People on Thursday walking past burned cars, following five days of riots in central Athens. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)


In Greece, a crisis decades in the making

ATHENS: Just four years ago, this ancient capital was remade for the summer Olympics by a new government that surged to power promising reform. Today, Athenians are faced with the worst unrest in decades.

As the capital slowly returned to its workday bustle on Thursday after days of violent protests following the shooting death by the police of a 15-year-old boy, the question on many minds was simply: What happened?

Or perhaps: What didn't happen?

For most Greeks, raised in a culture with a high tolerance for protest and disarray, it appeared that the Olympics were the anomaly, not the violence and government inertia on display here this week.

"The Olympics were a utopia," said Paraskievas Golfis, who was having coffee with his family in an upscale shopping mall that opened two weeks ago in a former Olympics venue here. "Greek reality is what we're living today."

A range of issues - economic stagnation, widespread corruption, a troubled education system, rising poverty, precarious security - were thrust to the fore this week as thousands of Greeks spilled onto the streets to protest against the government.

But were the riots a security situation handled badly or a social uprising waiting to happen?

Many demonstrations turned violent, guided by a relatively small group of self-styled anarchists. Although the government said it would not tolerate violence, it ordered the police not to use force to avoid further bloodshed. In the melee, hundreds of businesses were destroyed around the country, resulting in an estimated $1.3 billion in damage.

That even the peaceful demonstrations became so fierce speaks to the deep well of discontent in Greece today. Conversations with Athenians revealed a widespread feeling that they have been neglected - and this week abandoned - by a government they see as corrupt.

"The government just shows that it's disinterested," said Paraskievas Tilipakis, the manager of a shoe store in the mall. "We've lost our team spirit. That's why we're where we are today."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2004, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and his center-right New Democracy party soared to power promising to push the country into the future after decades of Socialist rule.

It pulled off the Olympics, reduced the national debt and boosted employment, but troubles remained. In 2006, the government revised the country's gross domestic product up 25 percent after taking into account the underground economy.

Since narrowly winning re-election in 2007, Karamanlis's government has been beset by corruption scandals and criticized for its handling of forest fires that burned out of control and killed 80 in the summer of 2007.

If people were angry with the government before the protests this week - and angry at what they see as police brutality in the teenager's death - they are equally angry at the government's response.

"Greeks don't feel safe and secure. They don't trust that the police will protect them," said Flora Vamvokou, 32, who was sitting at a Starbucks in the mall with two colleagues from the housewares store where they work. "The president hasn't even come out to address the Greeks and assure them and try to instill some sense of calm."

Her colleague Nicole Tsoukalis added, "This isn't going to end here." Salaries remain fixed at around €700 a month, she said, and the cost of living is rising. All this adds fuel to the fire. "It's a revolution we're living," she said, "an uprising."

But in the Exarchia neighborhood surrounding the Polytechnic University, an anarchist stronghold, some said the situation was not so much a revolution as a security situation that had spiraled out of control.

After the boy's death on Saturday, the violent protests began.

"The first night there was a reaction met with no response by the government," said Dimitris, a clerk in the Stournari bookstore near the university who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals. "That gave them further impetus - that's why the riots spread."

On a street of charred shops and burned-out cars, he said that anarchists had spared the shop this time but had routinely given it trouble. Still, he would not consider calling the police.

"If you call the police, they say, 'We won't come to Exarchia,"' Dimitris said.

Hundreds of self-styled anarchists have long occupied the Polytechnic University. But since the 1970s, when the police opened fire on students at the school, the police are banned from college campuses unless asked to do so by administrators. They have so far been reluctant, for fear the anarchists will burn the universities down, said Christos Kittas, the rector of Athens University.

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