Athens Plus (plus one)

It is a happy coincidence that our newspaper’s first anniversary is a tiny footnote in the great event that is the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum. We knew, about a year ago, that the museum would be opening and that this would be a great addition to our city. What we did not know when we published our first edition was that this would be a year in which the whole world, too, would change. The economic crisis – the worst since 1930 – hit every country and every economy. Greece, with its own serious problems, was no exception. So Athens Plus took its first steps at a time when the ground was shaking.

For Greece, even more interesting times were to follow. In December, Athens and other major cities provided the stage for a dramatic new production of our frequent ritual of street violence. This time, the spark was a police officer’s shooting and killing of a teenager in Exarchia, a district of central Athens long given over to self-proclaimed anarchists and a meeting place for would-be revolutionaries. The cause was serious enough, but the response was a combination of inexplicable rage among protesting youths and inconceivable incompetence on the part of the government – which ordered police to keep out of the way of the protesters. For several days, protesters burned, vandalized and looted at will, creating a climate of insecurity that the government paid for dearly several months later in European parliamentary elections on June 7. By that time, another festering problem – that of illegal immigrants left to their own devices in central Athens – along with December’s breakdown of law and order, directed votes to the extreme right-wing LAOS party. Greece’s political scene now features an injured New Democracy party with a one-seat majority in Parliament; PASOK won the European Parliament poll but with fewer votes than in past elections (which would not be sufficient for a parliamentary majority in national elections); the leftist parties also lost votes; only the extreme right populists showed gains.

The country now finds itself in a deadlock. The economy, education sector, health and social security systems are desperately in need of reforms. But the government, even when it was stronger, showed no great desire to confront any group of organized voters. Now it is burdened by its razor thin majority, its poor showing in the European Parliament poll and by a series of scandals (the Vatopedi Monastery landswap that harmed state interests, the incompetence over the Siemens bribery investigation, former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis’s alleged bribe-taking). So we can expect even less desire for change.

The worsening debt and lack of competitiveness in the economy, along with all the social and political problems, can only get worse if they are not tackled head on. We are in for a rough time – which makes newspapers even more necessary. Let’s hope this time next year things will be better for all. Meanwhile, see you next Friday.

Milestones & Footnotes in AthensPlus, 19 June, 2009

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A template for violence

The images were familiar and yet imbued with a new sense of dread: masked youths were rampaging through the center of Athens, overturning cars, smashing store fronts and clashing with police. This is something we see frequently, whenever self-styled anarchists attach themselves to a demonstration; during the uprising of last December this had become a daily sight. On this occasion, though, the protagonists of this particular outburst of violence were not members of the pampered self-declared fringe of our society but the real outcasts: Muslim youths. This time it was as if an old ritual to which we have all become accustomed had been taken over by new players, who invested the roles with new violence and new urgency.

The protest last Friday was sparked by allegations that a police officer had damaged part of a Quran belonging to a Syrian immigrant during a routine search. Dozens of cars and motorcycles (75, reports said) were damaged, a dozen storefronts were broken and 46 immigrants were arrested. The violence shocked leaders of the Muslim community in Athens, who have watched impotently as the government and state ignore them and repeatedly renege on promises to build a mosque and establish a Muslim cemetery. Now, as in all revolts, angry youths are pushing aside their more cautious and conciliatory elders, aching for a confrontation to express their rage.

What many feared during the events of December is now becoming part of our reality. Immigrants who saw the burning and looting of Athens by the disenchanted Greek youths got the message that this was how anger is expressed in Greece: by rampaging through the city and causing mayhem. They also saw that no one was hurt and no one was arrested, despite the extensive damage done to public and private property. So, when the time came for them to express their own rage, they donned masks, tore up sidewalks, destroyed property and clashed with police. Violence had now come full circle: Greek youths like to see themselves as heroes of an intifada, but now they were relegated to bystander status as the people who are indeed disenfranchised and have real reasons to vent anger had taken over the streets of Athens. They took over the ritual of the natives.

