With the Greek government again about to run out of money at the end of the month, unless another bailout is forthcoming, Merkel’s visit to Athens today was a high profile event for the Greek government. Merkel is even less well liked in Greece as the Tories are in Scotland, and there are of course similiarities. Like Scotland, Greece is notionally a part of an economic area in which it is a full constitituent partner, but at the same it is recognised that some are more equal than others, and like Scotland, despite a level of political independence, the fiscal situation has led to massive cuts being imposed on its services against the wishes of its population.
Seven thousand riot police accompanied by army snipers were positioned on the streets of Athens, in anticipation of the protests that would greet her arrival. A variety of different rallies were called by students, political parties and trade unions at a variety of locations across the city, to march to Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament where she would be received by the Greek prime minister.
There is real anger in Greece at what has happened to their country – with the troika of the IMF, ECB and the European Commission blamed for the destruction at its heart, however as the powerhouse of the EU, and a key decision maker in the terms of bailout funds, Germany and Merkel as its representative is particularly blamed. Yet there is also another dimenstion to such anti-German sentiment, as the recipient of much of the Greek government’s extensive military spending. Strikes had been called by a variety of trade unions, and beyond that, many businesses in central athens, particularly banks and large companies closed their doors for the afternoon, pulling down the solid steel shutters they used to protect their capital from citizen’s ire.
The hard steel of the shutters accompanied by groups of police armed with handguns and teargas dispensers strategically positioned down sideroads, gave Athens an eerie feel as on the main roads people gathered, chatting and greeting one another. From young men and women dressed in casual clothes, to middle aged protesters in office wear and the uniforms of their trade, to elderly citizens sat on the kerbs and benches awaiting the start of the protest the whole of Athens was represented.
Attending one of the many rallies called by the Greek trade union, PAME, protesters had gathered in sidestreets off the main Omonia square, assembling in small groups under individual handpainted banners signifying their opposition to the austerity measures wreaking the Greek economy and its citizens’ standards of living, as homelessness has increased by 20, 000 and wages declined by a quarter. Approaching Syntagma, the sheer number of people on the streets was stunning with a reported 50,000 protesters, approximately a quarter of the population of the Athens metro area on the streets. The street in front of the parliament was packed with protesters carrying banners as were each of the roads surrounding the square, which itself was a heaving mass of people. Good natured, yet noisy and with a visible undercurrent of anger people gathered as far as the eye could see.
The mood changed after large bangs could be heard to the left of the parliament building and smoke could be seen rising. My initial thought that it was (harmless) smokebombs set off by protesters proved erroneous, as people came back stumbling through the crowd, sneezing and coughing and with streaming eyes. As people poured water into their eyes to counter act the effects of the teargas which had been released, others put on the gasmasks and dustmasks that they had brought with them, those without covering their faces with scarfs and handkerchiefs and smearing on the mallox which stopped the stinging on the skin. Those with more heavy duty gasmasks stood their ground, while the majority pulled back in anticipation of futher violence.
Suddenly and without warning the crowd started to run and I could feel stinging in the back of my throat, the bangs of teargas cannisters being released were becoming more frequent and the cloud of gas was coming nearer. In the main square people reassembled, with only the diehards remaining in front of the parliament building. Yet within a short space of time, more teargas was released directly into the square, from police standing on the left sideroad, this time there was little time to escape quickly and people ran back with burning skin and reddening eyes. Bins were set alight in teh square and the leaflets which had been being given out were used as fuel to generate smoke which neutralised the gas in the air, making it safer for people to re-enter.
I heard the crowd on the sideroad start to scream at the police and throw missiles towards them as a man with a headwound was rescued from between them and carried to safety where streetmedics in gasmasks and hardhats tended to him. In the square, men and women threw rocks at the police on the sideroad, advancing then retreating as the police looked as if they would move in. Then suddenly teargas was again released into the square, as people ran the medics packed up quickly and helping the injured man out of the line of the advancing police. In front of the parliament, protesters were still holding their ground although later reports show a police baton charge aimed at those remaining as the square was cleared. Syntagma looked like a warzone, with the militarised looking police stomping across an empty square covered in the gassy fog.
The majority of the protesters were driven down the sidestreets off Syntagma, seperated into smaller sections. The police advanced, teargas dispensers at the ready, in small movements before stopping to hold a line. Protesters threw whatever was at hand to them to get them to retreat and setting bins alight to try to stop teargas being used to further push the crowd back. On one such advance, I turned down a side street only to run headlong into an advancing troop of police fully kitted out in gasmasks and with teargas cannisters drawn, and saw more police arriving from other directions where they had been stationed. The fear among those who were in that road was palpable as more and more police descended and it was unclear in direction safety lay.
Turning down another sidestreet a surreal sight met my eyes, so surreal that if I didn’t have the pictures that I took of the time, I would have thought that I imagined it. Around 150 men in military fatigues were marching down one of the parallel streets chanting. Not understanding Greek, at first I thought they were the Greek army, but on closer inspection among the group were those with T-shirts bearing the emblem of Chysti Avgi – the Golden Dawn, a similar emblem was visible on patches on the arms of those in combat gear. I turned back quickly.
Moving down sidestreets, I managed to get back to a position where I could see Syntagma. There were still some people in the square and there appeared in the distance still to be people in front of the parliament building, but on trying to move closer to get a better look, the familiar stinging in my throat started and I was forced back away from the area, joining others fleeing, coughing and spluttering and blindly walking into one another.
Interestingly there was no call put out for today from the anarchists, who had taken the position that a protest again Merkel was not appropriate as it fed into a Greek nationalism which they considered the main threat to the radical narrative. They regard the main threats to be challenged are internal – fascism in the parliament, fascism in the justice system and fascism on the streets. Certainly on talking to people, it would seem that there is a rise in specifically anti-German sentiment, and a feeling that Greece is being specifically targetted as the cause of Europe’s woes and made into a scapegoat for larger political issues. While there is no denying that Germany in particular holds a great deal of power over Greece – why else would it be awarding them the large military contracts while its population goes hungry – I can understand the anarchist view that it is internal issues which need sorting first and the wariness that they have of feeding a nationalistic approach to resolving the situation.
And there are significant internal issues. It is stunning that such severe police repression including the use of chemical weapons can be used on a peaceful civilian population, stunning that an openly fascist political party can command such popular support and that those opposing fascist attacks on immigrant gathering places can be tortured in police stations.
Merkel today made encouraging noises about the potential for a further bailout. But as with all previous bailouts it is a temporary solution and one which continues to see Greece hanging on a string at the mercy of the troika and their benevolence, instructed that they must behave or their life-support machine will be switched off. But as the chant today went, history is written by the disobedient, and the continuation of a programme which is bringing misery to the population and the re-establishment of fascism within Europe as an acceptable political doctrine is unthinkable.