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Nightmare on Democracy Street
Fascists attacking communists: It could have been a story from war-ravaged Greece’s civil conflict in the late 40s. Instead, it is a tale from the streets of Athens, the capital of a long-standing member of the European Union, in 2013. Hopes had been building recently that Greece would soon wake from its economic nightmare but its political and social one may be just about to begin.
When a group of Golden Dawn supporters recently attacked Communist Party (KKE) members who were putting up posters in the working class neighbourhood of Perama, western Athens, the socio-political dimension of the Greek crisis entered a new, uncertain and dangerous phase. After years of mounting attacks on migrants, homosexuals and leftists, Golden Dawn made it clear that it wants to fight a pitched battle for control of districts like Perama. The symbolism of the September 12 incident did not end there. The attack took place on a road named after democracy – the very same democracy that has been pushed and pulled like a rag doll over the last few years.
The crisis alone is not responsible for the ruptures now appearing in Greek society. Division has been at the heart of Greek history, dating back to the ancient warring city states and the clans that protected their autonomy after the Ottomans were driven from the country. In more recent times, the ruthless Civil War left deep scars that refused to heal as the 50s and 60s saw the continued persecution of leftists, culminating in the military junta in 1967. After the dictatorship’s collapse in 1974, there was never really a moment of national reconciliation. Andreas Papandreou and his PASOK party chose to cover over the cracks by essentially buying social peace through an economically damaging policy of state handouts that bred recalcitrant unions and voters, as well as corrupt businessmen. This unsustainable model, which New Democracy also favoured, gradually collapsed, taking much of the political centre down with it.
Despite being frayed by the years, these loose ends still brush tormentingly against the collective Greek conscience. There was a stark reminder of the country’s unresolved past on Sunday, September 15, when hundreds of Golden Dawn supporters gathered for a remembrance event in Meligalas, the village where Greeks who collaborated with the Nazis fought a bloody battle with Communist resistance soldiers in 1944. On the same day, about 6,000 people travelled to the tiny island of Makronisos, near Athens, to attend a concert celebrating the life of composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was interned and tortured on the island along with hundreds of other leftists during the late 1940s and 50s.
These painful memories were truly awoken late on Tuesday, September 17, when a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death a 34-year-old man, Pavlos Fyssas, who was reportedly targeted because he used anti-fascist lyrics in his rap songs. With one swing of a switchblade, Greece’s tormented past caught up with its troubled present. The country’s future is in danger of being the next victim.
Of course, this is not just about the past. There can’t be a political scientist in the world surprised that Greece is experiencing social turmoil six years into an ongoing recession, with unemployment edging towards 30 percent and the government implementing an unprecedented austerity programme. It’s undeniable that Greece’s economic disintegration has also torn apart its society and fragmented its political system.
Now, though, is where the past meets the present because Greece’s decision makers and the people that vote for them have a choice about whether to relive divisions or attempt to resolve them.
While there are deep-rooted historic and cultural reasons for the schisms that afflict Greece, the country’s current political leadership has only exacerbated them. Despite having to manage the fallout from such a devastating crisis, the dialogue between the right and the left has become ever more vitriolic. Announcements from Greece’s two largest parties, New Democracy and SYRIZA, are often little more than hate-filled assaults. The conservatives have goaded the leftists into this slanging match and, lacking the necessary poise, SYRIZA has obliged. This has allowed New Democracy to focus the domestic discussion on the so-called “theory of the two extremes,” which would have SYRIZA being the left-wing equivalent of Golden Dawn, an unruly and destabilising force.
When combined with the effects of the crisis, this rampant rhetoric has created a dangerous atmosphere. New Democracy and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras have added to this with a fierce anti-immigration policy and a failure to clamp down on Golden Dawn’s violence. In an apparent threat to ND’s coalition partners, one of his advisers reportedly even told parliamentary colleagues and reporters several weeks ago that the conservatives would consider going into government with the far right party. Samaras is now being called upon to deny the neofascists both physical and ideological space.
To do this, there must first be at least a minimum political consensus. In a speech on September 19, Samaras said as much. His address hit most of the right notes but his message was severely diluted by the fact that one of his closest aides accused SYRIZA of not being part of the “constitutional arch,” in other words that the leftists supported violence and other illegal activity. Accusing your opponent of not being worthy of sitting at the same table as you seems a strange way of trying to create the conditions for an agreement.
Dealing with Golden Dawn is going to require a strong dose of political will, a potion that has traditionally been in short supply in Greece. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras has indicated he is ready to talk if ND’s verbal attacks stop. Tsipras, though, must also stop being ambiguous where his party stands on issues relating to the rule of law. He and some of his colleagues have equivocated on such matters too often. It’s one of the main reasons SYRIZA appears to have hit a ratings ceiling in opinion polls.
Only when there is some form of political consensus will the parties then be able to address the next vital step towards combating extremism, which is ensuring that institutions are working properly. Last week, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias sent 32 cases of suspected criminal activity involving Golden Dawn MPs and members to the Supreme Court for investigation. In a democracy that functions properly, this should have nothing to do with ministers. It is for the police and the judiciary to fulfil their roles. Dendias’s involvement highlights the shortcomings of those two institutions and raises questions about why probes into these alleged crimes, which date back to last year, were not carried out earlier. If Greece’s institutions, including Parliament, don’t function properly, the country will be left at the mercy of those who sow false hope and reap disseverment.
Greece’s European partners could also play a more constructive role on this issue. The Greek adjustment program has been littered with fiscal targets and market reforms but the country’s bedrock, its institutions, have been largely ignored, save for some useful technical assistance from the EU Task Force. The troika review currently taking place will focus on milestones such as whether 12,500 civil servants from an already shrinking public sector – an issue that seems utterly detached from the country’s clear and present dangers. How different things might be if troika inspectors were in Athens to check whether an independent police watchdog had been created or if the judiciary was meeting EU norms before Greece could receive its next bailout loan of 1 billion euros.
Ultimately, though, this is a Greek battle to fight. The country’s past means that a large part of the struggle is mental, while its present - with Golden Dawn marauding through the streets – means a physical presence is also needed. The possibility of a rapid improvement in Greece’s economic fortunes is a non-starter. This leaves political will and strong institutions as the main tools to stop fascism’s rise. If this base can be formed, perhaps society will also feel emboldened and ready to take action, providing the third vital ingredient to the mix. Until then, anti-fascist protests will continue to be disparate events organized by different groups with varying participation rather than a common, forceful expression of concern and solidarity that sends a clear message.
Philosopher Stelios Ramfos captures the essence of the sometimes myopic Greek mentality by saying that when Greeks go to bed they do so for the purpose of sleeping or dying but never with the intention of getting up the next morning. Recent events underline that this short-sightedness in the face of a clear political and social threat is perilous. If we close our eyes, it must only be with the purpose of awakening from this nightmare when we open them again.
>"How different things might be if troika inspectors were in Athens to check whether an independent police watchdog had been created"
OMG do you think that Greece would accept detailed help regarding administrative help from foreigners?
What I've heard about that subject is that the cautious steps in this direction have ended in mud!!