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“So, you’ve come to talk to terrorists,” says Maria Christianou as I step off the bus, after a two-hour journey through rolling hills east of Thessaloníki. Christianou, an environmentalist, makes it sound like a well-worn phrase, but it’s no less incongruous for all that: Ierissos, a remote village on the Chalkidiki Peninsula – the “three fingers” that stick out from the northern Greek mainland into the Aegean – is little more than a cluster of streets around a crossroads, surrounded by mountains on one side and sea on the other. One road out of the village leads back to Thessaloníki, the other to the sacred Orthodox site of Mount Athos, famed for its men-only entry policy. At first glance, this hardly seems to be a seat of insurrection.
Yet for the past three years Ierissos has been at the centre of an increasingly bitter dispute. Its inhabitants, hitherto more accustomed to farming, or fishing, or running hotels, have been condemned as subversives at the highest level of government, and they have learned how to stem the effects of tear gas, how to build a roadblock and how to carry out basic first aid. At the village school, Christianou says, “Teachers say the kids have changed their drawings. Now they’re about their parents being arrested.”
The reason for the dispute is the gold that lies in the ground beneath Skouries, an ancient mountain forest just outside Ierissos. Small-scale mining has taken place in the region since the days of Aristotle, who was born here near the village of Stagira. In modern times, various companies have operated concessions, but plans to expand them collapsed after running into local opposition. Now, however, Skouries is one of several sites in Chalkidiki earmarked for a vast expansion of gold mining which will extract roughly 380 million tonnes of ore, far in excess of the 33 million tonnes that have been mined in the past two millennia. Opponents say the project – an open-cast pit, supported by chemical and distribution plants – will destroy the surrounding environment, and that the jobs created won’t replace the livelihoods lost that depend on soil, sea or tourism. The government says the scheme must go ahead: Greece’s profound economic crisis allows it no alternative. Since 2010, when ministers approved the expansion – ignoring the conclusions, campaigners say, of an environmental impact assessment report – protests against the mines have grown into a movement of thousands.
At a café in the heart of the village, Christianou introduces me to some of the people with whom she has worked to build the campaign. Thomasis Kromidas, a carpenter in his fifties who carries a bulging folder of scientific documents in his backpack, tells me how, from late 2010, they began to hold public meetings in neighbouring villages, “just transmitting the scientists’ message, not our own views”.
In March 2011 came the first unrest: 3,000 people descended on the streets of Ierissos, a village with a population of only 4,000, to make their objections heard. The anti-mining campaigners formed themselves into organising committees, holding regular protests and monitoring the development of the Skouries site.
In December that year, the Canada-based conglomerate Eldorado Gold bought a 95 per cent stake in Hellas Gold – a private company set up by the Greek government to run mines in Chalkidiki. The following March, the government conceded 4.1 square kilometres of the publicly owned Skouries forest to the company so that it could begin work. Eldorado, which also operates mines in Brazil, China and Turkey and has a site under development in Romania, has said that it will protect the environment, but the protests have continued. On 20 March 2012, there was an angry stand-off at Skouries when hundreds of mineworkers from another site confronted 30 local campaigners. On 25 March – a national holiday in Greece – protesters rallied in the surrounding villages and prepared to march to Skouries. On the road into the forest, they encountered a line of riot police who drove them back with tear gas and stun grenades. “People were totally unprepared,” says Maria Kadoglou, a blogger from Ierissos. “There were families, old people. Women were wearing high heels because they’d come straight from church.”
This was just the beginning. Mobilisations suffered increasing harassment by police and private security guards. A video shot during a protest on 21 October last year shows villagers panicking as armed police chase them through the forest and shoot tear gas at them. We have become used to such images from the Greek capital, but Ierissos is not Athens. It is part of a conservative region whose voters often used to opt for the centre-right candidate at election time. Irini Mourkou, who owns a guest house that caters to the Greek, German and Russian tourists who descend on Chalkidiki every summer, describes the change that has taken place in people’s minds: “Before, we believed the police were there to protect citizens. After, we realised they were there to protect private interests.” Kromidas interjects: “Colonisation is what’s happening here.”
In February, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, gave his assurance that his government would “at all costs protect foreign investment in the country” and that the scheme would succeed. Yet under the terms of the concession, the Greek state will receive no royalties from minerals extracted. Why, in the face of so much popular opposition, would the government be so determined to see the Skouries project through?
Anti-mining protesters in the forest near Skouries, on 1 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
In mid-May, shortly after I visited Ierissos, Greek newspapers carried photographs from China of Samaras with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. Samaras, a Harvard-educated economist whose party, New Democracy, has led a fragile coalition since elections that took place a year ago this month, was the latest in a string of European leaders to make the pilgrimage to Beijing. His keynote speech, delivered to the Academy of Social Sciences but aimed at Chinese businessmen above all, carried an optimistic message: come and take part in “the Greek success story”.
The visit was part of a PR drive by the Greek government to convince investors that the country has seen off the worst of the crisis. Its efforts have been welcomed enthusiastically by “analysts” in the business press and the financial industry – not out of a new-found concern for the Greek people, but to show that the economic “shock therapy” imposed on this eurozone member was worth it all along. In May, Yannis Stournaras, the minister of finance, declared that Greece had “turned a corner” economically and that it could return to the financial markets in 2014. That same month, the Fitch ratings agency upgraded Greek debt from CCC to B-minus, still officially “junk” status, but a reward for “progress” in cutting the deficit. At the same time, the government has been preparing a huge sell-off of public assets – privatisations that would, in the words of the country’s development minister, “send the message that we are a business-friendly country”.
As politicians try to sell the new Greece, the social crisis – which even the IMF now admits was avoidable – continues to deepen. Hospitals, for instance, are so underfunded that they run short of basic medical supplies. What’s more, public anger, voiced at the elections a year ago when many voters deserted the mainstream parties, and swung to the far left and far right, shows no sign of abating. A group of enraged villagers who don’t want their mountain turned into an open-cast mine could severely damage the perception that Greece is a safe place for global capital.
To an international audience Samaras may play the benign technocrat, but at home his political record suggests something different. In 1993 he brought down the government after he was sacked as foreign minister over his stance in a naming dispute with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (an emotional issue for many Greeks, who see ancient Macedon as central to their heritage) and formed a hardline nationalist movement, Political Spring. In 2004 he rejoined New Democracy, which is nominally centre-right but has also accommodated more extreme elements; as leader, he took the party into the 2012 election on an aggressively nationalist platform, promising severe measures to curb illegal immigration.
But what began with immigrants – a stop-and-search programme known as Xenios Zeus, widely criticised by human rights campaigners – has spread to other elements of the population. In December, squats such as the long-standing Villa Amalia in Athens were evicted by armed police. In April the minister of justice proposed turning a former military camp into a prison for debtors who owe more than €5,000 to the state. This month, the Greek Transgender Support Association reported that transgender people in Thessaloníki had been subjected to weeks of police harassment.
And the abrupt closure of the national broadcaster ERT on 11 June brought Greece back into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. The government announced that the service, the Greek equivalent of the BBC, would shut down pending a restructuring and broadcasts would halt that evening. Although the action was officially justified by a need to cut civil-service jobs to meet the demands of Greece’s creditors, the way it was carried out evoked memories of the junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Even New Democracy’s coalition partners condemned the move. The only other party to support it was the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. As Panos Kassaris, an ERT journalist based in Thessaloníki, told me, the broadcaster “is a bulwark against the growing power of the far right, [as it] ensures a variety of opinions will be expressed”.
But the move may have backfired: journalists refused to cease working, and occupied their offices, while thousands of ordinary Greeks turned out to support them. One friend in Thessaloníki told me that the mood was “like it was two years ago” – referring to the indignados protest movement that swept the country in 2011. On 17 June one of the country’s highest courts ruled that ERT must continue broadcasting, while on 21 June, crisis talks between leaders of the three coalition parties broke down, raising the prospect of yet more elections.
In February 2013, the Skouries dispute took on another dimension when the Hellas Gold site was subjected to an arson attack. According to a press release from Eldorado, around fifty masked men stormed the site, setting fire to equipment and offices, and using tree trunks to block police and firefighters from reaching the blaze. It is still not clear who did it, but the state pressure immediately intensified. The police launched daily patrols in Ierissos, stopping people at random in the street and taking them in for questioning. Next, on 7 March, came what villagers refer to as “the invasion”. As video footage shows, anti-terrorism squads and several hundred riot police descended on the village – ostensibly to search suspects’ houses – firing tear gas as they approached. Witnesses claim that gas canisters even landed in the school playground while pupils were at lessons.
“They were trying to break us,” says Maria Kadoglou, but the move appears to have had the opposite effect. On 9 March, thousands of people marched through the streets of Thessaloníki in solidarity, followed by a second demonstration in Athens a few days later. Despite hostility from the oligarch-owned television stations that dominate the country’s media, the word has spread through social media and citizen journalism projects such as the Athens-based Radiobubble. The Skouries campaign has become a symbolic issue for people all over Greece.
At the café in Ierissos, I chatted about these developments with the anti-gold-mine campaigners. Thomasis the carpenter had a neat way of putting it: “When the politicians go out, solidarity comes in.” As we talked, I got a sense of how the very things that a conservative like Samaras might brandish as Greek values – community, friendship, self-reliance – were now valuable weapons. The café is a centre of village life where teenagers lounge and flirt, or play with their phones, where people drop in to exchange greetings or gossip. And now, of course, it is where “terrorists” come to plot.
Follow Daniel Trilling on Twitter @trillingual