Riots in Greece

Riots followed the December 9, 2008, funeral of 15-year-old Andreas Grigoropoulos – who had been killed by police fire the previous weekend. Le Monde’s editorialist lays the blame at the door of an outmoded, ineffectual and corrupt government. (Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP)

The riots that have ravaged Greece‘s big cities – especially Athens – the last three days testify to the disequilibria of a society that over several years only went from being part of the Balkans to part of Europe. The December 6 death of a fifteen-year-old, Andreas Grigoropoulos, from police fire was the spark thrown into a powder keg primed to explode. Faced with thousands of young people who are conducting a veritable urban guerilla action – burning shops and cars, stoning the forces of order – the government seems incapable of restoring the peace.


It is impotent because it is in decay, undermined for a long time by pork, corruption and cronyism. It had already demonstrated its incompetence during the wave of fires that enflamed the Peloponnesus and Attica during the summer of 2007. And that was a natural phenomenon to a certain extent. Costas Caramanlis’s Conservative government, which was then getting ready for general elections, quickly announced the release of millions of Euros for the benefit of those who had incurred losses from the fires. Once the balloting was over, the victims never saw a cent.


It’s not a question of political party. The (Socialist) PASOK, which controlled the government from 1980-1990, suffers from the same evils as the right. It was unable – or unwilling – to build a modern state of law. The big families – the Caramanlis, Mitsotakis, Papandreou – that have followed one another in power for decades, have, along with their loyalists, profited from a system of which the scraps and crumbs have nourished a large part of the population.


Also see below: 
Strikes Cripple a Riot-Shaken Greece


Greece‘s accession to Europe, then globalization, shook up these archaic relationships. In twenty years, the country has modernized rapidly, yet without breaking out from its bad habits. The economic crisis is striking it full force. Young people have enormous difficulty finding jobs. Students stay at university past age 30 to avoid finding themselves in the job market. State company employees are hit by privatizations. Bureaucrats suffer budget cuts.


The social crisis explains, without justifying, the violence of the last few days. Mr. Caramanlis’s government may restore peace. It is too weak to attack the roots of the disorder.




Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.




Strikes Cripple a Riot-Shaken Greece


Wednesday 11 December 2008


by: Rachel Donadio and Anthee Carassava, The New York Times


Athens – A general strike crippled Greece on Wednesday, disrupting transport, banks and schools and curtailing hospital services in a new blow to the government after four days of violent protests over a police killing.


Clashes broke out in Athens when youths among a large crowd of strikers who gathered outside the Parliament building began hurling gasoline bombs and riot police responded with tear gas. Clashes were also reported in the northern cities of Salonika and Kavala.


Airports were severely affected by the strike as air traffic controllers walked out. Scores of international and local flights were grounded, the state news media reported. Railways, metro and bus lines and intercity coach services were virtually halted.


But while labor unions went ahead with the national strike, they called off a planned protest demonstration in an effort to help limit the disorder that has unfurled through the country. Dozens of people have been arrested over the last four days as rioters fought with police and rampaged in Athens and other cities.


The general strike was originally called to press economic demands for increased pay and to protest belt-tightening measures put forward by the government.


But the anti-government movement acquired new impetus following the fatal shooting by the police on Saturday of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15.


While clashes between the police and students have been common in Greece for decades, the ferocity of the reaction to the boy’s death took the nation – and its government – by surprise. Outrage over the death was widespread, fueled by what experts say is a growing frustration with unemployment and corruption in one of the European Union’s consistently underperforming economies, worsened by global recession.


But it was expressed in violence in the streets by student anarchists, who had been quiet for several years but seemed revived by the crisis. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, hanging on to power in Parliament by only one vote, seemed frozen, his government, once popular but now scandal-ridden, increasingly under pressure.


"He’s seriously troubled" about the riots, said Nicholas Karahalios, a strategy adviser to the prime minister. "Whereas before we were dealing with a political and economic crisis, now there’s a third dimension attached to it: a security crisis which exacerbates the situation."


More demonstrations were expected in the national strike Wednesday.


On Tuesday, bands of militant youths threw gasoline bombs and smashed shop windows in downtown Athens, as rioters battled with the police here in the capital and in Salonika, Greece‘s second largest city. In the port city of Patras, residents tried to protect their shops from rioters, while other rioters blocked the police station, the authorities said.


While widespread and violent, the protests on Tuesday were seen as slightly smaller than those the day before, when after dark hundreds of professed anarchists broke the windows of upscale shops, banks and five-star hotels in central Athens and burned a large Christmas tree in the plaza in front of Parliament.


At the Athens police headquarters, a spokesman said 12 police officers had been wounded in fighting with demonstrators that flared at 10 major locations around the Greek capital on Monday night. He said 87 protesters had been arrested and 176 people briefly detained because of the confrontations.


In the shattered city center on Tuesday, street-cleaning trucks tackled the mess. Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis advised Athenians not to drive into the city center and asked them to keep their trash indoors; rioters burned 160 big garbage containers in the streets on Monday night.


On Tuesday, the opposition leader, George A. Papandreou, a Socialist, renewed his call for early elections. Yet it remained unclear whether the riots would cause the government to fall or whether the current stalemate would continue.


"What I foresee is a prolonged political crisis with no immediate results for two or three years," said George Kirtsos, a political commentator and the publisher of City Press, an independent newspaper. "In that time, the country will be going from bad to worse."


On Tuesday, as youths scuffled with the police outside Parliament, Prime Minister Karamanlis met with his cabinet council and opposition leaders in an effort to get their backing for security operations. But he seemed uncertain exactly how to contain the disturbances. The authorities seem to fear that cracking down on the demonstrators may lead to other unintended deaths, provoking more rioting.


Asked why the riots had not been contained, a spokesman for the national police, Panayiotis Stathis, said "violence cannot be fought with violence."


But in a news conference, Mr. Karamanlis issued warnings somewhat stronger than his actions, saying there would be no leniency for rioters.


"No one has the right to use this tragic incident as an alibi for actions of raw violence, for actions against innocent people, their property and society as a whole, and against democracy," Mr. Karamanlis said after an emergency meeting with President Karolos Papoulias.


Mr. Karamanlis faced criticism for not acting with a stronger hand earlier, with some suggesting that this gave credibility to the rioters’ anger.


"They chose to show tolerance, which backfired," said Nikos Kostandaras, the editor of Kathimerini, a daily newspaper. The riots, he added, "were radicalizing every sector of the population."


On Tuesday, schools and universities were closed, and thousands of teachers and students joined generally peaceful protests through Athens.


George Dimitriou, 22, a member of the agriculture students’ union, said the teenager’s death was an opportunity to protest other issues. "Our generation is facing a tougher future than our parents," Mr. Dimitriou said as he stood outside Athens University. "This is unheard of, because normally things get better."


Demonstrations, even occasionally violent ones, are nothing new in Greece, which has a long history of political protest and has been relatively tolerant of the professed anarchist groups that routinely hold antigovernment demonstrations.


To many Greeks, scarred by the memories of military rule in the 1970s, the police remain a hostile remnant of the military junta.


While Greece has a comparatively high ratio of more than 45,000 police officers for 10.7 million people, in the popular imagination, they are seen as ineffective and corrupt, so many Greeks view the police as a fair target for regular demonstrations.


The 15-year-old whose death is at the heart of the disturbances was fatally shot on Saturday night while carousing with friends in the Athens neighborhood of Exarchia, where youths routinely battle the police. The police have said he died when officers clashed with a mob of some 30 youths.


One police officer has been charged with premeditated manslaughter in the case and another as an accomplice.




Meg Bortin contributed reporting from Paris.

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