Thursday, June 30, 2011

Greek parliament swathed in tear gas. Athens

Greek riot police getting ready to attack Los Indignados encampment, Syntagma Square, Athens

I was in Syntagma Square yesterday and it was like being in hell. I have never witnessed so much violence from the police in all the demos and protests I've covered in Greece. I saw riot police officers beat a man who'd fallen to the ground, acting for all the world like a wolf pack falling upon its prey. Pure, unadulterated savagery.

What I saw yesterday in Athens was a corrupt regime drown legitimate dissent in a sea of tear gas and violence.

The only bright spot was the extreme bravery of ordinary Greeks who defied the brutality of the police to protest and were capable of the most amazing acts of kindness to strangers even in the worst situations.

For more pictures on Flickr click here. For Demotix story and photos click here and here,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Live from Syntagma Square

Just arrived in Athens and now along with 400 other protesters from Thessaloniki we're in Syntagma Square which looks a lot like a warzone, with used ordinance on the ground and broken windows throughout the area. There is a very strong police presence with who knows how many riot police platoons in the vacinity. Also the place absolutely stinks of tear gas, enough to bring tears to almost all those who marched into the square, hate to think what those who got te full dose of chemical warfare yesterday went through. One reliable soiurce on Twitter spoke of 270 people badly affectd by gas. The first thing I'm going to do when the stores open is buy a gas mask, no way Maalox on its own can deal with so much tear gas.

I'll also try to keep updates coming either here or via Twitter.

Monday, June 27, 2011

See you in Syntagma Square

I've taken the plunge and signed up to join a group of Aganaktismenoi (Indiganant) who are off to take part in the anti-government rallies outside parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens.

I thought long and hard about the decision for a number of reasons, not least being could I afford to go. Also another thought weighing heavily on my mind was the possibility that the protests turning violent if the latest auterity law passes and becomes law.

Despite all those reservations I decided that I had to go for a number of reasons. First of all, I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who oppose these outrageous measures which threaten my and family's future for the forseeable future.

Another, equally compelling reason is the chance to see history being written, to take part and record events that I believe will be considered pivotal in the future. Since if thse kind of measues can be foisted on the Greeks you can be sure that the next targets will be Portugal, Ireland and later other EU states rolling back decades of hard won social progress.

The coach leaves at 10pm tomorrow from the White Tower and if I don't see you there hope we get the chance to meet up and chat in Athens.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My appearance on BBC's WOrld Have Your Say

Last night I was invited to take part in the BBC News discussion on the Greek financial crisis.When I have time I'll write in more depth about the experience.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"But you have no choice?" - Why Greeks refuse to lay down and play dead

“But surely the Greeks have no choice but to accept the new austerity measures?” That was the question posed to me recently by a young BBC reporter and in its way sums up the chasm between the way the international (and much of the local) media sees the present financial crisis and how it's perceived by ordinary Greeks.

On the one hand the decision is simple, either implement the reforms demanded by your creditors or go bankrupt. The problem is many Greeks are already bankrupt, they're in the middle of the worse economic downturn in modern Greek history and after 18 months of austerity have run out hope, patience and most importantly, money.

In effect a large swathe of the population is already insolvent, especially those who were struggling to make ends meet even before the current crisis hit. For them whether the Eurozone folds or Greece defaults is a matter of complete indifference, facing as they do the prospect of losing their job, having their power cut off and seeing their children's future disappear. What the hell do they care about the state of international money markets?

For others the pressure of constant worrying about their financial situation has already proved too much. A tragic case that come to mind is an acquaintance of mine whom I bumped into a week ago, seeing her frantic and distraught I initially thought that she'd had too much sun, caught out by the sudden appearance of good weather. Later as she lay down in the shade, drinking water given by passers by I realised that she was in fact suffering from something else. Muttering constantly about how she was a suitable employee, she suddenly sat up and whipped a wad of papers which turned out to be her CVs which she then thrust into the hands of anyone near enough to take them, talking all the while about how she was a good employee and she deserved the job.

It became obvious that she was in the grip of a manic episode and that her psychological state was delicate but thankfully one of her neighbours turned up and escorted her home while she keep up an endless stream of talk about the skills she had, the qualifications she possessed.

I'm not sure what her psychological background is and whether this was a new occurence but deep in my heart I'm convinced that the current crisis has literally sent her mad. I hate to use such crude terminology but the reality of the situation is so awful coy euphemisms are just plain insulting to everyone concerned. The incident which unsettled me deeply brought home the fact that we could all be in such a position if Fortune, which seems all knees and sharp elbows at the moment pushed just a little too hard in the wrong direction.

