Perhaps the most challenging domestic security issue facing Greece today is the presence and emboldening of violent far-right militias and gangs. Incidents of far-right violence in Greece saw a steady ascent in the 2000s, overwhelmingly targeting immigrants but also leftists and anarchists. By 2009, far-right platoons of thirty to forty men dressed in black and armed with sticks had established a regular presence patrolling immigrant-dense neighbourhoods of Athens, unchallenged by the police, intimidating local shopkeepers and residents and engaging in violent assaults against immigrants and their property. Other attacks on immigrants and their property (from the fire-bombings of places of residence and worship to beatings and stabbings), and violent assaults against leftists and anarchists, have been carried out by smaller groups of vigilantes, who are often also reportedly black-clad.
Since 2009, Greece has seen what NGOs have characterised as the steepest ascent in racist violence in Europe. Within only the first six months of 2011, NGOs in Athens claimed to have treated at least 500 victims of racist attacks, and over 200 racist attacks were additionally recorded between October 2011 and December 2012 by a network of NGOs headed by the UNHCR. In late 2012, the UNHCR characterised the level of racist violence as ‘alarming’, whilst the US Embassy in Athens went so far as to warn US citizens residing in or travelling to Greece of a heightened risk of attack for those whose complexion might lead them to be perceived as foreign migrants.
Behind the platoons and the smaller groups carrying out far-right attacks is alleged to be the political party Chrysi Avyi (‘Golden Dawn’), an extreme nationalist movement that entered parliament for the first time in 2012, with 6.9 percent of the vote and eighteen MPs. The party, whose members dress in black, uses language and imagery redolent of Nazism, and is openly sceptical about parliamentary democracy, as well as being vocally racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, and virulently opposed to those on the left of the political spectrum.
To date, however, although the party has sought in different ways to build upon its association with violence – such as by taking a fully supportive stance towards the actions of the party’s spokesman after he physically assaulted two female left-wing politicians on live television, and by using footage of participation by its MPs and other party members in coordinated attacks on the market stalls of immigrant traders for publicity purposes – the party has commonly denied responsibility for the many organised assaults causing serious bodily harm that have been perpetrated by typically black-clad groups of vigilantes.
There has been longstanding campaigning by human rights organisations to see the existence of organised far-right violence in Greece recognised and treated by the state as a menace to the security of individuals, as well as to public order more generally. Yet successive centrist governments have tended to refute or downplay the issue.
As recently as December 2010, officials and prosecutors from the Ministry for Citizen Protection rejected the notion that racist and xenophobic violence was a serious or growing problem to representatives of the NGO Human Rights Watch.
Whether in terms of organised far-right violence as such, or racist violence in particular, the Greek state has long failed to monitor, record, prosecute, effectively punish perpetrators and appropriately compensate victims. For a full thirty years, for example, not a single published legal judgment applied Law 972/1979, which provides for ‘the punishment of acts or conducts aimed at racial discrimination’ (the first known application of the law in criminal courts took place in 2010). It was only following sustained pressure by NGOs and the media over the course of 2012, resulting in international publicity spotlighting far-right violence, that the Greek state finally announced in January 2013 the appointment of a special prosecutor to address racist crimes and the establishment of police units to monitor racist violence.
Alongside this development, however, the government has maintained a regressive agenda against immigrants, including through the use of intense police operations and by suspending citizenship applications from children over the age of six who were born in Greece of immigrant parents.
Even now, moreover, there has been no hint of prospective state action against the broader category of far-right violence. Assaults by far-right groups against homosexuals and leftists remain unmonitored by the state, for instance, and the organised nature of far-right violence is not subject to particular scrutiny by law enforcement.
Despite the established presence of violent far-right groups repeatedly associated with brutal attacks on Greeks and foreigners in the country, the Greek state does not acknowledge the existence of violent far-right organisations in its monitoring of political violence. Unlike many of its European counterparts, for example, Greece has not notified EUROPOL of attacks by extremist far-right groups on its territory.
This omission has had a significant impact in distorting analysis of, and responses to, the terrain of political violence in Greece. Official policy and practice, as well as scholarly analysis, has focused almost uniquely upon the actions of violent far-left and anarchist groups. Similar to the experience of other states in western Europe, the vast majority of recorded incidents of violence perpetrated by far-left and anarchist groups in Greece since the 1970s have involved the use of explosives against symbolic targets, causing few casualties or fatalities. According to official records, the number of such attacks rose from 13 in 2008, to 15 in 2009, and 20 in 2010, but fell over the course of 2010 and 2011, when only 6 attacks were recorded.
Nevertheless, mainstream political discourse in Greece has increasingly resounded with demands that the threat posed by violent far-left and anarchist groups be equated with that from far-right extremists, whilst rising xenophobia amongst the public has supported the impunity tacitly accorded by the state to far-right violence.
This piece was originally published by the Extremis project. For further analysis, see Sappho Xenakis, ‘A New Dawn? Change and Continuity in Political Violence in Greece’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2012), 437-464; Sappho Xenakis and Leonidas Cheliotis, ‘Spaces of Contestation: Challenges, Actors and Expertise in the Management of Urban Security in Greece’, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2013, forthcoming).