Amid the Echoes of an Economic Crash, the Sounds of Greek Society Being Torn
Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Published: October 20, 2012
ATHENS — The cafes are full, the night life vibrant and the tourists still visiting in droves, but beneath the veneer of normalcy hereGreece is unraveling. In good times, money papered over some of the problems. As the economic crisis grinds along, austerity is fraying the bonds of civility, forcing long-submerged divisions to the surface.
Members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, who are widely seen to have the support of the police, clash violently with leftists and immigrants, raising fears of the precariousness of the rule of law. But the discord is not confined to them.
Lawmakers, increasingly mired in corruption scandals that alienate the public, curse one another in Parliament. Friends fall out, disagreeing over how deep the country’s troubles run and who is to blame.
The divisions are not only political. With unemployment at 25 percent, and exceeding 50 percent for young people, tensions are rising between generations, public- and private-sector workers, haves and have-nots.
“In Greece today, there are people with nothing to lose, and they’re dangerous,” said a popular blogger, Pitsirikos, as he sat in a cafe here. “If something happened, it would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. From moment to moment, things change completely. It’s not stable.”
The introduction of the euro in 2002 helped raise living standards after lean years. Today, those gains are slipping. Every day, it seems, the unthinkable becomes commonplace.
The government just passed a law allowing supermarkets to sell expired food at discounted prices. The price of home heating oil has tripled since 2009, and many apartment blocks are voting not to buy any since too many tenants can’t afford it.
As he stood outside a supermarket in a middle-class neighborhood here, a man who gave his name only as Stefanos, 70, said that his biggest fear was that Greece would reach a point “where for every five people unemployed, only one is working.”
“When that one person comes out of the supermarket, the other five are waiting for him outside to grab his groceries,” he said.
As the talks drag on between the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Greece’s foreign lenders over politically toxic new austerity measures in exchange for more aid, the news media are filled every day with leaks about possible cuts to salaries and pensions, leading to a state of constant, low-grade panic.
The leader of Golden Dawn last week threatened that his 18 members of Parliament would resign en masse in the vote on austerity measures. The move would probably not jeopardize the foreign aid but would force destabilizing new elections in key areas in which the neo-Nazis would likely gain even more seats.
“What scares me most is that we continue to be suspended in this permanent state of uncertainty, which creates a political vacuum in and of itself,” said Nick Malkoutzis, a journalist and blogger in Athens.
Mr. Samaras recently provoked public outrage when in an interview with a German newspaper he likened Greece today to Weimar Germany, referring to the fragile democratic republic in which fascists and Communists fought for power while the political center eroded before Hitler came to power. “You have both depression and aggression — thefts, crimes of all sorts, have increased very much during the last months,” said Nicos Mouzelis, an emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, who was recently mugged in an upscale neighborhood here.
Adding to the anxiety, a newspaper recently reported that the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou fired several high-ranking army officers in October 2011 to thwart a coup attempt several weeks before he left office.
Mr. Papandreou’s office denied the claim, and in a country that had a military dictatorship from 1967 until 1974 and where democracy is still young, the unsourced article was widely dismissed as groundless. But to many Greeks, the report deepened an already profound mistrust of the news media, which in Greece are largely in the hands of the political parties and business elite.
Critics warn of a climate of intimidation against journalists. Those who are seen as representing the business elite often need security details to protect them from angry citizens. Investigative reporters for Reuters looking into the Greek banking system said they were followed, Reuters reported.
On the streets of Athens, clashes between Golden Dawn members and leftists are rising. A group of leftists arrested last month after one such clash said they had been hit, bruised and burned in custody and that the police threatened to reveal their names and addresses to Golden Dawn, The Guardian newspaper reported and a lawyer for one of the 15 detainees confirmed.
The police have denied any wrongdoing, and the public order minister has said he would sue the paper for defamation. But a Golden Dawn lawmaker did them no favors when he recently told the BBC he believed the group had the support of 50 to 60 percent of the Greek police.
As she shopped for vegetables at an outdoor market recently, Angeliki Christaki, 58, said she was growing more worried. “We’re heading toward a scenario of civil war,” she said. “But that’s only natural when the rich are against the poor, when the extreme right wing fights the extreme left wing.” (Greece ended World War II with a civil war that inflicted still lingering scars.)
“I was personally crushed when I saw young kids in a Golden Dawn protest,” she said. “I could not believe my eyes.”
While that party is best known for its violent clashes with immigrants, some of its members teamed up this month with religious protesters and scuffled with theatergoers and actors to protest a production of Terrence McNally’s 1997 play “Corpus Christi,” which depicts Jesus and the Twelve Apostles as gay.
“The neo-Nazis are widening their range of targets,” a columnist, Nikos Xydakis, wrote in the Greek daily Kathimerini. “First it was foreigners; now it’s women, homosexuals, artists, leftists, Greeks, anyone who is not deemed to be 100 percent Aryan, super-masculine, a total Greek.”
Some see humor as the best revenge. On a recent night, a man outside a bar joked that he was a Golden Dawn member and invited passers-by in for a drink. “Are you three generations’ Greek?” he asked. “We might have to give you a DNA test.”