The Battle for Greece

Police clearing peaceful protesters from Syntagma Square; photo by Kia MistilisWhile the world’s attention is focused on the revolution in Egypt, street fighting in Libya, and the battle for Sana in Yemen, in democracy’s birthplace people are also taking to the streets, continuing to protest an austerity plan that many Greeks say will beggar them. On February 23, protesters conducted a 24-hour strike that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Athens.

A bus driver tells me that his wages have been cut from 1800 euros a month to 1200. “There are more cuts coming into effect in the next three months, that’s why the protests are heating up,” he says. “I am worried my wages will be cut to 800 euros a month and if that happens I don’t know how I will survive.”

The wage cuts are part of an austerity plan by International Monetary Fund/European Union (IMF/EU) signed by the George Papandreou government in May 2010 to address Greece’s massive national debt. The roll-out has led to a rise in value-added taxes from 19 percent to 23 percent as well as an increase in insurance rates. The policies have been met by waves of protests and strikes.

Greece is not the only European country facing this challenge. It shares a sense of economic insecurity stemming from the global financial crisis with Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. All are experiencing austerity budgets, high unemployment, and cuts to social services. Enda Kenny, leader of Ireland’s Fine Gael party and winner of the Irish elections, described the bailout signed by the outgoing government as a “bad deal for Ireland.” With youth unemployment hitting 35 percent, young people in Greece see a bleak, jobless future. Greeks say a mass exodus is looming, similar to the period following World War II.

According to the protesters flowing into the streets of central Athens on February 23, the Greek financial crisis is the bitter fruit of a dysfunctional political system, endemic corruption, and economic mismanagement by both major parties, Pasok and Neo Democratia. The previous conservative Karamanlis government fell prey to Wall Street’s leading financial magicians, with Goldman Sachs advising it on how to use derivatives to make masses of debt disappear, at least temporarily.

For the average Greek, the economic crisis is the work of kleftes or “thieves.” With historically low wages coupled with a high cost of living since Greece entered the Eurozone, things were already tough before the crisis hit. Being Greek, the citizens have been anything but quiet about the current turn of affairs.

Facing the Riot Police

On February 23, as many as 250,000 people are pouring into central Athens for an anti-austerity rally as part of a 24-hour general strike. This is the latest in a string of eight general strikes as well as sectoral strikes by teachers, doctors, transport workers, and universities. Public and private sector workers, students, shop keepers, immigrant workers, and the unemployed gather at Omonia Square, the Polytechnic University, and Aries Square. The numbers arriving on foot and by metro are so large that the three crowds quickly become one. They are peaceful, but hardly naive. Many have painted their faces white with a combination of water and the antacid Maalox, which is supposed to be a barrier against the burning effects of tear gas.

“A strong tradition of public protest has grown in recent years,” Stelios, a student protest organizer, tells me. “The difference between now and 10 years ago, is that people believe they can change the situation. The protest movement has also strengthened as many movements have merged into one: anti-war, students, Greek workers, immigrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. We [students] also had a win recently – after two years’ ‘occupation’ of 340 university campuses in 2006-2007, the government scrapped its proposed university privatization bill.”

I arrive at Omonia Square from the packed metro at 11:30 am. A large crowd is gathering. People give speeches, chant slogans, and then begin walking toward Syntagma Square, the location of the central rally. Protesters arriving later are not so fortunate. A Hungarian tourist tells me that she arrived at Panepistimio metro station at noon, planning to visit the university. “There were thousands of people gathering,” she says. “About 15 minutes later, riot police arrived and used a lot of tear gas to push us all the way back to Omonia Square. There was no rioting or violence from the people to prompt this.” The actions of the riot police helps to explain the low numbers of protesters reported by some international media.

Arriving at the parliament just after noon, I climb a low wall for a bird’s eye view. Below me two rows of police stretch the length of the parliament forecourt, interspersed with groups of riot police wearing long black gas masks, some with hammers in their back pockets. Facing them are tens of thousands of Greeks packed into Syntagma Square, and beyond the parliament, along Amalias Avenue, as far as the eye can see.

The atmosphere is calm and orderly, a peaceful stand off. A group of protesters are dribbling a small round ball to each other, until one kicks it behind police lines. A riot squad officer gently kicks it back. A man near me steps up to the stony-faced riot police, lecturing them on the Greek people’s descent into poverty, and gesturing to the parliament, expressing his contempt for politicians he feels are responsible. They ignore him. Three women sit below me on the parliament steps with their backs to police lines, and independent video journalists huddle together, wearing gas masks. The journalists’ union have joined the general strike, so Greek TV and print media are absent today.

