Saturday, October 13, 2012

Merkel in Greece - An analysis

I was hoping that my trip down to Athens would allow me two visits in a row when I wasn't tear gassed and up till late in the afternoon of Tuesday it seemed that was exactly what was going to happen. Despite the massive crowds that turned up in Syntagma Square to mark the visit of German chancellor, Angela Merkel the mood of the people was peaceful if not calm.

Despite draconian security measures which included a ban on any form of gathering or assembly along the planned route from Athens airport to the centre between 60,000 and 80,000 turned up to voice their anger and frustration not only with EU - IMF imposed austerity but also their own corrupt government coalition.

As the day wore on groups of stone throwing youths started their ritualised attacks on the riot police units that had lined the square. It's hard to express the surrealistic nature if such clashes as they seem to serve little purpose with both sides acting out a pre-arranged script which they've failed to share with the rest of us. To add to the sense of the unreal the small army of photographers and camera operators present gave the  scene the feel of some alternative sports match.

Of course, the tear gas and the chunks of marble which often filled the air were real enough and at one point I was forced to retreat as I had not brought any protection. Fearing the possibility that I'd be stopped by the police I'd left my gas mask at home rather than face a day in police custody while they checked out my ID.

At any point the police could have used their overwhelming force to clear the place in just a few minutes, but instead they chose to play a bizarre game of cat and mouse with masked protesters. Even when they managed to catch someone the crowds immediately swarmed around them hurling every kind of vile insult in the Greek language to show just what they thought of them.

True to form the Greek police managed to foul up their image once more, this time by using a woman detainee as a human shield against stone throwers in a narrow back street, an action which ensured the story went global.

Later on, like children bored of playing the same old game for hours on end the police entered Syntagma Square in force using batons, pepper spray and tear gas to clear the area, once gain using their doctrine of casual brutality in the name of restoring public order.

The same absurdist script was also playing out for the cameras in the streets behind parliament as Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras and Angela Merkel strolled through the tree lined streets on the way to a joint press conference. I assume the images were intended to show that contrary to foreign press reports the PM could walk freely in public without fear of attack.

What the TV pictures did not show were the seven water canons parked just up the road and 1000's of heavily armed riot police that separated the leaders from the seething demonstrator in Syntagma. With security measures as tight as these even Barack Obama could happily spend a carefree morning window shopping in down town Kabul or Baghdad.

It hard to fathom what was the point of the whole expensive exercise since Merkel said little of substance and merely repeated her position that Greece needed to stick to the terms of the bailout deal and press ahead with yet more tax hikes, public spending cuts and lay offs. Instead of strengthening Samaras's position within Greece's shaky coalition government, Merkel underlined just how little real power Greece's political leadership has in its negotiations with the EU/IMF/ECB troika.

On the other hand the hardware stores in Monestiraki which do a roaring trade in improvised gas masks and marble wholesalers who regular replace the smashed stone work in Syntagma had a great day.

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