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Story Publication logo December 14, 2008

Greek protests tap into discontent



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


ISTANBUL | Protest marches and rioting continued across Greece for a seventh day Friday and spread to other parts of Europe in an unprecedented spree against government driven by a young demographic of high school and college students as well as anarchists.

The political unrest began with the killing of a schoolboy by police officers, but has since snowballed into an anti-government movement in a time of economic meltdown.

Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15, was fatally shot in Athens during clashes Dec. 6 between youths and a police patrol in a central neighborhood with a long tradition of anarchist activism and a transient community of drug addicts. The policeman charged with the killing claims his bullet ricocheted, while bystanders have stated that he aimed directly at the teenager.

A week into the riots, his death has become a flash point for accumulated popular frustrations over rising unemployment, stagnant incomes and systemic political corruption.

As calls grew for the resignation of Greece's New Democracy government, leftists attacked Greek embassies across Europe, prompting fears that the unrest would spill into the rest of the European Union. Sympathy marches were held in Italy, Spain, Germany, Denmark and Russia.

Although Alexandros came from an affluent family without associations to anarchist or leftist circles, his death has become a crucible for working-class frustrations.

"He was no street kid," said Nikos Kakarikas, a journalist who covers the Athens crime beat. "He grew up in a diplomatic district, and his mom had a jewelry store in one of Athens' most exclusive streets."

Greece's worst civil unrest since the aftermath of military rule in 1974 has been called the "student intifada" by the media and has caused more than $265 million in damage to wrecked cars, torched shops and banks in cities of Greece, according to the Greek Commerce Confederation.

"Greece is a safe country," said Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis in a pledge to guarantee the safety of his citizens and businesses. Mr. Karamanlis has resisted calls to resign over the protests.

The rioting also represents a coming of age for a generation considered to be the most politically apathetic since World War II. By the end of the week, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators had attacked police stations and occupied about 400 schools and university campuses across the country, protesting the teen's killing and political corruption.

"An entire generation has come out on the streets," said historian Afrodite Kamaras, the director of Time Heritage, a cultural heritage consultancy. "They may not know what their demands are yet, but they definitely know what they don't want -- and that is to have their educational sacrifices rewarded with unemployment and a dark future."

The high school students, called the "Starbucks generation," are mobilizing through cell-phone text messages and social-networking Web sites. They are the first generation of Greeks to grow up in a wealthy EU-member state rather than the poverty-stricken post-World War II society of their parents and grandparents.

But a 28 percent unemployment rate among university graduates under age 30 is spurring disillusionment.

Greece ceased being a predominantly agricultural economy and an exporter of immigrant labor in the 1980s and became a gateway into the European Union for Third World economic refugees.

The riots underline the generation gap that emerged in the past 10 years and sparked soul searching among parents shocked to find their children among the rioters.

Columnist Giannis Pantelakis in the Eleftherotypia daily rhetorically asked who the youths throwing gasoline bombs are: "Are they the fast-food delivery kids? Maybe the children raised in an environment of professional insecurity, flexible working conditions and 400-euro monthly incomes? Are they the kids of 50-year-old parents dismissed from defunct factories and collapsing textile plants?"

Despite their training in crowd control ahead of the 2004 Olympics, anger over the teen's killing and a sensitivity over the role of police in civil society dating to the 1967-1973 military dictatorship has limited the involvement of riot police to a few arrests.

Officers have used an estimated 4 tons of tear-gas canisters and urgently requested fresh stocks from Israel and Germany. But thousands of riot police deployed in city centers also have refused to intervene as government buildings, banks and private businesses have been looted.

Workers and other disaffected portions of Greek society have made common cause with the students but not joined their demonstrations. Trade unions ignored government calls to cancel a nationwide strike Wednesday and are intending to continue efforts to paralyze the country's transport system and services sector.

Right-wing vigilantes, concerned business owners and fascist groups, meanwhile, have carried out on-the-spot identity checks and citizens' arrests - bringing to the fore concealed social splits latent since the 1980s.

Nationalist and pro-government newspapers and bloggers in Greece see conspiracy behind the rioting.

"The Americans Want to Topple Karamanlis" read a front-page headline in the conservative daily Avriani. Greek bloggers have accused Washington of staging a "velvet revolution" in Greece in order to overturn a government that ignored Bush administration pressures not to sign an oil pipeline deal with Russia earlier this year.

Others accuse Islamic networks of working "hand-in-hand with corrupted Western officials" trying to destabilize Greece in order to create "a European space suitable for their expansion."

See the article as it ran at The Washington Times

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