In November 1973, thousands of Greek students occupied one of the largest universities of Athens, the National Polytechnic, demanding the end of the military dictatorship which had started in 1967. The voice of the young students, “the free, fighting Greeks” as the DIY radio station of the occupation repeatedly called them, a voice that is still in the memory of every European democrat following politics at the time, was silenced in the early hours of November 17 when a tank from the military junta crashed through the gates of the university.
The official number of casualties that night was 24. Yet despite the suppression of the uprising, the arrests, the persecutions and the tortures that followed, the junta ended a few months later in July 1974. With the transition to democracy, November 17 is commemorated as a reminder of these struggles.
Fast-forward 45 years later to November 11, 2019 – 200 young Greeks facing the formidable Greek riot police inside the Economic University of Athens are chanting “the dictatorship didn’t end in ‘73”. A huge mobilization follows, with demonstrations and the occupation of over 20 university departments all over Greece, signalling the revival of a student movement which had subsided under the previous government, despite the externally-imposed austerity and the economic hardships of the country in previous years.
What prompted this cycle of occupations is the violation of “university asylum”, the legal protection of freedom of expression within universities that has been in place since 1982. Contrary to a wave of misinformation by the current government, police intervention in cases of criminal activity is still possible even with the asylum legislation, though only after the expressed permission of the university authorities.
Their excuse for shutting down the Economic University for a week in November was based on a search in the University, thought to be the base of anarchist groups, which revealed nothing more than a few empty bottles and motorbike helmets stashed in some basement. The reality is that Greece’s new government fears a revival of the student movement.
Greece’s new government fears a revival of the student movement.
University asylum is, legally and symbolically, the attempt to prevent the submission of universities to state power, especially authoritarian state power. The type of state power that the Kyriakos Mitsotakis government uses is raw, unapologetic and unaccountable, aiming to silence any dissenting voice. This explains the statement of a minister with well-known far-right sympathies that law enforcement necessarily contains “elements of coercion”. In other words, police brutality and oppression, which come as no surprise.
Mitsotakis’s New Democracy government returns with a vengeance after four and a half years of a Syriza government that had disturbed the exclusivity of power by the right and far-right in Greece. Kyriakos is the son of Konstadinos Mitsotakes, Greek Prime Minister between 1990 and 1993. The rest of the family who are all involved in the family business, are part of a circle of power which has been implicated in a series of scandals over embezzlement, mismanagement of public resources, tax evasion and more, which brought Greece to the financial cliff-edge and “invited” the lending agreements with the EU in 2010.
Ironically – some might say tragically – it is the same dynasty, now with extra strength after the incorporation of the far right, that is today in a position not only to continue the neoliberal agenda that had devastating effects for the country, but also to implement a social policy fit for any authoritarian society. The case is unfortunately far from unique, rather similar to the trajectory of many European societies, including the authoritarian shift in both the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and the Republican Party in the USA.
Authoritarianism begins with education
Their authoritarian vision starts with education, an education promoted by the Minister of Education Niki Kerameos, based on religiosity, nationalism and hatred towards anyone different. The younger generation is their target: the elimination of any dissenting sentiment their aim. Through “education” or through coercion they are determined to reach their aim, indifferent to the casualties that only by pure luck we have not yet started counting. If this sounds like an exaggeration I will only mention the vicious attacks by riot police on Iakovos Koumis and Stamatina Kannelopoulou at the November 17 demonstration in 1980, which led to their deaths. The violent behaviour of the police has regularly occurred around the November 17 anniversary in the years since then.
The authoritarian vision of the new government last week (as the commemoration of November 17 approached) had been put into practice on other occasions this month: a club was raided by police in a popular area of Athens and reportedly 300 revellers were ordered to kneel on the floor with their hands on their heads for hours while being searched. Although the police alleged it was a drug control exercise, the insignificant amounts found suggest otherwise. Members of the right-wing government also participated in a pork-barbecue in front of a refugee camp, hoping to intimidate the Muslim community. And cases of sexual harassment against female passers-by by police forces at Exarcheia have been reported by another member of parliament. The list goes on…
The Mitsotakis government, which has been hailed as a “return to normality” and as ”moderate” by international commentators keen to back its neoliberal agenda, is anything but.
It seems that the Mitsotakis government, which has been hailed as a “return to normality” and as ”moderate” by international commentators keen to back its neoliberal agenda, is anything but. Rather it has incorporated the far-right elements of Greek politics and is now moving to a pre-emptive strike against the dissenting youth and anyone who does not fit in the middle-age mentality of the government. The only protection against their illiberal, autocratic vision is memory.
Individuals forget, nations forget and in many cases this forgetting is a coping mechanism when trauma is involved. Maybe this is what happened when in July 2019 a big chunk of the Greek population voted for the right-wing (and far-right) New Democracy. The other explanation would be much worse: it would mean that almost 40% of those who voted (who were 58% of those eligible to vote) endorse one of the parties which in the past has brought the country to its knees economically and to the dark-ages politically.