Bound to lose
For an instant it was exhilarating. Some seven years after antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas and migrant worker Luqman Shahzad were murdered and numerous others attacked, the leadership and several members of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn were convicted on October 7 of operating as a criminal organisation. As the news was relayed to the crowd of at least 20,000 people gathered outside the Athens court, a resounding cheer went up. It was a moment that will go down in Greek history and will be weaved into the country’s social fabric over the coming years.
But, it was the briefest of moments. A few seconds later, riot police were firing their water cannons and tear gas into the crowd. Some protestors complained that the police’s actions were unprovoked, officers argued that Molotov cocktails and other items were thrown by a small group in what was the largest crowd for a public rally in Athens for some time. Perhaps an investigation is needed to establish what led to this release of pent-up emotions being cut short. Hopefully, any probe will take less than the five interminable years needed to establish that Golden Dawn was a gaggle of criminals and racists.
The moment proved fleeting for another reason, though. Within minutes of the judge announcing her landmark decision, outlawing the far-right party that entered Greek Parliament in 2012 with 18 MPs and almost 7 percent of the vote, politicians were falling over each other in the scramble to lay claim to the judicial success.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis delivered a brief address in which he essentially suggested that the verdict was not so much a victory for democracy, or even liberal democracy, but for mostly for New Democracy, his party. “I am proud of the unwavering stance of our party, which made the political and social isolation of Golden Dawn its strategic target,” he said.
This is not an accurate portrayal of what happened when Golden Dawn gained a political foothold from 2012 onwards. New Democracy, then led by Antonis Samaras, won the general elections that year and headed a three-party coalition that paid scant notice to the Neo-Nazis initially. Instead, Samaras and his team focussed on trying to draw a direct link between right-wing and left-wing violence, attempting in the process to associate SYRIZA with the latter. Additionally, Samaras launched “sweep” operations targeting undocumented migrants, who he had earlier likened to “modern day tyrants” besieging Greece. Furthermore, Samaras’s then cabinet secretary, Takis Baltakos, was revealed to have been in regular, albeit secret, contact with Golden Dawn officials. Combined, these actions created a political and cultural shield behind which Golden Dawn was able to operate largely unperturbed for months, intimidating, injuring and killing.
Mitsotakis did not stop there. “New Democracy decried the populism that fuelled it [fascism] in the squares of blind hate and violence,” he added in an apparent reference to the theory often pushed by conservative politicians and commentators that Golden Dawn’s support grew out of the “Indignant” protests in Syntagma Square. The premise is that these demonstrations were the breeding ground for the populism that propelled GD to Parliament a year later, and SYRIZA to power in 2015.
This theory assigns excessive importance to the symptoms, rather than causes, of Greece’s economic, political and social collapse as result of the crisis that began in 2009/10. It is also an attempt to sweep under the carpet the part New Democracy and its main rival, PASOK, played in this demise. Both parties were responsible for fuelling populism over many years and the attempt to neatly dump responsibility on the demonstrations that took place over the summer of 2011, whatever their shortcomings, is a cheap trick.
The prime minister’s comment also whitewashes the fact that New Democracy officials encouraged and attended in early 2018 public rallies protesting the Prespes Agreement to settle the Macedonia name issue, where Golden Dawn members and other extremists were present, spewing lies and hatred.
Mitsotakis went on to argue it was under a New Democracy government that the case against Golden Dawn was built and, again with the centre-right party in power, the court proceedings were concluded, suggesting the trial had been mired while SYRIZA was ruling. Another popular theory among ND politicians and some commentators is that the previous SYRIZA administration delayed the court proceedings on purpose so that Golden Dawn would still be around for the general elections, drawing votes away from the centre-right party.
Some legal experts have cited the complex nature of the trial, involving 69 suspects and dozens of witnesses, a lengthy interruption due to a six-month strike by lawyers, a lack of facilities and overburdened judges as contributing to the laborious process.
Whatever the complexities of what happened before Wednesday’s verdict, it is a shame that Mitsotakis chose to mark such a landmark occasion by speaking more as a party leader, rather than a prime minister. His words defied the supposed united stance that leaders of the parties representing the so-called “democratic arc” attempted to show just a few days earlier, when they penned op-eds condemning the fascists and their beliefs.
