New austerity measures were passed by the Greek parliament, albeit by a narrow majority, on March 30. The bill contained just three articles, which seem to give the final blow to remaining workers’ and pension rights, the country’s economy and public ownership of land and services.
Legislation usually passes by a narrow majority in Greece. In the current parliament, this majority has been mostly ensured by a change in the electoral law before the last election, according to which the winning political party gets a bonus of 50 extra parliamentary seats. As a result, New Democracy, the major party in the governing coalition, has a number of MPs quite disproportionate to the vote it got.
Current finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, a technocrat, was not elected but directly appointed by the government. That was the case with another technocrat, Lucas Papademos, who was appointed as prime minister in a provisional government formed in November 2011 with the stated task of carrying out anti-people “troika” (International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank) imperatives.
Other undemocratic measures taken by the government are similarly intended to facilitate the imposition of its disastrous policies. To that end, the government has passed legislation that allows public servant sackings by presidential decree.
The successive governments since the first “memorandum” agreement have been accused of constitution violation. The legality of the “memorandum” agreement signed with the “troika” in 2010 has been criticised by lawyers and trade unions. The correctness of the procedure when the “memorandum” was voted on has also been questioned.
It is now common government practice to put bills to a parliamentary vote, cramming together many unrelated points and designating the bills as “urgent”. The intention is to pass unpopular measures smoothly and rapidly. The same tactic was used on March 30, when measures equivalent to a fourth memorandum were voted on. As the bill was passed, protesters outside parliament were beaten, tear gassed and detained by special police squads.
It was a continuation of an unprecedented peace-time attack on the people of Greece. This attack takes place in all spheres of life and is affecting people to such an extent that their lives are endangered.
The most obvious victims are the people who have chosen to end their lives due to austerity-related problems. The number of suicides since the first “memorandum” agreement is about 5000. Greece is now leading the world in its rising rate of suicides. The greatly undermined health-care system also causes a lot of suffering and fails to stop normally avoidable deaths. However, the suicides and the grave consequences of the seriously inadequate health care are only part of the whole picture.
The troika and the Greek government, working for big corporate interests, have been viciously demolishing social, working and human rights. Furthermore, they have got their claws on the homes and bank savings of the majority of the people. The Greek government is also robbing the people of public property on a huge scale, selling basic services, forests, ports, public spaces and monuments – all for meagre compensation. The aim is to plunder the country’s natural wealth and exploit to the utmost its destitute and subjugated people.
To impose such barbaric measures, the powers-that-be are rapidly shedding all remaining pretences of democracy. Greece is now quite akin to a totalitarian regime, despite its democratic façade. The violent economic and social measures are matched with violent repression and unfair legal persecution of ordinary people.
The violence of the police and other state institutions mainly target those who are resisting. State terrorism, however, has permeated all areas of life and is affecting most people. Brutal police repression of those seeking a decent life is an everyday occurrence.
Currently, there is dynamic action by groups of people like cleaners, teachers and school guards, who are being unfairly sacked by the government and reclaiming their jobs. What they get in response is intransigence and police brutality.
Police violence against the sacked cleaners of the finance ministry has been constant during their persistent struggle. It culminated on March 26, when four women cleaners who were asking to see the minister were bashed so badly they were hospitalised.
More often than not, protesters are beaten by police and sprayed on with highly toxic chemicals (politely called “tear gas”). As a result of this savage behaviour, people have suffered breathing problems, had their arms broken, lost their hearing from stun grenades, or have had serious head or eye injuries.
On October 20, 2011, a man died from complications attributed to tear-gas inhalation during an anti-austerity protest outside parliament.
It is common police practice to target left-wing unionists, photo reporters and journalists and even elected MPs. Two MPs from the opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) were sworn at, brutally kicked and beaten with police batons during a symbolic ministry occupation in February last year. This was despite the fact they displayed their MP ID cards to police.