This time, however, everyone realizes that the theatricals have become menacingly real. Motorcycle police rushed to the scene of destruction on one Athens street, jumping off their bikes and grabbing at violent demonstrators. We had seen no such eagerness to confront violence perpetrated by Greek protesters. The Muslims’ protests could turn deadly serious, with international repercussions if the Quran issue is not resolved amicably. But, at the same time, the government’s lack of focus on the problems of immigrants in rundown parts of Athens has led to a rise in xenophobia and right-wing vigilantism. Police in the Aghiou Meletiou district do not know how to handle the rising tension between residents and immigrants. The only point of reference people appear to have is the template for violent confrontation. No one seems to know how to defuse the tension – once again, the problem is left to society and the police to resolve. Every day that passes without a specific policy makes a dangerous situation explosive as acts by each side stoke anger and reaction in the other.

Milestones& Footnotes, Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009

Spies like us

There is something quaint in our passionate sensitivity to personal privacy, which comes across as a mixture of uncompromising democratic sensibilities and an inexplicable guilt complex. The queasiness over allowing Google’s Street View cameras to roam among us fits neatly into this paradigm: We don’t want strangers following us about in our daily lives, just as we don’t want any satellite images of our homes and property to be made available to government agencies and other prying eyes. In the first case, it is completely natural to want to keep our movements private, even though our culture prizes few things as highly as knowing someone else’s business and in bragging about what we do. So how many secrets can we have? In the second case, the only way that forestry and town-planning agencies can keep check on illegal building is through aerial or satellite photos. Making these available easily and at no cost will only cause trouble for the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who keep pushing back the boundaries of their property and the law. So the sooner these are brought into action the better.

It is easy to explain a sense of unease at prying eyes because, throughout their modern history, Greeks were under the thumb of an authoritarian right-wing establishment, with the police running networks of spies ranging from apartment block doormen to journalists to bureaucrats and politicians. The military dictatorship of 1967-74, with its jailings, torture and forced internal exile for thousands of left-wing activists and others was the apotheosis of this system and, with its collapse, its death rattle. Since 1974, Greeks have guarded their privacy with missionary zeal. Leftist, extreme left-wing parties and anarchist groups see themselves as sleepless guardians against the return of any semblance of authoritarianism. These groups are at the forefront of smashing surveillance cameras in public spaces, including those dedicated to traffic control.

The theory is fine: Cameras – and those behind them – have no business prying on our private lives. In practice, though, the blanket opposition to cameras in public places results in our throwing away one of the principal weapons available for the public’s safety. Closed-circuit television systems may not be able to prevent a suicide terrorist attack in a public place, but they are definitely a help in containing normal crime in places where it is impossible to have a permanent police presence, such as on every platform of every subway station and desolate parking lots. In every major city, including Athens, CCTV systems help to maintain security across a wide subway network.

If we can accept security cameras in our metro system, why can’t we accept them in our streets? Is it because until now we have not been plagued by the kind of violent crime that other cities have had to deal with? If we were to try out electronic surveillance systems in the depressed parts of the city center that have now been abandoned to street criminals, and the measure helped increase safety, would people change their minds? Would putting such a lid on crime be worse than allowing neo-fascist groups to exploit public fears at the presence of illegal immigrants?

These questions need to be answered. Greece spent 250 million euros on electronic surveillance equipment in preparation for the 2004 Olympics, which the state privacy watchdog then pulled the plug on. It is incomprehensible that the government, state agencies and political and civic organizations cannot come to a modus vivendi regarding the best possible compromise between privacy and security. Citizens, too, must be consulted in the debate between the need to safeguard privacy and the need to maintain security on our streets and stop the tradition of land-grabbing in the countryside. Cameras are valuable weapons, as long as they are used correctly.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009

A sinister turn in our immigration problems

In the last few weeks, Athens took a serious fall down the slippery slope of xenophobia and intolerance. Not that it was unexpected: For over a year, anyone who cared about the capital city and its center – as well as anyone who cared about the fate of illegal immigrants – warned that abandoning migrants to their own devices would lead to trouble. And so, last Saturday, members of the extreme right-wing Chryssi Avgi group (Golden Dawn) gathered to hurl abuse and objects at migrants squatting in the former appeals court building on Socratous Street, a block away from Omonia Square. Chryssi Avgi has been around a lot longer than the immigrants and its members need no excuse for vile and violent outbursts. But the immigration problem has become so serious that we run the risk of Chryssi Avgi’s message of hatred gaining a foothold in the mainstream.

