Greek elections – a solution doesn’t appear to be forthcoming

It is late Sunday afternoon as I write this in Colombo, Sri Lanka and about 4.5 hours to the west the Greeks are getting ready to vote in their national election. It has been hailed as a make or break-type of affair but from what I know from inside-type conversations with some of the players and from general reading it has the hallmark of a fizzer, even if Syriza wins the ballot. Essentially, none of the main players seem to be willing to actually solve the problem. The entrenched interests have helped create the problem and are impoverishing the Greek people (themselves excepted). So they are part of the problem. Syriza talks bit about freeing Greece from the Troika-yoke but has a set of proposals that are mutually inconsistent. They might help around the edge and redistribute income a bit but what is needed is a massive boost in national income and that can only come from a massive increase in spending. The non-government sector is not going to do provide the source of that spending boost to get things moving again. So, ladies and gentleman you know what the answer is – there is only one other sector left in town to do it. And, you also know what is stopping them – membership of the Eurozone and the requirement to obey fiscal rules that restrict necessary spending to stagnation-enduring levels. That is why Syriza’s strategy is mutually inconsistent. Even a debt jubilee – the current favourite of the progressives, which warms their hearts so they can convince themselves that they are different from the neo-liberals will not solve the problem. Repeat: a massive fiscal boost is required, which means deficits above 10 per cent of GDP for many years forward. Repeat: that can only be accomplished within the current political reality if Greece leaves the Eurozone. It should have done that in 2008. It should never have joined. It should do it next week.

I last wrote specifically about Greece’s situation in these blogs – Greece – two alternative views and Germany should be careful what it ‘allows’.

In the three or four weeks that have passed since I wrote those blogs nothing has been revealed by Syriza leaders to alter my view, unfortunately.

Around the world, the debt jubilee idea seems to have become the focus of progressive arguments. Last week, a ‘group of economists’ (forty of them) in Australia gained headlines when they released an signed letter – Let Greece Breathe – condemning the Troika’s bailout program in Greece.

I know most of the forty economists who are all working in the heterodox school of thought (variously and, in some cases, loosely). I wasn’t invited to sign the letter but if I had been I would have declined. Why?

The letter makes good points. For example the economists state that imposing fiscal austerity is bad for weak economies and “the particularly severe effects that flow on to the poorest households”. I have no objection to that.

But the letter seems to want to soft-peddle on key issues.

It says, for example, on the Troika to ensure there is:

– there is a cancellation of a large part of the debt, and

– there are new terms of payment that support the rebuilding of a sustainable economy.

– this settlement commences a new EU wide policy framework favouring pro-growth rather than deflationary policies

First, since when is it the Troika’s role or right to determine whether debts incurred by non-Troika institutions and individuals, presumably in good faith, be cancelled – arbitrarily and unilaterally?

I certainly do not think the Troika has that right. It has already assumed it can trample on the rights of workers in Greece and other nations and impoverish them. The Troika has no rights in my view and Greece should stop dealing with it as a body.

The Troika is not the overseer of the – Treaty of Lisbon – which amended the two core treaties of the EU, the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community.

You won’t find any role for the Troika. None of the institutions in the Troika are democratically elected nor are accountable to any citizenry.

Second, I do not support the cancelling of the debt. I support a redenomination of it in a new currency, which is the sole right of the democratic country who issues that currency under monopoly conditions.

Lex Monetae or ‘The Law of the Money’ is a well-established legal principle, backed up by a swathe of case law across many jurisdictions, and is internationally accepted.

It states, broadly, that the government of the day determines what the legal currency is for transactions and contractual obligations within its national borders. There is thus no question that a nation currently using the euro could abandon it, introduce its own currency, and require all taxes to be paid and all contracts to be denominated in that currency.

Lex Monetae also has been taken to mean that if, say, an Italian had borrowed US dollars from a London bank operating under English law, the definition of the ‘currency’ for the purposes of resolving this contract is governed by US law.

Finally, the principle also means that if a government changes its currency and re-denominates at some given parity, all contracts must be honoured at the re-denominated rate.

Lenders know that Lex Monetae is well-established principle and could be invoked during the course of a debt contract. In that sense, the risk associated with a redenomination (principally exchange rate changes) should be factored in to the decision.

