Sunday, September 29, 2013

Golden Dawn arrests mark sea change in Greek politics.

Striking Greek teachers on the streets of Thessaloniki - Greece
Striking teachers carry picture of murdered singer, Pavlos Fyssas.

September is usually the time of year when Greek politics shrug off its summer stupor and the country's parties vie with each other to set the political agenda for the coming winter. Yet this year the speed at which developments have unfolded is unprecedented and the arrest yesterday of the leader of the neo-nazi (let's not be coy about using the term) Golden Dawn party leader along with many of their MPs and supporters is just part of a string of developments which are sending shockwaves through Greek political life.

Suddenly, Greece's mainstream media which has often been indifferent to Golden Dawn violence over the past few years is full of stories concerning murders, money laundering etc allegedly carried out in the name of the movement. In fact all those widely documented stories they were so unwilling to report till the Greek government decided to clamp down on the far right this weekend.

The same TV stations and newspapers that till recently were happy to host Golden Dawn politicians have, as if by magic, turned into die-hard defenders of democracy and the sworn enemy of those who threaten its sacred institutions. In a similar vein, these media organisations have run stories concerning secret armies of Golden Dawn cadres trained by Greek special forces, calls for a coup by army reservists and dark tales of infiltration in the military and the police force.

Such stories have been seized upon by foreign correspondents eager for a juicy headline and not too worried by the fact that many of these plots have little in the way of hard evidence to back them up other than anonymous sources quoted in Greece's less than reliable newspapers. At times the furour concerning the influence of Golden Dawn in Greek public life reads like an extract from Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel about journalism, Scoop in which wild rumour is magically transformed into informed analysis by the press.

However, the killing of hip-hop singer and left-wing activist, Pavlos Fyssas (known as Killah P) set off a chain of events that has seen a sea change in Greek public life. Before it, Golden Dawn was cresting a political wave of discontent over austerity and exploiting for all its worth the public's disgust with the existing political establishment. Polls showed its share of  the vote rising and some even predicted that it would go from being the third to the second party in next year's local elections. The lead analyst at the pro-government Skai TV even raised the possibility of a New Democracy - Golden Dawn alliance, saying a similar partnership had been cemented in Norway.

Now all of that is changing, instead of Golden Dawn being invited into government they're now behind bars, facing a raft of serious criminal charges, including that of being a criminal organisation. Opinion polls show a significant drop in support though it should be noted that they still remain the third most popular party a sign that while down Golden Dawn cannot be dismissed just yet.

It seems that the country's political leadership has decided to take the political gamble of clipping Golden Dawn's wings and even hope to secure their right flank by neutralising them politically. They are hoping that such a move will woo disgruntled voters back to the New Democracy/PASOK party fold and allow the coalition to portray itself as the saviour of Greek democracy both at home and abroad.

For domestic audiences the arrests are being used as evidence that traditional parties of government are combatting political extremism and so are a force for stability in difficult times. For those abroad the rise and fall of Golden Dawn can be used to force concessions in Europe in the next round of talks over the latest austerity measures. "Look," they say "if you insist on yet more cuts and firings you'll enable those extremists who wish to destabilise Greece".

Yet this is still a major political risk for prime minister Antonis Samaras. Golden Dawn MPs have threatened to resign en masse which would lead to 18 by-elections and so threaten the government's slim two seat majority. Other commentators are proposing that in such a situation Samaras would have no other choice but to call for general elections. Given the fact that Samaras was happy to bring down the PASOK led government last year just months after it was elected shows that such a possibility does not daunt the man. Indeed, given Samaras's role in bringing down the New Democracy administration in the 1990's, it would par for the course.

While Greek political establishment and its supporters in the mainstream media congratulate themselves on dealing with the threat to public order posed by Golden Dawn others wonder why an organisation facing multiple charges of murder and a much longer  list of attempted murders and other acts of violence was allowed to get away with it for so long. Where have the police and judiciary been while for years gangs of thugs terrorised people on the streets of Greek cities? 