Of course racists are not the only vocal citizens. At the same time that Chryssi Avgi was demanding the expulsion of migrants, extreme left-wing and migrant support groups were staging a counter-demonstration – with the police keeping the two sides away from each other. But it is hardly comforting that the “antidote” to the skinheads should be streetfighting gangs from the other end of the political spectrum. We have repeatedly seen what happens when a state is so weakened and its extremists so self-confident that left and right are locked in civil war. The almost daily shootings and occasional massacres in Turkey in the 1970s – as a variety of leftist and rightist groupings fought each other – is a chilling reminder of how easily things can spin out of control.
Greece has been a member of the European Union for nearly 30 years now and runs no danger of collapsing into civil war – but the economic crisis and growing number of desperate migrants will push society to the brink. Some places are already affected worse than others; the most acutely affected part of Greece is the center of the capital, especially around Omonia Square and in the nearby working-class district of Aghios Panteleimonas. There are many factors which have contributed to this state of affairs, but the government must shoulder the greatest blame for having allowed the problem of illegal immigration to fester.

A serious policy would have allowed long-term migrants to be absorbed into Greek society while keeping control over new arrivals through registration and the provision of food and lodging until they either received asylum, were absorbed into the work force through a need for labor or were deported. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have been abandoned to their own devices in a society woefully unequipped to deal with them. The fact that hardworking, law-abiding migrants have been denied rights creates a gray area ideal for new arrivals and people prone to crime into which they can slip. In limbo, migrants fall victim to exploitation by unscrupulous Greeks and fellow migrants – from slumlords to ethnic gangsters.

The old appeals court building (the former Ambassador Hotel) was already a monument to squalor during its years as a court. Its abandonment is a metaphor of the collapse of the capital’s center – to the detriment of the area and its citizens (Greeks and immigrants).

It is now obvious to all that ignoring the problem will not make it to go away. In the past, the lack of a future in Greece forced migrants to keep moving westward. Now that the future in other EU countries no longer looks any rosier, many have been forced to stay here. The government is scrambling to forge a policy and is appealing to its EU partners for help. But, in addition to trying to stop migrants at sea or at the border, it is imperative that a comprehensive policy be adopted to deal with those who are now part of us, to provide asylum to those who need it and to arrange the safe return to their home country for those who have no future here. The problem is too dangerous for further excuses to do nothing.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 15 May 2009

Math delusion

Easter is over, but the government is still tottering under the burden of a cross formed by the scandals that it must handle, the economy’s death spiral and the fact that it has a one-seat majority in Parliament. But even as the nation – both audience and protagonist in this sad act – is consumed by the spectacle, the dark clouds gathering above its head are a far more serious threat than Costas Karamanlis’s Calvary.
The clouds come in the form of numbers – merciless economic data from which there can be no escape, where faith in resurrection will not suffice. The country is in very serious trouble. On Wednesday alone, a host of economic figures showed how deep a hole we have dug ourselves into. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical service, confirmed that Greece’s 2008 budget deficit was 5 percent, way above the government’s figure of 3.7 percent – which was already above the eurozone’s 3-percent excessive deficit threshold. Also, the International Monetary Fund announced that it expects Greece’s gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by 0.2 percent this year and a further 0.6 percent in 2010; unemployment is expected to rise from 7.6 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2009, to 10.5 percent 2010 – which means 143,000 more people unemployed. At the same time, the Bank of Greece announced that receipts from tourism in the first two months of the year were down 20.2 percent from the previous year. These are the most official figures we have had so far, with tourism sector officials estimating that visits and revenues may drop between 10 and 20 percent this year. Also, receipts from shipping fell by 25 percent in January-February. As tourism accounts for about 18 percent of GDP and employs one in five workers, we can imagine what a 10-20 percent drop means. At the same time, the government’s loan-servicing expenditures rocketed from 33.1 million euros last year to 527.2 million in January and February.
As a measure of how big these figures are, the government’s desperate one-off extra tax levied on people earning more than 60,000 euros annually and the freeze on civil service salaries is expected to net under 300 million euros. So the question is very simple: With our deficits and debt greater than expected, with our loan requirements and expenses growing, with fewer people in our work force and with fewer revenues from tourism, shipping and taxes, how on earth are we going to meet our financial obligations as a country?
This is not a philosophical question; it’s a matter of simple math. Thinking that we can carry on as we have so far – with strikes shutting down our ancient sites and museums, with youths burning the city center as a rite of passage, with various closed-shop professions feeding off  the efforts of others – will only drive tourists away and lead to a brain drain, cutting our productivity and revenues even further. Thinking that we can just ride out this storm is a mass delusion of national proportions.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009

Cutlasses into ploughs

(This is from November 2008. I pulled it out of the drawer because of the recent intensification in piracy, including the capture of an American captain by Somali pirates)

The hijacking of a supertanker by pirates hundreds of miles off Kenya earlier this month has thrown the spotlight on a phenomenon that had been growing in recent years but to which few had paid much attention. After nearly 200 years of law and order in marine transportation, the rise of piracy appears to be something of an anomaly. But history shows that piracy – the plundering of merchant vessels and the ransoming of their crew and passengers – has always posed a threat to shipping. Piracy flourishes when there is no strong empire that can rule the seas or when a country does not have a government capable of securing the well-being of its people or of maintaining order. In Somalia today there is no credible central government; no one is capable of – or interested in – maintaining order in the coastal areas. Anarchy and neglect push the people into ever greater desperation. Ambitious young men can choose between poverty and crime.

Pirates have a special place in the world’s folk tales and in the collective memory of people like ours, whose history, human geography and architecture has been shaped by piracy. (For example, for centuries no one could build settlements along our coast, for fear of pirates – unless the settlers were pirates themselves).

The oldest reference we have from a somewhat historical source is in Homer, where piracy is presented as the natural consequence of the collapse of the Cretan naval empire. After Minos, the Athenian empire and then Alexander the Great’s fleet maintained some kind of order. Political forces have always exploited pirates in order to harm the interests of their enemies.

We see this through antiquity right up to our recent past. In the Caribbean in the 17th century, for example, France and England encouraged pirate attacks on ships of their common enemy – Spain. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when Britain became the sole sovereign of the seas, was piracy stamped out.

Ancient Rome presents an especially interesting case. In the last years of the Republic – the 1st century BC – the Romans were undisputed masters of the land and showed little interest in policing the seas. But while they were involved in endless civil wars, piracy developed to such an extent that pirates would also carry out raids inland and more importantly, had also disrupted Rome’s food supply. With less wheat getting in, prices rose so much that fears of famine grew. That’s when – in 67 BC – the general Pompey was granted unprecedented absolute powers to raise a mighty army and fleet and stamp out piracy. The Roman elite was alarmed by the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man, but Julius Caesar, to further his own plans, pushed the people into demanding Pompey’s appointment. Such was the public’s faith in the great general that his appointment alone sufficed to bring down the price of wheat in Rome. In three months, through methodical and effective campaigning, Pompey had ended the pirates’ reign.

But the road toward supreme authority resting with one man had been opened. This would quickly lead to the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Caesar and then his adopted son Octavian, who was destined to become the Emperor Augustus, exploited this. Augustus later established an imperial fleet, which maintained order on the seas for nearly 300 years. When the empire weakened, the pirates took control of our region again for more than 1,400 years.