The idea that the Troika would just cancel out debts that it neither incurred or were responsible for would not be factored into any reasonable decision-making environment.

The only exception I would make to the debt cancellation would be the credit the Troika itself arranged. The exception is that the Troika forced the Greek government to issue liabilities under English law in order to gain further bailout assistance, thus anticipating the application of Lex Monetae, in the case of an exit.

Notwithstanding that act of bastardry, the discussion suggests that all public debt should be re-denominated into the local currency at the going parity on day one.

Third, what does “this settlement commences a new EU wide policy framework favouring pro-growth rather than deflationary policies” mean?

Are they calling for a wholesale change to the Treaty of Lisbon? It is hard to see any a pro-growth environment being sustained with the current terms of the Treaty. So why not be explicit about that? Why the ‘soft-shoe’?

Why not just explicitly state – the European Commission should abandon fiscal rules specified under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and its antecedents – the Fiscal Compact, the Two- and Six-Packs.

There cannot be a pro-growth framework while these fiscal rules are enforced in any way. The GFC proved that the impact of the cyclical effects on the fiscal balances (that is, the loss of tax revenue etc due to the loss of output and employment) were sufficient to breach the 3 per cent limits.

Those ‘breaches’ led to the fiscal austerity being imposed.

Further, most Eurozone nations will not be able to run the necessary magnitudes for their fiscal deficits (to favour ‘pro-growth’) under the current terms that restrict the ECB – the monopoly-issuer of the euro – from funding such deficits.

Countries such as Greece already ran foul of the private bond markets who are required to fund the deficits under current rules.

So why not call for the rules to be changed to allow the ECB to properly act as a currency-issuer? The reason is obvious. Germany would never allow it and it, basically rules the Eurozone.

The latest announcement of quantitative easing while unconstrained from the prior conditionality that accompanied the – Security Markets Program – which began in May 2010.

That program saw the ECB demonstrate categorically that by purchasing specific government bonds in the secondary markets (to get around Treaty rules) it could eliminate the private bond markets from the picture and control bond yields to whatever rate it chose.

It was a salutary lesson about the power of the currency-issuer. The problem with the program is that the ECB insisted that the fiscal austerity be imposed and followed as a condition for it buying a beleaguered nation’s debt in the secondary markets.

So they controlled yields and dealt the private bond markets out of the equation but wrecked the economies in question at the same time.

Please read my blogs – this settlement commences a new EU wide policy framework favouring pro-growth rather than deflationary policies and – The ECB is a major reason the Euro crisis is deepening – for more discussion on this point.

The German ‘tolerance’ of Draghi’s QE announcement this week is limited I suspect. They know that as long as the fiscal deficits are prevented from rising and austerity is maintained that QE will not do much to stimulate growth.

But if QE was combined with large-scale expansion of fiscal deficits in several countries targetted at public sector job creation and infrastructure development then the German ‘tolerance’ (currently given through gritted teeth) would quickly vanish and there would be a political crisis.

The Germans would win as France and Italy haven’t the stomach to assert their own national sovereignty.

Why do progressives think that weak statements about “pro-growth” frameworks will help carve out a solution for Greece and other nations suffering the inanity and destructiveness of the Troika-imposed austerity?

Nothing short of a wholesale abandonment of the Treaty is required, preferably with national currency sovereignty re-established and a new political unity developed to tackle the big issues such as rule of law, climate change, migration etc all of which transcend sovereign currency boundaries.

The letter does call for the Greek government to:

… abandon the austerity program that is crushing economic activity and adopt a more expansive fiscal policy setting, targeting immediate relief from poverty and stimulating further domestic demand …

With what aim? Why not call for an unconditional commitment to restore full employment and pay equity in Greece?

That commitment then sets the reality because it tells us how much “more expansive fiscal policy” has to be. It tells us how much “further domestic demand” needs to be stimulated.

Calibrating those increases in the fiscal deficits would, of course, shock the conservatives and the mainstream (ignorant) financial media would go crazy. Syriza’s political aspirations would obviously be undermined.

Which then brings me to the next point. Is the letter by these Australian economists merely supporting Syriza rather than presenting a solidarity with the Greek people? The implication of the question is that the two should not be taken as necessarily being consistent.

Why would I say that?

