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Society-wide anger

Leigh Phillips talked to Debtocracy director Aris Chatzistefanou about the left and the current situation in Greece

June 18, 2011
13 min read

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.

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Until last month Aris Chatzistefanou was a journalist with Skai Radio, part of the Skai Media Group – one of the largest media conglomerates in Greece and owner of Kathimerini, the conservative daily newspaper of record. The station is by Aris’s own assessment a quite right-wing outfit. He was, he reckons, the network’s token contrarian.

‘You know how Fox News and these sort of channels will keep one lefty in house just so they can say, “We’re not right-wing, we’re balanced: look, we even have so-and-so.” Well, I’m that guy with Skai.’

But he is also, along with journalist Katerina Kitidi, the co-director of a new documentary, Debtocracy, exposing as a neoliberal fabrication the mainstream narrative about how Greece and the rest of the EU periphery became indebted. Funded by online donations, the film quickly went viral online after its release in April. It angered many members of the government and media chiefs, who immediately went on the attack against the directors. Aris, who has also spoken out against the diminishing tolerance in the mainstream media for alternative voices, was fired shortly after the documentary made its debut.

He explains straight off that Greeks may be impressed with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the upheaval across north Africa and the Middle East. But apart from left-wing parties who carry placards saying they should mount their own ‘Tahrir Square’ in Syntagma Square, the plaza in front of the Greek parliament, he says most people draw a line between what is happening there and what is happening here.

‘There is perhaps a bit of, maybe not racism, but something like it, even during the strikes and so on,’ he says. ‘If there is an uprising here, they say it will be different and nothing to do with Egypt or Tunisia. They don’t really want to be seen as part of this wave because, you know, they’re Arabs and we are Greeks.’

In any case he is sceptical that anything remotely approaching the unrest on the other side of the Mediterranean could happen here. The parties, movements and organisations opposing austerity are too actively sectarian towards each other, he says, to mount any kind of leadership or channel the society-wide anger.

‘Added together, there has been the best showing for the left parties in decades in elections, but there are four main different left parties [to the left of the governing Pasok social democrats], and splits every few months. Have you seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian?’

The EU question

Aris stresses how the ‘EU question’ is the central debate on the Greek left at the moment. The communists of the KKE, the largest group to the left of Pasok – authors of one of the most stringent austerity programmes instituted in Europe – want out of the eurozone and even out of the European Union. Synapsismos, the euro-communist grouping that split from the KKE in the 1970s, and voted for the EU’s Maastricht Treaty that introduced the first EU-level strictures on public spending, believes the EU can be captured by the left and transformed in a progressive direction.

The debate is visceral. Many on the far left take a similar line to that of the KKE, arguing that the EU and the eurozone in particular was built expressly as an instrument benefiting capital, and core eurozone capital at that. To seek to reform it from the inside is as naive as to say there could be a progressive version of the death penalty. Its very purpose is to undermine the post-war social contract.

On the other side, the argument goes that the EU, like any government, can be a contested space and that to say that the EU is wholly neoliberal is a facile argument. They worry that, outside the EU, Greece would become a pariah state as far as markets are concerned, unable to borrow and tipped into a spiral of decline. But worse, they say, an anti-EU movement is playing with fire – it comes too close to nationalism and the beneficiaries of such an exit will not be the left, but the far right.

But it is not as simple as saying some parties take one side and others the opposing point of view. They are just as divided internally over this question. ‘Synapsimos believes that the EU can be changed from within, that there is no option but to stay in. But it is true also that some members want out,’ says Aris.

‘Many, even within Pasok, are beginning to say that Greece should default, even some of the big players in the market are starting to realise that Greece will never be able to pay back all of this debt, so the question becomes what are the parameters of default: are they set by the market or by the people?’

Bewildering patchwork

Aris, who is a member of no party, says that some of the smaller left groups have proposals that are interesting, but they are tiny and no less divided. He describes a bewildering patchwork of different factions. I have to ask him to repeat a number of times to make sure I’ve got the Russian dolls of parties within parties within coalitions within alliances right.

The communists, the KKE, are by some distance the largest party to the left of Pasok, with 21 MPs in the 300-seat parliament, and, according to Aris, very well organised. The problem, he says, is their sectarianism, refusing to organise in partnership with other left groups. ‘They always have a separate demo. As soon as they don’t control a movement, they start criticising.’

The aforementioned Synapsismos, meanwhile, is just one party, albeit the largest, in a wider coalition, Syriza. This Coalition of the Radical Left is an alliance of 11-14 small left parties that grew out of the alter-mondialist mobilisations of the turn of the millennium. The coalition has nine seats in the parliament and enjoys the support of 5.5 per cent of voters. Its fortunes have undergone something of a roller-coaster ride since the start of the crisis. In 2008, the party’s support tripled, climbing as high as 17 per cent to the KKE’s then 7 per cent. A bitter leadership fight left the coalition adrift, however. Today, the roles are reversed, with the Communists on 12 percent and Syriza on 5.5, as of late April.

While not as critical of the riots as the KKE, Syriza waffled between saying it would not play ‘the role of the state prosecutor’ against the youths and declaring the coalition to be ‘in an ideological conflict with the hooded gangs’. Such flip-flopping did not endear them to their young supporters.

To the left is Antarsya, an alliance of 10 radical left parties founded in 2009. The name, a somewhat forced acronym that means ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’, takes some letters from the group’s full title, ‘Anticapitalist Left Co-operation for the Overthrow’. The alliance’s biggest members are NAR, a breakaway from the Communists, and SEK, Greece’s outpost of the UK’s Socialist Workers Party.

And then there is also the increasingly strong pull of anarchism. Here the philosophy has perhaps the largest number of adherents – if you can call them all that – in Europe. ‘Now you have to say that this is a real current. The black bloc is relatively big, for example. It’s not just a few dozen kids any more, but 1,000, 2,000 people at every demonstration.’

Strikes and local resistance

In April, the government unveiled a massive €50 billion privatisation programme. It also announced a fresh €23 billion austerity package under pressure from the EU and IMF. The 23 February 2011 strike came close to matching the scale of last May. And there was more industrial action on 11 May.

Yet these remain one-day affairs. Open-ended strikes that could threaten the government are strictly off the table. ‘It is clear that the general strikes are mainly being used as a safety valve for their own members,’ Aris warns.

‘There is pressure within the unions to take a stronger stance, but the union leaders are Pasok members, and some Pasok ministers were union leaders. This is why they can’t call for open-ended strikes. At the same time, the unions are the only ones with the capacity to organise anything, to organise the strikes.’

People are also getting tired, and with unemployment rising and wages under assault, they cannot afford to take days off work.

Nevertheless, between these irregular mass days of action, many of the government’s announced measures are being blocked locally – the main reason the EU-IMF-ECB inspectors only give the government’s austerity efforts their qualified approval. A number of local councils are refusing to pass on the cuts, while town halls are regularly occupied by municipal workers. This resistance has spread beyond movements against austerity to any moves by the central government considered illegitimate.

The town of Keratea has held out heroically against central government efforts to build a new landfill. This semi-rural region to the southeast of Athens has seen citizens ripping up tarmac roads in the middle of the night to prevent police-protected construction crews from entering the town. When the bulldozers and diggers approach, church bells ring and air-raid sirens sound calling on the people to defend their town. Tear gas is normally an urban affair, but you can watch videos on YouTube of riot police chasing people into fields, firing canister after canister among crops and grasslands.

Hatred of politicians

A visceral hatred of all politicians has swept the land. ‘MPs from both of the main two parties cannot walk through the centre of Athens without being attacked,’ Aris continues. ‘Ministers have stopped going to restaurants they used to go to. Not just because they are worried they will be shouted at or attacked, but the restaurant owners tell them not to come because it’s bad for business.’

Last December, former transport minister Costis Hatzidakis was left bleeding after an assault by protesters. During the same demonstration, the finance ministry was set ablaze. In March, deputy prime minister Theodoros Pagalos found himself trapped in a taverna for two hours in the town of Kalyvia as a crowd of 500 furious locals hurled insults and yoghurt at the MP. In mid-April, the offices of two former ministers were set on fire, causing massive damage to one.

A poll by market research firm Alco in late April found that a full 40 per cent of respondents support the wave of attacks on politicians. ‘It’s really dangerous for them. The media report that the people who are attacking ministers are a small group of anarchists, but it really isn’t. It’s just regular, middle-aged people,’ says Aris.

He is critical of the amount of coverage both the domestic and international media have devoted to the mini-wave of two-bit terrorism that has materialised in the last three years from groups with screwball names like the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, Summer Entropy Commandos and Destroyers of Whatever is Left of Social Peace. Targeting banks, government offices, foreign embassies, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and killing an aide to the counter-terrorism minister last June, the attacks are nevertheless described by security experts as amateur.

Aris says that the media attention is out of all proportion: ‘These small terrorist groups. they are really tiny. They don’t deserve the time they are getting in the media because they aren’t representative of any real segment of the people. I used to think maybe they were agents provocateurs, but I think this is a bit too conspiratorial.’

At the same time, this excess of media exposure serves a purpose, allowing the government to associate all opposition to its measures with these groupuscules – if they are actually more than just one group of people – and up the security presence on the streets.

‘The government is using the terror groups as an excuse to increase the police presence on the streets. Have you seen how many police there are everywhere? I won’t call it a police state, that would be exaggerating, but police are arresting people before demonstrations. They wear masks and arrest people without showing their ID. It’s like kidnapping people. And they are becoming more aggressive. Tear gas like you can’t imagine. It’s really chemical warfare.’

One of the more fearsome elements, he says, is the advent of motorcycle police patrols, created in the wake of the 2008 riots, who are used to intimidate and corral protesters: ‘The police are using motorcycles like they do in Iran, where they drive into demonstrators, hitting people from their motorcycles.’

He describes how it works: ‘You’ll have two police on a bike – one to drive and the other to hit people as they go past.’

Tired of the chaos

On the right, there are many who are growing tired of the chaos – as they see it, the anarchy abroad in the land. Kathimerini has taken to publishing editorials condemning the spread of civil disobedience and what it says is the unwillingness of the government to crack down on this ‘lawlessness’.

‘The state and the rule of law are being ridiculed on a daily basis,’ laments the paper, which has also taken to puffing up the ‘common sense’ of the country’s far-right party, the Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos). On 3 April, an opinion piece appeared that argued were events to spin out of control, the choice will be between a humiliating retreat for the authorities and ‘a police state to enforce law and order’.

‘We should brace for tough law enforcement, and the people will be the first to ask for it,’ the paper wrote. For a country with a relatively recent history of strongmen in place of democracy, these are chilling words.

Asked what he thinks will happen, Aris pauses. The fury is palpable everywhere, but without any force able to give it a constructive direction, he oscillates between optimism and pessimism.

‘You know that Kaiser Chiefs song, “I predict a riot”? That’s what I predict, and I mean it in this way: an explosion is likely,’ he explains. ‘At the start of this, everyone expected another December 2008, and we still do, but it hasn’t happened yet. But an explosion without direction – without it being channelled into some co-ordinated movement – this, I think, will still happen, but it will just be a riot, like back then, not leading anywhere or producing anything.

‘At the same time, what the government will do does depend on the level of violence. If you remember [the 2001 economic collapse of] Argentina, the government that rejected the IMF, said “No” to the IMF, this was the Peronists, who were quite right wing. It was what happened in the street that pushed them to take this position.

‘This goes for what the left parties will do too. It is not that nothing will happen until the left parties get their act together. It is the other way round; it is more that the Greek people have to do something. If that something is really big, then maybe the left would be obliged to come together.’

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Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.

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