A well-known case of a journalist brutalised by police is that of photo-reporter Marios Lolos. He narrowly escaped death when he was struck with a police baton during a demonstration in April 2012 and underwent surgery for traumatic brain injury. He had been hit on the head by police during protests a couple of times before.
Smashing expensive cameras is another favourite practice employed by police to prevent public exposure of their actions.
On February 12, 2012, as the harsh measures linked to the second “memorandum” agreement were discussed in parliament, the police tear gassed the rally outside the building. They performed this show of force next to renowned songwriter Mikis Theodorakis and world-known left-wing politician Manolis Glezos, just when the two men were about to address the crowd. The politicians suffered breathing problems and were taken to the parliament hospital for medical care.
The police have no qualms about spraying straight onto people’s faces or liberally using chemicals outside hospitals, kindergartens or schools.
In March 2013, police fired tear gas in the town of Ierissos. Their target was people protesting against mining in the nearby forest in Skouries in the Halkidiki region. Some tear-gas grenades were directly thrown into a schoolyard, causing students to lose consciousness and be hospitalised.
The struggle against the deforestation and mining of the forest has been magnificent. It has rallied a lot of support across Greece. Huge protests have taken place in the area as well as other parts of Greece.
The terms of the deal between the Greek government and the mining company, Eldorado Gold, are scandalous. The mine, which is expected to return 22 billion euros, was practically given as a gift to the company for 11 million euros. A huge area (which includes people’s houses!) was thrown in, as well as buildings, extra land and equipment.
Besides those considerations, a great cause of concern is the expected irreparable environmental damage, which will spread to a radius of hundreds of thousands of kilometres. The consequences for the environment, the soil, the air, the sea, the water, the food chain, people’s health, agriculture, fishing, jobs and tourism will be tremendous.
The government has openly used the police as servants of corporate interest against the people and the environment. Police ferociousness and unlawful arrests, detention and prosecution practices have been extreme.
In an effort to curb resistance, police have been constantly terrorising activists in the area in various ways. At the dawn of April 10, 2013, police smashed in the front doors of two houses, while the families inside were sleeping, in order to arrest two male activists. The two men were alleged to have caused material damages to the company’s property.
On one occasion, on October 21, 2012, during a peaceful protest encircled by four special police squads, the police fired huge amounts of chemicals and charged the protesters, chasing people, swearing, hitting, breaking car windows, slashing car tyres and throwing gas grenades — even into cars with passengers. They attacked MPs, sent people to hospital, arrested 14 people and didn’t allow lawyers to get into the police station for hours.
The police often work in conjunction with the company’s private security on the company’s side against the people’s will and welfare. The Ministry for Public Order and Citizen Protection makes no secret of which citizens it protects.
The police have also shown excessive zeal in looking after big private interests in protests against the proliferation of road toll stations and the fees charged for badly built and poorly maintained national roads. The privatisation of road construction and maintenance has been hugely profitable and road toll stations keep spreading unreasonably. The fees are shockingly high and keep rising, while the roads concerned are unsafe. As an indication, the total road toll cost between Athens and Thessaloniki, a distance of 503 kilometres, driving both ways, is 58.30 euros.
Another act of violence for private profit, setting back democratic rights and access to objective information further was the illegal sudden closing down of ERT (Greek Radio and Television), the national radio and television broadcaster, last June. It has been replaced by a new broadcasting service of much inferior quality and with high involvement of private companies. Employees now work under much worse conditions.
A similar plan is currently underway with the public doctor surgeries of the national health-care service. This will result in sackings, worse conditions for the remaining employees and the imposition of fees for bad quality health care.
Any kind of challenge to such injustices is stifled. Police officers have even raided schools, ostensibly to check on criminal activity or to detect students smoking in the toilets These responsibilities are exclusively the domain of the education ministry. It is easy to infer that the real aim is establishing a climate of police control and terror in schools to prevent anti-government action by students.