Today, the Somali pirates’ actions are leading to a rise in ships’ insurance premiums and the higher cost of shipping goods via longer routes. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. A multinational fleet of warships has assembled off the Horn of Africa. But however much naval forces may try, the only way to beat piracy is to promise Somalia a better future. The secret of Pompey’s success was that when he had captured 20,000 pirates he neither executed them nor did he release them so that they would go back to their old ways. What he did was give them land – and they settled down and became peace-loving farmers.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 November 2008

Chickens and eggs

There is sorry irony in the fact that Amnesty International accuses the Greek police of human rights violations and the use of excessive force against demonstrators and detainees, at a time when the state appears incapable of enforcing law and order anywhere. The sad thing is that Amnesty International is not exaggerating: Police and coast guard officers are often brutal when dealing with people who have fallen into their hands, whether they be violent demonstrators, crime suspects, passers-by or terrified illegal immigrants. The irony is that these strong-arm tactics do nothing to frighten the hooded youths who occupy university premises with impunity and rampage through Athens and Thessaloniki’s shopping districts at will; they do nothing to stop the rise in robberies and other forms of organized crime, which keep boring deeper into our daily lives and deepest fears.
Perhaps it is only to be expected that when officers are incapable of performing the task for which they were ostensibly hired and trained, they will take out their frustration on whoever falls into their clutches. Or is perhaps that the lack of discipline that makes officers brutal is also the reason for their incompetence? What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
But why should we be so hard on our police when all they do is reflect a much broader problem in society. Whether they be politicians, judges, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists, policemen, waiters or plumbers, too many of us do not do the jobs that we have undertaken – always expecting someone else to do better than us to set things right. We are experiencing system failure, where confusion of laws and responsibilities, incompetence at the personal and institutional level, a lack of accountability and the total absence of a vision for the future conspire to break the nation down into warring tribes with no purpose but to impose their will on everyone else.
We can see the steps that brought us to the slippery slope. But, gliding effortlessly in our decline, we can only guess where all this will stop. Which individuals, armed only with personal integrity and moral duty to society, will take it upon themselves to stand against the willful destruction, to try create a beachhead of civility on what has become an enemy shore?
Last weekend, the rector and other academic leaders of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University declared that the youths (including “hooded ones”) occupying university premises had a deadline of “Monday or Tuesday” to leave. On Saturday, in broad daylight, the youths rampaged through the city’s heart before returning unimpeded to their “asylum.” On Tuesday, at a much-anticipated debate that was expected to end the sit-in or lead to police being summoned to the campus, jeering protesters threw an egg at the rector. The meeting ended with university authorities pathetically promising to consider the protesters’ demands. The egg flew, the rector ran. But would the egg have flown if the hoodlums were not already sure that the chicken would fly?

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009

Society’s dangerous passivity

Nothing is more precious, nothing more precarious than peace. At this time, Greece is going through its most difficult phase since the restoration of democracy in 1974. The evidence of a breakdown of law and order is present everywhere, from the resurgence of domestic terrorism to a multitude of armed robberies taking place each week. The immediate cause of this is the collapse of police operations over the past few years. The underlying cause is the astonishing public apathy in the face of the mounting danger.
Northern Ireland knows very well the dangers and tragedy of a society consumed by violence. That’s why, straight after the murder of two soldiers and a policeman by rebel splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army, thousands of people gathered in silent protest in the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Lisburn and Downpatrick. Many such protests had taken place during the three decades of intercommunal strife that preceded the 1998 agreement that lead to peace. But whereas those protests expressed hope in their demand for peace, reports from Northern Ireland this week betrayed a sense of desperation among most people lest their hard-won peace be destroyed.
In Greece there is neither hope nor despair, only a deafening silence. True, our country is not in danger of sliding into intercommunal violence. But every day we are witness to how violence is becoming a part of our lives. Much of the blame lies on government and state authorities for allowing people to get away with breaking the law all the time: allowing cars to park wherever drivers choose; turning a blind eye to violence at sports events over many decades; being too timid to deal decisively with urban guerrillas or extremist political groups; allowing no-go areas such as Exarchia in Athens or the village of Zoniana in Crete; being incompetent or indifferent in dealing with common, everyday criminality. The effect has been that people feel they can commit crimes with impunity, whereas those who are outraged by the crimes know that they cannot seek recourse anywhere. This leads to increased brazenness of criminals and resignation among members of the law-abiding public.
Right now we are in a state of apathy, perhaps not understanding the threat that violence poses to our society. But if civil society does not press the government into action, things will get worse, creating a chain reaction of violence. Either the state will be forced to take strong, anti-democratic measures, vigilante groups will spring up or criminals will triumph.