If nothing else the clamp down reveals clearly the lack of distance between Greece's justice system and political parties in power. Only when the political leadership decided that Golden Dawn had gone too far did the police intervene decisively, despite a mountain of evidence collected by Greek and foreign activists over the last four years. 

However, the willingness to overlook racism and violence is not limited to Greece's police officers. On the contrary, both PASOK and New Democracy have been more than willing to adopt Golden Dawn style positions on immigration in order to win back votes by proving that they are cracking down. It is this, along with the crushing effects of austerity that have provided Golden Dawn with so much impetus. The ruling parties have been happy to legitimise racism by making it government policy and so helped turn Golden Dawn from a bunch of nazi-junta nostalgists out on the wilder fringes of Greek political discourse into a part of mainstream public debate.

If the politicians had thought more about ethics rather than polls, if the police had just done their job rather than serve an ever changing political agenda and if both had treated violence against dark skinned people with the same seriousness as those with lighter complexions there would be several people alive today including Pavlos Fyssas, RIP.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What a difference a week makes - Golden Dawn down but not out.

2-3000 anti-fascist demonstrators march against Golden Dawn murder of singer Pavlos Fyssas - Thessaloniki, Greece
   Picture-anti-fascist demonstrators protest murder of singer in port city of Thessaloniki

A week, as the saying goes, is a long time in politics and the last seven days have seen an apparent sea change in the Greek political scene with the once triumphant Golden Dawn now backed into a corner following the murder of singer by a man, allegedly belonging to the party.Hounded by political opponents, both on the streets and in parliament they have been forced onto the defensive. Even Greece's mainstream media which was till recently suggesting that the party could form an alliance with the ruling conservative New Democracy party has made a U-turn concerning their stance towards Golden Dawn.

The far right Proto Thema newspaper is a case in point, till recently reporters have been more than willing to welcome Golden Dawn MPs on their pages, with lifestyle pieces that glamourised them in much the same way the media glamourise sports or pop stars. Now that has all changed following the killing of Pavlos Fyssas in the port city of Piraeus and now the Sunday front pages and TV news broadcasts are full of condemnation of the party and the killing with daily revelations also alleging financial impropriety by party functionaries are also adding to their woes.

Greek riot police take up positions to protect Golden Dawn offices against anti-fascist protesters
                       Picture-Greek riot police protecting Golden Dawn offices in Thessaloniki

On the streets large anti-fascist rallies were held this week across Greece and abroad as the news of the murder came out, forcing Golden Dawn members to keep out of public view or hide behind thousands of riot police deployed to protect their offices (a blow to the myth that their thuggish tactics are sweeping all before them on the streets). Once more domestic news cast doubts on the Greek prime minister's effort to to paint Greece as "an island of stability in a troubled region".

Yet  it hasn't been all bad news for the ruling Greek coalition since the negative publicity that Golden Dawn has garnered over the murder has clipped their wings, at least temporarily and has given the conservatives a window of opportunity to woe back disgruntled voters. New Democracy can present itself as a moderate alternative for right-leaning Greeks who are angry with austerity but appalled at the violence of Golden Dawn supporters.

At the moment that is exactly what is happening, at least according to the latest opinion polls which say that that Golden Dawn support has dropped 1.5%. However, before anyone decides to pop the champagne corks and consign them to the trash can of history the fate of the Greece's largest neo-nazi party has not yet been decided. The dire economic conditions that have helped them come to prominence have not disappeared, and indeed are set to worsen as the Troika mandated cuts in public sector spending and jobs are implemented. Such moves will just add more fuel to the fire as more and more of the middle class slide into poverty so adding to the deep well of discontent with the current political elites which the far right in Greece and the rest of Europe has been so success in exploiting.

A Night In Greece
Picture-photographer capturing aftermath of anti-fascist demo in Thessaloniki

On the other hand the sudden willingness by the two main parties to turn on Golden Dawn is the product of political calculation and not the result of a moral epiphany or a newly found revulsion over their ideas. If the fall in popularity of Golden Dawn continues they'll be more than willing to use the power of the State to make sure they are rendered impotent. On the other hand if Golden Dawn support proves to be resilient and their polls figure continue to rise once more ruling government coalition will go back to their previous policy of turning a blind eye to their violence and racism.

