February 6, 2009
Greece has seen similar protests during December 2008 that we had seen in Budapest during 2006. The growing resentment with a corrupt government has caused such a tension that could spark violence. In contrast with Hungary, Greece has an established far-left minority that tried to surf on the waves of discontent.
Rioters and demonstrators
The civil unrest and the discontent with the current Greek government and the lack of alternative provided by the opposition party in a virtually two-party system has incited a number of protests in the past years. The government has allegedly sold cheap land to a monastery as an exchange of bribes. Corruption, rising criminality, a lack of economic perspective for the young generation has caused much frustration. In addition a series of laws considered controversial (such as allowing private universities in Greece) or the privatization of public companies has caused increased protests. Especially from students that feel their future increasingly threatened. As a response they are taking over their high schools or universities and stopping classes over short (or long) periods of time as a sign of protest requesting mainly better education which is truly very poor in the Greek State. Unofficial reports mentioned over 300 schools shut down in November by students.
If you have hundreds of protests, you can expect that parties try to provoke each other and roll over the stall-mate. An incompetent police force – one wonders if the Greek state has any competent public servants – has seemed to be seeking trouble when it tried to magnify, or even provoke the unrest of so called ‘anarchists’, mainly young people stuck in the muddle of Greek public education in their late teens or early twenties. Civilian clothed police officers are charged with forcing immigrants to slap each other, prostitutes forced to kissing and being videotaped, and seeking the assistance of right-wing hooligans to clash with the left-wing hooligans to provide an excuse to raise the level of accepted level of police violence. However, in Greece, where the military junta was brought down mainly by a student movement between 1967 and 1974 it still looks politically incorrect if a policeman slaps a student.
It happened under these circumstances that a group of young people, who were throwing bottles at a police car met with the police guns. A gunshot killed 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in the area of Eksarchia in Athens, a haven for anarchists, rioters, the nostalgia for the 80s underground, and also a district frequented by students every day. Although it is unclear if the police officer has aimed his shoot at the boy, it is almost certain that the use of his gun was unlawful. (It is almost always unlawful to use a gun in Greece). This action was seen by the public and especially the left represented by younger ages as a direct act of violence by the State which at this point not only does not care about its’ people but is also claiming lives.
The killing was the excuse for the protests and riots that followed. From Saturday night protests were held and quickly small clashes between protesters and the police took place in central cities all over the country. These rioters included self-proclaimed anarchists, football hooligans, and people that found a good opportunity to loot. The police was largely absent allowing rioters to burn down Athens while at the same time showing excessive force over protesters: arresting 16-year-old students and firing large amounts of tear gas. This form of action as well as government inability to control the situation has outraged the public even more. That has sparked real protest from the citizens. While the rioters just throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks against the State that was not present, the protesters started to call for political responsibility to let the rioters out of control. The peaceful demonstrators started to call for a resignation of the government, or at least a member of the government, or at least a police captain. They have not received any heads so far. Nobody is responsible for burning down downtown Athens.
Greece has appeared as charmingly corrupt but slowing developing state since it has toppled the military junta in 1974 and joined the EU. Although long-term GDP growth has been somewhat higher than the European average, and unemployment went down to a controllable 8%, the performance is far from stellar. This improvement has been heavily reliant on state borrowing and vast EU funds over the past 30 years, which resulted mostly in a single, non-performing investment of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. In relation to other states that become members with Greece (Spain, Ireland, Portugal) development has been ranging from ‘’adequate’’ to disappointing. Young people’s unemployment (15-24) is since the 80s at a steady 20-23%, despite the government’s efforts to enrol everybody into stuffed, low quality but free public universities. The State has actually strengthened the monopoly of certain corrupt, lazy institutions instead of moving towards privatization. In contrast, Spain has become the 8th strongest economy in the world, Portugal has stuck at the level of Hungary with some remarkable national successes, like a world expo and spectacular football, and Ireland was heavily hit in the 2008 economic crisis but had managed to climb to the level of the richest nations in the previous decades. The potential of every country is truly great, and as the example of Ireland, Spain, Slovakia or Estonia has shown, progress does not require 30 years of time.
Greece has created an excessive bureaucracy during the mid 80’s in order to create jobs while empowering political parties. This public body is still growing and burdening the public economy ever since. This makes everyday life frustrating even for people trying to pay their electricity bill, subscribe to an internet provider or just go to university. In education, where the young people are crammed, the monopoly of poor public universities seems to be unbreakable.
Today, Greece is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and lags behind Macedonia and Albania in terms of competitiveness, both neighbours that are supposedly inferior in development. There are far too many resemblances to Hungary: a relatively high growth rate compared to the world, but very low compared to the 2004 expansion group; being outperformed by supposedly less-developed Slovakia and Romania. Both countries are picking on a much smaller nation: Greece bullies Macedonia, Hungary picks a cockfight against Slovakia. Greece also likes to spend money on maintaining extensive patrol flights on the border of its XL-size NATO allied neighbor, Turkey. Backwater, really.
The Greek intelligentsia, not unlike the Hungarian had high hopes that at one point the European Union will do something about this. After all, much of the case law of the European Court is Greece vs. Commission. However, after the Cold War Greece has lost the attention of the West. ‘Creative accounting’ went on for a long until the EU raised eyebrows for the great misallocation of European taxpayer’s money. Even though small penalties have been applied, Greece has been guaranteed a fourth Community Development Package thus encouraging more money spending. Eventually, Europe is not loosing that much money in Greece and it has very little to gain from putting the public finances of Greece into a better shape. It is the problem of the Greek, after all.
No politics, no political solution
Protests and riots are becoming everyday acts in Greece because the general social frustration regarding the future of the country, especially among the upcoming generation, has no political solution in the absence of a working democracy. It would be just boring to blame this on the ‘’big bad’’ parties. When the European piggy bank was ‘’found’’ the Greek society conveniently created strong ties with political parties aiming at personal gains – which somehow does not add up to public good – and allowed the situation to grow uglier and uglier as long as personal demands were met. The public kept voting according to which MP would find a job for a family member, give a house permit, make a friend’s military service ‘’easier’’ and so on. Good relations with politicians may be necessary for democracy, but when it is used for personal gains it is just corruption, nepotism and the like. Politics have been disconnected from policies and political action and this has let political parties to remain inactive. It has become risky for them to meddle with the status quo which relies on millions of personal deals. The State has been simply put on pause and now when we seem to need it, we are unable to find the remote control.
The proud heirs of the first democracy – and not so proud heirs of the Ottoman Empire and Byzntium – are misunderstanding the concept when they turn out in great numbers to rallies protesting against their very own public institutions: public companies and their low wages, poor public educations. Politicians do not have to take risky decisions as long people are putting pressures on their own institutions, and do not start to engage genuinely to change these very institutions. The private sector has no strong support in the political sphere on within the electorate and the EU has already lost interest in Greek affairs.
The Party is over
In a nutshell, Greece has been partying for the past 30 years either on EU money or on its own borrowing. It has lost time and instead of developing, taking advantage of the opportunities given or invest in its’ education, SMEs or production; it bought an alarming rate of SUVs, Luis Vuitton bags and beach houses. The only reason why the money markets could not pick on Greece instead of Hungary in October is that Hellas has fixed a place within the euro-zone (as it turned out later, with creatively accounting for the Maastricht criteria). The EU funds sank in an empty-bottled bucket, lazy hours in the workplace with benefits from borrowed money, one size-bigger cars that your income would allow were all signs of such a social disease that the markets stopped lending Hungarians the next credit tranche.
In Greece, there is no political party on sight which would telling citizens that the country will not gain on free riding on EU funds, that it is impossible that there is private growth in the shadow of such a huge public sector, that you cannot hide young unemployment into state-funded universities where the police cannot even enter in the case of criminal acts. In Greece it looks that the party is almost over, everybody stayed to long, and the hangover is already felt, although it is not yet the day after. After all, you can live in a poodle for a long time if you are a small fish.
This guest post, which also appears in Hungarian in a slightly contextualized edition in Magyar Narancs, is the fruit of a long conversation among us and a few other people after the European Youth Parliament’s December 2008 Alumni session in Berlin.