Given the fact that nothing in the current austerity package offers anything like a way out of the current economic slump, except in some semi-mythical long term scenario, don't blame the Greeks for not putting another millstone around their neck willingly. The have lived the effects of austerity for 18 months and all it has brought it decline, depression and despair.

The vote in parliament over the new austerity legislation next week is almost an irrelevance as even if does pass the real battle won't be in the debating chamber but on the streets outside as outraged Greeks show their anger and disgust with a morally bankrupt political leadership that capitulated without a real fight.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why does Greece find its so hard to cut its public sector?

Greek general strike 2010 - Thessalonik

This is the question that many foreign analysts and especially those in the north of Europe keep asking. Surely, in times of economic difficults the number of state employees should be reduced in order to help the country balance its books? The slowness with which Athens has implemented such cuts has been put down to the variously to sloth, fecklessness of the ruling socialist PASOK party and the supposed love affair Greeks have with civil service jobs.

As with most complicated economic systems the reality doesn't easily fit either into national stereotypes nor grand economic theories. To understand the reliance of the Greek state sector one has to look more closely at its role in the social, political and economic life of the country. For years the only real jobs in Greece were those in the civil service, by "real", I mean in the way most people in the developing world understand employment in the modern sense with regular pay and benefits, standardised entrance procedures and the chance of a career.

For the rest of the population the choices were either submit to whims of Greece's noriously exploitative private sector job market or be self employed. Weak private sector trade unions, the lack of legal protection, constant threat of being fired plus chronically low wages meant that for most Greeks the only way out of poverty and up the social ladder was a place in the civil service or a business of your own.

Greek trade unions organise general strike and marches nationwide

The Greek state, almost from its inception has used the promise of stable employment and reasonably high salaries to ensure loyalty for those in power and co-opt those individuals and groups who threatened the status quo. As with many authoritarian regimes public sector employment also brought with it a wide range of other benefits such as preferential treatment by orgnaisations such as banks and higher social standing in general.

When the Regime of the Colonels fell in 1974 and parliamentary democracy was restored to Greece the Left which had long been hounded and surpressed by the State was for the first time able to appeal to voters for their support openly and no longer would voters on the left be penalised or blacklisted in applications for state positions. With the rise to power of  the socialist PASOK party in 1981 headed by Andreas Papandreou, (father of present PM Giorgos Papandreou) the parameters of the Greek state were expanded so as to widen access to education, health care and other benefits so making PASOK wildly popular for a generation as it opened opportunities previously undreamt of for many lower income Greeks. In doing so Papandreou also took advantage of a burgeoning state sector to continue the time honoured practice of all Greek rulers of rewarding supporters with postions on the public pay roll..

However, while new rulers could add new positions and sinecures to the state pay roll getting rid of older employees was always a problem as the public sector developed powerful trade unions aligned with exisiting political parties whose job it was to protect their members interests when administrations changed. Cut back too deeply on existing jobs and pay would trigger an angry response in the form of strikes and loss of possible  backing for the union's party of choice.

However, in contrast to trade union movements in other countries the Greek unions realised that any show or weakness or compromise would invite disaster for their members when dealing with a new government all too eager to get rid of opposition within the state apparatus and reward followers with positions left vacant.

As a result you have a public sector which is built fom the ground up over decades to resist cuts in both jobs and pay and its perhaps a telling indication of the power of Papandreou, who owes his position as PASOK party leader in large part to his links with trade unions that strike action has been muted, at least compared with the 80's and 90's. Yet, the promise by Athens to privatise large swathes of the public sector combined with deep pay cuts has put that deal in jeopardy as rank and file members grow impatient with the lack of concrete action on the part of their leadership.

Few, if any Greeks have any illusions about how badly run their public sector is, they daily have to deal with its infuriating lack of responsiveness to public needs and pay huge amounts to deal with its deficiencies. So, their opposition over cuts in public spending is not based on a rosy view of the past but the hard earned, often bitter experience that if they public sector is cut back they will be thrown upon the none too gentle  mercies of the private sector which will happily replace public monopolies with their own more expensive private ones in which only those with enough money will be able to afford the kind of health care, pesnions and education that most people took for granted.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Error-Message 404 - Reboot democracy immediately

You the people....Or not as the case may be. Greek government vote of confidence

You the people.... by Teacher Dude's BBQ
You the people...., a photo by Teacher Dude's BBQ on Flickr.
Against my better judgement I found myself staying up late to follow the Greek government vote of confidence last night. Not so much to find out the result, that was a foregone conclusion after prime minister,Giorgos Papandreou's cabinet reshuffle/meltdown last week. But rather to follow the reaction of Greeks on Twitter and those gathered outside parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens.

