- Created: Tuesday, 14 April 2009 10:33
- Written by Andrew Alexander
FRFI 207 February / March 2009
Protests continue following the uprising that consumed the country in December 2008, triggered by the murder of a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, who was shot dead by police in Athens on 6 December. Riots then quickly spread to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, to the northern cities of Komotini and Ioannina, to Crete and other islands and towns. The two police officers involved in the shooting were arrested on 8 December and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, of the conservative New Democracy (ND) party wrote to the boy’s parents expressing his profound sorrow in a desperate and failed attempt to stop the dissent from spreading.
The majority of those demonstrating were students and school pupils who expressed their sadness and anger about his death but it quickly became clear that behind the protests lay widespread discontent with intolerable social and political conditions. Greece is being buffeted hard by the economic global crisis. Around a quarter of under 20-year-olds in Greece are unemployed and live below the poverty level. For university graduates the rate of unemployment is 28%. Having studied for years many are then forced to take poorly-paid work. The shooting was the spark that lit the tinderbox and the rioting in Greece was the first mass action in Europe against the current capitalist crisis.
Students lead the way
Students occupied several of the main universities and planned and directed protests from them. Under Greek law university campuses are autonomous zones which the police and army are banned from entering. This law was enacted in response to a massacre in 1973 at the Athens Polytechnic when 24 students, who were campaigning against the military junta at the time, were killed by the army. These events are still fresh in the minds of many Greeks and the government decided against announcing a state of emergency, realising that having the army on the streets would further radicalise the people.
It has been widely reported in the international bourgeois press that the ‘rioters’ were anarchists. It is true that the anarchist trend in Greece is significant and did form the backbone of many of the demonstrations. However, the movement consists of a variety of different trends, including socialist and communist organisations. The media inevitably focused on rock throwing and the burning of shops (not to mention the burning down of the main Christmas tree in Athens – those neo-pagan barbarians!). What they failed to mention were the quickly established and self-organising meetings and discussions that were taking place in countless student halls around the country, as the youth debated at a very high political level and discussed how to build and develop the protests.
On 10 December the whole of Greece came to a standstill as a previously scheduled general strike meant thousands of workers joined the student-led protests on the street. The police responded with further brutality against demonstrators, putting over 70 in hospital, many with serious injuries. The links between the original murder, wider police brutality, government impotence, and deepening capitalist crisis were becoming more and more apparent. A radicalisation process was accelerating and it became obvious that the conservative government was going to have to rely on its social democratic allies for help.
Opportunism goes into overdrive
With Karamanlis facing growing criticism for his handling of the crisis – and his single-seat majority in the 300-member parliament looking increasingly vulnerable – the opposition leader, George Papandreou of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), stepped up calls for early elections. Coming out of emergency talks, requested by Karamanlis in an attempt to contain the crisis, Papandreou said it had become clear the government was incapable of defending the public from rioters.
For the first time in many years PASOK is ahead of ND in the polls. Both these bourgeois parties have ruled on similar programmes for many years and their change at the top of the polls is hardly surprising. However, what is of interest is that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) has increased its support to 12% and overtaken the Greek Communist Party (KKE) as the largest left organisation and third most popular overall.
The KKE represents the opportunistic and social-democratic left. The party openly condemned the protests and leading KKE members declared that they were organised by ‘desperados’ and ‘fanatically violent elements,’ whose only aim was destruction. The KKE deliberately organised its own demonstration, of about 10,000 people, on 11 December in an attempt to suppress the movement as quickly as possible. Their allies in the trade unions also followed suit as the trade union leadership began to cancel several planned major demonstrations. On 15 December, when many workers assembled for a demonstration, trade union stewards stopped them and broke the demonstration up. Such sectarianism led to many counter moves by demonstrators not joined to the trade unions. In one action, workers and youth occupied the headquarters of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) on 17 December. One of the protestors, Nikolaus, a coffee shop worker, criticised the trade unions as a bureaucratic elite that no longer has any connection to ordinary workers, ‘The trade unions have done nothing to support the protests. That is why we have occupied this building.’
SYRIZA displays more radical characteristics. It was formed as a coalition in 2001 under the title ‘Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left’. By January 2004 it had evolved into the Coalition of the Radical Left. The main parties forming it were Synaspismos (SY), Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA), Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), Movement for the United in Action Left (KEDA), who split from the KKE, and several independent left activists.
The coalition campaigned against such issues as neo-liberalism, anti-terror legislation and the war in Kosovo. Exactly just how revolutionary SYRIZA will be is yet to be seen but it has clearly identified with the current movement and has called on the workers and students to topple the government.
Since December demonstrations have continued but they have diminished in size. Both the police in their brutality and the social democrats in their opportunism have been partially successful in their task of subduing the movement. However, dissent is still evident and the youth in particular have gone through a huge politicisation process. As the economic conditions worsen the demonstrations and clashes with the police will develop again. We should take inspiration as the revolutionary road for us all begins to snake between state brutality and naked opportunism.
On 28 January thousands of Greek farmers set up a protest which paralysed the country. Using tractors and trailers, the farmers blockaded around 70 main roads, cutting several links between towns including severing Athens from Thessalonika. Border crossings with Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey have remained closed due to the farmers’ actions. As we go to press the protestors are refusing to move and are continuing their demands for more funding from the government.