It is clear that Syriza is holding itself out as the champion of the people. It is making certain statements about boosting incomes and reversing pension cuts and the like.

The campaign advertising that is posted up all around Greece repeats the campaign slogan – “Η ΕΛΠΙΔΑ ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ ΣΕ” (Hope is on the Way).


I have no doubt this political messaging is a genuine attempt to engender optimism. I agree with that a major shift in Greek politics is required and that Syriza appears to be achieving that a shift. But is it the shift that is required?

I doubt it – and I am sorry to say that as I have friends in the Syriza movement.

First, don’t get the idea that Syriza is a radical party. Its public statements and the proposal it has taken the Greek people is not radical at all and would see it operate within the mainstream (neo-liberal) rules that are set and enforced by Brussels.

Syriza is not proposing a restoration of currency sovereignty. Rather it is proposing that Brussels goes soft on Greece for a while and writes down a proportion of the outstanding public liabilities as part of a negotiated easing of the repayment conditions.

That is not radical. It ensures that Greece remains within the Eurozone, the dynamics of which are dominated by Germany, which has an economy that is incomparable with the Greek economy and makes it an ‘impossible’ partner to be with in a common currency union.

They talk about “going to the markets” (private bond markets) to fund government spending. That is about as mainstream as it gets. But think about it for a second. The Troika’s bailout funds are currently being offered at rates lower than Greece would get in the open private bond markets. So how is it acting in the interests of the people to expose it to higher funding costs?

What happens when the private bond markets turn against the government again (as they did in 2010)? Then what?

Syriza talks about restoring the creditworthiness of public debt? What? Who are they representing – the private bond dealers and their assessments? The IMF? The people?

Syriza used to advocate the nationalisation of banks in Greece as a recognition of the centrality of banking for financial stability. At the 1st Congress of the Coalition of the Radical Left (that is, Syriza) in 2013, several “programmatic goals” were agreed, which would define the parties’ policy platform.

Goal 13.7 stated:

We will set the banking system under public ownership and control, through the radical conversion of its functioning and the aims it is serving today, through the upgrade of the workers and the customers’ role. We will found special purpose public banks focusing on agricultural credit, small and medium-sized businesses, and public housing.

One of the issues with the bailout packages is that the Greek government has been subsidising the private banks (and the huge salaries of the CEOs and the shareholder interests, etc) and is a major shareholder in the four largest banks – an action to avoid financial collapse.

The government has pumped billions into the private banks but the same financial elites continue to run them.

And now? The so-called radicals have abandoned the commitment to nationalise the banks. Why? Who are they proposing to serve?

More telling, is that Syriza plans to ‘stimulate’ the Greek economy within an effectively neutral fiscal position. There have been various statements made by so-called spokespersons of the Party about the need to maintain fiscal discipline while altering the composition of public spending in favour of helping the disadvantaged.

Former contender for the Communist Party leadership and likely Greek Finance Minister if Syriza takes power – Yiannis Dragasakis – has stated several times that a Syriza government would adopt a balanced fiscal position.

The Greek press article (September 16, 2014) – Finance Ministry challenges SYRIZA’s economic pledges – reported on a recent “Vima FM” interview (this is a radio station in Athens) that Dragasakis gave. He apparently:

… insisted that the leftists would run a balanced budget. “We are not going to return to deficits,” he said.

Well, one couldn’t be more categorical than that?

As I explained in this blog – Greece – two alternative views – Greece will not achieve growth with balanced fiscal positions.

How does the Party plan to fill the massive output gap that Greece has? Output gaps can only be closed by increasing output. That requires increased spending.

Greece has lost 25 per cent of its real GDP since 2008. While potential output has also surely declined (as firms have scrapped productive capital) in the face of a massive decline in the investment ratio, it remains there is a huge unused capacity in the country. The mass unemployment is testament to that.

While there might be good reasons for redistributing the existing fiscal outlays across the competing interests, the overwhelming fact is that the Greek public deficit has to rise substantially – by multiples of the current Stability and Growth Pact fiscal limits of 3 per cent.

Running a fiscally-neutral policy to help people will only partially stimulate overall spending in the nation. The reality is that Greece needs a public stimulus that is way beyond anything that is allowed under the current rules.