Out of the calm, someone throws a stun grenade into the packed crowd. Later, protesters tell me that they suspect the grenade-thrower was an undercover cop. As if this is a signal, long lines of riot police now move to the four corners of the square. The atmosphere is defiant but peaceful as thousands of demonstrators start chanting “Kleftes! Kleftes!” Less than a minute later, the riot police lob a tear-gas canister into the crowd. Protesters begin to boo as the volume of smoke increases, forcing people to move away.

In the next few minutes, riot police throw at least six tear-gas canisters deep into the crowd. The gas is thick and toxic-smelling. Covering their mouths with their collars, scarves, and hands, people start leaving the square, upset with the police but still peaceful.

Later, Stelios tells me that the Greek government buys the U.S.-made CS2 tear gas from Israel. “It is used in the occupied territories, and so powerful that it is banned for non-military use under the Geneva Conventions,” he says. “I was in the anti-NATO demonstrations in Strasbourg, April 2009 and the tear gas they used there was mild for us Greeks.”

An Unprovoked Attack

After the first tear gas canister, I climb down from the wall and stand in front of the parliament, photographing the crowd leaving. Within a few minutes it is virtually empty, except for a cameraman five meters to my left. He is leaning over his large professional video camera to adjust a setting. To my right, four riot squad officers are standing together, their gazes fixed on the cameraman. One points at the man and nods, then all four charge at him. Using batons and fists, they attack him with vicious blows to the head, chest, and back. In these few seconds, as I focus the scene in my viewfinder, two stun grenades explode right behind me, the riot police release tear gas at the cameraman’s feet, and a large petrol bomb lands two meters to my right.

I am shaken by the grenades and the attack. The cameraman and his four police attackers disappear into a thick grey wall of toxic smoke. It is a horrifying sight to behold in front of the Greek parliament.

There were no warnings from police before the tear gas attack began, no order for the crowd to disperse, nor did I see any incident that might have provoked such an attack. Contrary to media reports that the police cleared angry protesters from the square, it was a peaceful crowd that the tear gas scattered within a few minutes.

We are now out of the square but the tear-gas attack continues, pushing us up against the lines of riot police flanking the walls of the Hotel Grand Bretagne. Still, there is no panic. One man two meters in front of me calls out “Let’s not make a crush here! Stay calm everyone!”

A few teenage boys are taunting police, one throwing a tetra-pack at them, splattering orange juice on a shield. Another hurls a small rock. As the crowd thins I noticed two teenage boys with balaclavas carrying large, roughly hewn baseball bats nonchalantly marching past the long lines of riot police, jeering at them from a short distance. Two months ago it became illegal to disguise one’s head and face in public. So why are these boys, disguised and armed, allowed to walk the streets, while the police attacks unarmed and peaceful protesters?

“There are some angry youths rioting at the rallies, but the majority of violence, especially toward peaceful protesters, is coming from the police,” Ioanna, a hotel receptionist, tells me the next day. “A small proportion is discrediting the majority, which is a peaceful movement.”

Upcoming Showdown

During late February, President Obama joined Prime Minister Papandreou in repeated appeals to Germany’s Angela Merkel to ease loan repayment terms for Greece and Ireland. At a meeting of Eurozone leaders on Saturday, although Greece won some concessions, including a one percent lowering of interest rates on bail-out loans and seven and a half years to repay (instead of three and a half), these concessions have come at a high price. The Papandreou government is now under fire from politicians and constituents for accepting the new terms as a trade-off for a 50 billion euro privatization push, including the sale of prime state-owned assets such as Greek islands, venues from the recent Olympic Games, and public companies.

In Athens on February 23, it was not clear if Greeks have the basic right to peacefully assemble and speak without being tear-gassed and attacked. Over the past month in the Middle East, attempts to suppress popular dissent have backfired on governments. Here in Greece protesters are not likely to concede the streets, either. The battle of wills between a people’s movement and the Greek government is heating up and seems headed for a showdown.

“The situation is reaching a climax,” Yiorgos the bus driver tells me, “because working people know that the austerity measures go too far, and with the final rollout, they can’t survive. So there is nothing to do but protest.”

He adds a grim prediction: “You wait until next summer. The situation in Greece will explode.”

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kia Mistilis is an independent Australian journalist and photo-journalist based in Athens, Greece.