We are all Greek.

Scotland Stands with Greece

There was a powerful image on the news last night. A woman that looked to be at least 80 years old was seen in the middle of rioting in Athens, pulling a Greek flag away from a young man who was trying to set it on fire – his face covered with a gas mask.

The symbolism is poignant, as it so often is in Greece.

Only a week ago the Greek people were celebrating a victory, as they voted to reject stringent austerity requirements being imposed by the dark and powerful forces in Europe. For so long they have had their domestic policies dictated from Berlin via Brussels, and I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be in Syntagma Square when the results came, to feel like some sort of sovereignty was restored to the people at last.

Last night, the Greek Parliament were forced by those same European forces to implement emergency legislation to adopt even stricter measures than the people rejected in the referendum. Syriza did all that they could by calling the bluff of their creditors with the vote. In the end, they played the best hand they could and lost. There was nowhere else to go: accept the terms or leave the Eurozone.

Images from the centre of Athens on the 17th of November 2014. In memory of the Polytechnic uprising in 1973

The last few months of 2014 saw trouble on an almost daily basis in Athens. Annual protests that had seen dwindling turn-outs for years suddenly swelled with those taking to the streets to demand an end to the weak leadership of their Government in the face of increasing demands from the Troika.

The one last bit of hope that those involved seemed to be clinging to was the December election, and the potential for the anti-austerity party Syriza, who marched alongside them, to change the way the game was being played. No more taking things lying down. Seemingly against all odds, they got into power. For the first time in years, the riot police were called off, and the protests turned to demonstrations of support for the new government.

There was hope, but it didn’t last for long.

The scenes of last year will be nothing compared to what happens now that even Tsipras, with all of his abilities has been forced to concede defeat. The truth is that no matter how hard or how well he fought, he just didn’t have anywhere near enough bargaining power to win. Without an incredibly damaging exit from the Eurozone, Greece will be forced to do whatever those holding the purse strings demand. 

I fear for what will happen now.

There are plenty who say that the Greeks got themselves into this mess, through early retirement ages and high rates of tax evasion. They shouldn’t just be able to shirk their responsibilities, or ‘have their cake and eat it’.

Corruption has been rife in Greece for decades. Nepotism is the norm. However, in many senses it isn’t hard to see why. The British and Americans helped open the doors for a military dictatorship in the country to avoid Communist influence, and Greece shoulders a hugely disproportionate burden in the number of refugees that it receives as the first port of call into the EU. Historically, ideologically, and geographically, they are caught in the middle, with no support from what are meant to be their allies.

Whatever the history is, the present reality is that the rate of child poverty is above 40%. The rate of youth unemployment 50%. Those who do have jobs have been forced to take huge pay cuts, or even to work for free from months to years simply because there’s no other option. The infamous pensions that have been so criticised have been reduced to almost nothing, with it impossible for those who have previously retired to find new jobs. Greeks work longer hours, and own more of their own businesses than a large number of other countries around the world. The generalisations about them being lazy or greedy simply do not play out.

The idea that somehow the Greek people are themselves solely to blame for this crisis, and that they deserve what has happened is an appalling and reprehensible one. People should not be forced to suffer terribly and indefinitely because of the corrupt actions of their previous Governments – those of whom still live comfortably with the proceeds of past malfeasance.

Even if the fault of what has happened really does lie with the average Greek (which it does not) then there must be a way open for the country to get out of the situation they are in. People must be able to build themselves out of poverty, and sometimes that requires acts of compassion and humanity – not cold blooded market capitalism. This is not happening however, and despite even the IMF declaring that repayment of the debt is impossible without some form of relief, the demands just become greater, all the while earning billions in profit for the ECB.

History repeats itself, albeit in different ways. When African nations struggled to pay back impossible debts built up by corrupt dictators, we marched in the street to ‘make poverty history’. When Germany was faced with rebuilding a broken nation after defeat in the Second World War, creditors (including Greece) wrote off a significant portion of their debt so they could do so. Now, the Greeks are facing an impossible task, and nobody seems to care.

Είμαστε όλοι Έλληνες.

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6th December 2014 Athens Protests

Yesterday saw large protests in the Greek capital of Athens to commemorate the death of a 15 year old boy named Alexis Grigoropoulos at the hands of Greek police in 2008. This year has extra significance due to the hunger strike of Nikos Romanos, who was there when Griogoropoulos was killed.

There was meant to be a gathering from 12 noon outside the University of Athens, so we headed in to see what would happen. The police had already banned demonstrations in a large portion of the city centre for the visit of the Turkish Prime minister; something that was set to end at 3pm.

When we turned up, nothing was really happening. Lots of people were gathered around the University, but there was no chanting or people grouped together; nobody addressing the crowd or anything like that. There were a few banners here and there, but it was a sunny day, and largely people were just sitting around drinking coffee.

We hung around for a while and decided to go and get something to eat and drink and come back a bit later when there was due to be a march from the University to the neighbourhood of Exarcheia, via Syntagma Square.