This opportunistic stance was replicated by the leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras. Joining the large crowd outside the courthouse on Wednesday, he said “the people of Athens are passing judgement” on Golden Dawn. It was a crude attempt to associate his party, heavily defeated in last year’s general election, with this impressive outpouring of emotion and an attempt to claim that the victory was won exclusively on the streets, due to public will, rather than through meticulous work in the democratic institutions.
A statement issued by SYRIZA following the announcement of the court’s decision also “saluted” those gathered outside, describing them as democracy’s “real safeguard” against fascism. Yet, it is likely that the former Golden Dawn MPs and party members convicted will receive lighter sentences because of changes to the penal code made when the left-wing party was in office.
Under the legislation, which SYRIZA’s youth wing and anti-racism campaigners complained about at the time, those convicted of leading a criminal organisation face jail terms of 5 to 15 years, while those convicted of membership can be jailed for between 5 and 10 years, which can be reduced to between 1 and 5 years or even suspended if the court accepts mitigating circumstances.
When it comes to Golden Dawn, SYRIZA has also never really escaped from the moral quagmire it plunged into in December 2014, when the leftist party refused to vote for a new president, triggering snap elections. The fact that GD’s lawmakers were also on that side of the parliamentary balance is something that did not sit well with SYRIZA’s vow to drive the Neo-Nazis out of the political system, especially as Alexis Tsipras decided to team up with the right-wing nationalists ANEL to form a coalition government.
The rush by Greece’s political leaders to claim the fatherhood of the judicial victory over Golden Dawn demeans the occasion. It sucks the oxygen out of a moment that could have helped breath new life into Greece’s staid, selfish political scene. More importantly, it obscures the learnings we should draw from this hellish experience.
In the attempt to paint the judge’s verdict as a victory for a specific political party, for Greek democracy as a whole or for the country’s institutions, we are missing the point. Greece’s political system did hold together, as did our liberal democracy and our institutions – just as they survived the gruelling test of the long economic crisis – but they did so in spite of themselves, of us and the constant attempt to undermine them by those claiming to be their representatives and defenders.
We can take some comfort from the fact that there were politicians, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, activists, priests, journalists, victims and their relatives, such as the extraordinary Magda Fyssa, who had the courage to stand up to the Golden Dawn menace. But we cannot ignore that for each one of them, there were many more members of our political system, institutions, media, church and society that turned a blind eye or even molly coddled Neo-Nazis who made no secret of their intent to overthrow the system that provided these same people with protection and freedom, and to steamroller anybody who stood in their way.
We cannot use whatever transient joy remains following the October 7 ruling to wash away the black marks scrawled across our conscience. We must not forget, for instance, how some mainstream politicians in Greece sidled up to Golden Dawn when they realised that a strong social current was pushing the far-right to prominence, or how some Greek Orthodox priests embraced them, figuratively and literally, welcoming as good Christians and patriots, or how certain journalists and media outlets treated these thugs as harmless celebrities.
Above all, we should not overlook the fact that some 426,000 Greeks voted for this party in June 2012 and, chillingly, 390,000 backed them again in January 2015, when Pavlos Fyssas and Luqman Shahzad long lay buried in the ground and the party's leadership had been indicted for the crimes. Even in the summer 2019 elections, a waning Golden Dawn only narrowly missed out on reaching the 3 percent threshold to elect deputies to the House.
These elements contributed to giving Golden Dawn the pulpit from which to bully, maim and kill. We should consider whether GD’s ideology has been smashed, or just certain actions that have been punished. If we look at the language being used in our debate over migration, the way that far-right ideas and tropes have seeped into the mainstream in Greece and that an ultra-nationalist conspiracy-driven party, Greek Solution, currently occupies 10 of the 300 seats in Parliament, there is little cause for celebration or time for self-admiration.
"We won a battle, but it's up to us from now," Magda Fyssa told the crowd on Wednesday. "Nothing is finished yet."
If we fail to focus on this instead of who can rightly claim they slayed the beast, we will be the ones bound to lose, not the fascists.
*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis