Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Greece's beleaguered government cracks down on dissent

Perhaps it is appropriate that Thessaloniki, which this weekend celebrated the 100th anniversary of its liberation from the Ottoman Empire looked like a city under siege. For three days the centre of Greece's second largest city was the objects of draconian security measures designed to avoid a repetition of last year's peaceful protests which closed down the annual military parade and forced the president of the republic to flee.

Mindful of the fact that the event lead to the resignation of the then prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou just weeks later the current political leadership decided to make sure last year's events were not repeated.

As a result 2,000 extra police were drafted to protect prime minister Antonis Samaras and president Karolos Papoulias as they visited Thessaloniki over the weekend. The security measures for the Oxi Day parade were so tight that no even the parents of high school pupils taking part were allowed within the 1 km “dead zone” that surrounded the VIP stand and effectively isolated the parade from the vast majority of citizens who'd turned out to follow it.

Greek riot police protect politicians and VIPs during high school student parade

This was the equivalent of banning the public from 4 July/ Bastille Day/Remembrance Day. Only those with an invitation from the government were permitted to attend the event which is held annually to mark the entry of Greece into the Second World War.

Even journalists were turned away as the invitation only rule caught many by surprise. As a result the event was covered nearly exclusively by pro-government media who did an excellent job on ignoring the fact that no one was watching, apart from armed soldiers, riot police units and party cadres from the political parties that form Greece's coalition government.

Instead of commenting on the strange absence of ordinary people on a day many Greeks consider sacred, the state run media was generous in its praise for the organisers as nothing untoward had happened.

Greek PM arrives in Thessaloniki amid draconian security measures

As Greece's economic slide continues the country's political leadership has become more isolated from voters and as a result has grown ever more paranoid. The few public appearances by government officials are invariably marked by the presence of thousands of uniformed and plain clothes police officers. Even the most traditional and innocuous gatherings are eyed with suspicion and policed as if they were a football derby between deadly rivals.

When on Friday Antonis Samaras visited the Agios Demitrios Cathedral in Thessaloniki to attend a religious service to celebrate the city's patron saint, heavily armed riot police units carrying shields and tear gas kept back curious worshippers from the leader. Inside the perimeter between hundreds of police officers made sure that the 100m journey from the prime minister's limo to the church entrance went off without incident. Inside, dozens of plain clothes officer kept a watchful eye of the congregation to make sure no embarrassing images of pensioners booing were seen on TV screens.

(UPDATE - The one hapless reporter from the local state run ET3 channel who happened to mention heavy police presence during the visit of the prime minister was quickly taken off air and later fired).

Karolos Papoulias - One of Greece's hidden leaders.

Such scenes are just part of growing intolerance towards dissent and protest, both in the streets and in the press. Whilst pro – austerity sentiment dominates both state run and private mass media, even the slightest show of anti – government defiance is now being punished. In the last 48 hours alone, Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested for publishing a list of possible tax dodgers given to then finance minister, Papakonstantinos by IMF head, Christine Lagarde.

Unlike his French and German counterparts Giorgos Papakonstantinos did not act upon the information (reasons why seem to vary from week to week), instead handing the information to his successor PASOK leader, Evangelos Venizelos, who kept it in desk drawer for two years.

Such heavy handedness was also repeated when two presenters on a popular morning TV show were fired suddenly by the state run NET TV channel after they mentioned reports in the Guardian that linked law and order minister Nikos Dendias in connection with an alleged police torture scandal.

It's hard to see how long any democratically elected government, especially a coalition one made up of such disparate elements can survive just using just the power of a supine media and the blunt instrument of massive police force.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Greek soldiers and riot police line the streets of Thessaloniki during annual military parade.

To avoid embarrassing the president and other political leaders the citizens of the northern city of Thessaloniki were kept 1 km from the VIP stand, able to glimpse just a fraction of the annual NO Day parade that marks Greece's entry into the Second World War. Even the parents of high school students taking part in the parade were stopped and turned back at police barricades that lined the route of the event.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Unpaid for three months - shop assistants in Fokas department storeprotest

Employees at the Fokas department stores, one of the most well-known retail outlets in Greece taking part in a 24 hour strike over unpaid wages dating back to June.

In addition according to Union of Shop Workers, the company is in the process of replacing full time positions with part time ones paying just 200 Euros a month for a 20 hour week.

(200 euros a month is just enough to cover rent on a modest one room apartment in the poorest parts of Thessaloniki.)


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is the European experiment grinding to halt?

