For years now, political demonstrations in Greece involving either extreme left or extreme right groups and organizations turn all too often into ugly, violent displays of ideological faith (which can become deadly when both camps decide to hold demonstrations simultaneously), while the police riot units tend to reserve themselves to the role of mere spectators (depending on who is causing havoc). When they do seek to intervene in order to maintain order, they engage in frenzied, non-organized, spasmodic moves and gestures: releasing indiscriminately tear gas canisters in all directions and cracking a few heads (almost always belonging to demonstrators of the extra-parliamentary left).
Hooded hoodlums with clubs and chains in their hands roam freely among the demonstrators to instigate violence in order to attract the fury of the police, terrorize innocent bystanders and destroy property, but arrests come as rare as rainstorms during the scorchingly hot Greek summers.
That the tactics used by the Greek police riot units in demonstrations are politically motivated is a long held suspicion by people in Greece -- and the evidence is overwhelming that it can't be trashed as yet another conspiracy theory by weird “anti-establishment” characters. Political violence caused allegedly by members of the radical left works as a fine political and ideological tool for the interests of the two main parties, and especially for the ruling conservative party, New Democracy.
On Saturday, February 2, central parts of Athens were converted literally into battlefields as clashes between police, protesters and supporters of extreme right and leftist groups that had organized demonstrations in the same city area (why the police authorities allowed this to happen is not a mystery, as the above explanation would indicate) raged on for nearly 10 hours, producing a type of street level political violence unseen in Western Europe since the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s: several people were injured (iron bars, chains, clubs, and knives were witnessed to be in ample supply at the hands of the neo-fascists), inestimable damage was caused to the property of scores of local store owners, and terrified citizens passing by were running for their lives while thick clouds of tear gas covered the air for hours making even breathing a dangerous exercise.
The violence received fairly extensive international coverage and was naturally the top story for two consecutive days on Greek media. What the international media coverage missed, however, was exactly the very element of the story that produced headline news in Greece and made an entire nation cringe -- namely, not simply the accustomed violent outbreak between police and extreme right and leftist groups, but the vicious, well-coordinated attack against the leftists by police riot units in concert with members of the infamous, criminal-like, neo-fascist group “Chryssi Avgi.”
The odious alliance between police riot units and a neo-f fascist group which thrives on hate and draws inspiration from the leadership and policies of Adolph Hitler is not an isolated incident as there have been a number of other incidents in the recent past of displayed comradery between certain segments of the Greek police and neo-fascist political elements.
Published photographs showing members of “Chryssi Avgi” attacking, side by side with the police riot units, members of the extra-parliamentary left brought back dark memories of Greece’s fairly recent political past where anti-communist hysteria generated close alliances of official state structures (police, military, intelligence services) with parasitic political organizations and led to the brutal suppression of dissent, liberty and human rights, to concentration camps and torture, to a climate of fear and intimidation.
Quite typical by now is the extreme ineptitude characterizing the conservative government of New Democracy, with a prime minister who lacks any leadership qualities and is content with the role of a spectator to emerging crises, police authorities and government officials offered different interpretations for the poor policing of the demonstration and the violence that ensued. Law enforcement officers were blaming each other while government officials said the police had been well prepared. Neither the police nor the government, however, showed any willingness in responding to the public outrage over the cooperation of the police with a neo-fascist group.
Greece’s postwar political development is marked by the historical struggle between Right and Left. The right in Greece, as virtually everywhere else, always stood for law and order, authoritarianism and violence, obedience and conformity. The left, though hardly pure in its internal politics, quite dogmatic and bent on factionalistic schemes, was the voice for liberty and freedom, for progress and reason, for compassion and human rights. And, as history has indeed recorded, the Greek left paid a huge price for believing and fighting for those ideals -- just so the country would leave behind its authoritarian past and join the community of democratic nations.
Thus, it is historically offensive and socially dangerous to see today’s police in Greece collaborating with neo-fascist elements in open attacks against the radical left. Such an alliance speaks volumes not merely of the underlying ideological nature of the state’s oppressive apparatuses but of the direct political proclivities of its agents and functionaries.
In today’s political climate in Greece, the ideological cleavages between Right and Left have narrowed to the point it is hard at times to tell one from the other. Both sides are playing by the rules of the game as established in advanced capitalist democratic societies (no violent political and ideological clashes are allowed, parties take turn at ruling and. . . . stealing from the public funds) and even crossing party lines is no longer a taboo. The Greek Communist Party (CP) is still around, still managing to pull close to 8 percent of the votes in national elections, but even its own voters do not see it as a revolutionary party bent upon the demise of the capitalist social order. The CP exercises today the role of a systemic oppositional organization to the great injustices of the capitalist system, but has no political programme of its own and even its political rhetoric is a turn off for those who identify themselves with progressive causes. A host of much smaller parties of the left are also still around, but they operate mostly on the margins of the political system (only one of them manages to get enough votes to be represented in the parliament), and what they hope to accomplish at best is to exert some cultural-based political influence.
The non-mainstream left in Greece consists of very small, highly marginalized, totally un-influential groups which continue to fight the system though their refusal to join it in any political form or shape. Some of them do so through peaceful means; others do so by means that are simply despicable, since they frequently involve mindless violence and destruction of the type witnessed on the streets of central Athens on Saturday, February 2. Such acts are condemned by all citizens and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that the existence of such groups and organizations does not pose a threat to the safety of citizens and to the democratic ethos.
The extreme right in Greece is largely represented by groups such as “Chryssi Avgi.” To say that they pose any immediate or direct threat to constitutional democracy would be a far fetched proposition. On the contrary, they have -- and should have -- the right to openly profess their political ideas and beliefs, just like any other political group or organization, as long as they abstain from violence and the use of hate for political aims. The problem is that they don’t. Members of “Chryssi Avgi” have embarked on a course of political discourse and action for whom hate and political violence is a way of life. Its members are known to carry knives and other deadly instruments whenever they march and there have been many recorded occasions of stabbings and beatings of their opponents. As such, “Chryssi Avgi” represents a carcinogen on the body of contemporary Greek political culture and the apparent association of sections of the Greek police with this group is a reflection of the road that the political culture of the country still has to travel for the full purging of its authoritarian past.Chronis Polychroniou is a professor and head of Academic Affairs at Mediterranean University College, University of Teesside (UK) in Athens, Greece.