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22 March 2023

Greece is becoming an illiberal democracy

The government’s sinister framing of an attack on me is part of a climate of creeping authoritarianism.

By Yanis Varoufakis

“Like lambs to the slaughter” was how an elderly neighbour described the deaths of youngsters travelling on Intercity 62 which, on the night of 28 February, crashed head-on with a freight train in Greece killing 57 people. Many of the dead were students returning after a long weekend from Athens to their universities in Thessaloniki. More than 80 were injured, 25 of them seriously. And a whole nation fell into mourning and introspection.

In common with the Paddington disaster of 1999, the crash generated intense debate over the impact of breaking up and privatising the rail network. Upon hearing the heartbreaking news, my mind raced back to 2015 when, as Greece’s finance minister, I was involved in tense negotiations with “the troika”: the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Even back then, the privatisation of our railways was an issue dear to their hearts.

One of the troika’s preconditions during the debt negotiations was that I sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) under which our trains would be sold off for a pittance to an impecunious Italian state-owned company, our main port to a Chinese state-owned company, and our airports to a German state-owned company – a wholesale takeover of key infrastructure by three foreign states.

[See also: How the Greek revolution made the modern world]

Naturally, I told them to forget it – as did the Greek people in the July 2015 referendum. Alas, the then prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, buckled, prompting me to resign as finance minister and, eventually, to form MeRA25 – a new opposition party. Well before then, the trains, the airports and the ports had gone to the troika’s favourite suitors.

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Uncontested by the governing left party, Syriza, the privatisation agenda thus became hegemonic. Unsurprisingly, the enthusiastically neoliberal New Democracy was returned to government in 2019. While there was never any great public support for wholesale privatisation, there was also no serious opposition to it. Until, that is, the train accident that claimed so many souls. Suddenly, the tide turned and, led by tens of thousands of youths demonstrating in the streets, the privatisation agenda lost its legitimacy.

The sudden crumbling of neoliberalism’s hegemony could not have come at a worse moment for the oligarchs. With a general election looming, their capacity to maintain and expand their hold over public assets is looking fragile for the first time since 2015. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was basking in the glory of an establishment restoration, is now visibly panicked by the re-emergence of dissident voices. Meanwhile, Syriza, which privatised so many public assets under the troika’s watchful eye, seems incapable of attracting disaffected voters, with MeRA25 and other small parties advancing instead. 

Ten days after the accident, I was dining with my partner and colleagues at our usual haunt – a restaurant in Exarcheia, an Athenian suburb known for its anarchist community but also for its overwhelming police presence. Half an hour into our dinner, a group of seven thugs invaded the restaurant with the clear intention to confront me, or worse.

[See also: If the EU could speak, what would it say?]

To avoid a brawl, I offered to follow them out to the street, alone, so that they could take me to task for whatever grievances they had. As we were exiting the restaurant, pushed and smacked by their ringleader, one of them denounced me as a signatory of the hated MoU and the privatiser of the railways. Once outside, the ringleader, a man in his late twenties with the look and demeanour of a nightclub bouncer, punched me in the face in the style of a professional, causing me to lose my balance and fall on the pavement – at which point he proceeded to kick me in the face twice before fleeing the scene along with his entourage. Bleeding profusely, and leaning on my shaken colleagues, we made our way to the hospital whose wonderful staff attended to my broken nose and cracked eye socket.

Two hours before the first of six eyewitnesses gave a statement to the police, the police minister saw it fit to announce that my assailants had been identified and that a 17-year-old, and later a 19-year-old, were in police custody. A week afterwards, I was summoned by the investigating judge to give a statement. She showed me photos of three youngsters whom I did not recognise. None of them even resembled my assailant, whom I did however recognise clearly in CCTV footage from the scene. Meanwhile, the rightist social media trolls, and the minister himself, spread the fake news that I was shielding my “leftist” assailants. Some even went so far as to claim that I had staged the assault to curry favour with the electorate.

As the case remains sub judice, I shall say no more. Politically speaking, however, it is impossible not to notice how the government tried to frame the assault. Along with their media allies, they portrayed me as an anti-establishment politician who fell prey to youths stirred into a frenzy of violence by the rhetoric of politicians such as myself. They did their best to equate, in the public’s mind, my assailants with the thousands of young people demonstrating their anti-establishment fury at the 57 deaths. Considered together, with years of lethal pushbacks against migrants in the Aegean Sea, surveillance of journalists and opposition politicians and the sordid double-speak of our oligarchs over Russian oil, recent events point to a clear pattern: the steady conversion of Greece into another Viktor Orbán-style “illiberal democracy”.

[See also: Where do the Elgin marbles belong: Britain or Greece?]

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