Greece: A Lost Democracy

Part One

22 March by Eva Betavatzi


 The authoritarianism of the Greek government is increasing every day, and so is protest against it.

For several weeks now, angry voices have been heard in the streets of Athens, Thessaloniki and several other cities in Greece, decrying the measures taken by the government, the statements made by its leaders, manipulation by the media and police violence. The police are the front lines of a reign of terror, threatening and using excessive force, even to the point of menacing protestors with the use of lethal weapons. [1] They have the full support of the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and several million euros in public funds are even being allocated to strengthen them. Among the many repressive measures taken by Prime Minister Mitsotakis is the creation of a new police brigade to operate on the university campuses, with the more specific purpose of repression of Leftist and anarchist militant groups. Needless to say those millions of euros should be invested in more socially useful projects such as the health system, education, housing aid, relief to households in difficulty, the elderly, the most vulnerable or political asylum seekers. All of those problems are legion in a society that has been in crisis for more than a decade. Yet money is also being spent on strengthening Greece’s navy in the context of the latent conflict with Turkey over the gas deposits in the Aegean Sea. And yet more money for the media (an unevenly distributed 20 million euros on a coronavirus campaign), which are under the Prime Minister’s control – at the start of the legislative session he made a point of centralizing oversight of the press directly from his own office. The lies being disseminated are more and more enormous: information is truncated to conceal the government’s authoritarianism and the repeated scandals linked to Mitsotakis’s inner circle (including charges of paedophilia against the former director of Greece’s national theatre, who enjoys government protection). With such unpunished abuses and the violence, corruption and an open-ended state of emergency, governance in Greece is crumbling. A few days ago, a family sitting on a bench were harassed and fined by police on the grounds that it is prohibited to sit in public spaces. A man stepped in to protest against the absurdity. The police beat him violently with steel truncheons (despite the fact that their use is prohibited) for daring to speak up to them. In reaction, 15,000 persons gathered in the Athens neighbourhood of Nea Smyrni where the incident happened – 15,000 people protesting a family being punished for sitting down on a bench.... And that episode is not a simple anecdote. In fact it reveals the scope of the political crisis the country is experiencing. Despite the limitation on freedom of movement except for essential travel, numerous demonstrations are being held – against authoritarianism, repressive health measures, abuses by police, the abuses suffered by Dimitris Koufontinas (who announced on Sunday that he was ending his hunger strike, which he had kept up for 66 days), against the law of oppression in the universities, etc. After the polls in 2015 and the courts of justice up until 2020, the street has now become the only place where the struggle to win back democracy can take place.

Image from a video filmed on 9 March during the demonstration in Nea Smyrni. Police threatened demonstrators by screaming “We’re going to kill them all!" Source: https://thepressproject.gr/pame-na-tous-g-soume-teleiosan-tha-tous-skotosoume/

 A university police force to smother opposition

In February, a majority in the Greek Parliament voted to adopt a law that will create a “special” brigade to police the universities. Greece is the only (perhaps the first?) European country to deploy such a brigade on its campuses: 1,030 police officers will be equipped with truncheons (but what type?) and “anti-aggression” spray bombs. The proposed law, when announced a month earlier, had aroused students’, professors’ and many rectors’ anger and then that of the entire Left and a large number of citizens who are shocked at suddenly being reminded of the dark days of the US-backed military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974. Major mobilizations were organised all over Greece and continue as of this writing. They have been violently repressed. In addition to the abusive use of teargas and percussion grenades, police violently beat men and women students, some despite the fact that they were handcuffed. Reporters, professors and parents were also beaten.

10 February: the second day of panhellenic protests against the proposed law on the universities
Source: No Borders

Photo: Konstantinos Tsakalidis
Demonstration against the new law on the universities in Thessaloniki on 22 February
https://thepressproject.gr/tmima-politikon-epistimon-apth-thliveri-mera-via-kai-ektropa-apo-ta-mat-enantion-foititon-kai-foititrion/

Under the pretext of responding to “security issues,” the Mitsotakis government’s legislation on the universities (referred to as the “Education Act”) is in fact intended to crush the opposition movements, which organize in part on the campuses. To people who remember the events of 17 November 1973, during which the army literally crushed the gates of Athens Polytechnic University with a French-made tank to repress the student movement against the junta, killing at least 24 persons (16 more disappeared), the new “Education Act” appears as a clear threat to democracy. This episode [2] marked the beginning of the end of the junta’s rule and resulted, a few years later, in a prohibition of police presence on university campuses (what is called in Greek the University Asylum, established in 1982 and abrogated by Mitsotakis and his Parliament in August 2019, after an attempt to do so by the PASOK in 2011 which was cancelled by SYRIZA in 2017). Since the end of the dictatorship, 17 November has been a national holiday in Greece in celebration of the “return to democracy.”

