Greece's Maelstrom of Violence The Revolt of a Disappointed Generation
The mood in the jam-packed auditorium was reminiscent of the student protest movements of 1968. Hundreds of young people thronged their way into the dark room, sat on the steps or stood on tables. They shouted "murderers" and "pigs" -- and thunderously applauded calls for revenge. Cigarette smoke and the smell of sweat hung heavily in the air.
Jorgos Barutas, 29, had to struggle to make himself heard. The computer engineer, sporting a five-day beard and steel-rimmed glasses, stood at the foot of the steep rows of seats and shouted up to the audience with a throaty voice. "We have to hold out until the government steps down." Applause. "We have to transform the protests into a political movement." Applause. "We have to formulate political objectives." Followed again by thunderous applause. Barutas stepped down from the stage, feeling satisfied, and the students poured out of the hall.
A riot policeman in flames runs to escape during a riot in Athens on Dec. 12: Dashed hopes and opportunitiesFoto: REUTERS
Outside on the campus of the Athens Polytechnic University such lofty political statements are quickly forgotten. Fires blaze and the smoldering remains of hastily erected barricades block the paths between lecture halls. Figures dressed in black and wearing ski masks use threatening gestures or engage in pushing matches to keep strangers from entering.
Dumpsters are burning in front of the entrance to the university, and in the side streets young people are building roadblocks between burned-out cars and kiosks or piling up stones that are just the right size for throwing.
It is day five of the intense rioting by young people in Athens. The protests began in the district of Exarchia -- a traditional haunt of artists, anarchists and left-wing intellectuals -- and rapidly spread throughout the entire country. They have also sparked violent unrest in the large cities of Thessaloniki, Patras and Heraklion -- and in 20 other Greek towns.
Following the police shooting of a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a week ago Saturday, there have even been protests on Greek islands like Lesbos, where police used teargas against demonstrators. In Athens alone hundreds of stores have been destroyed and looted, schools have called off classes and universities have canceled lectures. Just a few days before Christmas, "the city has come to a grinding halt," says government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros.
Over the past week, the wave of protests has even spread to Europe's major cities. Sympathizers occupied the Greek consulates in Berlin and London, anarchists rioted out of solidarity in Barcelona, Rome and Copenhagen, and the sense of outrage has even reached New York.
Athens Polytechnic, in the heart of Exarchia, is the focal point of the protests and a place steeped in symbolism for Greek leftists. This is where students barricaded themselves inside university buildings in 1973 to protest against the military junta. When tanks crushed the gates on Nov. 17 and put and end to the leftist uprising, at least 34 young people died and some 800 were injured.
Today's sizeable Black Bloc anarchist movement in the Greek capital strongly identifies with the tradition of those young 1970s rebels. For years, they have been setting fire to police stations, banks and state institutions. "From a statistical perspective, there are attacks like this every day," says a security expert.
A Growing Prosperity Gap Between Young and Old
The schoolboy's death has given the Black Bloc anarchists widespread support among the population for the first time -- and has driven the country to the brink of a political crisis. "A young man killed by a police bullet is the worst thing that could happen," admits Antonaros. But he adds that "it has nothing to do with social unrest."
Sure enough, the riots, which continued until the weekend, and particularly the obvious sympathy for the young protesters, are an expression of the Greek people's overwhelming disappointment with their government and political system. The country's political class has been losing credibility for years due to graft, kickbacks and "widespread corruption," says an EU diplomat. Over the past few months, a series of ministers have had to step down in the wake of corruption allegations, most recently the predecessor of government spokesman Antonaros and the mercantile marine minister, both of whom are close associates of conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.
To make matters worse, Greece faces a shaky economic situation. Although growth has averaged 4.3 percent since 2000, Greece has one of the highest inflation rates in the euro zone, at 4.5 percent. The unemployment rate of 7.5 percent remains within European norms, but the prosperity gap between the older generation -- senior workers and civil servants -- and young people who are fresh out of school continues to grow. Nearly a quarter of all adults under the age of 29 are unemployed.
The current crisis has not only hit the traditional losers of modernization, such as individuals from educationally disadvantaged social strata or immigrants. This time around university-educated young people from well-off middle-class families also have to work odd jobs to keep their heads above water. Due to a lack of income, many young Greeks live with their parents until well into their thirties. The system is "tailored to the needs of established and older individuals," says sociologist Stratos Georgoulas from the Aegean University on Lesbos, "and young people are suffering from this."
Dashed Hopes and Opportunities
Economic experts have begun to refer to the €700 generation ($935 generation), and student leader Barutas is a prime example: He studied electrical engineering for five years at the Athens Polytechnic and graduated with excellent grades. Now he's working as a teacher at a high school for €8 net an hour, 12 hours a week, which is all that is allowed. Such jobs are often limited to four- or five-month contracts. "How am I supposed to survive or establish a family on that?" asks the engineer.
Roughly 21 percent of the population has a university degree, "so not every language and literature expert can immediately become a teacher," says the government. "Today's generation of young people has had great dreams," retorts architecture professor Stavros Stavrides, "and now all their hopes and opportunities have been dashed."
Stavrides has joined many of his colleagues in support of the protests. "We have tens of thousands of young people who are rebelling and the government doesn't know how to respond to the situation," says Nikos Belavilas, an urban planning professor. "The political system has failed to integrate young people," adds sociologist Georgoulas, "and that's why things are exploding."
An officer stands guard in front of a poster during a rally outside police headquarters in central Athens on Dec. 15.Foto: REUTERS
The general sense of frustration and powerlessness among the protesters is also shared by the police, who are poorly trained and constantly have to defend their reputation against widespread allegations of rightist infiltration and xenophobia. Professor Belavilas speaks of a "Balkans brutality" that riot police unleash on young demonstrators. There has been an increasing number of deaths over the past few years, and the fatal shooting in Exarchia is just one of many examples.
The ensuing escalation of violence reminds many older Greeks of the civil war period between 1946 and 1949. And it actually looks like civil war: Young people form mobs on streets and squares, or under the protection of mass demonstrations, and they throw stones, bottles and pieces of wood at advancing police. Small groups of marauding hooligans, including children, march through the busy shopping districts. Armed with hammers and steel pipes, they smash shop fronts and car windows, and set vehicles and barricades on fire. The darker the night, the more violent the rioting.
'We Are all Responsible'
Shocked by the furious reaction to the deadly shooting by one of their colleagues, the police have shown restraint this time or responded with teargas. And when the special units with helmets and shields advance on the protesters, the demonstrators quickly retreat through dark side streets, usually to the campus of the Polytechnic.
The atmosphere on campus resembles an open-air festival. Behind the barricaded entrances and banners with slogans, huge bonfires burn brightly and hard rock booms throughout the mild nights. There is plenty of beer, and afterwards the bottles rain down on police who venture too close to the university. The rioters are virtually unassailable there. After the deadly experience with the military in 1973, the university is off limits for the police -- an anarchistic paradise. And a surprisingly large number of Greeks see this as a good thing.
Petros Markaris is sitting in his armchair and he is outraged -- but not because of the destruction. The 71-year-old author, whose novels describe the underlying reasons why young people are rioting in Greece, says he could see these protests coming. "We are all responsible for this outbreak of violence," he says, "because we cultivated it ourselves."
Then he vents his anger, a deep-seated resentment that his country produces an endless series of scandals, and that "corrupt cliques" in politics, the church, associations and trade unions are free to skim off the top as they see fit. He says that no one from the two dominant political camps -- neither the center-right conservatives nor the socialists, both of whom are dominated by family clans -- will allow young people to take their place in society. Today's Greece stifles all initiative.
"German tourists love us for the Acropolis and our history," says the writer, "but the days when Greece was an advanced civilization are long gone."