Greece: Police crack down as government and opposition seek to isolate mass protests

By Stefan Steinberg
16 December 2008

Sections of the Greek media and leading politicians have sought to brand as "extremists" and "terrorists" the tens of thousands of Greek students, school pupils and ordinary workers, including immigrants and the employed, who have repeatedly taken part in mass demonstrations in the Greek capital Athens and other major cities.

Police move against demonstratorsInitially, demonstrators demanded the prosecution of those police officers responsible for the shooting death of a 15-year-old youth. Increasingly, however, the demonstrations have taken the form of protests against the Greek government and the entire political establishment. One of the most common demands of the protesters is the call for the resignation of the conservative Greek government led by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis (New Democrats, ND).

Together with the concerted campaign to demonise the protesters, leading newspapers have called for determined police action to repress the mass movement. Last weekend, there were clear indications of a change in police tactics, which in turn points to a decision in leading government circles to isolate, intimidate and suppress the protest movement. 

On Sunday, police charged a peaceful candlelit vigil in Syntagma Square, outside the parliament building and the city's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The crowd of demonstrators, numbering about 600, confronted several busloads of riot police who began to deploy at the front and back of the demonstration and on side streets.

One eyewitness told the BBC, "After the majority of the protesters had passed one of these side streets, a group of riot police charged and forced about 15 young men and women into a dark shop front on the corner of the street. 

Protesters flee from tear gas"As the protesters put their hands on their heads to signify that they were not intending to fight, the police began beating individuals with their batons, issuing threats of extreme violence. The women were handcuffed together and the men strip-searched."

The witness, a British businessman who speaks Greek, reported that riot police then turned on innocent bystanders: "A riot policeman ran up behind one of the men kicking him in the back making obscene comments about his size. As the man turned, the policeman began beating the young man with his baton, striking him on the head and the side of his face." 

The witness said that he overheard the police saying to their detainees, "We have you now. You are out of your universities now.... We are going to kill you."

The BBC report is backed up by an eyewitness report sent to the World Socialist Web Site by a Greek student. 

The stepping up of police aggression comes at a time when the political establishment in Greece is closing ranks against the mass protests. The leader of the main opposition party PASOK, Georgiou Papandreou, recently called for new elections. But his party collaborates closely with the government in parliament, and the current Greek president is a former founding member of the organisation.  

PASOK dominated Greek politics since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. From 1981 to 1989, and between 1993 and 2004, it formed the government and exerted a powerful influence over the country's trade unions. In the 1980s, PASOK defended a nationalist economic and political policy, accompanied by anti-American and anti-European rhetoric, while at the same time implementing a number of social reforms. 

In the 1990s, however, in line with other European social democratic parties, it increasingly adopted a neo-liberal economic model and pushed through drastic welfare cuts at the dictate of the European Union. 

PASOK lost support because of its neo-liberal policies and in 2000 was only able to secure a narrow victory against ND in national elections.

Georgiou Papandreou took over as head of the party, shortly before the 2004 elections, but was unable to win support for its populist-led election campaign and promises of social reform. Both the father and grandfather of Georgiou had already filled the post of prime minister and ran the party like a family business. 

It was the heritage of nearly two decades of corruption, nepotism and betrayal by PASOK that enabled the conservative ND to take power. With PASOK discredited, other organisations, such as the Greek Communist Party (KKE), have sought to fill the vacuum.

The KKE is the oldest party in Greece and had a history of hard-line support for the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow until the end of the 1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated a series of splits. Politically, what remains of the hard-line pro-Stalin KKE functions today more than ever as a political auxiliary to PASOK.

The KKE refused to participate in the mass demonstrations that began just a week ago, condemning the protests as the work of extremists and provocateurs. In an interview given to ANA-MPA, just two days ago, KKE leader Aleka Papariga savagely attacked the core of demonstrators, accusing them of acting on behalf of the state. 

"The Molotov cocktails [fire-bombs] and looting of the hooded individuals, whose steering centre is linked with the state secret services and centres abroad, have absolutely no relationship with the mass rage of the pupils, the students, the people in general."

Papariga then went on to harshly criticise the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), implying that the coalition was acting either deliberately or unconsciously for the Greek state. (SYRIZA is an amalgam of radical and so-called socialist groups, including the Synaspismos organisation that was formed in 2004. It is affiliated to the European Left and maintains close relations with organisations such as the German Left Party.) 

The KKE has won the praise of the government for its hostile stance towards the demonstrations. The Employment Minister congratulated the KKE for its "responsible" attitude.

The propaganda of the government and opposition has been largely rejected by the population. Recent polls make clear that most people think the riots are a social uprising, rather than just a reaction to the police shooting. 

According to the BBC, 60 percent of those questioned by the Kathimerini newspaper rejected the assertion that the disturbances have been merely a series of coordinated attacks by a small hard core of anarchists. Another poll, in the left-wing Ethnos newspaper, determined that 83 percent of Greeks were unhappy with the government's response to the violence. Kathimerini put the disapproval rating at 68 percent.