Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo January 2, 2009

Greek firebombers strike again: is this a portend for Europe?



How does an affluent First World nation-state go from stability to near social collapse in the space...


Democracy is a Greek word. And so too is apathy… and chaos and tragedy: rather more fitting epithets for the instability churning Greece.

For a few dramatic evenings in early December, the streets of Athens featured in the international news as Greece's Playstation Generation took to the streets to pelt riot police with eggs, bottles and petrol bombs. The sport was almost as harmless as a session on the games console: after the shooting of 15-year old Alexis Grigoropoulos sparked off the rioting, the police mostly stood back and let the rioters wreak havoc. The crowds did so with gusto. They tried to set police officers alight with petrol bombs and screamed "Burn the brothel Parliament".

The widespread riots focused international attention on Greece for a fiery week of ash and anger. But as we moved into the Christmas silly season, the Athens barricades disappeared from the news. That is a shame, not least because events in Athens are continuing with no sign of abating.

Early yesterday morning, in New Year's Day "celebrations", at least 10 banks and two car dealerships were attacked by firebombers. Students have taken over hundreds of schools and universities around Greece and moved to a guerrilla campaign to promote their anti-government and anti-capitalism message.

"There has been a major upsurge in violence that has troubled all of Greek society," said Yiannis Makris, the head of Athens' Police Officers' Association. "Unfortunately, this has emboldened specific marginal groups who now target individual police officers."

Despite an all-time popularity low for the ruling New Democracy party, the government hopes to ride out the storm with an "extensive" cabinet reshuffle. This is unlikely to appease the demonstrators and could lead to rioting resuming. But the episodes in Greece are neither 1968 Paris nor 1998 Tehran (when the students came out in support of Khatami and were brutally suppressed).

They have more in common with the children in William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies, a dark account of what happens when children govern themselves. They are also about the nouveaux pauvres of the EU: spoilt kids who grew up in a land made artificially affluent by EU subsidies and tourism inflows. Now that the bubble is deflating, they are panic-stricken.

The alarm is spreading across society. Travel agents reported mass cancellations as the extended economic crisis and rioting forced Greeks to re-think planned Christmas breaks.

One Athens resident told me: "Everyone is terrified; they've shut themselves in their houses and aren't venturing out. I've never seen anything like this. Every day something happens: a student is randomly shot, unknowns strafe a riot police bus, and last night more unknowns shot a moving train wagon. Bullets and fear have entered our daily lives…"

For the first time, an EU capital's city centre was reduced to a riot-zone. The EU's first widespread credit crunch unrest could be a harbinger of things to come. Anarchist groups have courted popular support by raiding supermarkets and distributing goods to grateful shoppers as a protest against price rises. The underpaid police (an officer on the beat earns just 750 euros a month, or Dh3,825) have proven incapable of either stopping these supermarket Robin Hoods or bottling up the rioting in a specific district.

But you won't read any of this in the international media. Just as Iranians point to the sustained BBC coverage of their Revolution as proof that the British government sponsored the overthrow of the Shah, so Greek protesters claim that the international media sabotaged their efforts, first by covering only the most violent demonstrations, and then by giving scant coverage to publicity stunts such as the takeover of several radio and TV studios.

One compelling argument is that media inattention is due to the story not "fitting in" to any of the established narratives with which we navigate our lives. The riots seemingly confound the received wisdom that class struggle is dead.

Jonathan Davies, a lecturer at Warwick Business School in Britain and specialist on trade unions, argues that the international media has largely ignored the unfolding events "partly because riots can easily be depicted as irresponsible and futile and in the end trivial, and partly because the dominant political narrative in this country is that class is dead. Hence, any sign that class is not dead, here or anywhere else, must be studiously ignored".

The existence of 24 hour news-cycles is an unlikely co-conspirator because it has diluted the tradition of day-after analysis. One undoubted by-product of our globalising world is the dramatic erosion of the collective attention span. Terrorism in Mumbai today, riots in Athens tomorrow and bombing in Gaza the day after. There is always another dramatic headline.

In Greece, the "episodes" are already being referred to in the past tense. The commentator Evfenios Aranitsis in the Eleftherotypia (Free Press) daily noted that "with the speed of channel-zapping, Athens segued from the fever of protest to reverentially receiving the Three Wise Men with their gift-vouchers and 29 interest-free payments as if nothing unpleasant occurred in between. But what we are incapable of perceiving is that 'nothing' had something to tell us and that, since we did not hear it, it will return with a vengeance – exactly because we rejected it – to shatter our eardrums."

After all, amnesia is a Greek word too.

Iason Athanasiadis is reporting on Greece through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.

See the article as it ran at The National

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues