Greece and the European Autumn
By Vassilis Danellis
In the evening of February 12, the lounge of the Greek Parliament House was full of lawmakers watching the football game between the league leading team Panathinaikos and its tough opponent Xanthi, while they were waiting for an important debate to start. A debate on the new Memorandum of Understanding, proposed by Troika (the mechanism comprised of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission), which finally led to the endorsement of a fresh, harsher, austerity package for the country.
Guy Fawkes masks via
At the same time, outside the building, tens of thousands of demonstrators pouring into Syntagma (Constitution) square were demanding the Parliament to be burned. However, the police put the majority of its force to protect the building and prevent the demonstrators from carrying out their threat. As a result, the mob moved on setting other buildings ablaze. According to Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, more than 150 buildings were damaged by the fire. More specifically, 45 businesses were totally burned down, while 17 banks, 4 bookstores, 5 malls, 70 shops and 29 more buildings, including the historical movie theaters ?Attikon? and Apollon?, suffered severe damage.
Watching people clamoring for the Parliament to be burned and historical buildings on fire, I recalled Allan Moore?s comic series ?V for Vendetta? and the explosion of Big Ben in its first pages, as well as the one of Downing Street with which the story ends. Indeed, Guy Fawkes mask, which in the comic series protects V?s identity, protects Anonymous hacktivists? one too, while it?s very popular among the demonstrators who take to the streets all around the Western world.
But what it stands for? According to a recent analysis made by Allan Moore for BBC, V’s charismatic grin ?has provided a ready-made identity for these highly motivated protesters, one embodying resonances of anarchy, romance, and theatre that are clearly well-suited to contemporary activism, from Madrid’s Indignados to the Occupy Wall Street movement?.
Oh yes, ?a ready-made identity” to mask the lack of ideology. Westerners, mainly Europeans, oppose to a system ruled by rating companies and weak institutions led by technocrats, but what do they seek for? Do they want its replacement and if yes by what?
Well, there are some small ideas. Ideas about healing the wounds or prevent bigger devastation; ideas which bring no results at all. In fact, people don?t want any real change, they ask just for a better management.
Let me give an example: Greeks, for instance, protest against the austerity deal imposed by Eurozone leaders, but at the same time they don?t want their country to return back to drachma. A recent poll, carried out by VPRC agency, shows a gradual weaking of the government parties with New Democracy (ND) going down to 27.5%, too low to independently get a majority of seats in parliament in the upcoming April elections. Also, PASOK would receive only 11% of the votes, if elections held today. On the other hand, all parties opposing the Memorandum become stronger: Communist Party (KKE) receives 14%, Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) receives 13.5% and Democratic Left Party (DHMAR) gets another 16%. It should be highlighted that PASOK and ND combined received 77.4% of the votes in the 2009 general elections, while the leftist parties received only 13.1%. However, when asked last if they prefer euro or drachma, 81% of Greeks answered that they want their country to remain in Eurozone.
So, what will happen if these anti-Memorandum powers win the upcoming elections? Surely, Greek ? European relations will grow sourer, but would they come to an end? Even these parties, with the exception of KKE, are pro-European Union and pro-Eurozone. DHMAR (a split from SYRIZA) asks for a more social-oriented renegotiation, which would relieve the Greek debt and keep the country in Eurozone, while SYRIZA supports the default option, but they use it more as a threat, since its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has made clear that the abolishment of euro is not among the proposed policies of the party.
Additionally, the exploding popularity of center-leftist DHMAR shows that Greeks seek to replace PASOK, the social-democrat party which rules the country more than 30 years (with some temporal intervals), with a party of similar ideology. Indeed, many PASOK politicians who oppose Memorandum defected to DHMAR flank; the same people under another flag. So, why do the Greeks burn historical buildings of their capital city? All they want is just a better management? Apparently, the answer is ?yes?.
However, Greece is just a small part of Europe and the Greek crisis is not only Greek, but a European and a Western one. Moreover, there?s no big difference between Greeks? believes, demands and practices and those of Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, French or Belgians. It is the same people, who protest against their governments wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and then vote for the main opposition parties (which usually were the previous governments).
Spanish, for example, gave birth to Indignados movement, which inspired hundreds of thousands of ?outraged? people to occupy central squares in many western cities. They even suffered a brutal police assault in Barcelona on May 27, because city?s squares were needed for the celebrations of a possible victory of Barcelona FC at Champions League final next day. However, in last November, with 44.62% of the votes, Spanish people offered the conservative People?s Party (PP) the biggest victory they ever had; a party which openly asked for more austerity measures.