A balanced budget position doesn’t resolve that issue.

But the Greeks can fix that in a single decision – leave the Eurozone and restore currency sovereignty.

The statements by Dragasakis preclude that alternative.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Syriza’s stated policy aims are not mutually consistent. They cannot achieve the (motherhood) aspirations of higher growth and increased incomes and equity while allowing Brussels to dominate the magnitude of their fiscal deficits.

They cannot achieve their aims with a fixed exchange rate (effectively no independent exchange rate) with Germany as a partner in the monetary union.

Their policy pledges resonate with the suffering population. But the reality is that the population is not being educated by progressive forces about the self-inflicted damage that retaining the euro as their currency is causing.

Letters by economists that avoid that issue do not help.

Political parties that make it a root-and-branch commitment to remain in the Eurozone do not help.


So Syriza is either not going to be part of a sustainable solution for Greece or they are playing an elaborate political scam, designed to garner support under false pretenses with a secret plan to run large deficits and get kicked out of the Eurozone.

I do not like either option.

I think the progressive side of politics should reverse the trend to anti-democratic governance. A new dialogue is required which is transparent in motive and application so that people can appreciate in advance what they are voting for.

The downtrodden Greek people – who live in region that was the foundation of democracy – deserve nothing less.

I don’t see Syriza as the solution as they shift to the centre (which is really the right). I would love to be proved wrong!

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2015 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Who cares less about economic theory.

    Throughout history, when the poor are left to starve they rise in revolt and to hell with your money and finances.

    We are not here for you to kill.

    This is happening in the UK, that has no European debt.

    Culture after culture fell over thousands of years, when the elite failed to feed the people.

    Most of Europe will default. This kind of debt, manufactured by the EU by its very core principles and its fault in Brussels, is untenable. The Euro is at the root of all the pain.

    When the Euro first arrived in Greece, 1 Euro was worth over 300 Drachma. So a bottle of water that was 50 lepta (half a drachma) suddenly became 50 cents (150 Drachma) the same day.

    The UK will have a revolution after May’s election gives it a hung parliament, with a 4 way coalition, and we get
    5 more years of Austerity.

    If the military dictatorship this will engender feeds the people, we will be stuck with it forever.

    Do I care? The UK government has morally stolen my state pension, vital food and fuel money, after a lifetime of contribution to it. Many people are getting forecasts for retiring next year of as little as £55 per week, after over 30 years, or 40 years contribution history.

  2. “The UK government has morally stolen my state pension, vital food and fuel money, after a lifetime of contribution to it. ”

    You haven’t contributed to anything. You’ve paid taxes on current earnings to cover current spending – some of which was on pensions for the current retired.

    There is never any guarantee that the favour will be returned.

    Always read the small print.

  3. …designed to garner support under false pretenses with a secret plan to run large deficits and get kicked out of the Eurozone …

    I’m not so certain that there is another way out. If it worked well, then the people would have learned something.

    The guy who cuts my hair has voted for Republicans his entire life …

  4. FDR took office with a desire to balance the budget. He changed direction , but even then the scale of gov’t spending he implemented wasn’t close to what the situation required. He made blunder upon blunder , which he no doubt realized. Still , by the end of the war , we had an economic system that seems utopian to anyone living under the neoliberal jackboot today.

    Today’s victory is only step one in an effort to reverse decades of mistakes in Europe , and it’s a damn good first step.

    Go chase the kids off your lawn , instead of raining on Greek parades.

  5. “…they are playing an elaborate political scam, designed to garner support under false pretenses with a secret plan to run large deficits and get kicked out of the Eurozone.”

    I would call it being realistic rather than a scam. If Syriza had run on a policy exiting the Euro, it would have lost. Any party in the UK, running in May 2015, on a policy of spending as necessary to restore full employment would lose too. So, in the UK, there has to be a commitment to balancing the budget account. Just hope that no-one asks too many questions on what “current” means! The ruling classes have brainwashed the populations effectively enough.

    So, it has to be done. What’s the alternative? Just lose?

  6. Dear Bill

    You wrote, “I certainly do think that the Troika has that right”. Shouldn’t that have been, “I certainly do not think that the Troika has that right”?

