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Much moral anguish has been expressed in Greece by politicians and commentators regarding the physical assault that Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris suffered in the northern city on Saturday, leading to his brief hospitalisation.
Boutaris was attacked by a group of people at a gathering of Pontic Greeks, apparently because his views on the Macedonia name issue, civil rights and a range of other issues did not match their, presumably extreme, view of the world.
The incident sparked widespread condemnation, which was welcome, but also much finger-pointing, which only exacerbated the situation. For those on the right, the aggression was the result of the current government giving licence to all manner of “indignados” venting their frustration any way they choose. Those on the left saw the skirmish as the product of the centre-right’s flirtation with nationalist on a range of issues, including the name talks with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
They are both correct, which is why they are both wrong. Incidents like the one that took place in Thessaloniki on Saturday are rarely the result of a single factor, and in this case, there is ample evidence to suggest that both sides of the political spectrum have plaid a part in legitimising the views and behaviour of Greeks who choose to verbally and physically attack those who hold different views to them.
Boutaris, who has by no means been flawless as a mayor, was a target because he did not suffer fools gladly, was not afraid to criticise the government or opposition, opened up Thessaloniki to Jewish visitors and tourists from Turkey and FYROM, preached forgiveness and reconciliation with Greece’s neighbours, supported LGBTQ rights, spoke out against Golden Dawn and voiced his exasperation when faced with conservatism, nationalism and radicalism.
This gave many on the left and right much reason to dislike or even hate him. However, this antipathy was fuelled by some of the country’s politicians and supportive commentators, who created an overall environment that was deeply antagonistic, in which attacks such are Saturday’s can only be considered a natural consequence of this ramping up of tension.
SYRIZA and ANEL
In opposition and during its first months in power, SYRIZA flirted openly with the nationalistic fervour generated by the frustrations with the bailout and Greece’s all-round economic malaise. It had no qualms about reviving rhetoric that dated back to the Second World War and subsequent Greek Civil War or about adopting an equivocal stance when politicians responsible for implementing the first two bailouts were barracked and assaulted.
Since being re-elected in September 2015, the leftists – who have seen their own MPs attacked on more than one occasion - may have become slightly more circumspect in the way they express themselves but they continue to have an offhand approach to the vandalism carried out by anarchists.
SYRIZA’s coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), was equally comfortable about this behaviour, especially when it came to stoking nationalist anger in relation to the international lenders and the Greek politicians who “collaborated” with them. ANEL also took a relaxed view of attacks on politicians. In 2013, party leader Panos Kammenos suggested that residents of Halkidiki should “lynch” a local official in connection to a dispute over gold mining. Kammenos later claimed he was referring to “political lynching” and was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing.
The behaviour by both ruling parties played a key role in creating a febrile atmosphere and legitimising the spiteful treatment of political opponents.
However, over the last few years New Democracy has also contributed to this toxicity. On issues such as migration and the Macedonia name issue, for instance, the conservatives have tended to appeal to the worst sentiments in Greek society in a lamentable attempt to rally right-wing nationalists and prevent the flow of voters to Golden Dawn.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections, for example, the opposition leader at the time, Antonis Samaras, regularly targeted migrants in his speech, even describing them as modern-day “tyrants” threatening to destabilise Greece. Samaras, now a backbench MP, and others within the party have not veered away from this rhetoric even though conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has personally taken a more moderate approach on this subject since taking over the party presidency in 2016.
Regardless of his personal views, some of the language emanating from New Democracy on migration and the refugee crisis under Mitsotakis’s watch has been a disgrace for a party trying to promote itself as a modern, European centre-right force.
During last Friday’s debate on the Novartis bribery allegations, Samaras used part of his speech against the so-far unproven charges to launch a fresh attack on the government over the migration issue, suggesting that the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition was responsible for the massive wave of migration to Europe over the last few years.
“You tell us you showed human values by opening the borders to refugees,” he said. “In fact, you opened the borders to illegal immigrants, the majority of whom had nothing to do with Syria. You placed our islands under the authority of some corrupt NGOs, which turned out to be controlled by traffickers.”
Another example of this highly divisive language came last week in the form of a tweet (in Greek) from a New Democracy MEP, Giorgos Kyrtsos, a member of the EPP in the European Parliament:
Γιατί είναι ο Σοσιαλδημοκράτης Σολτς πιο αυστηρός για το χρέος από Σόιμπλε;Γιατί Τσίπρας,Τασία έστειλαν 1 εκατ πρόσφυγες στη Γερμανία αφού τους άφησαν να λιαστούν.Με την ανευθυνότητά τους έκαναν την άκρα Δεξιά αξιωματική αντ/ση στη Γερμανία δεσμεύοντας Βερολίνο.Αυτά πληρώνουμε!— Γιώργος Κύρτσος (@GiorgosKyrtsos) May 16, 2018
“Why is the social democrat [Finance Minister Olaf] Scholz stricter than [Wolfgang] Schaeuble? Because [Alexis] Tsipras and Tasia [Christodoulopoulou – ex-deputy migration minister] sent 1 million refugees to Germany after letting them sun themselves. Their irresponsibility made the far-right the main opposition in Germany, tying Berlin’s hands. That’s what we’re paying for,” wrote the European parliamentarian.
New Democracy has also adopted a rather incendiary approach on the Macedonia name issue. It sided with the mass protests in Athens and Thessaloniki against the government’s bid to reach a compromise with FYROM, doing little to separate the party’s position from some extreme views expressed at both rallies. When Boutaris, who is in favour of a solution even if it involves the term “Macedonia” being used by Greece’s neighbour,” recently suggested changing the name of Thessaloniki’s Makedonia Airport as a way of building bridges, New Democracy’s response was to tell him to keep his mouth shut.
“He should leave the diplomacy and the negotiations to the diplomats and concentrate on his duties, such as sanitation and trash collection in his city,” said the party’s shadow foreign minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos.
Koumoutsakos should know more than most the poisonous effect that this finger-pointing can have. In 2015, he was physically attacked outside Parliament during a protest by Pontic Greeks. Although Koumoutsakos blamed the attack on Golden Dawn, his party identified the then Education Minister Nikos Fylis as the “moral instigator” because the protest was held after the SYRIZA politician argued that the slaughter of tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks living on the shores of the Black Sea by Turkey between 1914 and 1923 was ethnic cleansing rather than genocide.
In an environment where both the ruling parties and the main opposition have for years consciously fed antipathy and aggression, while in some cases brushing aside violent behaviour, there should be no consternation about incidents like the one involving Boutaris. The only surprise is that they do not occur more often or that they have not been more vicious.
All those concerned should spare us the faux-moral outrage. Their words have done enough damage already. If they want to address the problem, they should start by accepting that they were, and continue to be, part of it. The nonchalance they have shown in failing to confront Golden Dawn is proof of their active part in feeding extremism, directly or indirectly.
Creating a safe, democratic space in which views can be exchanged free of threats and demonization needs broad political support. It is up to Greece’s main parties to show if they want such a thing or whether they are happy with the free-for-all continuing in Thessaloniki, Athens and elsewhere.