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Story Publication logo December 17, 2008

An 'Ungovernable' Democracy'



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


The riots and sit-ins continued for a second week across Greece yesterday as protesters kept up pressure on the government to step aside and commentators described the country as being on the verge of "societal collapse."

Universities and 400 high schools are occupied by student activists as a leaked police report revealed official fears that the current crisis will fuel a recruitment drive for Greece's anarchist movement.

"Changing governments is not enough," wrote commentator Giannis Pretenderis in the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini, "because whichever government replaces the current one - whether a better or worse one - the country will remain ungovernable."

Students are protesting the Dec. 6 police shooting of a 15-year old, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, which set off anger toward the government and the economic hardships being faced. Greece ceased being a predominantly agricultural economy and an exporter of immigrant labour in the 1980s and became a gateway into the EU for Third World economic refugees. The week-long "Student Intifada" has blown the lid off the country's bubbling social tensions.

A decade of factory closures, heavy immigration and rising agricultural costs has left one fifth of Greeks living under the poverty line. Many of the demonstrators are Greece's future white-collar workers. They know the most they can expect is a subsistence salary in a marketplace awash in nepotism.

They are massed in the student district where Grigoropoulos was shot - an area known as the unofficial headquarters of Greece's vocal anarchist movement. Itinerant immigrants, printing houses, cafes and a transient community of heroin addicts complete the makeup of Exarchia , a downtown area considered so dangerous that police officers call its station Greece's worst hardship post.

"It was a matter of time only before this generation came out onto the streets," said Afrodite Kamara, the director of Time Heritage, a cultural heritage consultancy. "There was a generation-long pause after the collapse of the dictatorship that's ending with the current wave of protests. They're eloquent, know how to criticize and posit things well, but they lack leaders who can give flesh and bones to this dissent and make specific demands."

Since violence erupted following the fatal police shooting, some 150 people have been arrested and another 70 injured, while hundreds of stores were damaged. The police officer accused of killing the teenager is charged with murder and is being held pending trial.

The government was forced to cancel municipal Christmas celebrations after protesters caused more than $200 million of damage to businesses. "The government cannot deal with this crisis," said socialist opposition leader George Papandreou, calling for early elections. "It cannot protect people - their rights or property - and it cannot identify with the anxiety felt by the younger generation."

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose party has a single-seat majority, has rejected calls to resign and call early elections.

Of an estimated 100,000 demonstrators across Greece, 3,000 are deemed to be hardcore anarchists, according to the police. But many of the anarchists are related to prominent people, including judges and politicians, and so the issue of arresting them has been compromised, according to a leaked police report quoted extensively in To Kyriakatiko Vima newspaper.

Many high school students who have participated in the protests, however, have tried to distance themselves from the anarchists' violence, dressing in white and attending candlelit vigils to symbolize their peaceful intent.

They mobilize through text messages and online social networking sites. Prior to the protests, they were dubbed the "Starbucks generation" and the first Greeks to grow up in a wealthy European Union member state rather than the poverty-stricken post- World War II society of their elders.

But 28 per cent unemployment among university graduates younger than 30 is spurring disillusionment.

Other disaffected portions of Greek society have found common cause with the students. Trade unions ignored government calls to cancel a nationwide strike Wednesday and intend to continue efforts to paralyze the country's transportation and services sectors. Right-wing vigilantes have linked with business owners to perform on-the-spot identity checks and citizens' arrests. Neo-Nazi fascist groups such as the Golden Dawn militia are organizing provocative counterdemonstrations and brawling with leftists.

As Greek society is smashed by the widespread violence, prominent columnist Alexandros Papahellas suggests there is no obvious solution. "Our problem today is not whether tanks might roll in the streets," he concluded, "but that even if they did they would likely collide into each other."


a pink halftone illustration of a woman speaking a microphone while raising a fist


Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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