Who are the protesters in Greece?

Violent demonstrations across country have both recent and historical background.

A protestor carries a molotov coctail by a burning barricade in the center of Athens
Protesters attack police with petrol bombs during riots in central Athens [AFP]

The fatal police shooting of a teenager in Athens on December 6 and its violent aftermath are in many ways a spill over of a decades-long conflict that has simmered between police and far-left anarchist groups.

The violence has also laid bare a deeper anger that has been gaining ground in Greece over the government’s policies in slashing budget deficits and pushing on with unpopular reforms such as privatisations.

This anger has been exacerbated by a series of financial and political scandals among prominent members of the government of Costas Karamanlis, Greece’s prime minister.

Meanwhile, Greece’s manufacturing sector shrank at a record pace in November due to a fall in new orders and unemployment has risen sharply.

University and high school students in particular have been at the centre of the protests, angry at the poor standard of their educational system, the introduction of private universities and their lack of prospects in the current economic climate.

Political awakening

Speaking to Al Jazeera, John Psaropoulos, editor in chief of Athens News, a weekly newspaper, identified both political and social reasons for the violence taking place across the country.

Psaropoulos said: “The political reason is that some parties on the left are keen on making political capital out of any kind of mobilisation of this kind.

“We are talking about university students and even younger ages. A lot of kids of high school age have been turning up and taking part and that is very much a organised thing, it is not a spontaneous outpouring.

“But the social cause is more spontaneous, we saw enormous riots involving high school and university students during an attempt by the conservatives at reform two years ago in 2006.

“And that’s where that age group acquired a renewed sense of its own power. That period also awakened in them that their quality of education is not the best, their professional prospects on graduating from university are not the best.

“And that age group does have a particular dissaffection with their educational and professional prospects”.

Sacred right

The future of Karamanlis’ government looks increasingly uncertain [EPA]

Despite the riots in 2006, Karamanlis and his conservative New Democracy party won a second term in national parliamentary elections in September 2007.

However, his majority was cut to one seat by the dismissal of a dissident legislator last month.

The prime minister’s increasingly unpopular government has already faced a growing number of sometimes violent demonstrations against its economic and educational reforms.

Although not many people support street violence, demonstrations have a special place in Greece as the right to protest is considered sacrosanct by many citizens.

The anarchists who take part in the demonstrations tend to espouse general anti-capitalist and anti-establishment principles, and have a long-running animosity toward the police.

The movement partly has its roots in the fight against Greece’s 1967-74 military regime and it is no accident that the current violence is centred around Athens Polytechnic.

In November 17, 1973, the army stormed the polytechnic and killed a number of striking students.

To this day, many Greeks hold the incident as reason enough to restrict the power of the country’s security forces.

While violence between the police and anarchists is normally limited, previous fatalities during demonstrations have led to an escalation in violence.

The last fatal police shooting of a youth in 1985 sparked months of nearly daily clashes and the left-wing November 17 group bombed a bus full of riot police in retaliation.

Historical roots

Most of those involved in the violence are university and high school students [EPA]

Greek anarchism first surfaced in the last quarter of the 19th century amid economic and social turmoil in the country.

However, despite efforts by some individuals and very small groups, the movement initially remained amorphous.

The ideological mixture of members ranged from beliefs about individual terrorism to ideas involving Christian social mores.

It was only around the beginning of the 20th century that some anarchist groups tried to intervene in working-class struggles.

From the mid-1920s, and until the popular uprising in 1973 against the military regime and the showdown at the polytechnic in Athens, there was no organised anarchist activity barring some individual actions.

The main reason for this was the almost complete domination of the working-class movement by Greece’s Communist party, the German occupation during World War Two and the later military regimes which suppressed any such activities.

Mass migrations to the USA, Canada and Australia also added to the anarchists’ woes.

In the early 1960s some radical left-wing groups reappeared, only to go underground when a new military regime seized power in 1967.

Following the events of November 1973 and the fall of the country’s military regime in 1974, some anarchist groups began to resurface.

They espoused a mixture of ideas dominated by the counter-culture movements of the 1960s.

The majority of those involved were university and high school students, with few real workers.

It is this same group that are now at the centre of the current violence and the future of Karamanlis’ government, and the reforms that have angered so many, looks increasingly uncertain.

Source: Al Jazeera