Athens, a City Scorned
The capital is in revolt. Has Prime Minister Tsipras dug his political grave?
ATHENS — Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg once warned against pretending to be a revolutionary: You draw all the ire that’s due a revolutionary, yet you accomplish nothing. On Monday, July 13, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to a laundry list of austerity measures that he had opposed viscerally — and publicly — for months. Now, he’s being lashed with acrimony from every corner of the Greek political field.
From the right, Panos Kammenos, the defense minister and head of the Independent Greeks party, Tsipras’s coalition partner, can no longer uphold the semblance of a common front. In news conferences, Kammenos openly denounces the terms that Tsipras has agreed to implement. Further to the right, Ilias Kasidiaris, the spokesman of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, shred to pieces a copy of the new bailout terms while delivering a speech in Parliament on Wednesday.
But the more damning critiques are coming from Tsipras’s left. Within Left Platform, the more hard-line Marxist, anti-austerity faction of Tsipras’s Syriza party, come the cries of prodosía (“betrayal”). On Friday, Tsipras replaced two ministers who voted against accepting the bailout. On the furthest fringes, mostly among the Communist Party and Greece’s anarchist segments, the accusations get rowdier: Tsipras is a Germanotsolias, a “Nazi collaborator.” The few who dare to support the prime minister today are the ones who paved the way for his electoral victory in January through their own ineffectual handling of the country’s economic crisis — members of the center-right New Democracy and center-left PASOK parties. Many of these men and women despised him just days ago. But then both parties have experienced what Tsipras must be feeling now.
The sense that Syriza has betrayed its own principles is tangible all over the streets of Athens. On Monday night, the day of Tsipras’s capitulation, I walked down Vasilissis Sofias Avenue toward Syntagma Square, where a protest against the new bailout terms had been arranged, mostly by unionized dockworkers whose collective bargaining rights will be largely eliminated under the privatization programs that Syriza promised not to continue, but now must implement in order for Greece to remain within the European Union. The first thing I saw were police: battalions of the Units for the Reinstatement of Order, or MAT, the widely despised thugs who have been the ground-level enforcers of austerity measures, stamping out working-class opposition to each new round of state-sector layoffs and wage cuts.
The idea behind MAT goes back to the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. The regime considered gatherings of Greeks in public spaces dangerous. Many Syriza members cut their political teeth during the student uprisings against the state brutality of that time. Tsipras himself rose to power in part by criticizing the repressive tactics of New Democracy and PASOK over the last six years. In March, Giannis Panousis, the minister of citizen protection, told me that the MAT would be demilitarized and altogether disbanded within months. Yet here they were as I entered Syntagma Square: a hundred or so officers sitting guard on the steps of Parliament, decked out like soldiers, wielding batons and shoulder-height fiberglass shields. For the last six months, the majority of the protests in Athens have been in support of government efforts to resist austerity measures. But now that protesters have turned against the government, Syriza has brought these units back out. “Didn’t expect this,” a crane operator named Dimitris from the Piraeus suburb of Perama told me. “You know, many Syriza politicians were actually with us, here, on the streets, fighting against the police, before they made it there.” He pointed to the Parliament building.
By Wednesday the situation had turned violent. I arrived in Syntagma Square at 9 p.m. to find the police deployed against a new wave of demonstrators who had gathered to protest the austerity measures narrowly passed through Parliament that night. Less than two weeks prior, Tsipras had stood on a stage at this very spot, declaring that democracy in Europe had been salvaged as he led tens of thousands of Greeks in cries of “No!” Now, police officers were dragging demonstrators from the crowd — some of them had turned violent, but some of them had not — and had started pummeling them behind the Parliament gates. A few of their victims were women. Tourists (Germans among them) looked on in horror. Syriza ministers were watching all this happen from the balconies of Parliament. Down at street level, it was obvious what pleasure the police took in their task. It had been six months since these men — about half of whom are thought to have voted for Golden Dawn — had been given free rein to smack down leftist teenagers. Now they got to do so on behalf of a leftist government.
Down Panepistimiou Street marched a column of several thousand union members associated with the All Workers Militant Front. Those on the edge of the mass were keeping the march in order, holding flagpoles horizontally like a fence. From loudspeakers came chants. “Down with Europe’s plutocracy!” I spotted someone I recognized, a mechanic from Pakistan called Farooq, in the crowd. “We are the workers!” On the right-hand side of the street, teenagers clad in black — mostly the anarchists and the unemployed — were fending off the advancing police, hurling bottles and rocks and calling them fascist pigs as the youth dared them to come closer. The police fired canisters of tear gas at the anarchists, who in response set a TV satellite van on fire. Dumpsters were overturned and set ablaze in order to break up the police formations. The headlights of passing police trucks were bashed out with sticks.
Greeks are exhausted and confused by their ongoing purgatory. At this point they are paying the price for Tsipras’s miscalculations but are now shorn of the prospect that relief may be within sight. Capital controls implemented on June 29 — 60 euro daily withdrawal limits for Greeks, 300 for foreigners — will be enforced for at least the next month, though probably longer. It wasn’t clear at the time what the July 5 referendum was about, but it’s clear now that its outcome was meaningless: Greeks voted overwhelmingly “no” to austerity measures that were agreed upon anyway. This time the suffering will be even worse. Forecasts project a 4 percent recession in the Greek economy by the end of the year. Greeks who had expected to retire this year will have to wait two more. Public services reopened by Syriza — the Greek public broadcasting service, for instance — will likely be shut back down; the jobs that were restored along with their reopenings will also go.
A schism now runs through Syriza. On Wednesday about half the party, primarily members of the Left Platform, broke into open revolt against Tsipras, refusing to endorse the austerity measures on which he had signed off. This likely marks the end of Syriza as a political entity. Greeks will probably head to the polls again in September for fresh elections. Their options, never many, will be even fewer.
Image credit: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images