A warning from Athens

In Greece, the far right has taken advantage of public anxiety caused by hyper-austerity, stoking xenophobia and violence. But the country’s experience is by no means unique.

A woman places a carnation on the smashed iron gate of the Athens Polytechnic
A woman places a carnation on the smashed iron gate of the Athens Polytechnic school, a symbol of the struggle against the army junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s Saturday morning in Athens and the players are taking up their positions for a familiar ritual. Around the National Garden, behind the Greek parliament, fortified police vans lie in wait, their occupants playing cards or chatting on mobile phones. Along the streets that stretch north from Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament building, there are more police, standing on street corners in riot gear, drinking iced coffee and idly watching groups of tourists or Athenians running Saturday errands. Crisis or no, this is still a bustling capital city.

Next door to the National Archaeological Museum, the courtyard of which is peopled with ancient statues rescued from a shipwreck, limbs eroded and faces barnacled, is the Athens Polytechnic. Inside the gates, a crowd of people – elderly men, mothers with teenage children, twentysomething couples – has gathered to lay red and white carnations in front of a memorial stone. Around them, students are making banners, leafleting and gathering into groups according to political affiliation. Later, they will march noisily into the centre of Athens. For now, however, the atmosphere is quiet, reverential, if a little tense.

Demonstrations have become commonplace in Athens, so much so that people talk of “protest fatigue”. In the past month alone, there have been two general strikes, plus another walkout on 14 November as part of a pan-European day of action. On the night of 7 November, police tear-gassed protesters in Syntagma Square, while inside the parliament MPs debated a new wave of public spending cuts and privatisation demanded by the troika – the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank – in return for another slice of bailout money. Opposition is such that the measures are being implemented by ministerial decree –emergency legislation reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. And it’s hurting: Eurostat reports that 31 per cent of the population, 3.5 million people, are living near or below the poverty line and 15 per cent cannot afford “basic commodities”. Greece is a laboratory for austerity, the most extreme iteration of policies that are being imposed by governments from London to Lisbon.

On Saturday 17 November, the protest is of a different kind. It is the date on which Greece commemorates the fall of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. On this day in 1973, a tank burst through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, which had been occupied by students protesting against the military regime and demanding the right to elect their leaders. This direct democracy had been too much for the colonels to bear and 24 people were killed in the crackdown that followed. The massacre spelled the beginning of the end for their regime, which fell a year later. The 17th has long been a symbolic date for the Greek left but in the past few years the ranks of marchers have been swelled by a new generation.

As the students begin to form into blocs, stamping their feet in unison, the old chant of those who fought the junta goes up: “Bread, education, freedom!” Now, though, it comes with a reply: “The dictatorship is not over!”

**

Manolis Glezos, white-haired and dressed in a sharp, powder- blue jacket, leans forward across the desk and jabs a finger. “I want to write an ‘I accuse’ to Britain. During the war, we stood by them as allies. So where’s Britain now?”

At the age of 90, Glezos knows Greece’s recent history intimately. In 1941, he and a comrade tore down the swastika flag from the Acropolis, at the height of the Nazi occupation. They were imprisoned and tortured. When civil war erupted in 1946, between the communist- led resistance partisans and a rightwing government propped up by Britain and the US, he was sentenced to death. He was sent to prison camps twice more in the years that followed – along with thousands of other leftists – and eventually forced into exile when the junta came to power. Yet Glezos is more than a symbol of resistance; he is back in front-line politics, as an MP.

I meet Glezos in his office at the Greek parliament, which is staffed by a couple of young assistants who are busy posting copies of his speeches on Facebook. (The most recent one has been “liked” 680 times, Glezos tells me.) He is an MP for Syriza, the coalition of radical left-wing parties that has been the main bene - ficiary of public discontent. In the past three years, it has gained momentum as support has drained away from the centre-left Pasok, which once promised Greeks a welfare state and national self-determination but now finds itself in coalition with the right-wing New Democracy, administering the troika’s demands. In May’s general election, Syriza won an unprecedented 17 per cent of the vote. At a second election, called when the government failed to hold a coalition together, its vote rose to 27 per cent and it narrowly missed an outright victory. It is now the main opposition party and most opinion polls put it on course to win power the next time elections are held.

For the first time since 2008, Europe faces the real possibility of a government whose stated aim is, as Glezos tells me, to “cancel” the debt, halting the programme of spending cuts and demanding that the troika renegotiate terms. “Two and a half thousand years ago, an ancient writer, Menander, said: ‘Loans make people slaves.’ You can forgive other people if they don’t know this but Greeks are not allowed not to know this.”

According to Procopis Papastratis, a professor at Panteion University in Athens, Syriza’s success has sent a shockwave through the Greek political establishment. “The left terrifies a lot of people . . . They say that if the left comes, they will slaughter us or they will take our houses like Stalin did in the Soviet Union. The big businesses say that they will leave Greece and they say to those who work for them that if you vote Syriza, you will be unemployed because we will take our companies and go.”

For Glezos, the division is “not between left and right. It is between the Greek people and those who have subjected themselves to the troika and the will of the powerful.” And the elite have good reason to be scared. “We don’t just want to give a good make-up to the system. We really want to change it.” Glezos sets out a range of measures – a crackdown on Greece’s endemic tax evasion; forcing banks to loan the government money at zero interest; investment in industry and agriculture – that he believes would restore economic prosperity.

His pugnacious stance encapsulates the popular feeling that the current government is not acting in the nation’s best interests. “The crisis was not provoked by Greek people. Why should [we] pay for the crisis? This is a basic question. I am never going to stop asking until someone has an answer.”

**

Nationalism, however, always has its dark side. Like many other Greeks I meet, 31-year-old Kelly feels deep anger at the way her country was led into crisis. Greece only gained entry to the eurozone by manipulating economic data – as did other countries, including Italy – and was left exposed when the crash came. “I feel it was a lie all these years. The way they told us how things will be – that you will have a good career if you study. For our generation, we have learned one system and now suddenly there is a big change.”

Kelly is not doing too badly –when we meet, at a sandwich chain in a southern suburb of Athens, she has just been promoted to sales manager at the telemarketing firm where she works. But Kelly wants to “punish” the politicians she believes have led Greece into crisis. She feels the biggest shock she can inflict on the system is to give her vote to the fascist Golden Dawn. To Kelly, the party’s main appeal is that it’s “real”: “They say to you, ‘I am the devil,’ and they are devils. I prefer someone that says the truth and says to me, ‘You know what, I am the bad guy,’ rather than another one that says to me, ‘I am the good guy and I will save you.’” She stops and asks, a little nervously, “Does that make me crazy?”

Kelly is not alone. The first almost anyone outside Greece heard of Golden Dawn was in May 2012, when the party swept into parliament with 7 per cent of the vote. Politics in Greece have polarised – and just as Syriza’s support soared, so right-wing voters have been pushed further and further to extremes, as a succession of right-wing parties have been tainted by coalition.

Europe has become used to the slow, attritional progress of far-right movements; those led by fascists such as Nick Griffin or the Le Pen family, who have put on suits and concealed their real views in an attempt to enter the mainstream. But from Golden Dawn’s Nazi-esque imagery to the militaristic rallies and openly violent conduct of its members, it was immediately apparent that this time was different. Golden Dawn did not emerge from nowhere. As Dimitris Psarras, an investigative journalist who has recently published The Black Book of Golden Dawn, explained to me, the party was founded in the early 1980s by Nikolaos Michal - oliakos, a right-wing extremist with connections to the junta.

From the outset, the group’s core beliefs were “neo-Nazi” and “pagan”, says Psarras, mixing the ideas of Adolf Hitler with a nostalgia for ancient Greek culture – and the movement was structured along quasi-military lines, modelled on the Sturmabteilung, Hitler’s stormtroopers. During its early years, Golden Dawn operated as a kind of security service, doing bodyguard work and “the dirty jobs” for certain members of Greece’s wealthy elite.

In the 1990s, explains Psarras, a series of changes in Greek society enabled Golden Dawn to grow. First came a rise in nationalist sentiment after disputes with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia over its name and with Turkey over ownership of islands in the Aegean Sea. Then came a wave of immigrants following the collapse of the eastern bloc and wars in the Balkans. Finally, with the advent of unregulated private television channels –whose sensationalist output, says Psarras, is “like your Sun newspaper in Britain” – came a rise in antiimmigrant sentiment.

These feelings continued to grow throughout the 2000s, exacerbated by mainstream politicians who pandered to xenophobia. Now, many Greeks have come to see immigration as a cause of the country’s economic turmoil. During my conversation with Kelly, she was at pains to stress that she bore no animosity to foreigners. “I want you to know about Greek people that we are very generous, very clever, very open-minded and very hard-working,” she told me. “But at this time, it’s like a ship – we have water [coming in] from one side and, on the other side, sharks.”

For all its shocking brutality, Golden Dawn has consolidated its support in a way typical of far-right parties across Europe. It follows a theory of community politics derived, says Psarras, from the French nouvelle droite – a group of far-right intellectuals who set out the blueprint for the Front National’s success in France and whose ideas Griffin tried to emulate as leader of the British National Party.

The difference is in Golden Dawn’s relationship with the state. Greece has a history of right-wing militias collaborating with the police and there have been documented incidents in which Golden Dawn members have appeared to work in tandem with officers in attacking left-wing protesters. One study of voting patterns suggests that as much as 50 per cent of Athens police officers voted for Golden Dawn at the last election.

A Golden Dawn MP, Ilias Kasidiaris, physically attacked a female opponent on live television but managed to evade arrest. Three others were filmed smashing up market stalls belonging to immigrant vendors – and posted the video on Golden Dawn’s website –yet have not been charged with any crime.

The tide may be turning: in response to public outrage, all four have now been stripped of parliamentary immunity to prosecution but Klio Papapantoleon, a lawyer who has represented several victims of attacks committed by Golden Dawn members, points out that the Greek justice system, while slow at the best of times, has been “very lenient in judging these members”. She points to the testimony of victims and witnesses who say that they have been “obstructed and encumbered by police officers while trying to sue members of Golden Dawn”.

For now, mainstream politicians follow the same logic as in other countries when faced with a threat from the far right: they compete on its territory. The government’s most recent move on immigration, for instance, has been to suspend all applications for Greek citizenship. Since August, a major police operation has been in progress to round up undocumented migrants and put them in detention centres. Yet such moves have only further legitimised Golden Dawn, which now positions itself as the real defender of the Greek people against austerity, taking a strong anti-bailout line and staging “Greeks-only” food distribution, blood donations and soup kitchens.

Still, the same Nazi beliefs lie at its core, glimpsed on occasions such as when one of its MPs read out a part of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion in parliament or in the anti-gay protests it organised that forced the closure of the play Corpus Christi.

Through an intermediary, I contact “John”, a member of Golden Dawn who would speak to me only on the condition of anonymity. Now 32 and working for a banking group in Athens, he joined the movement at 16, convinced that politicians had “betrayed” Greece over the territorial dispute with Turkey. He tells me he was attracted by the “total discipline” of the group. “There was mutual appreciation and, of course, respect towards higher-ranking members.” There were frequent meetings and talks aimed at “ideological orientation”, towards the ideas of what John describes as “National Socialism”. His main task, he says, was to spread these ideas among his friends and classmates, handing out fliers and selling copies of the party newspaper.

Because of family and work commitments, John is no longer an active member but he still votes for the party. What, I ask, would Golden Dawn do if it got into government? “We’ll do what others don’t dare . . . I think about how many times people have laughed at us [during election counts] – and now half of them feel intimidated and half consider us the only solution.”

Journalists, drawn as ever to a good story, have struggled to deal with this. I do, too. Nobody wants to underplay the threat Golden Dawn poses to Greek democracy and there’s a pressing need to expose its underlying extremism. Yet the aggression, which may seem alarming to an outsider, is exactly what attracted voters such as Kelly in the first place. “They do bad things. I don’t agree with that I don’t want them to be the government,” she tells me. “My intention is just to get them in the parliament.”

For now, though, the door to power remains ajar. And it will be much harder to shut than it was to open.

**

Just north-west of the centre of Athens stands the grand Orthodox church of Aghios Panteleimonas, dedicated to the fourth-century martyr St Pantaleon. In the square outside is a children’s playground; it’s locked shut and looks like it has been that way for some time. When I visited with a friend early one weekday morning, our only companions were stray cats that picked their way through the weeds sprouting through the tarmac beneath the swings. Greek flags hung limply from apartment balconies beyond the square and, on the ground in front of the church steps, spray-painted in blue and white, was the message “Foreigners out – Greece for the Greeks”.

A few blocks away, down a side street off one of the main boulevards, is the office of Yonous Muhammadi, chair of the Greek Forum of Refugees. I had trouble finding it: there is no sign outside and the buzzer is unmarked. It’s for a good reason, Muhammadi tells me – he was chased out of his previous office two years ago by fascist thugs, who smashed the place and beat him up. For im migrants such as Muhammadi, who came to Greece from Afghanistan in 2001, the rise of Golden Dawn has merely brought an existing problem out into the open. “In 2010, when we closed the office of the forum, we held a big press conference. We told them, now it is our problem, migrants and refugees, but it will be a problem for Greek people, also. For all of you.”

Like the rest of Europe, Greece experienced a further wave of immigration from the late 1990s onwards. Refugees – from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere – were joined by economic migrants from South Asia and Africa. Three things combined to turn this into an acute crisis. The first was Greece’s lack of a functioning immigration system. Applying for citizenship was – and is – so difficult that the only way most migrants can get permission to stay in the country is by presenting themselves as refugees. Temporary papers are renewed every six months and it can take up to ten years for an asylum application to be processed. The second was the removal of landmines from the Evros region in northern Greece, on the Turkish border. This opened up a safer route for migrants who previously had to make dangerous journeys by boat across the Mediterranean.

The third, decisive factor was the construction of “fortress Europe” – a pan-European immigration policy designed to make it harder for migrants from poor countries to enter the EU. Spain and Italy strengthened their border controls, making Greece an even more popular point of entry for migrants crossing from Asia or the southern Mediterranean. Along with this came the Dublin II Regulation, a 2003 agreement that asylum-seekers would be sent back to the country where they first set foot in the EU.

It was a perfect storm: hundreds of migrants a day being “returned” to a country they never intended to live in, with thousands more arriving, unaware of what awaited them.

Many migrants, such as Muhammadi, have made successes of their lives here: a trained doctor, he now works as a nurse in one of the capital’s main hospitals. Tanzanian and Pakistani shopkeepers have businesses all over the city. However, the failed policies have led to thousands of people being trapped in Greece, vulnerable to people-smugglers and crammed into apartments in once-smart citycentre neighbourhoods or sleeping rough, without sanitation, work or food, in squares such as Aghios Panteleimonas. At its peak, estimates Muhammadi, there were perhaps 5,000 Afghans intending to stay in Greece but a constant turnover of between 12,000 and 15,000 coming and leaving. Crime – theft, drug-trafficking and prostitution – rose in Athens city centre, and at one point around 500 people were sleeping rough in the playground outside Aghios Panteleimonas. The local council’s response was to lock it shut, forcing them on to the streets.

What came next, says Muhammadi, could have been avoided if the police had done their job and kept order. Instead, feeling like they had been abandoned, Greek residents in the area surrounding the church formed a campaign group – the “angry citizens” –which was soon infiltrated by members of Golden Dawn. The party encouraged Greeks to hang the national flag from their windows to show opposition to immigration and began carrying out “vigilante” patrols and covert attacks on immigrants. “The violence was here before the crisis,” says Muhammadi. “And the police were there, they were looking, but they were doing nothing. When I was attacked, I was bleeding but when I went to the police station to complain, the policemen who were standing in front told me, ‘If you complain, we’ll put you in a detention centre for two nights.’”

Then, in May 2011, came the spark. A shocking murder – of a Greek man as he fetched his car to take his pregnant wife to hospital – committed by two illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, caused a national media scandal. It provoked a two-week pogrom around Aghios Panteleimonas orchestrated by Golden Dawn, with fascist gangs attacking non-whites in broad daylight, dragging them off buses and destroying their shops. The playground was closed, immigrants forced off the streets and the message sent out: Golden Dawn is the group that knows how to sort out the immigrant “problem”. We do what others don’t dare.

