The chronicle of a struggle
It was May, 15 of 2011 when Plaza del Sol in Madrid was occupied by indignados, Spaniards of all ages and backgrounds that took the streets of Madrid in protest for the government’s policies of austerity, the high unemployment especially in the young population, a youth that did not see any prospects and future ahead.
The story has it that one night in Plaza del Sol the crowd chanted “Be quiet, you will wake up the Greeks”. In spite of the fact that later on the truth in that story was questioned, it sparked reaction in Athens, it was played in the news and a lot was written about it in blogs and social media. This spark was enough to form the movement of the Greek indignant, ‘Aganaktismenoi‘. It was May, 25 when at first few hundreds gathered outside the Greek Parliament, at Syntagma square.
The Greek movement had completely different characteristics than the Spanish indignados or the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, which was inspired by the occupation and fighting spirit of Syntagma. The Greek movement directed its indignation towards the Greek political elite that had ruled the country since democracy was restored in Greece in 1974. The Greek society felt let down and betrayed by the people who ruled the country particularly in the last decades, the people who based their political careers and ascension to ministerial positions on clientelism, abusing the state and its finances as a means of transaction and corruption. Equally, for over a year the people of Greece were berated and ridiculed by European, primarily, and global media something that hurt the pride of an, in fact, hard-working and modestly remunerated nation, the vast majority of which had not benefited by political favours and the clientelism discrimination of certain in the public sector.
Aganaktismenoi started modestly but persistently. Every evening they were gathering outside Syntagma, they were getting organised, the square started shaping into a small community, a modern reincarnation of the Ancient Agora and direct democracy with open debates over politics and policies, and the more they persisted and featured in mainstream and social media the more people started associating with their disbelief and rage against the current Greek political system. The crowds were growing.
This led to one of largest demonstrations in the recent history of Greece in the evening of June, 5. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Greek peacefully gathered downtown Athens, with Syntagma square being the heart of the demonstration, to shout to the political system “We woke up” (Ξυπνήσαμε), as numerous banners were saying.
The protests, irrespective of participation and volume, maintained the peaceful character despite the strong feelings of disappointment and anger bubbling in the society. Aganaktismenoi started having some political characteristics and views having naturally attracted many parts of the left of the political spectrum along with thousands of Greeks gathering outside every evening not as supporters of a party but as let down citizens of the country. It further established communication channels with unions to combine forces in coordinating protests, demonstrations and strikes. The movement was gathering enthusiasm and momentum.
At the same time, one of the many dramas of the Greek ‘bail-out’ program was unfolding. The reluctant Greek government and the dysfunctional public sector could not deliver on the targets of an already overly ambitious and self-defeating fiscal consolidation program, something that led to an open ultimatum by Greece’s partners in the euro zone and the IMF, that if a new adjusted bill was not passed by the Parliament with added measures to meet the program’s fiscal goals they would not release the tranche and Greece would imminently default. The adjustment would require further measures to boost the revenue side of the government’s budget, impacting further a society that at that time was going through its seventh quarter of recession with unemployment on the rise and disposable incomes reduced. This ultimatum was perceived by the Greek people as an open blackmail and further fanned the determination to stand in the way of the austerity policies that did not seem to have any consideration for the prospects of the economy and the society.
It was during the general strike of June, 15 that in a coordinated effort the Greek Parliament was circled in an attempt to block access for MPs to the debate of a bill heavy in austerity measures, the infamous ‘mesoprothesmo‘. The determination of the people on that day was such that even the car of the prime minister became subject to minor abuse and protest. Tensions were high throughout the day and that was the first day that broke the peace between demonstrators and the police with extensive use of teargas and reported excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators.
The society’s message was so strong that, in just over 3 weeks, a movement that started so modestly, inspired and motivated so many diverse parts of the Greek society, led the prime minister to call the opposition leader and offer to step down, suggesting to form a coalition government and carry together the burden of the fiscal adjustment program. The first attempt in the year to form a coalition government was fruitless and instead it ended with a cabinet reshuffle but the same policies dictated by Greece’s new creditors. Policies included in the bill that was to pass for vote from Parliament on June, 29.
It was during the general strike on June, 28 and 29 that the protests took the form of open conflict. The Greek government showing the first signs of exhaustion after one unsuccessful year of austerity implementation, completely disconnected from the society, was determined to pass the bill at all costs, pressure mounted on the majority’s MPs that opposed certain measures of the bill. Equally determined and inexplicably brutal was the police during the protests and in particular on the second day, Wednesday the 29th. A day that will stay in history for the most extensive police violence Athens has seen for decades suggesting the government’s intention to put on the brakes on the momentum of the movement and the pressure coming every day from the streets.
The use of chemicals and violence during those two days seemed to have had the desired effect, discouraging the participation of ordinary Greeks, the most powerful aspect of the movement, temporarily isolating the indignant at the Syntagma square. An isolation that led to a police operation for the eventual evacuation and clearance of the square in the middle of the night.
While the movement lost its footing at Syntagma square, the tensions in the Greek society did not subside during the hot summer months of July and August and in a number of occasions Greek politicians were subject to protests by ordinary Greeks when visiting their constituencies resulting often in verbal abuse and throwing of eggs and yoghurt. It was evident that this struggle was far from over.