The same is true for the mainstream media, which is owned by a handful of oligarchs is hoping that it can weaken Golden Dawn's appeal and drive voters back to the PASOK and New Democracy, parties who can more easily be manipulated by the economic elite that dominate the country's private sector economy. But, if Golden Dawn weather the storm and the choice is between a left-wing government led by SYRIZA and a New Democracy - Golden Dawn alliance in next year's local elections will be on the cards and, all the recent attacks on nazi ideologues and extremist right wing violence will be quietly dropped.

For more on the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, listen to this broadcast by Novara Media on Resonance FM.

Greek civil contractors protest against job cuts - Thessaloniki, Greece.

A Night In Greece

A Night In Greece by Teacher Dude's BBQ
A Night In Greece, a photo by Teacher Dude's BBQ on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Greek police put down anti-fascist demo in Thessaloniki

Cities across Greece saw violent clashes between riot police and anti-fascist demonstrators who had organised rallies to protest the killing of left wing singer Pavlos Fyssas by a member of Golden Dawn. Fysass, 34 was stabbed to death after an altercation in a cafe in a suburb of the Greek port city of Pireaus, one of the most economically deprived districts in the country.

In Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city about 5,000 people took part in the protest march which planned to pass by the two Golden Dawn offices in the centre of the city, however, police coaches closed off the approach. Later riot police units used tear gas, flash grenades and baton charges to disperse demonstrators, leading to running street battles through the commercial district of Greece's second largest city.


Greek educators extend strike action in protest against further spending cuts

More than 15,000 Greek teachers, students and supporters took to the streets of the northern port city of Thessaloniki today in protest against further cuts in jobs and funding for the country's beleagured educational system.

With thousands facing lay off or enforced transfer to other districts, teachers and other public sector employees are now striking for a second days running.

Tensions ran high when riot police units blocked roads so preventing marchers from approaching the local offices of the neonazi Golden Dawn party.

After last night's fatal stabbing of left wing singer and activist Pavlos Fyssas by Golden Dawn member political passions are running high and tonight's nationwide series of anti-fascist demonstrations are likely to see clashes between protesters and the police.
Greek educators extend strike action in protest against further spending cuts

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Is a Golden Dawn role in government on the cards in Greece?

Members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party take party in anti-government march by emergency services employees - Thessaloniki

Last week the leading commentator at one of Greece's largest private TV stations raised the possibility of a political alliance between the ruling conservative New Democracy party and the Neonazis in Golden Dawn.

"Why shouldn't New Democracy co-operate with a serious Golden Dawn?" asked Babis Papadimitriou, the head of the staunchly pro-government Skai TV. The statement was prompted by the latest opinion polls that show the continued rise of Golden Dawn, now at 13-15% and the poor showing of the other partner in the Greek ruling coalition, PASOK, whose fall from electoral Grace has seen support plummet from 42% to 7- 8% within the space of four years.

Papadimitriou's remarks immediately provoked a storm of angry response from Greek Twittersphere and political commentators, many of whom believe that this is the first step in the process of "rehabilitating" Golden Dawn. Such was the reaction that Skai dedicated an entire hour the following day to giving Papadimitriou a chance to clarify his stance. His argument was that Golden Dawn, Greece's third most popular party now represent a large proportion of  the electorate and that a similar alliance between centre right and far right parties had already taken place in Norway.

At first glance such an alliance would contradict prime minister, Antonis Samaras's  policy of presenting himself and his party as a bulwark against the threat of rising extremism. The Policy of The Two Extremes as it has been termed involves the government and its supporters in the pro-government mass media painting both its opponents on the Left and Right as a dangerous challenge to political stability, harking back to the often chaotic politics that Greece lived through during the 20th century. With junior partner, the nominally left-wing PASOK party hemorrhaging votes, it's leader Evangelos venizelos has been more than willing to go along with this strategy in the hope of scaring back voters from SYRIZA.

The violence used and glorified by Golden Dawn is therefore equated with supposedly similar trends in SYRIZA and the Greek Communist Party (KKE). In such an equation, brutal attacks on immigrants, Nazi salutes and 1930's style Brown Shirt street fighting is considered the same as strike action or sit down protests. In such a world, New Democracy and PASOK can present themselves as a sane alternative to such political madness, a stabilising influence in difficult times.

The problem with this theory is that just does not reflect reality on the ground, no matter how much political and media spin is used. The rise in political influence and extremism on right has not be mirrored by 1930's style street tactics on the left. It is Golden Dawn MP's who have been charged (though not sent to convicted of) with a raft of offences ranging from assault to possession of illegal weapons. It is their supporters who have repeatedly been accused of endless list of attacks against immigrants and increasingly domestic political opponents.

As if to underline this just a day after Babis Papadimitriou talked of the possibility of  bringing Golden Dawn in to government, 50 of their supporters took part in a bloody attack on Greek communists who has putting up posters in the city of Perama which left nine of them in hospital.

On other hand the differences between Golden Dawn and New Democracy are fewer than they'd either would like to admit publically. The lurch to the right that PM, Antonis Samaras brought to his party has seen the rise to power of far right supporters, many refugees from the ultra-nationalist LAOS party which was all but wiped out in the last elections. In terms of immigration, for example, New Democracy's policies are little more than a more polished version of unvarnished racism of Golden Dawn.

Despite the political risks that both parties face forming an alliance, New Democracy, at least may not have any other choice. The party cannot rule on its own, having seen its share of the vote drop from 40+ % to 26-29% and it's current coalition partner PASOK is fading away, suffering a wane in political fortunes on par with that which struck the UK Liberal party in the 1920's.

Although die-hard supporters still maintain that PASOK leader, Evangelos Venizelos has a master plan to turn the situation around, the reality is that its decline is irrevocable and that any recovery that may take place is years in the future and almost certainly without the presence of Venizelos who has become personally identified with the decline in Greece's fortunes. The fact that a recent poll found that in one of Greece's largest electoral districts in Athens support for PASOK among younger voters was 0% just underlines the the scale of the problem.

Some commentators have argued that the government's demonisation of Golden Dawn rules out a coalition however, in true Orwellian fashion  New Democracy has changed policy stances on a number of occasions. Samaras positioned himself when in opposition as Greece's best hope to fight austerity and then once elected to promote himself as its most loyal defender. Yet one more u-turn in a long history of such moves would surprise few observers and given Samaras's own history as a semi-reconstructed ultra-nationalist an alliance with Golden Dawn would far more sense than one with his arch political rival, PASOK and its leadership.

What is in this for Golden Dawn is less clear since its entire existence is predicated upon its staunch opposition to the political establishment which it has painted as a hotbed of corruption and worse. They have made much of their anger with austerity, promoting themselves as agents of national resistance against a anti-Greek, internationally orientated elite who are betraying the homeland in order to hang onto power. To suddenly join up with New Democracy would risk them being consigned to the dustbin of history, suffering the same fate as far right LAOS party who made the same transition and paid the price for it at the polls.

On the other hand the siren call of access to the State and all the power and privileges that go with it has turned many a head in Greece's turbulent political past. With government position comes the ability to reward followers with public contracts and civil service jobs, a potent recruiting tool in difficult times. More importantly, a role in government brings legitimacy especially in the eyes of Greece's oligarch owned mainstream media who would quickly forget any qualms they once harboured about hosting violent Nazi style idealogues.

None of this is likely to happen soon unless the tensions that underlay the government coalition become untenable and since neither side is looking to go to the polls before it is absolutely necessary that seems unlikely. However, the fact that pro-New Democracy media is mooting the idea of a future alliance between Golden Dawn and New Democracy means that the prospect is being discussed and the waters tested.

