Greece defaults amid protests / FRFI 222 Aug/Sep 2011

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 222 August/September 2011

On 21 July, after years of struggling with spiralling debt, the Greek economy defaulted in all but name as it agreed to a huge debt-restructuring package financed by the European Union. The default has come about amid nationwide protests against severe austerity measures. Throughout June and into July hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated on the capital’s streets to a chorus of ‘Can’t pay! Won’t pay!’

On 15 June Greece had its tenth general strike in two years, bringing much of the country to a standstill. This was followed on 29 June by thousands of angry protesters congregating outside Parliament, where the Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government, led by Prime Minister George Papandreou, pushed through a vote for further austerity measures. The package approved envisages €28bn in tax hikes and spending cuts by 2015.

Just prior to the vote the government came close to collapse with party resignations leaving PASOK with a majority of only four MPs. Papandreou was forced to offer his resignation in the run-up to a parliamentary confidence vote on the 21 June. The gesture was empty; instead he reshuffled his cabinet and appointed a new finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, on 17 June. The new cabinet also included so-called ‘anti-cuts’ members of PASOK. Bringing such opportunistic figures into the fold was enough for the government to survive the confidence vote.

A new movement takes hold

The Greek people are seeing the debt build up before them and they refuse to accept it. What is happening now in Greece is more than just a few protests – a mass movement is coming into existence. Over the past two months hundreds of thousands of the protesters naming themselves the ‘indignants’ have camped out in Athens’s Syntagma Square to debate and find solutions to the country’s problems. Inspired by Tahrir Square in Cairo and recent protests in Madrid, such gatherings and others like it around the country have been organised independently of the old opportunist left and trade union bureaucracy and have been attended by a large number of Greece’s disillusioned working class. Many Greek people have become engaged in political activity for the first time. Protester Vangelis Papadoyiannis said ‘They want to suppress social rights acquired in past decades and take us back to the Middle Ages to save banks and bankers. In my company there were 100 layoffs in January alone, our salaries were cut by 15% and there is more to come.’

The proposals of the new movement include a refusal to pay what they call the ‘odious’ debt and demands that the memorandum between Greece and the IMF be cancelled. In addition, the movement rejects the notion that the current ‘democracy’ can guarantee either justice or equality. It calls for a new constitution, written by the people, higher taxes for the rich and for corrupt politicians to be sacked or gaoled. The movement calls for demonstrations every evening at 6pm and an assembly at 9pm.

The point about tax is important because the self-assessment tax system in Greece has essentially allowed the ruling class to dodge paying vast amounts into state coffers over the past two decades. It is estimated that only 3,000 people declare earnings of over €100,000.

As with all movements, different forces are emerging, and some are coming into confrontation with each other. There are right-wing, nationalist and racist components which are attempting to hijack this massive popular movement. Fights have broken out not just between protesters and police, but also between anarchists and the newly-emerged nationalists who are leeching off the protest movement.

It is clear that the trade unions and the established left no longer have a leading role to play. They have demonstrated that they are bankrupt both in policy and action and hold little sway with the majority of people. They have failed to mobilise when it has mattered and have refused to make a clear break from PASOK. These old opportunist organisations are now being left behind by the movement. There is a fresh optimism initiating change now as the Greek people are organising amongst themselves, debating problems and discussing possible solutions. Though the protests throughout July have not been as large as those around the crucial parliamentary votes in June, demonstrations are still taking place, with daily occupations of the main squares and evening assemblies. A firm and secure base for a new movement has been created and this will be built upon as anger grows over the deepening austerity measures.

Victory to the Greek people!

Andrew Alexander

Greece: Protests intensify as financial crisis deepens


In the face of severe public sector cuts the Greek people have taken to the streets of Athens and other major cities. On 6 June between 300,000 to 500,000 people demonstrated on the capital’s streets to the chorus of ‘Can’t pay! Wont pay!’ and on 15 June Greece had its tenth general strike in two years, bringing much of the country to a standstill. Many protestors congregated outside the Parliament building where the Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government, led by Prime Minister George Papandreou, sought to push through further austerity measures. The government is on its knees, with party resignations leaving PASOK a parliamentary majority of only four. On 17 June, Papandreou reshuffled his cabinet and appointed a new finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos. This new cabinet includes so-called ‘anti-cuts’ members of PASOK and is expected to survive a confidence vote on 21 June. After this vote it will approve a package which envisages €28bn in tax hikes and spending cuts by 2015.

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Support migrant hunger strikers in Greece!

greece_hunger_strikersUp to 300 migrants, mostly from North Africa, are currently on hunger strike in the two main Greek cities of Athens and Thessaloniki. As of 5 March the migrants had been on hunger strike for 40 days. This means that the critical threshold beyond which health damage is non-reversible has been crossed. So far 100 protesters have been hospitalised, with many now refusing to drink water. Many are on the brink of death.

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Unite against the racism of the Greek state /FRFI 218 Dec 2010 / Jan 2011

FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011

Greece is in the middle of its worse economic crisis since the end of the Second World War. It has just received €30bn from the EU to help stabilise the economy – in return for cutbacks on public spending, pay cuts and a rise in the pension age. Unemployment is over 10%. In response, the Greek people have taken to the streets in mass protests. The ruling class is on the back foot. It is seeking to split the working class and to divert blame for the economic turmoil from itself. Racism is spreading as the poorest in society, most notably economic migrants and asylum seekers, are targeted.

Micro-imperialist ambitions

Between 1991 and 2001 immigrant numbers in Greece rose from 1.6% to 7% of the population; by 2005 the figure was 8.6%. The embattled Greek state has been quick to capitalise on this sharp increase.

Like all capitalist states, Greece requires a certain degree of immigration to form a body of cheap and exploitable labour to fuel economic growth. Historically, Albanians, particularly young Albanian men, have fulfilled this role. In 2001, Albanians made up 56% of the immigrant population. Modern Greek infrastructure has been built to a large degree on Albanian labour, similar to the role Irish workers once played in Britain.

Greece considers large parts of southern and eastern Europe – such as Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and to a lesser degree Bulgaria – as coming under its sphere of influence. In this sense Greece has imperialist pretensions in the region.

This position intensified during the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s. As the US and Germany promoted Croatian separatism, Greece kept its ties to Serbia – despite NATO forces using bases in northern Greece to bomb Belgrade. Despite 95% of the Greek people being against the war, and many politicians claiming also to be opposed, the country remained within NATO and therefore involved in the war. This put the Greek ruling class in an advantageous position as NATO forces carved up Eastern Europe; the Russians could only stamp their feet on the sidelines but Greece remained part of the process, while maintaining close ties with Serbia.

When the peace ‘settlements’ came, Greece was therefore in a key position  regarding rebuilding and investment of capital in the area. It also was in a position to dictate who and how many of the refugees it would take in. Unlike Montenegro and Macedonia, which were powerless to stop a huge wave of immigration into their borders, Greece, as both an EU and NATO member, could dictate the labour requirements that it needed from the war-torn area.

This fresh growth of immigration, along with those coming from the ex-Eastern bloc countries, helped lead to a steady rate of growth in the Greek economy throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century.

Crisis spreads racism

Then the global economic bubble burst, and blame was directed away from the banks and corrupt ruling class and towards the poor, in particular ethnic minorities. Roma, who form about 3% of the population, are being scapegoated for many social ills. Despite most Roma being long-term residents in Greece, voices among the Greek right – echoing recent policies in France and Italy – are calling for Roma to be forcibly deported to Romania. Albanians and Eastern Europeans are also bearing the brunt of the crisis. Not represented by the Greek trade unions, they are being forced into the worst jobs with no security and little access to state benefits.

But the worst treatment is reserved for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, who do not appear in official immigration figures. Conditions in the internment centres where they are imprisoned are so harsh that the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has described them as inhuman.

According to The Guardian (25 October 2010): ‘On islands such as Samos and Lesbos, which border the Turkish coast, it is not uncommon for as many as 30 men to be kept in a room sharing a single toilet and filthy mattresses. Basic commodities such as soap and razor blades are rare. Without interpreters, bewildered refugees, mostly from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in Asia, are unable to communicate with officials.’

In 2009, hundreds of migrants in a detention centre on Lesbos demonstrated against their treatment. Children as young as 12 went on hunger strike, set fire to mattresses and attacked guards. Amnesty International has urged Greece to stop treating asylum seekers and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, as criminals and holding them in detention centres.

According to a BBC report in July, the Avlona detention centre north of Athens, which is supposed to house young Greek criminals, typifies the situation described by Amnesty. It contains 360 teenage boys, who travelled alone from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The boys are locked up four to a cell for 15 hours a day. The detention centre is infested with cockroaches, and inmates are not even given basic items such as toilet paper. They rely on charity for essential supplies, or work for other prisoners to earn money to supplement their meagre rations.

There is no chance that the European Union will bring pressure to bear on Greece to improve these inhuman conditions. On the contrary: the imperialist countries of Europe fear that such migrants will find their way to their own borders, and so Greece is tacitly encouraged to police migration from Africa and Asia and to lock migrants up. Such protests as there have been are almost all by local people who have brought food and clothing for the detainees; the Greek left has completely failed to organise effectively in support of the migrants, focusing its energy instead on the unionised working class.

But it is essential in this time of capitalist crisis that Greek progressive and socialist forces, who demonstrated in such significant numbers against austerity measures, join in solidarity with the migrants. This is the only way the Greek working class can effectively fight. Such solidarity is a prerequisite for the emancipation of not just migrant workers and asylum seekers but the Greek working class as a whole. The ruling class knows this and will seek to divide any movement by intensifying racism towards migrants. For the Greek working class, solidarity is strength.

Andrew Alexander

Greece: workers rise up against austerity measures / FRFI 215 Jun/Jul 2010

FRFI 215 June/July 2010

‘Peoples of Europe, rise up!’ read the huge banner of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), hung from the ancient walls of the Acropolis. This was a call to the workers of Europe to follow the example of the Greek working class as it takes to the streets in protest against austerity measures imposed to pay for the capitalist crisis. We should follow their example as the European imperialist project enters a new and unstable phase.

Andrew Alexander reports.

Europe in crisis

In the words of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, Greece is ‘on the brink of an abyss’. His words were echoed by European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As we stated in the last issue of FRFI, European imperialism was clear about the implications of the Greek crisis for the whole of Europe. So, on 9 May, an historic deal was reached as the European Central Bank agreed emergency measures worth €750bn (£650bn) to prevent the Greek debt crisis from affecting other euro zone countries, most notably Spain and Portugal. The 16 members of the single currency bloc will have access to €440bn of loan guarantees and €60bn of emergency European Commission funding. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will also contribute up to €250bn.

Greece was the first country to gain access to this financial ‘safety net’. On 27 April Greece almost defaulted on its debt as its public deficit rose to 13.6% of GDP, far higher than previously declared. Credit rating agencies downgraded its debt to ‘junk’ status, making it impossible for the Greek government to get further credit through the normal international markets to finance its debt, as well as making it extremely difficult to get insurance against default. Papandreou was forced to ask the EU and IMF to activate the loan negotiated in April. On 2 May a €110bn bail-out was agreed and on 21 May the money reached the Greek government. A day later Finance Ministry sources said the government had redeemed €8.5bn in expiring 10-year state bonds, which would have been impossible without the bailout. The haste with which the deal was negotiated and delivered is unprecedented; it reflects just how close Greece was to defaulting and bringing down not just the rest of Europe, but the global economy with it, sparking a second global recession similar to that precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Protests take hold

So, what does this mean for the Greek working class? After the deal was brokered, Papandreou said ‘This gives us an opportunity to breathe and take big initiatives.’ Who is this ‘we’ he is referring to? It is the ruling class that has been given a breathing space. The ‘big initiatives’ can only mean one thing – big cuts. The message to the Greek government from the German paymasters is clear – the cuts must be quick, deep and extensive.

The austerity measures agreed by the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government include a freeze on pay for all public sector workers until 2014 – though pay cuts will also be extensive, on average a cut of 20% for public sector workers, and many will lose their jobs. There will also be an end to early retirement: typically, many Greeks retire in their mid 50s, but new legislation will raise this to 65 years. But it is the youth who are already most affected by the crisis: unemployment for 15 to 29-year-olds is already 18% – twice as high as for 30 to 60-year-olds. It is not surprising therefore that it is the Greek youth who have spearheaded the protests.

On May Day, over 30,000 people took to the streets of Athens, bringing traffic and trade to a standstill. Anger focused on the Finance Ministry building where violent clashes took place with police. Protesters chanted anti-EU and IMF slogans and shouted: ‘We do not step back! We do not consent! The social class will take to the streets!’ Huge demonstrations also took place in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, where Molotov cocktails and stones were thrown at riot police who were protecting the banks.

Further mass protests rocked the country following the 2 May agreement and its endorsement by the Greek parliament on 3 May. Papandreou called desperately for calm. On 5 May Greek trade unions organised a general strike and there were more demonstrations. Three bank employees died when the bank they were working in was firebombed. The protests have received support and sympathy from the majority of the Greek working class and even sections of the middle class.

On 20 May Greece was hit by its fourth general strike which again saw most of the country come to a standstill as hospitals, schools and other public organisations operated with emergency personnel, and public transport was severely disrupted, as buses, subway, railway services and ferries did not run. Thousands of anti-riot police were deployed across Athens as more than 20,000 protesters marched in front of the parliament denouncing the cutbacks on salaries and pensions. ‘Thieves get out’, angry protesters chanted as they clashed with police in front of the parliament building.