The 3rd of September is a date of historical significance in Greece. In 1843, the people of Greece revolted against the king that the big powers of the time had imposed on the country after the liberation from the Ottoman occupation and this revolution brought the first constitution in the country’s modern history and the transition from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.
In a symbolic way the protests outside Syntagma resumed on September, 3 albeit with significantly reduced participation. The violent days of June still fresh in people’s memories acted as a deterrent.
At the same time, yet another drama with a troika evaluation mission started unfolding. On September, 2 the troika mission left Greece dissatisfied with the lack of progress in the program implementation. This departure was followed by a week of statements by European officials that Greece will not get the scheduled for September tranche and will be left to default in its internal obligations. A crucial negotiating mistake by the Greek government. Once more the danger of default was looming over the heads of the Greek people adding to the already tense social situation.
This tension built up towards September, 10 and the exhibition in Thessalonica in the north of Greece, a venue that is traditionally used by each government to present the budget and policies for the coming year. The presence of the prime minister in Thessalonica led to 8’000 policemen turning the venue into a fortress and extensive protests from labour unions, university students and other professional and social groups. The volume of the demonstrations reminded the days of June and ended in the same way, chemicals by the police to protect the venue and the prime minister.
At the same time, the Greek government in panic from its poor fiscal and reform performance, under pressure from the troika to fill the budget gap announced from Thessalonica another emergency tax, this time through the electricity bills, adding further to the burden the society has to bear for compliance with the program, a program that was completely disconnected from the current situation in the Greek economy and society.
Another demonstration outside the parliament was organised for September, 25 in protest for the continuous austerity, tax hikes and the growing unemployment that already in August was standing at 18%. The participation was reduced while the government was determined not to allow a repetition of the occupation early in the summer or let the protests regain momentum. Police pushed protesters off the main road outside the parliament confining them in the Syntagma square area and tear-gas was used indiscriminately against peaceful protesters.
Since the beginning of September Greece was swept by strikes of different unions and professional groups almost on a daily basis. It was the general strike of October, 5 that led to a big demonstration again outside the parliament. It was during that protest when it became evident that the government had lost control of the situation. Extensive violence was used against protesters, even photo-reporters that were covering the events.
The Greek society was at boiling point. The general strike of October, 19 and 20 brought back memories of the early days of the movement, before it was curbed by violence and chemicals. The participation on the 19th was impressive, various reports recording it as the largest since democracy was restored in 1974. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks took the streets of Athens again raising their voice against the government’s self-defeating fiscal consolidation program. Both days saw extensive riots, on the 19th between the police and anarchist hooded youths and on the 20th, in a dark day in the country’s history, between anarchists and the communist party’s union members that were guarding their demonstration. The day was marked by the death from heart failure of a 54 years old construction worker Dimitris Kotzaridis, member of the communist party union, caught in the riots between anarchists and union members.
Thessalonica in 2011 was destined to play a significant role in the people’s struggle against austerity. Just as in September it become ground to the biggest demonstration since June and to some extent revived the protestations spirit, it was on October, 28 and the celebration of the 1940 Greek ‘No’ (Όχι) to the Italians that the immense social pressure gave the Papandreou government the final blow. The traditional military parade, in the presence of the president of Greece, was cancelled after crowds occupied the parade street leading to the Greek president leaving the area. Across the country, in a symbolic way, the people of Greece said their modern ‘No’ to the government and the austerity measures it had imposed on Greeks since it took power two years ago.
The gap between prime minister Papandreou and the Greek society was impossible to bridge and his credibility irreparably damaged that not even the Greek debt swap deal that was achieved during the european summit of October, 26 was enough to revert the exit course of his government. Under the pressure of the events across the country on October, 28 he called for a referendum on the new EU deal on October, 31. A decision that brought an emergency visit to the G20 summit in Cannes where under mounting pressure from Merkel and Sarkozy he was forced to retract and led to his eventual resignation and the formation of the coalition government on November, 11 under the technocrat Loucas Papademos, ex-ECB vice president.
In just over five months, a nation that in its history is accustomed to struggle and fight to maintain its identify and freedom, exerted so much pressure on the country’s political system that brought down a government that two years previously had celebrated a landslide win with a 10% margin. When this troubled time for the country will be taught at schools and the future generations, historians would have made it justice and capture as a remarkable event that highlights the power that the people have when their cause is just and inclusive of all facets of a society.
It was not the riots and the molotov cocktails but the shared feeling of betrayal amongst the Greek people that formed the core that pulled together people of different generations, socio-economic backgrounds and political leanings. It was the hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Athens, in smaller cities, in towns, in neighbourhoods that took the streets. A movement genuine and spontaneous that because of these elements endured chemicals and police brutality, regrouped and reshaped throughout this period and the eventual resignation of the Papandreou government.
Now, the ultimate struggle for the people of Greece is to redefine the future of the country and redesign the political map through their democratic right of elections in the coming months. Throw away, once and for all, the old and outdated that brought the country into one of the most humiliating periods in her history and send a strong message that they want to take Greece in a new direction.