    Winning an election to me means to win a majority, not winning a plurality. Only a majority can govern effectively. If a party wins a plurality, it may form the government, but it will have to make concessions to another party or to other parties. It seems that Syriza will win only a plurality.

    Regards. James

  7. With any luck it will be a scam to get into power and then leave the euro. If the left wing bloc can’t be a bit sneaky then next to step up to the plate will be Golden Dawn.

    I guess the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were sneaky enough to get into power but then decided to go for total power and got removed by the military. Not everyone can be like Turkey or Hungary.

    But you’re probably right, Tsipras might just be another President Hollande.

  8. If Tsipras turns out to just be another Hollande, then he will be replaced at the subsequent election (assuming they have a subsequent election, and not another military dictatorship) by someone on the left who is more radical.

  9. Theoretically, Syriza could find the spending money it needs from taxation, but it would have to find that taxation revenue by tapping into reserves of money that were lying dormant. There’s no point taxing ordinary people who would be likely to spend that money themselves. That’s just depressing domestic demand even more.

    They would have to go for the rich in a seriously big way. Tax them out of existence essentially. It may even mean the virtual confiscation of their physical assets, especially if they try to move their financial assets out of Greece, and sell them off. It would probably provoke a military takeover though! But that’s what Euroland rules are requiring them to do.

  10. Go chase the kids off your lawn , instead of raining on Greek parades.

    Here’s a way to view the problem Bill is talking about. Think of the Greek economy as a car that’s down a few litres of oil. Add to that, the car has had a bad driver. Now, you’ve had a big election, and lo, you’ve got yourself a much better driver. That’s great, and you’re right to celebrate, but the problem remains that the car still needs a few litres of oil. Even with the best of drivers, the car just isn’t going to run right without it.

  11. There is something strange about contemporary world politics. The fact of the matter is this. Under current ideology it is the case in praxis that There Is No Alternative. It really is a TINA world out there. One wonders why it is a TINA world. Clearly, alternatives can be envisaged (MMT, Keynesian Economics, Marxism, Socialism, Market Socialism). Several of these alternatives have run successfully for many decades in the past. At least a couple more alternatives (eg. MMT and Market Socialism) are theoretically sound and could be made to work and to work well for currently unemployed and poor people.

    One wonders why no alternatives can get off the ground when previously in the last 200 years of history, alternatives did get off the ground and even run successfully or well enough for many decades. What is it about contemporary conditions that has completely ossified world political economy praxis into one unchangeable, unchallengeable system? The world political-economy has become a monoculture: One System to rule them all.

    The only hypothesis that seems viable to me is that this is genuine late stage capitalism in every sense of the term. Capitalism is completely triumphant now and triumphant over the entire globe. It has concentrated power so effectively that it is unchallengeable and undefeatable by any normal political process. By normal political process, I mean playing the political game by the legitimate rules in whatever jurisdiction you currently find yourself. In the West, this means playing the game of bourgeois democracy where everyone has the vote, elects a “representative” government which, as soon as elected, promptly ignores the wishes of the people and goes back to doing exactly what the capitalist oligarchs want them to do. Our empirical experience everywhere is the same on this. Empirical reality doesn’t lie. The capitalist oligarchs completely control the system.

    So where to from here? It’s a complicated question. I have my own highly ideosyncratic views. Politically, I now find myself more sympathetic to Marxist Autonomist theory than to anything else but I bear even those thoughts within the determining framework of material reality, thermoeconomics and limits to growth. I can’t say much more. This is not a forum in which I have a right to say much. However, I will say this. The longer this system (capitalism) is perpetuated the worse the collapse will be.

  12. Ikonoclast,

    The normal political process is still capable of electing a populist, a radical or another Hitler. What we call democracy is a system where participation by ordinary citizens is prevented or discouraged. Instead of grassroots movements based on the concerns and experiences of ordinary people, we get movements headed by ideologues. Worst of all, we get leaders who are economically illiterate.

  13. Ikonoclast writes “What is it about contemporary conditions that has completely ossified world political economy praxis into one unchangeable, unchallengeable system? The world political-economy has become a monoculture: One System to rule them all”.

    For me, the answer to this is the decades spent by the elites studying propaganda, particularly the Orwellian ideas of Doublespeak and Newspeak, combined with the nearly total control of the mainstream media by them.