In ?V for Vendetta?, V says to Mr Finch: ?Did you think to kill me? There?s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There?s only an idea. Ideas are bullet proof?. However, in the real world there?s no idea under this mask.
On the other hand, Arab Spring revolutions were inspired by a strong idea. An idea proved bullet proof. Surely, we can debate on whether Arab Spring was a successful revolution or not, if the future of Middle East is brighter or there are still dangers casting their scary shadows over it. However, no one doubts that there was a common idea uniting people with different point of views and believes, keeping them standing next to each other, while bullets were splitting their blood, until the day that their dream became true. An idea which can be summarized in one phrase, similar to V?s last statement in the graphic novel: ?We want to remove the oppressors. We want to decide about ourselves?. Hundreds of people died for it.
What were the motivations for the Arab revolutions? Economic decline; unelected leadership; government corruption; unemployment; extreme poverty; human rights violations. What is the situation in Greece or in Europe on the same topics? Well, it?s not necessary me to mention anything about economic decline, instead let me quote French newspaper Le Monde on the leadership issue: ?What do Mario Draghi, Mario Monti, and Lucas Papademos have in common? Well the new president of the European Central Bank, the new Italian and Greek Prime Ministers (respectively) all belong to Goldman Sachs. The US investment bank has indeed woven a unique network of influence in Europe through a dense network?. What about corruption? Almost 7 out of 10 Europeans (68%) consider corruption has risen over the last three years, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey. Particularly, a whopping 98% of Greeks think that corruption is a major problem in their country, while 73% of Europeans perceives the EU institutions to be corrupt. What is the official response? “There is a divergence between perceptions and reality” as European Commission spokesperson Michele Cercone stated.
Youth unemployment was one of the major causes for the Arab revolutions. In 2010 its average rate was 23.4%, while its highest record was Tunisia?s 30.3% (in 2008), according to IMF data. In Europe its average rate is over 20%, with four countries exceeding Tunisia?s rate and another three rating 29.9%, according to Eurostat data. Youth unemployment in Greece rates 45.8%, second in Europe only to Spain (47.8%). At the same time, a 27.7% of the active workforce, aged 18-64 years old, currently lives on the poverty line, while, last May, the poverty rate in Tunisia was 24.7%. Statistics cannot portray the conditions under which the rapidly increasing homeless people sleeping around Athens. Well, although human rights level is better in Greece than Tunisia (at least for the legal citizens), a simple Google image search is enough to evince the police brutality.
Moreover, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation which triggered the Arab Spring revolution, reminds me a similar incident happened in Greece two years earlier. On 6th December 2008, a police officer shot down a teenager in the city center of Athens. The cold blood murder of 15 years-old Alexis Grigoropoulos followed by a spontaneous, massive wave of riots which lasted three weeks and spread outside Greece in more than 70 cities around the western world, including London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Dublin, Berlin, Frankfurt, Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. International media perceived the widespread riots as the expression of the young generation?s frustration about the economic problems of the country, the rising unemployment rate among the youth and a perception of general inefficiency and corruption in Greek state institutions.
Aren?t they the same reasons which turned a self-immolation incident to a revolution? However, Greek riots never turned to one. Demonstrators burned cars, broke shops, destroyed banks and then returned back to their homes. Today, three years later, the only thing reminding those riots is a graffiti on a wall next to the spot where Alexis died. It?s a V?s figure saying ?Remember, remember the 6rh of December?; the same romantic symbol masking the lack of ideology.
Many would argue that there?s nothing better than the western political-economic system for people to ask. Well, it?s a long analysis. However, certainly today?s capitalism has betrayed its traditional principles. Quoting again Alan Moore, ?our present financial ethos no longer even resembles conventional capitalism [?]. We have a situation where the banks seem to be an untouchable monarchy beyond the reach of governmental restraint?. What did happen to the free-for-all dogma? What about individual rights, the role of an elected government as defender of these rights, equal justice under law? Where are the equal opportunities when the young generation does not grant even the opportunity to work? The economic crisis continues, the gap between rich and poor deepens and poverty became an ugly reality. Yes, there?s frustration, but it?s not enough. Without fresh ideas the Spring is still far.
Vassilis Danellis is a Greek freelance journalist and author