The difference now, Muhammadi tells me, is a much wider acceptance of this violence as part of everyday life. “Before, the fascists would attack a group of immigrants and leave straight away. Now, they are there, they are waiting, they are attacking and the others look on. And nobody can do anything.”

Later, after my meeting with Muhammadi, I visited Saxi and Hakima, an Afghan couple in their late twenties with three young children. Kicking off my shoes, I was welcomed into their small apartment, which they share with four other refugees. We sat on carpets and cushions in their living room, while Hakima brought tea and boiled sweets. When I asked if their children had been born here, meaning in Greece, Hakima said, “Yes, here,” and pointed to the floor just in front of me.

As their two-year-old daughter Zeinab climbed over me and drew in my notebook, Saxi explained how he had been a policeman in Afghanistan but fled, fearing for his life, over a decade ago. “I haven’t seen my parents in 12 years,” he told me. “I would go back if it was safe.” After travelling through Iran and Turkey, he arrived in Greece, where he found work in the construction industry. Hakima joined him in 2008. It was always hard, explained Saxi, but things started to get worse from that year onwards. Two and a half years ago, he was beaten up so badly that he spent a week in hospital. When he came out, he was attacked again – and the time spent off work cost him his job. Saxi had recently found another job but Hakima told me that the family struggles for money and that she takes it in turns with other Afghan women to root through rubbish bins by night to find goods to sell and food to eat. They can’t go in large groups, because they’re scared of attracting attention and being attacked. “We thought we would come here, that we would be safe,” says Saxi, “but the people here don’t treat us like human beings.”

Saxi’s and Hakima’s story is typical. One recent study by the newly formed Racist Violence Recording Network noted 87 attacks in Greece between January and September 2012, 83 of which took place in public spaces – in squares, streets or on public transport. Daphne Kapetanaki, of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, tells me that these statistics are “just the tip of the iceberg”. Many immigrants will not report attacks, she says, because they lack papers and fear arrest or abuse by police officers. The network’s report also highlighted an almost total lack of prosecutions for racist attacks and identified 15 incidents in which police and racist violence were “interlinked”.

Many Greeks are shocked at the rise of fascism in their country but there is disagreement on what to do about it. Until recently, Syriza took the line that fighting austerity should be the focus. Anarchist groups have organised night-time motorbike patrols in areas with large immigrant populations. Yet Petros Constantinou of the Movement Against Racism and Fascist Threat (KEERFA) is adamant that a successful campaign will work only if it gives immigrants the courage to speak out, argue for their place in Greek society and join the wider protest movement. He looks to Britain’s history of successful anti-fascist movements; in particular the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism of the late 1970s. A national demonstration against racism and fascism in Syntagma Square has been called for 19 January.

For its part, the Racist Violence Recording Network hopes that its work will bring pressure on the government to reform the justice system: already, the minister of public order has promised to set up dedicated police units to tackle racist crime and to provide training for all officers in dealing with these issues. However, as Kapetanaki explains, what’s needed is “an assurance that migrants will not be arrested and detained if they report an attack”.

It will take hard work to lift the veil of fear. When I ask Saxi if he has ever considered joining anti-fascist protests, his answer is bleak. “Greek people, whoever they are, they hate us.”

**

By late afternoon on 17 November, the march from the Athens Polytechnic has swelled in numbers. Now some 20,000 strong, the students having been joined by various political groups, including the still-powerful Greek Communist Party (KKE), it snakes its way through central Athens, past the Academy, a neoclassical building from which glares in red the graffiti “Malakes [wankers] – you are the refugees of Europe!”; past Syntagma and the parliament, guarded by lines of police in gas masks; and up a palm tree-lined boulevard to its target, the US embassy. Obeying cold war logic, the US backed the colonels’ regime – just as Britain had backed the Greek right against the partisans two decades earlier – and to many Greeks, the troika’s bailout is just the latest instance of foreign interference.

By the time the march reaches the embassy, a looming Bauhaus edifice emblazoned with a giant state seal, it is dark. Everyone expects a confrontation with police. But this year, the marchers keep walking, pushing on further up the road. It is the third day of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the demonstrators have decided to take their protest all the way to the Israeli embassy.

