Greece in turmoil: riots and politics

About the author

Kostas Gemenis is a political scientist, assistant professor of research methods at the University of Twente and member of the Choose4Greece research team.

The current situation in Greece, where days of riots followed the shooting on 6 December 2008 by a policeman of a young student, is messy and confusing. A general strike on 10 December in protest at the government's economic policies - even though the turnout of demonstrators was far smaller than organisers hoped - reinforces the sense of social division and dysfunctional governance. The riots belong to a larger historical and political pattern, which can help to explain or at least clarify them.

The shooting of the teenager by the policeman was the culmination of a series of incidents. Amnesty International and the Greek Helsinki Monitor are among the organisations that have consistently reported blatant human-rights abuses by the Greek police. Unlike other incidents, however, the shooting received both extensive reporting in and near-universal condemnation by the media. This can be explained by the fact that the victim was not a rowdy and perhaps hairy university student who might have been depicted as "asking for it", nor an immigrant for whom no one seems to care.

Kostas Gemenis is a doctoral student at Keele University, researching in the field of comparative politics. His academic website is here

Alexandros Grigoropoulos was a 15-year-old from a well-to-do family who lived in one of the most affluent areas of Athens and attended an expensive and prestigious private school. He was no delinquent and had no past history of anti-social behaviour. His crime seems to have been that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His young age and unjustifiable death reinforced the feeling of injustice at the hands of the police and guaranteed a widespread emotional reaction.

The people who took the streets as a reaction to the shooting fall into two distinct categories.

First, there are the (primarily secondary-school) students who have protested, mostly peacefully, in marches and rallies. In some circumstances, students marched towards police stations where they hurled stones, paint or plastic bottles; behaviour that can be construed as understandable or even expectable given the turn of the events. In fact, there has been a lot of research on the willingness of young people to demonstrate or otherwise engage in protest activities. This trend is not unique to Greece and can be considered as an alternative way of political participation (see, for example, Pippa Norris, "Political activism: new challenges, new opportunities", in C Boix & S Stokes (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics [Oxford University Press, 2007]).

Also in openDemocracy:

Chronis Polychroniou, "Greece: the political ecology of disaster" (28 August 2007)

Second, there are the groups of hooded self-styled anarchists who drive the rioting through the torching of cars and businesses. They are better organised than the aforementioned university and secondary-school students. This is revealed by the fact that, whereas it took almost a day for the students to organise through emails and sms messages, the anarchists' response to the shooting was almost immediate.

A radical history

The history of these organised and violent groups goes back to the 1970s. The events at the Technical University of Athens in November of 1973 - when the military junta's forces brutally suppressed a student occupation, a key event that contributed to its own fall the next year - produced a new generation of political intellectuals, only a fraction of whom were subsequently accommodated by the establishment political parties that appeared in the post-dictatorship period.

The rest, unsatisfied with the course of liberal democracy in Greece, channelled their attempts to achieve revolutionary change through a considerable number of groups that began to appear between 1974 and 1976. The most notorious, "17 November" - "Europe's last red terrorists", in the words of the scholar George Kassimeris - specialised in high profile assassinations of ministers, industrialists and Nato officers; but most of the other groups managed to sustain their presence over the next decades through low-intensity urban warfare that routinely involved the occasional torching of public buildings and banks as well as regular clashes with the riot police (see George Kassimeris, "Junta by another name? The 1974 Metapolitefsi and the Greek extra-parliamentary Left", Journal of Contemporary History [40/2005]).

True, in itself this does not explain why these groups managed to stay active all these years. A part of the answer to this question lies in the way that these organisations have been tolerated, even romanticised, or at least not explicitly condemned, by influential journalists as well as politicians of establishment parties. A further part is owed to the way that the post-1974 Greek constitution has provided these groups with some convenient opportunity structures (the banning of police from entering universities, for example, whose justification as a way of underwriting academic freedom has been used to turn universities into havens of militant extremists).

A comparative void

It is regrettable that most of the commentaries in the Greek and international press have failed to consider the nuanced character of the recent events and to distinguish the motives and actions of the hooded rioters from those of legitimate protesters. The commentaries often draw unqualified parallels between the events in Greece and (for example) Paris 1968, the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the incidents in the French banlieues in 2005 - and indeed Athens 1973 itself. These parallels are, to my view, unwarranted.

The riots in Greece have little to do with economic inequality or race and immigration (compared to Los Angeles or France). Moreover, it is unlikely that the riots will drive social change (as in Paris '68). The hooded rioters are ideologically motivated, and their choice of targets (banks, public buildings and other symbols of wealth and prosperity) testifies that their aim is to create havoc without bothering to propose an alternative plan for governance.

Moreover, apart from the protesting students and the rioting self-styled anarchists no other segments of Greek society have been involved in the incidents. This contrasts with Los Angeles where the riots involved race-based or communalist militias, or otherwise escalated into fighting between criminal gangs whose members took the opportunity to settle their differences. The fears of some commentators notwithstanding, the shooting of the teenager in Athens has not turned into a flag of convenience for disparate social groups (pensioners, farmers, workers, immigrants) who have grievances against the government.

A failure of state

Who is most to blame? The governments of Greece - in the entire period since 1974 - hold collective responsibility for failing to reform the police and the educational system. The police personnel remain ill trained, and their appointment and promotion are based on political whim and clientelism rather than transparency and merit. The educational system is stuck in archaic modes and practices that breed intolerance and disfavour freethinking, while giving succour to violence-inclined political minorities. In addition, certain media, politicians and public intellectuals have long romanticised violence and Greek governments long indulged it.

The current government, however, is most immediately responsible for allowing the riots to get out of proportion and spread all over Greece. The initial humility of two ministers who submitted their resignations and issued what sounded like a public apology for the shooting was surprising. It soon became clear, however, that the government was extremely reluctant to confront the rioters. In the past it has shown no such reluctance in confronting legitimate student demonstrators, so why this attitude now?

The main reason seems to be political. A major corruption scandal and the overall economic slowdown find the centre-right government - already constrained by a slim majority in parliament - trailing behind the opposition in the most recent opinion polls. The government, faced with the riots and fearing a general backlash against its policies, decided not to further risk its reputation by challenging the rioters head on. Instead, it tried in vain to entertain the fears of bystanders that it would allow the hooded rioters to "let off steam" by torching cars and buildings. This attempt to save face by a weak government leaves the impression that the Greek state has failed to protect citizens against groups whose only agenda is violence and chaos.