Despite the presence of a huge crowd outside parliament the local media and especially state run TV news did their best to ignore the fact, meaning that any Greek wanting to gauge the reaction of his/her fellow citizens would have been better off going to foreign news sites than his own national media. This is a sad indictment of how mainstream news in Greece, like its political institutions considers only those within its own tight orbit worthy of attention. The rest of the population is looked upon as creatures as distant and exotic and galloping gazelles in Kenya.

I don't think many Greek Twitter users believed that the ruling PASOK government was in any real danger of falling despite the breathless commentary offered by TV stations worldwide, but their anger over the politicians in parliament flew back and forth with ever increasing intensity, tinged with a particularly Greek mixture of frustration,anger and satire.

Outside parliament Greece's indignados used laser pens to project the word "thief" on the walls of the building, that is when not trying to blind TV cameras, another indication of the level of antagonism this movement feels towards local mainstream media.

At 2AM the final vote came in, 155 in favour of the government, 143 against and 2 absent, including rather mysteriously Dora Bakoyianni , ex - cabinet minister and the leader of the newly minted Democratic Alliance party .

"The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead." - John Maynard Keynes

Of course the markets and Grece's creditors will take the vote to mean that parliament is on track to pass the new austerity measures being demanded by ECB and German politicians and so the smart money will make a quick killing selling off position acquired during this week's market funk, knowing full well that the vote is essentially meaningless, as was last week's cabinet reshuffle in terms of winning over the Greek electorate.

The reality is that the austerity package is deeply unpopular and seen as a slow death for the Greek economy, any political group alligning itself with it faces political suicide in the next elections.Even if the legislation is passed the level of resistance towards Papandreou and the troika of lenders dictating terms is likely to grow making attempts to put it into action difficult and in the long term probably futile.

The most likely result is more street protests, large scale industrial action and the resurgence of civil disobedience campaigns such as the "I won't Pay" movement which successfully encourages drivers to not pay highway tolls and public transport passengers to ride without buying tickets.

The insistence of foreign and especially German polticians and bankers that Grece knuckle under is also feeding a groundswell of nationalist feeling, always a powerful and unpredictable element in Greek political life, though still not clearly formulated the continued pressure from Berlin and Frankfurt is drawing comparisons with Greece's painful occupation by Nazi Germany during the Second World war, a volitile analogy that does not bode well for future European  co-operation.

The real showdown will come next week when the austerity package comes to a parliamentary vote, then we'll see if Papandreou will be able to hold together his fragile party alliances in the face of massive public protests and the prospect of MPs returning to their constituencies and outraged voters during the summer recess..

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Greek Parliament - crime scene

"Kleftes, kleftes". "Thieves, thieves" is the chant that is heard most nights outside the Greek parliament building in Syntagma Square, The slogan of a people outraged by the continued whole scale corruption and abuse of power by its political rulers.

After years of endless financial scandals ordinary Greeks have had enough and any political figure foolish enough to appear in public without a hefty police presence very soon feels that anger.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Not another Greek tragedy.

Unable to form a new government ,Greek PM to address rally in Syntagma Square

Some photoshop fun hiding a deeper truth that the entire political leadership of Greece can no longer appear in public without fear of drawing irate crowds who are outraged with the current party political set up, both on the Left and the Right.

The three weeks of rallies and demonstrations in Greece have been aimed as much at a corrupt and ineffectual political elite as they are at the latest austerity measures.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people" V For Vendetta moment

In Athens, Thessaloniki, patra and many other cities against Greece angry protsters gathered to show their opposition to the latest round of austerity measures and a political system widely reviled for being corrupt and ineffectual.

With demonstrations now entering their third week prime ministerGiorgos Papanderou is fighting a losing battle to push through legislation being demanded by Greece's creditors in return for further loan guarantees. However, resistance to the package of wage cuts, public spending reduction and privatisation has stirred up a popular movement unprecedented in modern greek political history.

Disavowing links with all established political parties Greece's Los Indignados movement has sprung up overnight using Facebook, internet and blogs and been able to bring hundreds of thousands of previously disenchanted Greeks into the political arena, setting off a political crisis the current administration is at a loss to handle.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Social Unrest: New, improved recipe

Now with even more added austerity.

Greek protesters banging pots and pans during anti-government rally - Thessaloniki, Greece

Defying torrential rain and the siren call of the country's beaches thousands of indignant Greeks massed once more for the third Sunday in a row to show their anger over the latest austerity mesures which the ruling PASOK government aims to get through parliament this week.

With the imposition of poll tax on those earning 8,000 euros and more combined with yet further increases in VAT (sales tax) and extra indirect taxation via power bills prime minister Giorgos Papandreou is attempting to staunch Greece's hemorraghing public finances and satisfy demands for action by the troika of creditors made up of the IMF, EU and European Central Bank.