Mitsotakis’s New Democracy has reawakened memories that the Greek people would prefer to leave behind them. The height of irony is that the announced annual budget for the special police brigade is out of all proportion to the amount allocated to all of higher education as a whole – 20 million euros for the university police compared to a total 91.6 million euros for higher education, according to an article in the French daily Le Monde [3]. Another 30 million will be spent on equipping this brigade specialized in repression of student movements. Figures from the universities and elsewhere, and even Greece’s national police federation [4], have objected publicly to the proposed law for various reasons. Demonstrations were held over a period of several weeks to demand that the government abandon the bill. But in spite of the opposition the law was adopted on 11 February.

The special brigade has not yet been formed, but that has not prevented police violence on the university campuses. To give only one recent example, on 11 March students at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki were brutally attacked as they ended an occupation that had begun two weeks earlier, and whose end occupiers had announced in advance. Police entered the campus a few hours before the scheduled end, without waiting for the facilities to be cleared as announced, and attacked as speeches were being made to mark the end of the occupation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=DDhGgSwKRoU&feature=share

The newly adopted law also transforms the university admissions system and imposes time limits for how long students can study, with some exceptions for working students and those who face health problems. A stricter admission threshold will also be imposed. The purpose is to limit access to public higher education, giving the many young people who will be expelled or excluded no choice but to attend private institutions – provided they can pay for them. Candidates who fail to make the grade and cannot afford a private institution will simply not be able to attend university. Thus the new law will be a powerful tool for class discrimination.

 Police brutality at its height

The event that took place at a square in Nea Smyrni, a southern suburb of Athens, on Sunday 7 March is revelatory of the impunity of police for their violent behaviour toward the population.

A video that has been widely distributed on the social networks – which have become an essential alternative to the outrageous disinformation disseminated by the dominant media, which are controlled by oligarchs allied with the government – illustrates the scope of the reign of terror that is gradually taking hold on the pretext of the strict lockdown necessitated by the pandemic. This time, it was not directed at a demonstration, a rally, or an occupation, but at a man who was protesting a CoViD fine police were about to force a family to pay for sitting on a bench.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GgEyOPgkyk.

Frame taken from the video linked above

500 persons assembled to demonstrate the same day in protest against police violence, and were dispersed with the violence they were protesting against. The Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, responded to criticism with a lackadaisical announcement of an investigation. Aristotelia Peloni, spokesperson for the executive, declared that the government “is trying (...) to get the country out of an unprecedented health crisis with the fewest possible losses. Unfortunately, there is an opposition that invests in intensity and the aggravation of the political and social climate." [5] Her announcement was one of many aimed at blaming the opposition in order to justify the growing authoritarianism and police violence.

Police officer representatives pass the buck; one group within the police union has stated that “the excessive and useless police violence of recent days are the result of orders from higher up." [6]

Two days later, 15,000 persons gathered in the normally quiet Athens neighbourhood, inhabited mainly by the middle-classes. During that rally, one police officer was injured (along with dozens of demonstrators). The media immediately seized on the news to claim that the injury to the officer was provoked by SYRIZA supporters. This claim very quickly proved to be patently false. The arrests made a few hours later by the police themselves exposed the lie. In all likelihood it was the act of football hooligans who had announced their presence at the rally on the social networks.

The mainstream media ran the images of the attack on the police officer over and over, deliberately refraining from showing the thousands of images proving police brutality circulating on line every day [7], the numerous arrests that followed, and the reports of violence (and sexual assaults) in police custody. The icing on the cake was the Prime Minister himself stating that SYRIZA members were responsible for the violence that occurred that day. The attacks on the opposition came from all sides. The false accusations demonstrate with total clarity a policy of manipulating public opinion in order to undermine the credibility of political groups who oppose the government and of the protest movement and to camouflage the drift towards authoritarianism. For all these reasons, the Nea Smyrni episode ultimately set off an impressive wave of protests throughout the country, one that is not about to end.

Demonstration held 13 March in several cities in Greece. “It hurts but I’m not afraid.”

Demonstration held 14 March (one day later) in the Kypseli district against state authoritarianism and police repression. Similar protests were held simultaneously in all parts of Athens.

Episode of police violence in Halandri, another Athens neighbourhood, a few days ago. Police raided a popular vegetable market.
Source: https://thepressproject.gr/dimarchos-chalandriou-epistrofi-se-skoteines-epoches-i-epidromi-ton-mat-mesa-se-laiki-agora/

 Dimitris Koufontinas

Had Dimitris Koufontinas not announced, on Sunday 14 March, that he was ending the hunger strike he had begun a little over two months before to denounce the unjust – and above all illegal – conditions under which he is being held, his death would have been the responsibility of the Prime Minister himself.

Koufontinas began a hunger strike on 8 January, and a thirst strike a few weeks later. Now 63 and a former member of the 17 November group, he had admitted to participating in several assassinations, including that of Pavlos Bakoyiannis, the brother-in-law of the current Prime Minister. Koufontinas turned himself in to the police 19 years ago (in September 2002), and confessed to the acts. After a certain number of years, the law provides, as for any other prisoner, for less strict conditions of imprisonment. His request for a transfer to the Korydallos prison from a high-security prison where he had been placed by the current government was illegally refused (through a law tailor-made for the occasion which was adopted in early March, a month after his request).