Despite there reportedly being around 8000 police deployed in the city, their presence was far lower key than it has been on previous occasions. For a day where they expected a lot more trouble, there didn’t seem to be as many on them about as usual – especially considering that there was roughly one member of the police for every protestor.

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There were a few on street corners, but mainly to close off particular areas and re-direct traffic. That wasn’t always successful as the Greeks don’t like to be told what to do – including not to drive down a particular road.

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It wasn’t clear exactly what they were trying to achieve, as they closed one road off first, and then moved it to the next one. It also wasn’t clear whether the tape they were using to mark the streets was tied to a car they owned, or just one that happened to be parked there at the time.

We headed back up towards the University after 6pm, and things seemed like they were amping up to get ready to move off. We ducked into a nearby bar to get a drink and use their bathroom. Pretty soon after, we head the chanting a street over as people marched past, with fully clad riot police running alongside the side streets. Then came the sound of smashes, and bangs – with the owner of the bar telling us: “They’re smashing up the old Parliament. What’s the point? If they go down the street they’ll find the real enemies.”

We headed back out to see for ourselves for what was going on, and found the street in a sad state of disrepair, with bus shelters and shop windows smashed up, and bins on fire. The police (or fire brigade – it’s hard to tell) weren’t far behind with miniature extinguishers.

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We tagged onto the tail end of the march, but didn’t get too far before both the police and some of the protestors told us to stop taking pictures. This isn’t something I would usually ever comply with, but given the intense atmosphere, and us as foreigners, we thought it wise to do so. All around us there were people with masks smashing up the fronts of windows, or dragging away large plant plots to break into pieces. They were definitely in the minority though, with plenty of both older and younger people simply marching peacefully along, or watching from the sidelines.

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A few seconds later we heard a few huge bangs come from just behind us, and saw people start to run. The police had thrown flashbang grenades and tear gas in retaliation to what looked like water bottles or small stones that had been thrown at them. This quickly escalated, and you can see exactly where we were in the opening scenes of the video below. Watch out for the police punching an already handcuffed man in the face.

We took our leave at this point, with the march heading onwards to Exarcheia. Reports are that the use of the force by the police continued, predictably – with both water cannon, and the liberal use of both tear gas and flashbangs. I’m not sure how any police force can ever justify using chemicals or military tactics so brazenly in a residential area.

As we walked back to Syntagma, we passed more destruction, with steps and shops all smashed up.

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I’m really not sure what destroying shops or steps is supposed to achieve, and whilst I completely support direct action, I’m completely against the destruction of the city that you live in to make a political point. Many activists online have decried these actions, circulating videos that apparently show a few hundred masked, undercover police emerging from the crowd and going behind police lines. It wouldn’t be the first time that the police have infiltrated marches and provoked violence to discredit, or give an excuse to move in with force, so it’s hard to know exactly what the truth is.

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Athens once again lies smashed up, in a country where finances are already beyond strained. Today, the Greek Government are set to vote on a controversial new austerity budget in an attempt to appease the European Union, with further demonstrations planned. We can only hope that things won’t go like they did yesterday.

This is What’s Happening in Greece Right Now

You might not have heard, but thousands of people have been taking to the streets of Greece over the past few weeks.

Despite the impact of the economic crash on the country initially garnering significant media attention, the longer lasting effects have not seen the same level of interest.

Passionate demonstrations are not out of the ordinary in Greece, but this year they have been particularly heated. The cooler weather in November has also brought with it a series of events that have heightened the tension in an already troubled corner of the European Union.

Students in Athens have already faced a number of conflicts with the authorities, one of which was over attempts to mark the anniversary of the 1973 uprising against the military dictatorship. (Some pictures available here) Already fraught relationships with the police have deteriorated even further, through aggression and the liberal use of force. Protesters have been met with tear gas, stun grenades, and claims of ‘thuggish’ behaviour against dissenters.

This weekend sees the culmination of a number of factors which could result in a terrible perfect storm.

  • Friday 5th December sees a State visit by the Turkish Prime Minister, in amongst political controversy over Turkish actions in the Aegean.
  • Greek police have reportedly imposed a ban on ‘outdoor gatherings and demonstrations’ from 3pm on Friday to the same time the following day.
  • Saturday 6th December marks the six year anniversary of the fatal shooting of 15 year old student Alexis Grigoropoulos, which sparked huge riots across the country in 2008.
  • A friend of Grigoropoulos who was with him at the time – Nikos Romanos – is currently imprisoned and has been on hunger strike for around 25 days. Thousands of people have already taken to the streets just days ago to show solidarity, with violence erupting afterwards.
  • Syrian refugees have been camped outside of the Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square for over a week, engaged in a hunger strike to gain political recognition from the Government.
  • The Greek Parliament is set to decide on a contentious new budget for 2015 on Sunday

Greece is already sitting on a social powder-keg, with increasing pressure from the EU to implement further austerity measures despite sky high unemployment rates. It could be that the aggregation will spill over into violence, despite the thousands of police set to be deployed. Hopefully this won’t be the case.

Edit: You should be sure to read this thoughtful comment from Maria, below.