The diversions of the past

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

In a week that Greece marked the 49th anniversary of a group of colonels seizing power and embarking on a destructive and divisive seven-year reign of terror and backwardness, one would have thought the responsibility rests with the country’s current leaders (who were not even born then) to show that Greeks are capable of leaving the disunion of the past behind them. One would have thought...

With the bailout review still pending and the refugee crisis far from over, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis focussed on the issue of security in a parliamentary debate last Wednesday. It was not clear why he thought it was such a pressing issue at this juncture but the discussion gave him an opportunity to decry the government’s poor record in ensuring law and order at refugee camps up and down the country.

While this may have been a legitimate point to raise, the conservative chief then moved the discussion on to the issue of terrorism and its links to the left. “Of course, not all leftists are terrorists,” he said. “But all terrorists come from the ideological womb of the far left.”

Given that the comment came just a couple of days before the anniversary of the overthrow in 1967 of democracy in Greece by right-wing nationalists, the opposition leader’s comment seemed incredibly crass. Riled leftists also pointed out that it is violence linked to far-right Golden Dawn that has caused deaths in Greece recently rather than terrorism that identifies itself with Marxist, or other far-left, ideology.

Of course, one could argue that Greek urban guerrilla groups, such as Revolutionary Struggle, have not killed anyone by luck rather than design in recent attacks and that the infamous November 17 terrorists operated for many years under the cloak of tacit public support gained by their leftist-populist mantras, but this opens a debate that seems inessential given the broad range of pressing problems the political system is facing and has consistently failed to deal with over the past years. And, ultimately, Greece has a police force and intelligence service that has the task of tackling terrorism regardless of what madness masking as ideology lies behind it.

In the international arena, meanwhile, European states are focussing their efforts on countering a very different form of terrorism, one that makes the actions of politically inspired fanatics we had known in previous decades seem ancient history. Once again, while the rest of its peers focus on the challenges that will define the years ahead of us, Greece is mired in refighting the battles of the past.

Perhaps Mitsotakis felt that he needed to show himself to be tough on law and order to prove his right-wing credentials. Maybe he felt he needed to draw a dividing line with the left (in a similar but less pronounced way than the divisive “theory of the two extremes” followed by his predecessor Antonis Samaras when he was prime minister) to prove to the hardliners within his party that he is not ignorant of Greece’s political history, or a soft touch. Whatever the case, though, his comment seemed retrogressive for a politician who many have placed faith in to turn a new page in New Democracy’s history and push Greece towards a brighter future.

Of course, Tsipras is no stranger to exchanging ideological barbs. He has consistently tried to portray Mitsotakis as a neoliberal monster who is happy to cosy up with neo-fascists since the former minister took control of the opposition party. In fact, Mitsotakis’s comment during the parliamentary debate came after Tsipras had argued that in the past Greek nationalists had pursued and persecuted leftists.

Like Mitsotakis, Tsipras seems to think that these frequent references to the past and the suffering of leftists during the Second World War, civil war and the military dictatorship strengthen his own ideological standing. It is as if he believes that if he refers to selfless acts of the past, their sheen will somehow rub off on him. For a leftist leader who is implementing economic policies that even liberals would balk at, while losing sight of the social justice he is meant to uphold, a good old ideological bare-knuckle fight is a good way to distract people from such blemishes.

It also serves to cover up Tsipras’s own poor record when it comes to the actions of those around him. The prime minister took no action at all against Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis after he recently said he would have “buried” a journalist who was rude to him “three metres under the ground.” If Tsipras is genuinely worried about authoritarian or “fascist” behaviour, then he had a prime opportunity to do so by declaring that there was no place in his government for Polakis.

In contrast, Mitsotakis has shown much better reflexes in such situations, dismissing committee member and former parliamentary candidate Failos Kranidiotis for suggesting Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas should be executed and ousting from the party New Democracy Stamatis Karmantzis, the deputy regional governor of Chios, after he referenced a chant used by Greek commandos that “a good Turk is a dead Turk”. Perhaps, though, these incidents should have served a reminder that violence, or threats of violence, are not exclusive to the left.

In a country with such a tumultuous modern history, it is too much, and perhaps undesirable, to expect its political leaders to be completely untouched by what has gone before. After all, these events all contributed to leading us to the difficult position we are in today. However, Greece’s future cannot continuously be put through history's wringer either. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” wrote the American essayist James Baldwin. How refreshing, though, it would be to see Greece’s leaders try to break these shackles from time to time.

*This article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. More information in subscriptions is available here.

You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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