Among the six political parties represented in the Greek Parliament, four have voiced support for transferring the prisoner to Korydallos prison, as have the Association of Judges and Prosecutors and many organisations, personalities, journalists, doctors, artists, academicians and people around the world. Massive demonstrations have taken place in Greece involving all militant movements of the Left (collectives, trade unions, student movements, etc.) and anarchist groups.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis has not relented under the public pressure. He responded by saying he would not give in to “blackmail” by a “terrorist.” Koufontinas was never accused of terrorism; that concept was only introduced into Greek law in 2004, after his trial. Although the head of government’s denial of the prisoner’s rights is totally arbitrary he has the support of the dominant media, certain Fascists, the repressive forces (in the street) and the US Embassy. The Koufontinas affair has revealed once again – but even more brutally – that the leaders of the Greek government feel they are above their own laws, crafting legislation to suit their purposes ex post facto (a recurrent practice in Greece), installing a state of emergency that requires no legal or political justification (terrorism and/or Coronavirus are used as justifications by the media for propaganda purposes) and is in fact an authoritarian regime.

The prisoner did not die on 24 February when he was hospitalized in intensive care at the Lamia hospital as he began the 48th day of his hunger strike; judicial authorities ordered him to be force-fed FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank : http://www.federalreserve.gov/
. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike is considered torture under international law, as long as the striker is “capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment.” [8] Koufontinas’s force-feeding was ordered by the local public prosecutor of the court of first instance – a unilateral decision which showed that the institutions of power had no intention to relent and had decided to delay Koufontinas’s arbitrary death sentence. In other words, this affair reveals that those in power had imposed a hidden form of capital punishment.

The massive popular mobilisation, international and taking multiple forms, is what finally prompted Dimitris Koufontinas to announce the end of his hunger strike on 14 March. An appeal was also launched by movements of the Left on the 64th day of the strike, after all legal and social means (demonstrations and individual actions have been violently repressed) to have the striker transferred to Korydallos prison had failed. The appeal called on Koufontinas to break his strike for as long as the struggles continue. Another demonstration for Koufontinas was held in the centre of Athens on 17th March.

Photo: Savvas Karmaniolas
Demonstration of 4 March in support of Dimitris Koufontinas

 The threat to democracy by the police and the government does not end there.

This brief overview of the struggles that have (and continue to) mobilise thousands of people in Greece, and elsewhere in the world in solidarity, against a university police, a ubiquitous repressive police, acting with total impunity and with the support of the media and a government led by a gang that is more criminal that those it judges is evidence that a major period ofrising struggles has begun this year. The resistance movement in Greece is now at a historic point in time at which the struggle for the freedom and dignity of the Greek people could join with the struggles of the peoples of Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Cyprus, and more. And that is why it is all the more important to make these struggles known, to talk about them, to circulate information. Public actions and solidarity are at the centre of this struggle for a lost democracy. This piece is meant to add one small stone to the edifice. But the few paragraphs above are far from being sufficient to fully describe the situation . In Part Two, I will deal with other questions that are of vital interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. to Greece’s creditor countries, France in particular. I will return to the subject of the anti-environmental law adopted at the start of the health crisis, aimed at enabling privatisation and exploitation of the country’s natural wealth. The government in place in Greece has shown that it will not hesitate to destroy Natura 2000 protected zones, and Europe remains silent. Then we will briefly describe the situation that asylum seekers encounter, after the EU’s inhuman Pact on Migration and Asylum, and describe the geopolitical and energy issues that are dealt with far too discreetly by the media in the countries (France and Germany) that are benefiting from this crisis. It’s not enough to point the finger only at the creditor countries; Greece is currently led by a corrupt and violent party which has shown contempt for and a will to punish its own people for their desire for emancipation since it took power. Greece’s democracy is being suffocated at all levels (from local to global) for the benefit of those who currently hold power. The Greek people are not taken in. They know that behind the Koufontinas affair lie the interests of the United States, and that behind the Education Act and the police violence is the neo-Fascist cloud of Golden Dawn. A few months ago, anti-Fascist movements were crying “Jail the Nazis” and calling for a guilty verdict for the members of the former neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Soon they will be calling for the members of New Democracy to join them behind bars.


Thanks to Marina Kontara for her suggestions and reading and to Snake Arbusto and Mike Krolikowski for the translation of the text into English.




Footnotes

[1The head of the “Drasi” (“Action”) police brigade No. 36 was filmed telling his troops to “kill” demonstrators: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csD6-Juy5GI

[2The date serves as the name of the guerrilla group of which Dimitris Koufontinas was a member.

[7A Web site ironically named “memonomena peristatika” (Isolated Incidents) collects images of police violence in order to show that these incidents are indeed systematic and in no way “isolated” as the media claim: https://memonomenaperistatika.gr/

[8World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo. See https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2021/02/24/koufontinas-force-feeding-court/

Eva Betavatzi

membre du CADTM Belgique.

Other articles in English by Eva Betavatzi (7)

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