Angela Merkel in Athens: The bitter after-taste

As protestors chanted anti-austerity slogans and clashed with riot police, the German Chancellor did nothing but look after her own electoral interests.

Of course it was going to be surreal. Air raid sirens were supposed to sound at 11am, only a couple of hours before the German Chancellor arrived. Despite the fact the routine drill was cancelled the night before, the signs of a strange day were all there. Why is Angela Merkel visiting Greece now?

Merkel flew to Athens in search of momentum, leading up to German elections next September. Despite hope, or fear in some cases, that something important regarding the future of Greece and Europe as a whole was to be announced, nothing like that happened. “I am aware that the situation [in the society] is tough.” she stated during her meeting with President Carolos Papoulias. “I came here to support Greece”. But her general stance, doesn’t actually “support” this. If anything, an impression that Merkel visited the country looking for her “Thatcher moment”  is one of the things left unsaid. Since there are no laid off miners around, Greece would have to do.

Last time the German Chancellor visited Greece was in 2007, before the financial crisis blew up in our faces, back when the euro was still considered to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now the Greek economy is down the drain and European politicians are desperate to hang a “nothing to see here, move along” sign over the country. But everyone knows it is not so and can’t help but wonder: A simple meeting at the VIP lounge of the airport would do, why the theatrics that cost the Greek state almost two million euros? Why ban demonstrations from moving on all streets surrounding the parliament using a law drafted in 1971 by the Greek Junta?

A protester holds a placard of German Chancellor Angela Merkel featuring a Hitler moustache near the Greek parliament

I arrived at the demonstration that took place despite the ludicrous ban outside the parliament, at around the same time Alexis Tsipras and Bernd Riexinger (of the German party Die Linke) did. Only a few thousand people on and around Syntagma square were present before I left my house, but by the time I got there, there was barely enough space to stand.

“We will give her the welcome she deserves” the leader of SYRIZA proclaimed.

Blocks of young people stood around the main SYRIZA one, while the usual chanting took place in front of the parliament. This was all before the time Merkel actually arrived. While making my way there, I tried to count how many policemen in riot gear I encountered getting there: I couldn’t. Every alley around syntagma was crawling with them. Minutes later I was notified that pre-emptive arrests were taking place all over Athens. Official sources, at the time, placed the number between 35 and 50. Unofficial info provided by veteran reporter Vassiliki Siouti of Eleftherotypia spoke of almost 2,000.

Demonstrators march in front of the parliament building during Merkel's visit

The trouble didn’t start before 3pm, when the first tear-gas canisters fell, next to the parliament, where the police had placed an iron fence to stop the demonstrators from reaching Vasilisis Sofias, the road from which Angela Merkel would reach A Samaras’ office. Pepper spray was used to hold back the demonstrators. The game often played between demonstrators and riot police began and stones were hurled at the police who tried to break the crowd and push them towards Panepistimiou street. Before the show was over a couple of hours later, 30 protesters were hurt, twelve people have been arrested and 193 detained. Right in front of me, as I was making my way through the backstreets of Syntagma, a hand-cuffed girl was used as a human shield by riot police against stones hurled at them by demonstrators. She was then dragged by her hair, probably towards the nearby Acropolis police station. This was not an isolated incident unfortunately, as many cases of police brutality against those detained were reported throughout the day.

In the meantime, news of the joint press conference were coming in via Twitter: Merkel reminded Greeks that she hopes Greece will be able to remain in the eurozone but has to stick to reforms. Specifically, she mentioned 89 reforms Greece must enact in the next few weeks (as well as €9bn in cuts), in order for the next 31.5bn tranche in loans to be released. With protestors chanting anti-austerity slogans, Merkel offered nothing. Instead, the ideological leader of austerity supporters in Europe stuck to her guns and spoke soft words of comfort to people who’ve just had enough of that.

Angela Merkel and Antonis Samaras make a joint statement

She tried to re-assure Greeks that reforms and cuts will pay off in the long-term, while helicopters patrolled the skies above 50,000 demonstrators burned Nazi flags and called for an end to the nightmare of recession. As Megan Greene of Roubini Global Economics, an expert on the eurozone crisis, put it: “At the end of the day, Merkel's political gesture won't plug the Greek government budget gap and won't stop the economy from contracting further.” All Angela Merkel did was put on a political show to remind Greeks of their obligations, and win votes back home before departing for the Hilton hotel to meet with Greek and German businessmen and investors.

A protestor burns a Nazi flag

As I made my way back, hundreds of police officers were stationed outside the Acropolis tube station, right across the street from tourists filling the popular cafés in Makrygianni Street. A platoon was heading back towards the square, despite the fact demonstrators had scattered and Syntagma square was now occupied by police in riot gear. This, I realized, is the image of Austerity Europe. This is the image of governments who need to treat their populations like prisoners in order to stay in power. And this, is an image from the future: Leaders, hidden away from the public eye in Hilton hotel talking business with Greek and German investors, while people are sidelined, marginalized, stripped of rights and future, labelled as reactionaries who don’t know what’s good for them.

A fire burns as demonstrators clash with riot police

There’s still a heavy smell hovering over down-town Athens. Nostrils burn as they welcome the future. The bitter after-taste is but a warning of things to come.

Yiannis Baboulias is a freelance journalist. Find him on Twitter as @yiannisbab

All photographs from Getty Images

UPDATE 10/10/2012 16:30

Angela Merkel last visited Greece in 2007, not the 1990s as previously stated. The article has been updated to reflect that.

Rubbish litters the ground as demonstrators clash with riot police in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage