Never Mind the Troika, Here’s Rouvikonas

Greece’s prolonged austerity has given rise to a movement of middle-class anarchism.

Protests against planned pension reforms in Athens on Feb. 12, 2016. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Protests against planned pension reforms in Athens on Feb. 12, 2016. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

On a Wednesday late last September, an Athenian notary named Nikos Papatheou was finishing the morning paperwork when his front office door was kicked off its hinges. It was just past noon. A few minutes earlier, Papatheou had returned from Greece’s supreme court several blocks north, where he goes every week to oversee the foreclosure of apartments belonging to Greeks who can no longer afford to pay their property taxes.

“I must have been followed,” Papatheou says later.

On a Wednesday late last September, an Athenian notary named Nikos Papatheou was finishing the morning paperwork when his front office door was kicked off its hinges. It was just past noon. A few minutes earlier, Papatheou had returned from Greece’s supreme court several blocks north, where he goes every week to oversee the foreclosure of apartments belonging to Greeks who can no longer afford to pay their property taxes.

“I must have been followed,” Papatheou says later.

Six men in makeshift black balaclavas barreled inside. Each had on white surgical gloves. A few wore baseball caps. “Eh! Eh! Eh!” they shouted. Two of the intruders got down on all fours and began unplugging Papatheou’s computers. Another grabbed stacks of binders and started frisbeeing them around the room. Another yanked chairs out from under a table, grabbed a cup of water, and tossed it out across a glass table cluttered with foreclosure contracts. By the time Papatheou’s assistant Evgenia had begun hollering in outrage, a fifth man was capturing the pandemonium from a hand-held camera. The last of the intruders then drove his fist into the glass tabletop — “Let’s get outta here!” and led the other five back out into the hallway from which they had entered not a minute earlier.

Since the onset of austerity in 2010, Athens has become an unusually dangerous place. The violence ranges from the armed Golden Dawn squadrons that physically beat immigrants out of middle-class neighborhoods to the innocuous-seeming letter that exploded into the abdomen of former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos last May. But the rise of the anarchist Rouvikonas group, Greek for “Rubicon,” presents something else — an almost farcical plot line in the deadening drama that has become Greece’s economic and political life. Over the last four years, with greater ferocity in the last six months, Rouvikonas has crashed across Greek newspaper headlines and talk shows with its attacks, many of which are filmed, synced to “My Favorite Mutiny” by the Coup, uploaded to the internet within an hour of happening, and then quickly taken down before the police have any chance of accurately identifying the culprits.

The bizarre phenomenon that is Rouvikonas speaks not so much to the desperation of Greek society under recession and austerity — this has been apparent for the better part of a decade now — as to the failure of the conventional political arena to provide any sort of solution to the country’s festering problems.

The group came together in late 2013, with six founding members. “We began as an assembly advocating for political prisoners, concerned primarily with rioting,” says one of the six, a bartender named Thanasis at the Vox, a bar in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia where the group gathers each week to coordinate its next attacks. “But we soon saw the limitations of that form of mass protest. We decided we needed to attack the state in a more surgical way.” The animating conviction of Rouvikonas was that Greece crossed its “Rubicon” the moment it signed its second bailout agreement with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in March 2012, thereby doubling down on a program of economic austerity that has been steadily ravaging Greek society ever since. Rouvikonas’s claim isn’t that the Greek political system is broken per se. They insist that it was a sham all along. Elections? They only succeed in vaulting into office one hypocritical set of elites after another. Street demonstrations? They only stay around long enough to be hijacked by those same sets of elites. Today, there are some 60 Rouvikonites. The group’s raids, formerly taking place once a month, now occur at a near-weekly clip, in large part because the state they are designed to provoke has done the bare minimum to stop the group.

Rouvikonas falls within a long tradition of anarchism in Athens dating back to the 1970s. But it also falls well outside of it in revealing ways. Other bands of anarchists operate underground. Membership is restricted. They often do not take credit for their attacks, which include demolishing ATMs with homemade Molotov cocktails and kidnapping political and economic elites.

Most of Rouvikonas’s violence, by contrast, is limited to acts of wry impropriety — tossing fliers, throwing paint, momentarily occupying a government building — that the police have difficulty bringing charges against and which the Greek justice system, already backlogged with years of unlitigated cases, hardly possesses the resources to rein in. To prevent its members from going to jail, Rouvikonas rotates attackers from week to week, ensuring that those on bail have no chance of being caught by the police. “Don’t underestimate how calculated everything they do is,” says Liana Kanelli, a Communist parliament member who was giving an interview on Greek public television when a few Rouvikonites burst into the studio and began throwing cameras to the ground on live TV. “They have observed other violent groups — on both the left and the right — and have taken note of what works and what doesn’t.”

Unlike other anarchist groups, Rouvikonas aspires to become a force of everyday relevance on the streets of Athens. It takes responsibility for its attacks, inevitably drawing comparisons to the rogue vigilantism practiced by Golden Dawn. “For so long anarchists in Greece opposed fascism,” Kanelli says. “But stare into the belly of the beast for long enough and you find you’ll begin to resemble him.” Rouvikonites often have no obvious anarchist background. Many were raised in the middle class. Many were educated at private schools in the leafy suburbs of northern Athens. Many are middle-aged. Their perspective on the permanence of Greece’s crisis dates back to the 1980s, when the center-left Pasok party stormed into power only to duplicate the clientelism of its center-right predecessors. “We have watched this charade over and over again,” says a Rouvikonite named Nikos, who works half the year aboard a container ship in the Indian Ocean.

Now the far-left Syriza party has duplicated the austerity program — to say nothing of the corruption and clientelism — it climbed to power claiming it would stamp out. Not only has this sharpened Rouvikonas’s claim that politics in Greece are a sham. In its attempt to carve out its own political basis by handing out money to pensioners and the unemployed youth, Syriza has been forced to squeeze money out of what remains of Greece’s middle classes through more efficient tax collection, the foreclosure of utilities, and the seizure of apartments all over Athens. The curious effect has been the creation of an enraged middle class for the anarchists of Rouvikonas to now claim to represent. “Institutions, government, opposition, bailout review, new measures,” reads the group’s website. “There is no reason why we should take this piece of shadow theater seriously.”

Greece, according to Rouvikonas, requires instead a different type of theater — the mix of public outreach and street violence cultivated by the group itself.

At random hours of the day, random days of the week, Rouvikonas lays literal ambush to the most unsuspecting corners of Greek society. In March, a few Rouvikonites ventured out to Peristeri, home to ADMIE, the state-run electricity provider that has been begun shutting off the power in homes of Greeks who cannot pay their utility bills. “They showed up, shattered the windows of our company car, then four or five windows of our building, but left the security guard untouched,” an ADMIE employee says. Later that month, Rouvikonas attacked the Aigaleo headquarters of Mikel, a popular chain of Greek cafes, after one of its delivery bikers was killed in a traffic collision. “They pushed tables over with their hands, then went upstairs and broke some coffee mugs over our photocopier,” says the manager of the cafe.

Rouvikonas has sparked such a maniacal following in the press partly because it keeps the next target of its ire a matter of endless speculation. When the group is not homing in on obscure nooks of Greece’s bureaucracy — attacking tollbooths in the Peloponnese, the Ministry of National Defence, and the city courthouse of Larissa in central Greece — it is often working in international gear, embarrassing Athens with one public relations crisis after another. Rouvikonas counts among its victims the Spanish Embassy, the Saudi Embassy, the El Al check-in desk at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, the offices of Turkish Airlines, the German ambassador at his estate in Halandri, and debt inspectors from the EU, IMF, and European Central Bank lounging at the Hilton in downtown Athens.

Rouvikonas’s methods recently made international headlines when a photo surfaced on Twitter depicting “Rouvikonas” graffitied across a cement wall in Raqqa, Syria. The group used money from selling beers at the Vox to dispatch three members to the siege on motorbikes, where they helped Syrian Kurds root the Islamic State out of the city. But violent as it can be, Rouvikonas also works in a more humanitarian bent, handing out donated medicine from the basement of the Vox, where it invites medical solidarity groups to set up clinics for sick Greeks. Rouvikonas also strives to find refugees a place to live by squatting in abandoned buildings in downtown Athens and barring the police from entering.

But Rouvikonas’s most distinguishing characteristic is the way it actively engages with the rest of Greek society. It posts videos of its attacks online complete with commentaries. It fields a flow of inquiries in its Facebook feeds. “People ought to stop complaining about their problems and instead consider joining us,” Giorgos Kalaitzidis, one of the original Rouvikonites, posted recently. “The more of us there are, the more problems we can solve together.”

Lately, Rouvikonas has gained a reputation for taking requests. The tax collector in Kallithea keeps knocking on the door in search of that decade of unpaid taxes? Six Rouvikonites will be dispatched to his office that evening bearing a few buckets of red paint. The surgeon at Evangelismos Hospital refuses to consider an operation without first being enticed with a bribe? A trio of Rouvikonites will break into his operating room the next afternoon threatening him never to ask for a bribe again. For Rouvikonas, taking requests amounts to a parallel system of what’s known in Greece as fakelaki, the undiscussed exchange of small bribes that has been greasing the wheels of Greek bureaucracy with greater and greater frequency since the onset of austerity. Rouvikonas offers those Greeks who have no money for bribes a way to combat the fakelaki system — by calling on Rouvikonas to make an example of those who do.

Several theories exist as to why the Rouvikonites have yet to be imprisoned as an organization, even if individual members have been reprimanded in the wake of some attacks. One theory is that the group has expertly outwitted the Greek justice system by approaching the line of what constitutes a punishable offense but never convincingly crossing it. The other theory is that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras actively shields the group from police crackdown. Rouvikonas’s popularity rages in the same university circles that form the backbone of Syriza’s youth movement, therefore presenting Tsipras with an unusual opportunity. In public, he can gain the support of Greek society by denouncing Rouvikonas. In practice, he can appeal to parts of his base by letting the group carry out its work on the streets virtually unobstructed.

For those Greeks who are not Tsipras voters — much less someone inclined to phone in complaints about their neighborhood meter maids — Rouvikonas couldn’t be more emblematic of Greece’s habit of obstructing progress toward becoming a normal European country, one where taxes can be collected with regularity and civil servants need not fear being ambushed by hooligans for doing their jobs. For these Greeks, the threat of a leftist government that will take them out of the EU was improbably overcome two summers ago. But the unchecked presence of a group like Rouvikonas, roaming Athens and targeting its victims all but at will, shows how distant from the rest of the EU Greece remains — and how much further away it seems poised to drift.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist living in Athens.