It’s a symbolic gesture but it mirrors the many acts of solidarity, big or small, I see or hear about during my stay. One rainy evening later that week, I take a taxi out to Elliniko, a suburb of Athens, to visit a large medical clinic staffed entirely by volunteers. Set up to provide medical care to the growing number of Greeks without health insurance, it has dedicated rooms for a GP, for paediatricians, gynaecologists, psychologists and more.

A dentist whose practice was closing gave the clinic his entire surgery’s worth of equipment. There are arrangements to use the radiology and chemotherapy departments of nearby hospitals out of hours. Doctors come to work here for a few hours after doing a full day’s work. A trained pharmacist co-ordinates the sorting out and cataloguing of medicines. Cancer medication is particularly expensive and many people donate unused courses of tablets when relatives die. Volunteers without medical training spend their time doing clerical work or building up the network of donors.

Showing me around, Elena – a freelance economist by day, she says with an ironic laugh – tells me that since the summer the number of people using the clinic has doubled. It treated 1,200 in August and nearly 2,500 in October. As the number of people needing help soars, so, too, does the number of people ready to step in to help. “It’s not why I do it,” says Elena, “but every day I come here, I leave feeling just a little bit taller.”

There are two rules, she says – “No money and leave your politics at the door.” But its very existence raises an explicitly political question: what if we could build a society that operated this way not out of dire emergency, but by design?

It is this challenge that faces Syriza, should it fulfil expectations and win the next election. In 2011, ordinary Greeks began occupying public squares all over the country, in imitation of the indignados movement in Spain, and debating the changes they wanted to see in their country. Now, Syriza is trying to harness this energy and since the summer has been holding public meetings of its own to determine the party’s programme for government.

Manolis Glezos tells me he is one of the few MPs to have visited these meetings across eece and lists an array of proposals that the movement has thrown up: local and regional autonomy to combat corruption; a justice system free from political interference; giving social institutions such as trade unions and medical associations a say in proposing policies; the “socialisation” of banks, in which members of civil society sit on corporate boards; the right to recall MPs when they don’t implement the policies they have been elected to enact.

First, Syriza must transform itself from a broad coalition into a unified party. This month, it will hold the first of several conferences where delegates elected by each of the public meetings will discuss what principles the party should adopt.

The left is further divided: the KKE, along with a few other parties, remains aloof, convinced that Greece needs to exit the euro before any social change can begin. (Syriza would rather stay and build a wider European movement.) According to Glezos, the rise of grassroots democracy is already affecting how Greeks think about their country: “By taking these assemblies to industries, factories, workplaces, communities, it’s changing the whole shape of society.” This time, he says, there is a chance to avoid the past mistakes of the left, because this movement aims to put “the people in power and the people in government”.

Glezos recalls the slogan of the polytechnic uprising: “Bread, education, freedom. These questions are still current.”

A week after visiting the clinic in Elliniko, I go to see another project, supported once again by donations and staffed by volunteers. This time, it’s food, not medicine, to provide for those who are unable to feed themselves or their families. Staff tell me that they have been overwhelmed by donations from the local community: shoppers at the nearby supermarket drop by with anything from a few tins of tomatoes to whole carrier bags full of supplies.

However, this isn’t Greece. It’s London – just down the road from my house. Some 13 million people live below the poverty line in Britain and as austerity forces more out of work or on to part-time wages, a growing number of people are struggling to cover the basic necessities.

Since 2008, when 26,000 people used food banks, the number has soared: more than 100,000 used them between April and September this year and the Trussell Trust, which operates the largest network of food banks in the UK, estimates that 200,000 people will use them in the year to come.

Greece’s crisis may be acute but it is not unique. In Britain, its effects have so far been easier to hide, while outbreaks of dissent have been more spasmodic: the student occupations of 2010; the 2011 summer riots; last autumn’s Occupy movement. And fortunately, the far right is in decline, even though victim-blaming and xenophobia are rife in our media.

None of this has to happen; but to stop it, we need each other.

Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman

He is the author of “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” (Verso, £14.99)

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