Austerity Bites

Parliament may claim that austerity has saved the country from a certain trip to Hades, but average Greeks would almost rather just go down in flames.

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

ATHENS – The crowd returned despite the burned trash on the broken sidewalks, the shattered glass on the streets, and the lingering sting of tear gas. By noon on Thursday, Oct. 20, Greeks filled Syntagma, the square across the street from the parliament building. They knew parliament would approve the latest austerity measures and they knew Prime Minister George Papandreou had insisted that the measures would save the country from bankruptcy. But it felt more like a death march than salvation.

It was the second day of massive demonstrations this week. By midday in Syntagma, old men set up stalls to sell whistles, miniature Greek flags, and the sesame-encrusted bread rings called koulouria. Bangladeshi men sold bottles of water. Protesters sprayed liquid Maalox, the stomach antacid, on each other’s faces to close their pores and counteract the effects of the tear gas. Young men in black hoods, a few of them holding sledgehammers, pulled on gas masks.

Hundreds of riot police surrounded the sand-colored neoclassical parliament building. The young men in hoods wanted a fight. But in their way were about 100 middle-aged men who had locked arms, blocking a main path to parliament. The men seemed like unlikely defenders of the most hated building in Greece; they were blue-collar workers from PAME, a strident union affiliated with KKE, the country’s old-school Communist party. PAME protesters never missed an anti-austerity demonstration, and they were often the first people to march, with bullhorns and bright flags, to Syntagma. They chant against plutocracy, capitalism, and bankers, but they are more likely to throw yogurt  than Molotov cocktails.

PAME has a small but hardcore following all over the Athens area. Just before the big strikes began, a few elderly PAME supporters marched along a busy street in Galatsi, an Athens suburb. They held a hand-painted banner that read "Enough is Enough!" They were trailed by a white-haired man who was driving a tiny, battered truck and chanting "Everyone hit the streets!" through a scratchy bullhorn. Vassilis Langadas, a 30-year-old technician at a mobile phone company, was drinking hot chocolate at a nearby cafe. "You’ve got to give them credit," he said, watching them with bemused pride. "They’re my grandparents’ age but they’ve got more stamina and faith in their cause than most Greeks."

They may be professional protesters, but PAME was hoping their call would be heard by that silent, suffering majority in Greece that says austerity is erasing people, not the country’s massive debt. This fatalism is shared by nearly everyone. If this is salvation, they say, screw Europe. We’d rather go up in flames.

According to the polling firm "Public Issue," only 12 percent of Greeks support the memorandum of agreement between their government and international lenders, which imposes austerity in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans.  Austerity means pain, they say, and a loss of sovereignty. Even deputies in the ruling center-left PASOK party are questioning the tough medicine prescribed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, especially in the latest round of austerity cuts. MP Thomas Robopoulos, one of the lawmakers representing Thessaloniki, resigned his seat earlier this week saying the measures "are unfair and against the people." Home Affairs Minister Haris Kastanidis told a Vima 99.5, a private Greek radio station, recently that the demands of international lenders "were driving Greeks to an unbearable point."

The tension has been visible. Since austerity began more than a year ago, every anti-austerity demonstration has devolved into shocking street violence. Angry young men in black hoods throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot police, who then respond with volleys of tear gas that choke the rest of the crowd. These young men are usually identified as fringe anarchists — but many Greeks also believe they’re agent provocateurs, hired by police to incite violence so they can respond with force and send people running home.

Whoever the rioters are, they wreak havoc at every peaceful demonstration. Even on Oct. 19, when more than 100,000 people had filled the streets of Athens in a powerful, united show of opposition to the latest austerity measures, fights broke out between packs of militants and riot police. The fringe protesters set fire to garbage, shattered shop windows, and hacked away at the marble steps of the tony hotels around Syntagma. Armed with chunks of marble and petrol bombs, they commenced to throwing projectiles at police. Of course, police responded with round after round of tear gas.

The next day, on Oct. 20, the moderates were fed up with the chaos. And so the column of middle-aged Communists blocked the young militants armed with sledgehammers and petrol bombs. They wanted politicians to see a sea of angry but peaceful people, not explosions of violence. The kids didn’t want to listen. "You have sold out to the politicians!" one yelled. "Sheep! You’re all sheep!" yelled another. "Get out of the way or we’ll slaughter you like sheep!"

The middle-aged men tightened their grip on each other. They clenched their jaws even as the crowd of young militants threw water bottles and garbage at them. They wouldn’t move even after one of them — a stout, paunchy man in his fifties — was punched bloody by a bearded man who looked young enough to be his son. But as the young men, sweaty and angry, began pelting the older men with pieces of marble, drawing blood and howls of pain, the PAME ranks began to thin. The militants finally broke the cordon and ran to confront a phalanx of riot police. 

The rest of the terrified crowd ran away. They smelled fire and the familiar, chemical sting of the tear gas. "Calm down! Calm down!" a few people screamed, trying to prevent a stampede.

One of the people in the crowd was Thodoris Borlokas, who’s 33 years old and has been out of work for a year. He has a master’s degree in economics and used to work as a financial analyst. The recession — the worst Greece has seen in decades — has squeezed him out of a job. He used to be a big fan of ruling PASOK party and even of the prime minister, but like most Greeks, he now believes this government is ruining the country. Unemployment has gone from 9 percent to more than 16 percent since the crisis began. Thousands of small businesses have closed. Personal bankruptcies, violent crime, and suicides are all on the rise. Even hospitals are running out money to buy medical supplies and pay their staff.

Like most Greeks, Borlokas blames "every single politician in parliament" for the mess. But he also blames himself. "We created this monster," he said. "We elected these people, who are only good at stealing money, and we subscribed all these years to a corrupt system that allowed many of us to skip taxes and pay bribes and bankrupt our country." He knows Greece must remake itself to regenerate into an economically healthy country that relies on creativity and merit, not cronyism and clientelism, to grow into a truly independent country. But can Greeks survive the painful metamorphosis?

As he watched the Greek-on-Greek mayhem this week, Borlokas said he began to believe the Europeans wanted to poison the country and punish the Greeks. Yes, he knows Greece will go bankrupt without billions of euros in bailout loans. He also knows bankruptcy and a return to the drachma would be catastrophic for the country. But he also can’t pay his bills or plan for the future. He can’t find a job — any job — though he has sent out hundreds of CVs. And when he comes to demonstrations to make his voice heard, it’s drowned out by the firebombs, tear gas, and destruction.

On Oct. 20, when the mayhem broke out once again, most of the protesters, including Borlokas, left. By evening, fires burned around parliament amid the stench of tear gas. Inside, ministers voted for the latest austerity measures after a long and acrimonious debate. PASOK deputy Vasso Papandreou (no relation to the prime minister) voted for the measures but said it would be the last time. "Enough is enough," she said. "Society is despairing."

By evening, the Greek news reported that a PAME protester, a 53-year-old construction worker named Dimitris Kotsaridis, suffered a heart attack during the riots and later died. On Friday, the government began sending out the bills for a controversial new tax that’s part of the austerity measures. It will be collected through power bills, and the government says those who don’t pay will have their electricity cut off. Unions promised more strikes next week to block implementation of the austerity laws. As municipal workers cleaned up the charred and scarred neighborhood near parliament, one message, in blood-red spray-paint, stood out on a blackened wall. "Stop saving us," it read.




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