On the other side of the equation stands a sizeable chunk of Greek public opinion, with according to some polls 90% of the electorate opposed to further measures. In the latest poll carried out by the Greek public opinion research company Public Issue found that over two million Greeks have taken part in some form of anti-government protest. Even within the ruling PASOK party 16 MPs have broken ranks and called upon their leader to allow more debate on the latest legislation which threatens to unleash further social unrest.

Greek protesters Greek protesters chanting ant-government slogans during anti-government rally - Thessaloniki, Greece

For the 19th day running protesters gathered in streets and square nationwide with calls for the government to leave power and the country to stop all payments on debt owed. In the northern port city of Thessaloniki around 5,000 marched through the city despite repeated downpours.

More mass demonstrations have been called for Wednesday to coincided with the national strike called by public and private sector trade unions with plans to encircle parliament and other government buildings across the country.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Greek protest rallies grow ever larger

With hand outstretched and palm facing skwards, thousands of Greeks direct the "montza", a gesture of deepest loathing and disrespect in the direction of the nation's parliament, the most visible outward sign of the anger and sense of betrayal many people feel towards the ruling PASOK party and the current political system in general.

They call themslves ,"The indignant" and for twelve days crowds have gathered in the centre of cities and towns across Greece to show their dissatisfaction with the current economic crisis caused by the imposition of austerity measures designed to rein in Athens massive public spending deficit. The package designed by the IMF, European Commission and the European Central Bank was intended to put the country's financial house in order and allow it to repay the massive debt load acquired over decades of unchecked public spending. However, the economic recipe of wage reductions, public spending cuts and privatisations has seen a sudden leap in unemployment, business closures on an unprecedented scale and consumer spending drop precipiticiously.

Greek protest rallies grow ever larger

Despite lowering pay and pensions Greek prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou has been unable to stop the Greek eonomy from going into free fall and is now faced with the unenviable task of persuading his own party, parliamentary opposition and the population in general that even more drastic measures need to be taken if the country is not to default on its obligations to creditors.

Greek protest rallies grow ever larger

On the one hand fellow European political and financial leaders have repeatedly emphasised the fact that Greece cannot expect further bailout packages without structural reforms whilst at home Papandreou faces growing pressure from within his own socialist PASOK party to reject such changes. Outside parliament the growing wave of anger with a political caste who, following decades of corruption scandals, have retained little credibility amongst the electorate, means that few can appear in public without creating tense scenes that require the intervention of the police. Over the past weeks MPs and members of the cabinet have been repeatedly booed, jeered and become the target of angry crowds when seen in public,

Most unsettling for the administration is the spontaneous appearance of a natiowide protest movement modelled on previous demonstrations in the Arab world and Spain. Using Facebook and other social media sites the "Aganaktismeni"or Indignant have repeatedly been able to use the internet to muster crowds of hundreds of thousands in Athens, Thessaloniki and other Greek cities, However, in contrast to previous mass demonstrations the peaceful nature of the rallies has flummoxed the authorities more used to using riot police and  tear gas to deal with popular dissent.

With protests growing in size day the options available for Giorgos Papandeou seem to shrinking day by day.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Thessaloniki (Not Quite) Naked Bike Ride - 2011

Thessaloniki (Not Quite) Naked Bike Ride - 2011

From late afternoon hundreds of cyclists congregated in the centre of the northern port city of Thessaloniki to strip down and get painted up in prepration for the city's fourth annual Naked Bike Ride. However, following clashes with the authorities on previous occasions over the issue of public nudity the vast majority of those taking place choose to avoid causing possible embarassment by donning beach wear and copius body paint.

The Naked Bike Ride, which has now become a landmark on Thessaloniki's cultural agenda, is part of an ongoing effort by local Green groups to promote alternatives to the internal combustion engine in Greece's polluted cities.

After parading through the city the participants ended the evening with a massive street party which lastd into the small hours of the morning,

Friday, June 03, 2011

Greece's Los Indignados - Day Nine - Thessaloniki, Greece

Greece's Los Indignados - Day Nine - Thessaloniki, Greece

Greeks step up pressure on government as protests continue

Greeks step up pressure on government as protests continue

With Greek protest rallies entering their ninth day the country's Facebook revolution is adding to government's headaches ahead of a controversial vote on new austerity measures. Thessaloniki, Greece. 2nd June 2011

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Greece's Los Indignados continue protests for seventh day

Greek Revolution: Day Seven: Thessaloniki. Popular assembly in shadow of White Tower.

Activists have set up online media centre in shadow of Thessaloniki's historic White Tower.

Their blog