‘We cannot give in to such changes that strangle our families. We cannot survive with such small wages and high taxes. After all we are not to blame. Corrupted thieves should pay,’ said Thanasis Stamou, a 35-year-old civil servant, quoted on the World Socialist Website. His words were echoed by another demonstrator, Maria Grigoropoulou, who said, ‘We want the government to take back these measures which freeze our pay and force us to stay longer in the workforce. We will continue our struggle and we will not back down.’ Protester Nikos Galiatsatos who is 26 and unemployed, said, ‘These measures are destroying everything we have fought for. Where are the measures against unemployment? We were not the ones who created this crisis.’

In recent years, Greek protests have been characterised by small-scale uprisings, led mainly by anarchist youth, across the main towns and cities. This was particularly true after police killed 15-year-old demonstrator Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008. But since the reality of the crisis has begun to hit home it is wider sections of the Greek working class who are now taking to the streets in anger. Most Greeks recognise that something has to be done to resolve the dire economic situation but they do not believe the Greek government, the EU or IMF offer any solution.

‘Arrest tax dodgers and ask banks to pay,’ was written on one banner during the fourth general strike, as a group close to the Greek Communist Party blockaded the entrance of the Ministry of Labour in the centre of the capital. It is this message, ‘we will not pay for their crisis’, which is being echoed over and over again on the streets of Athens. It is the role of the Greek left to build upon this momentum.

The struggle against opportunism

The angry opposition of workers to the austerity measures imposed by the PASOK government is in stark contrast to the leadership of the trade unions, which are characterised by a reformist and opportunist agenda. Two of the largest unions, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which represents workers in the private sector, and the Civil Servant Confederation (ADEDY) have set out, not to build and radicalise the demonstrations but, rather, to contain them and use the outpouring of popular anger to win limited concessions from the government. Although the PAME trade union federation, which represents public sector workers and is supported by the KKE, has done more to mobilise for the general strikes, ultimately it too aims simply to pressure the government into concessions, rather than topple it, and even refused to march on parliament during the 20 May general strike.

The GSEE, ADEDY, and to a degree the KKE, are compromised by having supported the election of the PASOK government; they are now concerned with how best to divert working class anger into safe channels. GSEE/ADEDY, along with PAME, have therefore worked to ensure that the movement does not develop into a direct political confrontation with Papandreou’s government. Though the majority of their members would willingly escalate the protests, the union leadership has restricted strikes to about every six weeks, conscious that, while giving the illusion of struggle, it is not enough to prevent the ruling class from implementing further cuts.

This is why PASOK has so far been able to pass four austerity packages since coming to office at the end of 2009. Even the stoppages that the unions have sanctioned have been held with reluctance, with no attempt to call out all their members. In some cases, the trade unions have called their members to work during the strikes for the good of the economy! For example, during the 20 May general strike, international flights from Athens functioned normally as the major civil aviation unions opposed the strike. A spokesman for the union said they ‘did not wish to damage the tourism industry’. Some teachers also boycotted the strikes, citing the need to administer national university examinations and many journalists, despite joining the previous strikes, decided at the behest of their union to postpone industrial action on the 20 May, citing the need to publicise the strike! What was most powerful about the first general strikes was that the news went blank.

So far no further strike dates have been set, only a vague promise to consider unspecified strikes during the summer. Illias Illiopoulos, the general secretary of ADEDY, said: ‘If the pension bill is left unchanged, we will certainly protest in June. And if the government takes more harmful measures, the summer will also be a period of labour action.’ As the union knows, the pension bill will be voted on at the beginning of June. Adedy is therefore thereby giving the government a green light to pass its measures, threatening only to strike after the event.

However, political groups like SYRIZA, which calls itself a ‘Coalition of the Radical Left,’ and Antarsya, which was established last year as the ‘Cooperation of the Anti-Capitalist Left for the Revolution’, insist that no struggle against the austerity measures is possible or legitimate unless it is headed by the unions. While of course the unions have an important role to play, it will be necessary for the Greek left to expose the role of the leadership and prevent it from diverting the struggle into innocuous channels that pose no real threat to the Greek government.

And, despite the inevitable opportunistic tactics of the unions, we should take inspiration and optimism from the overall developments in Greece. The Greek working class, with its history of struggle, has proved once again an unstable element for European imperialism. Demonstrations, though fragmented are still happening on a daily basis, led by unemployed youth, and the working class as a whole has been stirred into action, not by the trade union leadership but by the onslaught from the ruling class. The cuts will continue and protest will grow. As austerity measures begin to bite across the countries of Europe, it is the Greek working class that has pointed the way forward for us all. Peoples of Europe rise up!