Breaking with fear in Greece
The real news in Greece is not about riots, but of a growing number of people who have broken away from fear and decided to fight back against the austerity imposed by the 'Troika' of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF.
'The streets of Athens erupted with some of the worst rioting and political violence seen in the country in years’. ‘Rioting Greeks torched buildings and looted dozens of shops as they battled police in central Athens to protest harsh austerity measures’. These were some of the headlines of the global corporate media about last Sunday’s demonstrations in Greece, often accompanied by photos of burned down buildings.
‘I’m sorry about what happened in Greece yesterday’, many friends told me on Monday. It's amazing how the mainstream press makes you feel sorry about the resistance rather than the disastrous policies that caused the protest. For the real news was that people all over Greece have broken away from fear and demonstrated massively their decisiveness to fight back against austerity imposed by the 'Troika' of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Of all the mega-demonstrations since May 2010 when the adjustment plans were first imposed this was the biggest: hundreds of thousands of people attended with the metro lines simply unable to handle the traffic of people.
There were serious reasons for such a mobilisation. The vote on Sunday night in the Greek Parliament was the most drastic of all the austerity packages so far, with commitments to severe salary and pension cuts, and a new cycle of job losses in the public sector. With the language of “sacrifice” and “putting the country into order”, because ”Europe and the markets ask for it”; the measures include lowering the minimum net salary to 490 Euros (440 for first job). This is a cut of 22% in a country where prices for basic goods and services are similar to an average western European country.
The so-called 'Memorandum II' also includes the effective abolition of collective labour agreements. Collective agreements have existed in Greece since 1914, but now if no agreement is reached between social partners, the former collective agreement will no longer be automatically renewed, as has been the case up to now. The Troika hopes that these measures will permit a reduction in the minimum wage in order to be closer to that of Greece's peers such as Portugal and Central-South Europe. In neighbouring Bulgaria, the minimum wage is less than 150 Euros (although prices there are significantly lower than in Greece). No-one told the Greeks that the convergence they were promised when they entered the EU was in one direction: downwards.
The Greek debt audit committee, a coalition of civil society groups, does not exaggerate at all when it talks about ‘mass hunger’ in a statement. In 2010, one in three Greeks was living under the poverty line according the EU's own statistics, and based on research undertaken by unions could be much higher. Cases of malnutrition in school children continue to multiply.
The Memorandum II also included a long list of fast-track privatisations. Loan contracts will henceforth be governed by UK law, so that the Greek state is much more tightly bound by its creditors and loses the ability to modify the loan conditions in case of political change.
Radical impoverishment of the majority of the Greek population and loss of sovereignty makes the scare tactics used by European and Greek politicians about the consequences of a disorderly default and Eurozone exit less effective by the day. What could be worse than the Troika's plan? Why should one choose to remain in a European Union that is ordering the destruction of welfare structures that have existed for a century?
Given the relative success of three days of General strike in one week (7, 10 and 11 February), the demonstration on Sunday (12 February) was expected to be huge. Police violence was the only way for the coalition government to avoid the picture of complete isolation from society. In Syntagma, police started gassing people half an hour after rallies started, followed by outright attacks by police in motorcycles. In order to remain the downtown area, demonstrators took defensive measures. But these have nothing to do with the buildings that were burned down. A cinema owner reports that masked men asked him for money in order not to burn down his property. The chair of the police union also confirmed the presence of agents-provocateurs. "Of course there were agents-provocateurs there. They’re always there", said the chair of the police union, "and the way they operated shows they were in contact with the police."
Inside the Parliament, a parody of democracy was at play. In October, only 153 out of 300 MPs voted in favour of austerity. Since then, public rejection of austerity has grown yet the parliamentary majority in favour grew to 199. The MPs had only Saturday morning (before the sessions started) to go through 24 texts, some of which were in English while others were badly translated, with plenty of gaps regarding for instance the total cost of banks’ recapitalisation. After the vote, forty five MPs were expelled from their parties, because they voted against the measures. Independent MPs now make up a larger group than the second biggest parliamentary group, the conservatives.
The breach between Greece’s political elites and its citizens was no more evident than on Sunday, when Prime Minister Papademos's only defence of the austerity deal was that it avoided a ‘disorderly default’. Yet everybody knows that default will happen. The real question is under which conditions. EU leaders and bankers are trying to stop an uncontrollable domino effect that will bring down several financial institutions in Europe. The latter are also competing amongst themselves to both avoid collapse but also to try and emerge as even bigger in the course of this crisis. However Greeks grasp ever more clearly that this game played out, with great human costs, has to stop as soon as possible.
A citizen-led refusal of the debt is the only real alternative that will allow for re-building the economy under democratic public control, so that it serves the interests of the people and not of the notoriously corrupt Greek elite and foreign corporations. Across Greece, there is an emergence of new popular structures based on neighbourhood assemblies, factory strikers (the Greek steelworks being the most impressive example), occupied media (including a TV channel run by striking workers) and grassroots unions’ coordination centres operationally independent from the official union leadership. Coordination of these structures with the help of organised progressive forces could be the nucleus of a movement that could lead Greece in an alternative path and inspire people all over Europe fighting debtocracy and corporate power. Different factions in the movements will have to overcome their own deficiencies and converge on a common but radical program in order to make this happen.
In several countries in Europe, people are also mobilising in protest at the ‘austerity for ever’ policies being imposed by the EU leadership in combination with the ‘Troika’. Cross-border coordination across these different struggles is also important to succeed,but is crucial that the austerity fire is stopped in Greece, before it spreads to the whole of Europe.
Yiorgos Vassalos is a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory.