Greek unrest stuns the world

by Damaris Kremida
At an Istanbul café last week among half-emptied bayram holiday streets I sat across from a Dutch friend living in Cyprus comparing notes on the social crisis that has been eating up Greece for nearly a week. It was just last weekend when the world saw Greece, one of the countries I call home, explode with unexpected and disproportionate violence. This week, in a pitiful downward spiral, my country unfortunately made it to Turkish front pages. 

As I write this, riots, violence and a strike to boot are crippling the nation after a policeman accidentally killed a 15-year-old in Athens. His death opened a Pandora’s Box of anger from youth and members of anarchist groups who threw firebombs at police, and wreaked havoc in more than 10 cities across the nation. Damage to businesses in Athens alone is estimated at 200 million euros ($259 million), with 565 shops seriously damaged. Groups of protesters have continued to throw rocks at police. There is word that more could follow. 

In Patras, the third largest city of Greece, a three-hour drive from Athens, downtown shop owners spent Tuesday night in their shops with clubs in case they had to chase away demonstrators. On Wednesday hundreds of thousands of Greeks walked off the job in protest to the government demanding social, economic and political change. 

Where did this backlash come from? Greece, the hearth of democracy, Olympic Games and hot tempers is surely a breeding ground for intense debates over ouzo or Greek coffee, take your pick. My generation is known for its school takeovers over educational reforms. Protests and strikes are a way of life there. 

The making of anger
My Dutch friend, who was in Cyprus during the UN referendum to unite the island, said that in some ways the Greek reaction is typical. “It is all or nothing,” he said of how he sees Greek bargaining tactics. “They are hotheaded,” he added. 

But what we have witnessed in the last week is something else. It’s coming from political parties on the left and the right, children, youth, your average person on the street. It is hard to know who is demonstrating for what.

People are raising their voices and want to be heard. They want a change. As much as some may like to point the finger to the government, which is at a loss as to how to deal with the crisis, we have never seen something like this and one government cannot be credited with it. 

This crisis has been brewing from years of successive governments failing at educational reforms; from years of breeding a society of corruption and mistrust in government; from a deterioration of values and lack of meritocracy. Greeks are angry about recent political scandals, rising unemployment and poverty. One-fifth of Greeks live below the poverty line. A whole generation of Greeks is poorer than its parents often making 700 euros a month. 

Compared to its European Union fellows, Greece is not fairing well. Commentators speculate that the unrest could spread to the rest of Europe. Others say Greece’s problems have created a unique mess that will take years to get out of. 

With early elections planned for next year, Greece’s future is unclear. For now the rest of us are holding our breaths and hoping the current government can find a way to get itself and the country out of the mess as it gets ready to greet 2009.

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