Youth riots across Greece demonstrate why the country needs to change
GREECE prides itself on the robustness of its democracy. Despite frustration over the number of traffic-choking demonstrations outside parliament (the average is said to be two a week), most politicians like to stress that modern Greeks’ enthusiasm for protest shows an admirable continuity with the golden age of Periclean Athens. The trouble is that protests so easily turn violent. Sometimes a group of hooded young men, who style themselves “anarchists”, bring up the rear of a march. They carry metal bars and petrol bombs. Ritual clashes with riot police ensue, shop windows are smashed and tear-gas fills Syntagma Square for a few hours.
This week’s violence was on an unprecedented scale. It erupted after Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old schoolboy, was shot dead by a policeman in Exarchia, a scruffy central district of Athens known as the anarchists’ home base, on the night of December 6th. Shouting insults at police in their patrol cars is a weekend sport for some Athenian youths. The police are meant to stay cool: the last time a policeman killed a teenager was in 1985.
This time protests over the shooting quickly spilled into the main streets of Athens, and thence across the country. Roving groups of anarchists torched cars, broke shop windows decorated for Christmas and tossed in petrol bombs. Beyond the capital, demonstrators attacked police stations and public offices in a dozen cities.
The pent-up anger of Greece’s youth, matched by the anarchists’ taste for mayhem, triggered five nights of riots, causing damage estimated at more than €100m ($130m). Hundreds of school students battled with police after the teenager’s funeral in a plush seaside suburb. Others threw stones at policemen on guard outside parliament, shouting “let parliament burn”.
Appeals for calm by Costas Karamanlis, the centre-right prime minister, were mostly ignored. Fearful of provoking even broader dissent, he refused to take such tough measures as imposing a curfew or ordering blanket arrests, on the ground that they might smack of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Talks among political leaders in pursuit of a consensus on how to quell the unrest swiftly broke down. On December 10th a long-planned 24-hour strike by public-sector unions went ahead despite Mr Karamanlis’s televised call for it to be cancelled. George Papandreou, the opposition Pasok leader, urged the prime minister to resign and call a general election. “Effectively there is no government…we claim power,” he said.
Mr Karamanlis was already vulnerable. His New Democracy party controls only 151 of the 300 seats in parliament and trails Pasok by four or five points in the opinion polls. For all his party’s weakness, the prime minister’s personal approval rating has so far stayed well ahead of Mr Papandreou’s. But with his image as a safe pair of hands in tatters, that may now change. Small family-owned businesses and retailers, the backbone of support for New Democracy, are furious at the failure of the police to protect their property.
The government is also facing mounting criticism over a string of financial scandals. Even as protesters rampaged, a parliamentary committee was taking evidence in a scandal over an illegal government land swap carried out with Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos. Senior ministers are said to have diddled taxpayers out of some €100m while handsomely lining their own pockets. Two have resigned already: George Voulgarakis, the merchant-marine minister, whose wife acted as a notary for the deal, and Theodoros Roussopoulos, the government’s spokesman.
Yet New Democracy could still stagger on. Mr Papandreou’s Pasok is split between European Social Democrats and populist nationalists. The latter currently have the upper hand. It would take only two New Democracy defections to bring down the government, but opinion polls suggest that Pasok would be unlikely to win an election outright. And even its supporters are doubtful that a coalition with Syriza, a left-wing party led by Alexis Tsipras, a 34-year-old who has never run for parliament, would work.
Mr Karamanlis has cruised through two elections and four-and-a-half years in power on the strength of Greece’s economic growth, averaging over 4% a year up to 2007. Yet this reflected reforms by Costas Simitis, his Pasok predecessor, to get Greece into the euro. Greek shipowners made record profits from China’s export boom; Russian oligarchs bought expensive land on Aegean Islands.
The feel-good factor allowed the conservatives to ignore the pressing case for social reform, particularly in education, health and policing. But as the global slowdown takes effect, young Greeks see their parents struggling to pay the bills. If they cannot afford to study abroad, they get lousy tuition at a Greek university and, unless their family can pull strings, few chances of a good job. The unemployment rate for young graduates is 21%, compared with 8% for the population as a whole.
Inadequate policing has allowed anarchists to flourish in Exarchia, which has become a haven for drug-dealers and racketeers. The anarchists have also exploited a constitutional loophole that bans police from university campuses. As a result, demonstrators can regroup behind barricades at the Athens Polytechnic and pick up fresh supplies of petrol bombs before heading back onto the streets.
Mr Karamanlis’s attempt to scrap this “university asylum” two years ago failed because he could not win enough cross-party support to change the constitution. Another set of university reforms collapsed when a majority of professors refused to make any commitment to higher teaching standards and submit themselves to peer review. The street violence may fade but Greece’s frustrated students are unlikely to stop protesting for long.