Few people would want to be in the shoes of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou these days. Faced with an ostensible mutiny in the ruling social-democrat PASOK party, his worries have been exacerbated by the appearance of an unprecedented, continuous wave of protests in the streets of Athens by thousands of people – who had never demonstrated until a few weeks ago. Since May 25, 2011, Greece has entered a period of spectacular turmoil, with thousands of people taking over the central squares of its major cities. What happened?
The €110 billion ($157 billion) Memorandum of Agreement signed between the Greek government and the troika of the IMF, the EU and the ECB in May 2010 was met by much weaker dissent than many had expected. This is, after all, the country that, as recently as December 2008, saw a spectacular youth uprising in reaction to the police killing of 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos.
Greece’s rich past of political conflict, from its Civil War (1946-1949) to the Colonels’ Junta (1967-1974) and the often turbulent years of the Metapolitefsi (“regime transition”, the period succeeding the junta) prepared the distant observer for a much fiercer reaction to the country’s bailout agreement and the tight “austerity measures” accompanying it. The first general strike called in response to the Memorandum on May 5, 2010 was interrupted by the death of three bank workers from the fumes of their burning bank, a tragedy which numbed reaction to the bailout agreement.
Fast-forward to early June 2011, when the Papandreou government announced a proposed new round of public spending cuts and a colossal privatisation program as part of a fresh agreement with the troika, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid default.
It seems that the government had failed to sense the spreading despair and anger over the original Memorandum: in a country that had seen public sector wage cuts in the range of 20 per cent, VAT increase to 23 per cent – and mass lay-offs, redundancies and cuts in the private sector, an ever-growing proportion of the population was rapidly approaching poverty. By the end of this year, unemployment will have reached 20 per cent, including 40 per cent of those aged 18-25. In addition, pensions will be cut by up to 20 per cent, and the minimum wage reduced to €600 ($850) a month. The atmosphere is sizzling, and the occupations of town squares across Spain this spring found more sympathisers in Greece than many would have expected.
Solidarity demonstrations outside the Spanish Embassy in Athens were quickly relocated to Syntagma, the main square overlooked by the Parliament building. And suddenly, that was it: a Pandora’s box of discontent had opened. In the days and weeks that followed, a series of occupations of town squares across the country’s major cities saw a huge cross-section of Greek society come out to vent anger about the deterioration of living conditions – for which they felt they were not to blame and which they could not control. The thousands of people coming together daily at Syntagma square to participate in assemblies and joint activities have demanded nothing specific, but represent something entirely different and overwhelming.
Everyone at these gathering is allowed equal time to speak, and issues range from organisational matters to resistance politics and international solidarity. Debates take place over the economy, education, and alternative commerce – and nothing is beyond proposal or dispute. People from different strands of life, political affiliations and ages are rushing to squares across the country to hear – and to be heard – without mediation, external supervision or internal force. After the terms of the new troika agreement were published, the country’s mainstream trade unions announced a General Strike on June 15, the day when the new financial agreement was to be debated in parliament. The Open Assembly of Syntagma called a day of action with parliament’s grounds.
On both sides, the dice had been rolled. It is difficult to predict the long-term legacy of the June 15 events, but it is already evident that what happened will hold serious significance for some time to come. In Athens, not only was this one of the most massively attended protests of recent times, it also seems to have been the one with the most immediate effects: the city saw battlefield-like scenes with the existing hostility toward the police quickly developing into vivid hatred – fuelled by oft-reported cases of police brutality against demonstrators in recent years and against people on the day who had never previously demonstrated.
Equal or more fierce hostility has been shown towards corporate media in recent weeks, with a strong popular belief that the country’s highly powerful media conglomerates have held a significant stake and, arguably, a role in running the country over the past few decades. With verbal and physical attacks against representatives of Greece’s political elites becoming a near-daily occurrence, a new political understanding and culture seems to have emerged from the country’s occupied squares: a culture that sees political and corporate media representation as part of the plexus of power that has misruled Greece.
On June 15, in the immediate aftermath of the violent General Strike demonstration, and following days of negotiations with his parliamentary opposition, Prime Minister Papandreou threw in the towel by announcing a government reshuffle. Snap elections and perhaps a swift round of short-lived governments are now likely; the prime ministerial seat has become unenviable, if not near-untenable.
For the people gathered in Syntagma, the intense political manoeuvring in the corridors of parliament seems to matter little. Theirs is a mass mobilisation that draws a distinction between representational and grassroots politics. Political parties seem unlikely to come to a halt over developments in the upper echelons of power. For them, the Memorandum is not just a sum of persons or abhorrent policies, but a system of power that has misruled the country for 30 years, bringing it to the edge of collapse. It is a system of beliefs, values, expectations and political roles and identities that cannot be abolished simply by replacing the head or members of the government.
The people in the squares have started, again, to believe that they have the freedom and the responsibility to act; they are urging radical change through the creation of different personal and social relations. By now, the distance between the people and their representatives might seem unbridgeable; as the old system of government crumbles under the burden of sovereign debt, a new, grassroots system of politics is starting to make itself heard from the ground.
*Hara Kouki is a historian and a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck College, London, and Antonis Vradis is a geographer, a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Alternatives Editor of CITY. They are both members of the Occupied London collective and are based in Athens, Greece.