Greek protesters greet Merkel with Swastikas and Nazi salutes - Athens

Earlier this morning I got a call from a friend, saying that she'd found a job but I was at a loss whether to congratulate her or not, as she will not only leave her country but also her two young children as well. For the next nine months my friend will be teaching English at a private school in the Gulf States. In doing so she'll be following a path trailed by many other friends and acquaintances over the last few years.

Her children will remain here to be looked after by grandparents for the duration, a story reminiscent of the sacrifices that many Greeks were obliged to make in the 60's and 70's as guest workers who went north to find jobs in the booming economies of Europe and especially in German factories then powering the country's export led economic miracle.

As with so many other Greeks six years of recession has forced my friend to consider working abroad as the only alternative to a slow slide into poverty at home so repeating a story that has been told and re-told so often here over the last 100 years. However, this latest generation is both luckier and unluckier than their parents and forebears.

On the one hand many emigrating Greeks are highly educated and have university level qualifications and language skills that set them apart from previous generations. No longer are they the monolingual, sometimes barely literate villagers who went abroad, able only to obtain dead end jobs that post war northern Europeans were all to happy to spurn in favour of better paid, higher status ones in the service sector.

Austerity is working - Ask the experts

Yet young educated Greeks are sallying forth into a very different world, one in which jobs, even badly paid, low status ones are becoming more and more difficult to find. While some will find work that fully utilises their knowledge and skills many will find that a foreigner in a declining economy, not matter how well educated will always be at a disadvantage.

In addition the gap between earnings in the North and South of Europe has shrunk to a remarkable degree since the 1960's, with those in countries such as Germany often remaining static whilst those in the South have risen along with rising living standards.Gone are the days when an unskilled factory hand could earn a wage that would have been the envy of those back at home. So, the question that goes through many people's minds is why go through all the social and psychological upheaval of leaving home? Why uproot yourself when factories in east Germany pays just 6E an hour, just a few Euros more than can be earned at home, unless your only criteria is survival?

However, with unemployment at 25% (30% plus, if Greek trade union research is to be believed) and family and social security networks buckling under the strain, then survival rather than having a better standard of living may push Greeks as well as Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians north once again.

But with recession gradually mutating into Depression what reception will this new generation of gasterbiters receive? Even when cheap labour was in demand in the heavy industries of the Ruhr and the Rhine southern European workers were often grudgingly accepted, now that they are coming into competition for jobs in a shrinking economy the potential for ugly confrontation becomes a real possibility .

Given the campaign of virulent anti-Greek feeling that has marked German politics and media coverage of the current debt crisis, the groundwork for growing racist sentiment has been assiduously cultivated. Should the situation in other PIIGS start to resemble that of Greece how long is it before the myths of the lazy Spaniard and work shy Italian once more become part of the cultural and political landscape north of the Alps?

Then, the German far right, like Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn,will happily exploit the opportunities given them by more “respectable” conservative forces. As the economic decline of the European South takes its toll on German export markets and the government will inevitably struggle to balance a commitment to the EU ideal of open borders with growing demands that German jobs and businesses be protected.

Welcome to the fight. Here is where we draw the line. Here is where we defeat austerity

Switzerland's military is already drawing up contingency plans in case of a deepening of the social crisis in the Southern EU, UK's prime minister, David Cameron talked of the possibility of closing the country's borders in case of a flood of Greek economic refugees is being considered and France's demand for the re-introduction of internal EU border controls set the tone  showing that the EU's policy of open borders could be reversed in a heartbeat, should national moods change.

How much of this is just right wing political opportunism, designed to win votes with a frightened electorate and how much of it points the way to a more disunited future depends on the depth and duration of the crisis. If the North follows the same pattern as indebted nations such as Greece and Spain then all bets are off as growing divisions may threaten to derail the decades of unification and reconciliation that the EU has wrought.

Racist poster outside the central courts, Thessaloniki

It's a sad irony of modern history that the years of hard work put in by successive German leaders since end of World War II to prove that Berlin can be trusted to rejoin the European family of nations is being thrown away by a new generation of fiscal hard liners who are willing to put their allegiance to dubious economic dogma ahead of the unity of the continent.

One of the lessons of the 1930's that German chancellor, Angela Merkel and many other EU leaders seem willing to ignore is just how quickly economic disaster changes the political outlook of people who've enjoyed years of financial growth and security. The frenzied growth of the 20's and the sudden loss of prosperity that hit the middle class especially in the Great Depression helped bring the extreme right to power in a remarkably short period of time. 

In just a five years, the percentage of the popular vote captured by the Nazi party grew from 2.6% to 43.9%, a political rise that is being eerily echoed by their modern day counterparts in Greece, who have increased their popular support at an even more spectacular rate, going from just 0.29% to 14% in three years.

In 30's the insistence of the political mainstream to cling to ineffective economic theories even in the face of dismal failure drove disenchanted voters into the arms of fascist parties across Europe and beyond. The, then widespread political belief that ordinary people would endure years of extreme poverty and suffering in the name of an empty promise that it would eventually bring about future growth helped bring down democracies across the world.

Does Europe need to lose tens of millions of lives once more to relearn lessons that ended up being so brutally paid for in the streets of Stalingrad and fields of Normandy?

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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Greek youth throwing a rock at riot police units in Athens

Taken during German chancellor, Angela Merkel's lightning visit to Athens, Greece. Her arrival was marked by mass protests and violent clashes between demonstrators and the 7000 police officers present.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Merkel enters the lion's den

Zombie nation, Merkel nation . Stencil on the wall of a building in Thessaloniki, Greece

After much consideration I've decided that I'll be going down to Athens to cover the protests planned for the arrival of German chancellor, Angela Merkel to Greece. It's not a decision to be taken lightly as angry protesters are unlikely to be throwing rose petals and messages of good luck tomorrow. Already political organisations from across the entire political spectrum have said they will be calling upon supporters to take part in anti - austerity demonstrations on Tuesday in the centre of the Greek capital.In addition both public and private sector trade unions will be also part of the mix with marches set for 1 pm in Syntagma Square*, opposite parliament and the scene of the many violent confrontations.

For their part, the Greek police has announced, depending on which media source you use, that 6000, 6500 or 7000 officers will be on duty including the notoriously violent riot units known as the MAT. Also 4 water canons will be on standby, marking an escalation in the arms race between police and protesters in Greece.

As far as the foreign and local mainstream media is concerned the visit by Merkel is being hailed as a diplomatic triumph for Greek PM, Antonis Samaras and proof that Germany is determined to keep Greece within the Eurozone. On the internet and in the streets and cafes the arrival of the German leader has provoked a reaction of anger and dismay, being viewed as an arrogant act of provocation at a time when the nation's poorest are being hammered by an public service cuts and tax hikes during an economic downturn unprecedented in modern Greek history. 

Last week's policing fiasco when demonstrating shipyard workers stormed the grounds of the ministry of defence unopposed means the law enforcement authorities and the government will be determined to show that they are in charge of the situation on the streets. In operational terms that means the gloves will be off and a repeat of the violent clashes that marked the mass Indignant rallies last year is a distinct possibility.  

For photographers covering the events tomorrow this list of tips may prove useful.

If you feel you can help out financially (every bit helps, believe me) you can contribute via Paypal using cpwefl2003@hotmail.com

*UPDATE Greek trade unions have announced that the government has banned assembles in Syntagma Square and told them to choose another spot.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Protesting Greek firefighters - Thessaloniki, Greece

With Greece's creditors demanding still more cuts in public spending in return for the next installment of bailout money, more and more public sector workers are protesting over cuts in wages which are dragging more and more more of those in employment into poverty.

Even while incomes shrink and unemployment grows Greece still remains one of the most expensive countries in the EU for everyday goods and services according to Eurostat.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

RISE UP - Fight austerity now, while you still can.

Greek trade unionists protesting latest austerity measures

Greek trade unionists in the northern port city of Thessaloniki demonstrated against the latest round of austerity measures which are close to being finalised as Athens seeks to fulfill the conditions for the next tranche of bailout cash.

Measures include yet more tax hikes, pension cuts, privatisations and job cuts in civil service positions as well as wage cuts in the private sector.

Whilst Greeks struggle with the sixth consecutive year of economic contraction, prices of basic goods such as milk and meat remain among the highest in the EU, a legacy of the previous governments' unwillingness to tackle the cartels and monopolies that set prices throughout much of the economy.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Genti Koule downhill urban race - Thessaloniki, Greece

Taking as its starting point the once notorious Genti Koule former prison, 160 cyclists competed in this year's Downhill Runaway event, each aiming to negotiate a course that took them from Thessaloniki's highest point to the the centre of the Greece's second largest city.

The course which included ramps that dropped sharply from the city's medieval walls provided a stiff challenge for participants and led to some crashes, luckily none serious.