Simmering Greek public anger needs spark to boil over


Greeks angry with austerity will continue to demonstrate against belt-tightening measures but unrest is unlikely to bring down the government unless an unexpected spark ignites a full-fledged revolt.

Salary cuts and tax hikes amid a deepening recession have brought many Greeks to the brink of survival but not yet out to the squares en masse, as they did last winter, due to what analysts say is fatigue and resignation.
“We will continue to have explosions of social violence, not from the whole society but from specific groups such as leftist groups or unions,” said Mary Bossis, professor of international security at Piraeus University, Reuters reports.
“We will not see an uprising but we will have tensions that can lead to escalating violence from the state. We are heading towards very difficult times for the country,” she added.

Although most analysts expect any violence to be contained, unexpected events can trigger unpredictable unrest. Greece’s worst riots of recent years took place in December 2008, before the financial crisis sank in, when the killing of a teen-ager by police led to weeks of battles on the streets of Athens.

Since then, Greece has imposed wave after wave of austerity measures in exchange for bailout loans, struggling to exit a debt crisis that has shaken the euro and threatened international markets.

That prompted months of angry demonstrations earlier this year, with protesters seizing control of Syntagma Square in central Athens. More than 100 people were injured in clashes between protesters and police in June.

But the unrest fizzled in the hot summer and only resumed this week. State workers held a strike Wednesday and police clashed with stone-throwing youths. A bigger national strike, including private sector workers, is set for October 19.

The small Left Coalition party, often blamed by the government for being behind the violence, has said protests will escalate in the autumn.

The socialist government has seen its popularity drop, but that anger has not benefited opposition parties much, as the public becomes increasingly disappointed in the political system and sees no end to the country’s plight.

Economists say that despite the harsh steps, Greece’s debt is not sustainable and see some kind of default in the near future, some even raising the spectre of leaving the euro.

Some of the 20,000 striking Greeks who marched to parliament Wednesday said they felt obliged to record their opposition to government cuts, but they had little hope their action would force the government to change its course.

Although Greeks are proud of membership in the euro, some say they are resigned to the prospect of abandoning it.
“A return to the drachma doesn’t scare me more that what I am going through now,” said teacher Evangelia Kouvari, 50. “It may be bad but not worse than these policies.”

Like many Greeks who have seen incomes drastically slashed, taxes hiked and unemployment rising rapidly, she only feels exhausted by the measures.
“We can’t stand it anymore, we have nothing more to give,” said the mother of two. “You see how bad things are when you can’t afford to buy school books for your children.”


Analysts say her lack of faith that protests will change anything is typical of the majority of Greeks, who grew disillusioned when last winter’s protests had little effect.
“People are tired, numb, dizzy,” said Theodore Couloumbis of the ELIAMEP think-tank. “Participation in protests has waned because people have been through so much. All this reaction has not helped their cause; the only result was more measures.”

Couloumbis said the Greek silent majority is beginning to grasp the idea that trying to block reforms and austerity steps only makes the government take even harsher measures to meet the terms of international bailout loans.

It is unlikely that Greece will again suffer the kind of violence that gripped the country in the 2008 riots, he said.
“That was a specific incident: a kid was murdered by police and public rage overflowed,” he said. The government has also reduced the risk of violence by repealing a law that had put university buildings off limits to police, he added.

Nevertheless, public anger remains deep — not just because of the unpopular cuts, but because of a perceived lack of social justice. People feel that austerity hits the poor more than the rich, and there has been no punishment for those involved in the corruption responsible for Greece’s woes, Couloumbis said.
“The lack of punishment bothers Greeks immensely,” he said. “They have yet to understand they share part of the responsibility. They blame others here or abroad for their problems.”

Peaceful Greek protests are often marred by violence from small numbers of black-clad youths, who hurl rocks and petrol bombs at police, who answer with teargas.

Such incidents are usually confined to the fringes of demonstrations, but can sometimes spread out to the mass of protesters, resulting in scores of arrests and injuries.
“These small, violent groups often cause a disproportionate reaction from police and escalated state violence,” Bossis said. “But these are small groups and there is lack of a strong leader, as we saw with the protesters over the winter.”

Whenever there is violence on the streets, there is the chance of unexpected incidents that can accelerate unrest. During Wednesday’s protest, riot police fought with news photographers, prompting angry condemnations from journalist unions and forcing the government to launch an investigation.

But barring unexpected incidents, analysts see demonstrations remaining smaller than last winter.
“Will people storm parliament? There is a prevailing atmosphere but we are not there yet,” Bossis said.