money, and we were left in the dark for about a month, but then some gentlemen came and reconnected us. Now we have heating again.”
She didn’t want her full name used because she was afraid authorities would track down her family.
What the activists are doing is illegal and can be punished by more than ten years’ imprisonment depending on the size of the outstanding bills, although in most cases sentences do not exceed five years.
“Greek law treats the theft of electricity like any other common theft,” University of Thessaloniki law professor Lambros Margaritis said.
Undeterred, a three-strong activist team recently reconnected a house in the small town of Meliki, where a 54-year-old woman lives with her two unemployed sons in their thirties. Working deftly, it took them 15 minutes.
“We’re not stealing, the electricity consumption is recorded,” Aslanoglou said. “The poor houseowners can’t face consequences, it’s us who do the reconnecting.”
Hence the stickers.
Veria activists claim their campaign is catching on in other parts of the country — particularly since the introduction in September of a deeply resented new property tax levied through power bills. People who can’t pay the new tax face losing their power supply.
That prospect has enraged even PPC employees, who staged a sit-in at a company office in Athens to disrupt the collection of the new emergency tax.
While the Veria municipal authority says have-nots should not be disconnected over the new tax, Mayor Haroula Ousountzoglou says the activists are going too far.
“What the group is doing may be very romantic, it is, however, dangerous,” Ousountzoglou told the AP. “PPC just goes and cuts off the electricity again, and imposes additional charges.”
In cases of repeated illegal reconnection, homeowners can also face prosecution — or have their link severed at the nearest electricity pole, a drastic move that activists are powerless to counter.
PPC public relations officer Kimon Stergiotis warned that the company is determined to protect its interests.
“To illegally reconnect cut power links poses severe threats to the life and property of unsuspecting citizens,” he said. “In any case, PPC will use the law to its utmost severity.”
Ousountzoglou said her town has about 330 families on a welfare program that sometimes includes assistance in paying power bills.
“But our funds are constantly dwindling, and I keep making the rounds of local firms to ask for contributions,” she added.
The Veria mayor has threatened to sue PPC if people who really can’t pay the property tax are left without power.
“We told them we’re not joking,” she said. “PPC can’t behave like that to needy people.”