If the people do not cherish peace, they will have a harder battle to restore it once it is gone. And not only our politicians, but our very society will shoulder the blame for the catastrophe.
Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009

The contagion of chaos

Perhaps the most alarming bit of news in the past few months – which were already frightening enough – was a report in last Sunday’s Kathimerini that the police have decided to reassemble their intelligence gathering capabilities in a bid to cope with the resurgence of domestic terrorism. “It is impossible for us to devote the resources needed to protect every possible target,” said a high-ranking source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, we have to concentrate our efforts on trying to collect information.” This begs the question: If police were not trying to infiltrate the nascent terrorist groups, what on earth were they doing? How can they now present the basics of police work as a strategic decision?

The report provided the answer: the department responsible for collecting information on terrorism suspects was dismantled after the Athens 2004 Olympics, when an unprecedented security blanket had been cast over Greece, with the cooperation of foreign intelligence and security services and with the most sophisticated – and expensive – technology. After 2004, however, the government appeared to take its eye off the ball of public security, either through complacency or incompetence – or fear of being accused of authoritarianism. With the November 17 gang behind bars and the Olympics over, Greece let its guard down.

The bad omens, however, were quick to appear. On October 24, Revolutionary Struggle, a group that appeared a year before the Olympics in the wake of November 17’s capture, launched a bomb attack on police buses. Several attacks followed, including an anti-tank missile being shot into the US Embassy. Last Wednesday, the same group claimed that it had planted a bomb at Citibank’s offices and at a branch of the same bank. If the first bomb (60 kilograms of ammonium nitrate) had gone off, it would have brought down the whole building and ushered in a new era of blind, mass terrorism, as opposed to the largely symbolic attacks of the past.

All this time, no one appeared to take anti-terrorism operations and general police work with the necessary seriousness. This created a climate of impunity for criminals and insecurity for citizens. A policeman’s fatal shooting of a teenager in December set off riots in which the police force appeared either indifferent or impotent, thereby encouraging all forms of lawlessness: Police became a target and an excuse for further criminality. The result has been an increase in domestic terrorism, violent protests that sometimes verge on terrorism (such as setting fire to a train), a rise in violent crime (including gangland killings and kidnappings) and the brutal assault on a woman labor organizer. Sports hooliganism, too, has been spinning out of control, adding to the sense of insecurity across society.

When things begin to go awry it is very difficult to set them right, especially after a long period of neglect. With civil disobedience becoming entrenched as part of political protest, any vigorous police action is likely to lead to clashes and a further radicalization of youth and political groups. Despair over the worsening economy will lead to more tension on the streets, making police officers’ work even more difficult. As a remedy, the government is talking about the need to consolidate police stations, reducing the number of precincts from about 1,000 to 400, thereby reducing administration and sentry demands in a bid to free more officers to do real police work. This, however, will have no effect if the police do not quickly take effective action against organized crime – which includes domestic terrorism and underworld gangs – while at the same time intensifying foot patrols in neighborhoods. Crime spreads like a virus. And the government has allowed pockets of chaos to spread for far too long. Now it must curb crime without jeopardizing the nation’s hard-earned civil liberties. But only victory against crime can guarantee those liberties.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009