Nothing to see here: Athens is now closed to democracy

There are two kinds of deficit that have taken hold in Greece: the economic one, and the democratic deficit created by government spin and five years of austerity and authoritarianism.

The Greek capital will be closed for the day, nothing to see here, move along. From Panepistimio to Mets, two of the borders of the historic center of Athens, it’s about two kilometres in a straight line. From Acropolis to Mouson Avenue, it’s almost six. These are the borders of the area of Athens where a curfew has been declared for today (see map below). To get a sense of the scale, think of an area in London from Westminster to Holborn and from Marble Arch to Bethnal Green Road. 

From nine in the morning till eight at night, the centre of Athens will be under lockdown. No protests or assemblies allowed. This decision (taken by the Chief of the Greek Police no less - not an elected official) was deemed necessary because the German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, will be visiting Athens. To ensure that nothing will hinder Schäuble’s route, or tarnish his eyes with images of dissent, the road that leads from the airport to the Greek Parliament will also be closed while he is on it.

The area of Athens where protests and assemblies are banned today

It is of course not the first time that such measures, which might be called extreme, have been taken in order to provide maximum security for a visiting German official. It was only last October that the Greek capital had to be flooded with riot police, and another curfew imposed, in order for the ungrateful masses of protesting Greeks to be kept at bay for Angela Merkel’s visit. It was the same when riot police were used to stop a small village from protesting the destruction of its natural environment, imprisoning anarchists without trial for longer than the law allows or shutting down public institutions (like say the state broadcaster) on a moment's notice without a vote in parliament. It is not, of course, incompatible with democracy to take away basic rights from a people, in order to show your benefactors (be they businessmen or governments) how grateful you are. The Greek coalition government knows very well where its lifeline comes from. 

But one can’t help but ask - as both the German and the Greek government alike have been declaring lately - if the Greek “success story” is true, why is such protection (usually reserved for dictators and conquerors) needed at all? Wolfgang Schäuble is certainly none of those things. At his very worst, Wolfgang Schäuble might accept the odd DM 100,000 cash donation from the occasional arms dealer and be forced to resign from the leadership of his party, just like he did back in 2000. It is but a flesh-wound.

Maybe it’s because a lot has changed since then. Most of all, the very nature of the political system we call “democracy”. Greece’s Troika of lenders (comprised of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, but spearheaded financially and ideologically by Germany), in their efforts to close the country’s financial deficit, has created and perpetuated a most despicable, and harder to close, deficit: one of democracy. 

Instead of an open forum, like the one my country supposedly gave birth to, where everyone gets a say, the version we’ve been witnessing in Greece is more of the “elections during which German newspapers publish articles in Greek, warning voters not to vote for left-wing SYRIZA” kind. This is the version where meetings need to take place behind closed doors, and visiting politicians need to be kept away from the unruly mobs who seek to stain the beautiful fairytale of hardship, punishment and reward the virtuous Angela Merkel desperately needs on her way to the German elections to be held this September. 

We shouldn’t go very far as to why this protection is needed though. The privatisations programme has brought the Greek government nothing but shame. Unemployment now stands at more than 28 per cent, and an expected drop of more than 70 per cent in tax revenue during the month of June is predicted to blow a hole in the budget of almost a billion euros. All of these things threaten the government’s spin. 

Greek and German politicians refuse to acknowledge this. Yiannis Stournaras, the Greek Minister of Finance, declared in a more than straightforward way that “there is no problem, we’re seeing improvement”, despite the Troika’s damning report on the progress made. A multi-bill that pushes through “necessary” reforms (namely cuts, lay-offs etc) has been rushed through the parliament, and voted by a slim majority of 153 out of 300 MPs. The only success the government has to show from the negotiations with the Troika is a reduction in the VAT on services which will apply from August, but already restaurant owners have said that it won’t change prices, as they have absorbed damages from the 10 per cent hike in previous years.

When faced with these tough questions, ministers of the government, like Nikos Dendias on the BBC’s HARDtalk a couple of weeks ago, stick to their line and claim we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. But it takes heavy policing, the closing down of tube stations, the enforcement of a curfew unlike any a democratic country should witness, and tight control of all mainstream media for this spin to take hold. It is this very behaviour by both the Greek and the German governments that provokes the Greek people to take to the streets. A call for a gathering in Panepistimio has already been sent out for this afternoon. 

Greece cannot afford luxuries, both literally and metaphorically. No matter what happens, whether riots, demonstrations or absolutely nothing takes place, the impression left behind in this instance is pretty clear: there is no room for democracy, freedom of expression and democratic procedures in this state of constant emergency. And if the Greek budget shows a primary surplus this year, itself highly unlikely, the democratic deficit created by these past five years of austerity and authoritarianism will take generations to close.

A protester's placard during this week's general strike in Greece. 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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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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