Riots in Greece
Anarchy in Athens
Dec 9th 2008 | ATHENS
Riots in Greece put pressure on the government of Costas Karamanlis
GREECE prides itself on the robust quality of its democracy. Despite frustration at the number of traffic-choking demonstrations outside parliament every year—the reported average is two a week—politicians stress that modern Greeks’ enthusiasm for protesting underlines continuity with the golden age of ancient Athens.
Some demonstrations turn violent. Several times a year a group of hooded young men, who style themselves as “anarchists”, bring up the rear of a march. They carry metal bars and petrol bombs and ritual clashes with riot police ensue. Shop windows are smashed and tear gas fills Syntagma Square outside parliament for a few hours.
This week violence erupted on an unprecedented scale after Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old schoolboy, was shot dead by a policeman in Exarchia, a scruffy central district known as the anarchists’ home base, on Saturday December 6th. Shouting insults at passing patrol cars is a Saturday-night ritual for some young Athenians. But the last time police killed a teenager was in 1985. This time protests quickly spilled into main boulevards as anarchists torched cars, broke windows of shops decorated for Christmas and tossed petrol bombs inside. Beyond Athens demonstrators attacked police stations and government offices in a dozen cities.
By the evening of Tuesday, after four days of rioting, a respite still seemed far off. Hundreds of high-school students battled police after the teenager’s funeral in the Faliron suburb, while other protesters threw rocks at those on guard outside parliament. Appeals for calm by Costas Karamanlis, the Conservative prime minister, were ignored. Talks have failed between political leaders who were seeking a consensus to quell the unrest. George Papandreou, the Socialist opposition leader, has told Mr Karamanlis to resign and call a general election. “Effectively there is no government…we claim power,” he said.
Mr Karamanlis looks vulnerable. His New Democracy party controls just 151 seats in the 300-member parliament and trails by 4-5 percentage points in opinion polls. The prime minister’s personal approval rating has stayed ahead of Mr Papandreou’s, but if civil disorder continues for much longer that will probably slide too. Retailers and families that run small businesses are the backbone of support for the Conservatives and they are furious over the failure of police to protect their property. Worse, the latest upheaval comes on top of anger directed towards the government over a series of financial scandals. While demonstrators rampaged outside, a parliamentary committee was hearing evidence this week about an illegal exchange of land by Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos. Senior cabinet ministers are alleged to have swindled taxpayers out of an estimated 100m euros ($Xm) while lining their own pockets.
Mr Karamanlis’s biggest mistake has been to ignore social reform, in particular of education, health and policing. As the global economic slowdown starts to have an impact on the country young Greeks see their parents struggling to pay bills. If one cannot afford to study abroad, a Greek university offers poor quality tuition and, unless one's family can pull strings, few opportunities for getting a job afterwards. The unemployment rate for young graduates is 21%, compared with 8% for the whole workforce.
Weak policing has allowed the anarchists to flourish in Exarchia, which has become a haven for drug dealers and racketeers. Protesters have also exploited a constitutional loophole that bans police from entering a university campus. In the past few days demonstrators have regrouped behind barricades at the Athens Polytechnic and picked up fresh supplies of petrol bombs before venturing back on the streets.
Mr Karamanlis’s attempts to abolish “university asylum” two years ago failed because he could not attract the cross-party support needed to change the constitution. Another set of educational reforms collapsed because a majority of academics refused to raise teaching standards and submit themselves to peer reviews. As the demonstrators rampage through laboratories and lecture rooms, the professors, like the politicians, must wish that they had tried harder.