    Just as (apparently) in the luxurious halls of mainstream economics any serous reference to Keynes is met with knowing smirks and rotations of the index finger at the side of the forehead, similarly any suggestion in the mainstream media to not balancing the budget via austerity is met with incomprehension and incredulity.
    In fact the punters and puppet commentators now can’t actually think of a world that doesn’t include balancing the national budget. This is because 99.99% of the public don’t read economics textbooks, or read blogs like this (I suspect there may be a lot more 9’s after that decimal point…). They learn all their economic theory from the media.
    They aren’t told of any alternatives, they don’t even know that any alternatives exist, so for them, quite literally, there is no alternative.

  14. I don\’t believe Syriza itself have decided on what to do. I think they have an internal agreement on first trying to play ball with the EU and throw hands afterwards if they cannot make a significant change in the attitudes.

    Besides vast majority of Greeks do not want to leave Euro; doing otherwise would not be the right thing to do both politically and ethically. But, once in the government, they will have time and opportunities to turn the ship and educate the electorate. Besides they can do negotiations transparently for all to see what the EU wants from them, which makes it crystal clear to the lay man what staying in the EU entails.

    This is simply smart politics, and I don\’t see anything dishonest or dirty in it.

  15. According to Syriza´s 2014 40 point plan they intend to reformthe ECB from the inside so that it willfinance or facilitate increased deficit spending.

    “2. Demand the European Union to change the role of the European Central Bank so that it finances states and programs of public investment. ”

    This my seem like a political nonstarter but they could build a consensus with other leftist parties such as podemos in Spain and Italy´s 5 star movement (although they actually advocate an italian exit) and other European factions to put this into place,or at least push for this scenario in Brussels.

    An ECB which facilitated national governmnet ´s deficit spending would allow eurozone governmnets to pursue domestic growth strategy whilst staying inside the eurozone avoiding an exit which could incur currency exchange inflation.


  16. Thank you Bill for a nice consolidation of the situation.

    I knew even within the EU framework there is a way for government to hit their debt issuing costs using the secondary bond markets.
    I wish the people of greece could literally count the remaining days left in poverty in an order of magnitude of days not years. We will have to see what Syriza is able to negotiate. Could they get cooperation to issue debt similar to the Security Markets Program or is this going to be political fantasy?

    Note: that if both parties don’t really understand what they are doing then it follows that any given solution they come up with may involve pink flamingos and polar bears.

    Money myths like government borrowing rates affecting private sector’s borrowing rates because of a volutary constraint called a polar bear could lead them astray 😉

  17. The sad truth is that neither of the major party groupings in Greece (or any other country, for that matter) have a clear understanding of how the monetary and financial systems operate, and therefore do not know what they are doing. This level of ignorance puts them at the mercy of the neo-liberal elite (mainly business economists, mainstream academic economists, and media owners) who infest every country, and are well versed in the art of propaganda and manipulation — which they implement via their ownership and control of the popular media.

    I expect the leader of the Syriza party which has just come into power in Greece to be revealed as another version of Hollande (as suggested by David NZ), and that most of the promised reforms made before the election will simply fail to materialise, owing to the fact that the new government of that country will be out-manoeuvred on every front by the Troika (ECB, IMF and EU bureaucrats) who are determined to rule with a rod of iron.

    The interesting question is whether Greece will turn to an even more radical political alternative at the following election, or whether Greece is in for another spell of military dictatorship

  18. I fear that you are right. The surge of Syriza’s popularity did not happen because suddenly hundreds of thousands of Greeks converted to socialism (although I wish that were the case); they voted for Syriza because they think, maybe, Syriza will reverse the economic depression and suffering of the people. If Syriza fails, what sort of party will emerge as the strongest in the next election? The thought makes me cold.

    My only hope now is that Syriza turns out to have some clandestine strategy to make the people more keen to exit the EU, and that what they are saying now is only part of a preparatory stage. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

  19. For what its worth I called Yanis Vs mark a few years ago.

    The man has been nibbled by British Intel in my opinion.

    Their man in Havana.

    So sad to see such a vaccum of genuine distributionist forces in any political movement be it right or left wing on social issues.
    The debates are simply always designed to project falsehoods so as to maintain concentration of wealth and power at all costs.

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