Thursday, 14 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 14 June 2012

Things are hotting up in the Greek capital – in more ways than one.

The mercury hit 39 degrees Celsius this week. Everywhere you look, Athenians are fanning themselves on public transport, seeking out shade and cooling breezes in the city’s parks and squares, swigging on bottles of water as they walk down the street and generally trying to keep their cool as another sweaty summer arrives with a vengeance.

They know how to handle the heat, and they embrace it by camping out on their balconies to catch a whiff of a breeze by night as they discuss the events of the day over an iced coffee or a chilled beer. After all, you can’t live here without becoming accustomed to scorching weather in June, July and August.

But what Greeks are NOT used to is the violent turn that the over-heated political climate has taken.

To most foreigners, the Greeks seem an excitable lot. You get off the plane at Athens airport or the ship at Piraeus port and all around you are people waving their arms and shouting at a rate of knots. Passions run high, voices are raised, moustaches (male and female) quiver, faces turn a delicate shade of magenta. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. And then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers.

Greeks shout a lot, but they rarely get violent.  

However, since the last inconclusive election of 6 May, that has changed in a very real way.

Every day brings new reports of violence:
- A family of immigrants that has lived and worked in Greece for years is attacked in their home – one is so badly injured he had to be hospitalised;
- During a live TV debate, the poster boy of the self-styled Nationalist (critics call them Neo Nazis) Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party throws a glass of water at one woman politician and repeatedly punches another in the face when she smacks him on his arm with a newspaper in protest (he escapes arrest for assault by hiding out until the warrant expires, then emerges to announce he will sue his victims - and others - for ‘provocation’);
- A Communist party representative campaigning for this Sunday’s repeat election is beaten in the face with a knuckle-duster (or “iron fist” as the Greeks call them) when he challenges a group of thugs throwing water and juice around his party’s kiosk in a bustling suburban square;
- Reports of attacks in the street or train on foreign-looking people now so common they almost go unremarked.

This is a new and disturbing trend in Greek society. Of course, the potential for violence can be found anywhere, but despite the headline-grabbing images of rioting crowds throwing Molotov cocktails in Syntagma Square earlier this year, one-on-one up-close-and-personal violence has always been a rarity here. And even as police launched tear gas at protestors in Syntagma, just a few streets away people could be found sitting outside cafes sipping their coffee as they read the papers, discussed politics or battled it out on the Backgammon board.

There’s little doubt in most people’s minds what has sparked the latest rise in the frequency, severity and sheer nerve of the attacks in the past six weeks or so. Since winning almost 7% of the vote (presumably some of which came from desperate voters looking to punish mainstream politicians) and 21 seats in the Greek Parliament in early May, Chryssi Avgi have become increasingly vocal, volatile and – yes – provocative. Few think it’s a coincidence that the increase in violence has coincided with the rise of a party whose second-in-charge is a self-styled ‘street fighting’ specialist, and whose candidates openly give campaign speeches threatening to enter hospitals and childcare centres to throw out immigrants and their children.

It scares many a Greek. But there is a significant minority who justify such actions or even openly applaud them.

Fuelled by spiraling poverty and unemployment, rising prices, increasing tax demands on shrinking or non-existent incomes, and their beloved country being branded the bad boy of Europe, many Greeks are desperate for someone to blame and someone to punish. Illegal immigration is a huge burden for a country unable to support even its own people. The fabric of the state is close breaking point, with the health system almost collapsing and cancer patients unable to access the medication they need. Mainstream politicians are condemned by many for betraying their country and feeding the ordinary working folk to the wolves.

It’s a country haunted by fear for the future and a lost faith in the past. Little wonder then that there’s been a rise in support for the far right who condemn the powers that be and make grand (but vague) promises of restoring patriotic pride.

Three days before the next election, many Greeks still don’t know what they will vote. But most want the result to be conclusive this time. The uncertainty of the past two years, with Europe or the IMF dangling the Sword of Damocles over their heads, has taken its toll in many ways - including a worrying spike in the number of suicides in the past months.

If this Sunday’s election still fails to form a workable Government, they face yet another vote and weeks of uncertainty. And they will be robbed of yet another Sunday that could otherwise be spent enjoying one of the few things that are still affordable – the glorious Greek summer and a dip in the Med. 


  1. Thanks so much for this. It has enabled me the separate out a few strands from the immense tangle of what is going on over there.

  2. I have wondered how ordinary Greek citizens have been feeling during these troubled times.......and the Bad Boy of Europe tag must be a difficult hat to wear. Let's hope that common sense and decency prevail throughout.