This is confirmed by recent incidents of police asking principals for information about student activists. Students who have taken part in school occupations are summoned to the police station. They are interrogated about their families’ and their teachers’ political views and voting practices, are pressured to give information on other students’ role in the occupations and are often taken to court. In the same spirit, high school teachers are prosecuted for expressing their opinions about the occupations in parents-teachers meetings.
Similarly, municipal workers are interrogated over their union activity.
For the first time after the dark days of the military junta, which ended in 1974, these kinds of practices have again become the norm. The banning of strikes, rallies and marches is also reminiscent of those times.
Apart from political resistance, even social solidarity action from left-wing or community groups is penalised. Social surgeries by health-care workers and open food markets with reasonably priced products sold directly by the producer are routinely harassed by police.
There are also instances of even more extreme police behaviour, like torture of activists or migrants in detention. One well-known case of police torturing anti-fascist activists was reported in the Guardian in October 2012.
Seeing that the police enjoy total impunity in almost all cases, it is a logical conclusion that these methods are backed by government orders.
The police have been given the power to check on people for tax debts. There have been many arrests of feeble elderly people for tax debts caused by deliberately predatory government policies. The number of people jailied for debts has risen. About 210,000 tax payers are now threatened with jail for tax debts as low as 5000 euros (almost $7500).
Jail conditions have become hideous. It’s the first time that Greek prisons have been so crowded. More than 10,000 people are kept in prisons with a total capacity of 5584 prisoners. There is hardly any heating or health care, and inmates are exposed to life-threatening contagious diseases.
Under these conditions, a prisoner of Albanian origin was battered and tortured to death by prison guards on March 27. He was awaiting trial for the fatal stabbing of one of their colleagues. The circumstances of the guard’s killing are still to be investigated.
Unlawfulness by the government and its institutions is now commonplace. This contempt for democracy, necessary for the imposition of barbaric policies, is complemented by the support given to the government by other mechanisms.
The mainstream media is aiding the government and the troika’s destructive work, by manipulating public opinion. Journalists who carry out this work enjoy special privileges, while those who do an honest job are often given a hard time.
Journalist Popi Christodoulidou reported information already published in the government gazette in February. She was detained and investigated for leaking military secrets, presumably because the slant of her article was not to the liking of the authorities.
Authoritarianism and violence have seeped through Greek society at large. Police and private security guards are now seen everywhere. Violence against minority groups and women has reached unprecedented heights – on top of the fact these groups are already the most affected by the savage government policies.
Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn members, usually in gangs, have been attacking and killing migrants on the basis of their appearance and social standing. Leftist individuals, groups or offices have also been targets. Anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was the first non-migrant to be murdered by Golden Dawn thugs. From that point, the gang’s criminal activity became widely known.
Though this activity has subsided, partly due to strong anti-fascist action, it has paved the way for racist government policies.
For the first time in the country’s history, there are concentration camps for migrants, with thousands of people detained in appalling conditions. Also, there are many extraditions of Kurdish and Turkish activists based on their political beliefs and activity.
The same attitude led to the tragic fate for 12 refugees and their surviving kin near the island of Farmakonisi in the Aegean Sea last February. They had entered the country in a boat, but coast guards allegedly pushed them back; 12 people drowned.
After that event (which is only one of a series of similar tragedies), the government decided to introduce a law providing for the extradition of migrants found to falsely report officers for violence. Presumably, court decisions will be based on testimonies of the perpetrators’ colleagues.
A related issue is the severely limited access to legal support for the less powerful, due to reduced powers of legal support services and unreasonable government legal fees. On top of that, the number of court cases has increased alarmingly due to economic and social problems (including crimes) resulting from the “memorandum” policies. Hearings of civil cases are postponed for up to four years, while it is common for debt-related cases to be scheduled for a hearing in 2022.
There are many other aspects and instances of the erosion of democratic rights taking place in Greece. But on the bright side, there has been a great deal of resistance and even some partial victories.
However, the struggle needs to be much more organised, coordinated and united — otherwise there is no hope of overthrowing this inhumane system.
[A shorter version of the article appeared in Green Left Weekly #1004.]