Faced with the possibility of a future government lead by SYRIZA Greece's economic and political establishment would be more than willing to hold its nose and embrace a Neonazi party rather than see Greece clash with creditors over the terms of the bailout deal and the attendant risk of exit from the Eurozone.
*Note. This post was written just days before a man identified as a Golden Dawn member was accused of stabbing to death singer and left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Keep Out! - The 78th Thessaloniki International Trade Fair

Inside the 78th Thessaloniki International Trade Fair the prime minister is giving a speech as prime minister have done for decades on this date. I will not bother to follow the speech, either in person or on TV as Samaras's public addresses are usually leaked well in advance and amount to a little more than  a series of soundbites linked together by the slightest of rhetorical devices, more akin to bloated TV commercials than anything Demosthenes would recognise.

"The economy is coming round, recovery is on its way, the sacrifices of the people are finally paying off."It's old, old stuff made all the more unconvincing by the fact that every prime minister has sad the same since the financial crisis began in 2009. Yes, the rate of decline in the Greek economy has slowed down to "just" 3.8% but unemployment is still rising, set to reach 30% by the end of the year if the latest Greek trade union research is to be believed.

On the other hand while Samaras was addressing the nation, safely ensconced behind thousands of riot police the people next to me in the cafe are discussing a mutual acquaintance;

"They're looking for a IT graduate, part time, 5 to 9 and you know what they're offering?
  200 euros a month, without insurance, 200!"

This is is the economic success story that the government and the foreign press are so happy to promote, a country in which salaries do not even begin to cover living costs, even for people with years of experience and advanced qualifications. An economy where millions are unable to start a family or even afford basic health care or a pension. Even if the books balance by the end of the decade the macroeconomic damage being wrought will last for a generation.

By midday the prime minister will have returned to Athens, his presence having left behind little than a bunch of high sounding promises and a lot of disgruntled commuters. The Trade Fair once again has become the political plaything of the leadership which fails to see that turning a city into war zone every year is not the best way to encourage international trade and especially not Greece's image abroad.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

All the fun of the fair

Mussolini must be in town. The streets are full of cops, traffic is flowing freely through the city's central thoroughfares and rumour has it that the trains are once again running on time. However, to add a more modern touch to the scene police helicopters circle overhead constantly. For at least once a year the authorities pretend that they run Thessaloniki and at least for a few days most of the rules of the road are obeyed.

It is Trade Fair week and once again Greece's second largest city hosts either the annual international trade fair or a riot police convention, as the days count down to the grand opening on Saturday the difference between the two shrinks to nothing. Already flocks of scooter riding cops roam the city headed by officers on larger machines leading the way, like a mother duck leading her brood to water. Inside the trade fair itself workers hammer away setting up the stalls and stands that will host the 78th Thessaloniki International Trade Fair.

Traditionally, the fair has marks the end of summer, at least politically and the start of a new parliamentary session. it also marks the annual expedition by Greek government up north to see how folks in the provinces are doing. It gives the prime minister the chance to give the nearest thing Greece has to a State of the Union address and trade unions, political groups and anyone else with a beef the opportunity to march and show their discontent with present policies. Sometimes it goes off peacefully, other times the centre can be turned into war zone for the space of the evening.

In years gone by the political leadership would take the chance to make lavish promises and announce grand public works in the city. Indeed this approach proved so popular that five PMs in a row announced that, unlike their tardy predecessors, they would ensure that Thessaloniki's promised subway would start  the following year.

Despite the fact that the country has yet to reach budget targets and is faced with the prospect of requesting yet more bail out cash, government officials and their friends in the media have once again started making promises that public works project, long stalled for lack of cash will resume, a minimum guaranteed income will be introduced and the country will be flowing with milk and honey before the month is out.

On the other the list of those unhappy with New Democracy and PASOK's austerity measures continues to grow and after five years of economic contraction, broken promises and despite claims that the worst is over few believe that Athens is in a position to say no to its creditors demands for yet more cuts.

So the stage is set for a potentially violent showdown on Saturday when the prime minister will give a speech surrounded by anything up to 8,000 police and the streets fill with angry Greeks.