On Syn­tagma Square, some see the dawn of a new pol­i­tics

Kathimerini English - - F Ocus - BY HARRY VERSENDAAL

IAt’s past mid­night in Syn­tagma Square, the epi­cen­ter of Greece’s month-long anti-aus­ter­ity demon­stra­tions, and Stathis Mari­nos is sitting at a cor­ner cafe over­look­ing the col­or­ful tent city un­der the trees. Flip­ping a string of worry beads while sip­ping a frappe, the 37-yearold soft­ware en­gi­neer muses about Greece’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

“The mem­o­ran­dum is un­sus­tain­able,” he says of the loan deal signed last year be­tween the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of Ge­orge Pa­pan­dreou and Greece’s for­eign cred­i­tors to avert de­fault. He thinks the debt-choked coun­try is be­ing sti­fled by a mix of bru­tally rigid mea­sures and that they must be re­sisted.

A few yards away, a loud­speaker crack­les with rhetor­i­cal din from the on­go­ing session at the makeshift assem­bly meet­ing. Mod­eled af­ter Spain’s “Indig­na­dos,” Athens’s “aganak­tis­menoi” (In­dig­nants) have camped in the cap­i­tal’s main square since May 25. A month af­ter the first call on Face­book, Syn­tagma, the start­ing point to the cap­i­tal’s main com­mer­cial street, is play­ing host to a post­mod­ern in­car­na­tion of the an­cient Athe­nian agora.

Ev­ery evening, hun­dreds of peo­ple gather here to dis­cuss any­thing and ev­ery­thing about the cri­sis. Speak­ers, who are cho­sen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to al­low for the great­est pos­si­ble num­ber of con­tri­bu­tions. There is lit­tle of the typ­i­cal boo­ing and hiss­ing, and au­di­ences re­act mostly with hand ges­tures. In­ter­pre­ta­tions of what is hap­pen­ing on the square range from the ground­break­ing to the delu­sional or just plain silly.

“This is not a move­ment and it will by no means evolve into a po­lit­i­cal party. It’s more like a trend,” says Mari­nos, who has joined in ev­ery evening af­ter work since day one. He has of­ten taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never be­longed to a po­lit­i­cal party. “It’s great that peo­ple fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with the po­lit­i­cal process; they learn how to en­gage in di­a­logue with each other; how to par­tic­i­pate in civic life,” he says of the meet­ings.

At first, the In­dig­nants were mostly por­trayed as a non-po­lit­i­cal group­ing. But the fact that they have put pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment and the politi­cians, some ar­gue, means that they have now be­come po­lit­i­cal. In fact, some an­a­lysts main­tain, the move­ment has been po­lit­i­cal from the start. Costas Douz­i­nas, a law pro­fes­sor at Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don, was re­cently in­vited to speak in Syn­tagma. For him “this is the most po­lit­i­cal move­ment we have had in Greece, and per­haps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is to­tally po­lit­i­cal and in a way it changes our un­der­stand­ing of what pol­i­tics means,” he says.

He is not alone. Vas­si­liki Ge­or­giadou, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Pan­teion Univer­sity in Athens, has kept a close eye on the de­mo­graph­ics of the square. All find­ings so far, she says, in­di­cate that we are deal­ing with a “po­lit­i­cally ac­tive” au­di­ence. “These peo­ple are deeply disaf­fected and dis­il­lu­sioned with politi­cians, with the po­lit­i­cal par­ties and with the in­sti­tu­tions at large,” she ex­plains. Their re­ac­tion was not a bolt out of the his­tor­i­cal blue. Most re­search shows that peo­ple’s dis­af­fec­tion with Greece’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions dates back to the early 1990s. A pub­lic sur­vey pub­lished last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dis­sat­is­fied with how democ­racy works.”

The phe­nom­e­non seems to have a dream­come-true qual­ity for some, and Douz­i­nas is cer­tainly happy to con­nect the dots. “With­out peo­ple be­ing in a space, tak­ing it over and declar­ing their re­fusal of what­ever it is that they want to re- ject, no rad­i­cal change has ever taken place in his­tory,” he says.

Skep­tics, on the other hand, main­tain that the Mem­o­ran­dum is not at the root of the prob­lem, but only a symp­tom. Writ­ing in The Guardian last week, au­thor Apos­to­los Dox­i­adis at­tacked the “char­la­tans” who blame the evil for­eign­ers for our own ills and fail­ures. “I know that the heart of our prob­lem is a huge, par­a­sitic and in­ef­fi­cient pub­lic sec­tor, which EU funds, un­wisely and of­ten cor­ruptly dis­trib­uted by our politi­cians over the past two decades, made even big­ger and less pro­duc­tive,” he writes.

What vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bank­ruptcy, the coun­try re­ceived a 110-bil­lion-euro res­cue pack­age from the EU and the IMF in May 2010 but now needs a sec­ond bailout of a sim­i­lar size to meet its fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions un­til the end of 2014. In­ter­na­tional cred­i­tors have set the in­tro­duc­tion of more painful belt-tight­en­ing mea­sures in­clud­ing tax hikes, spend­ing cuts and pri­va­ti­za­tions as a con­di­tion for re­leas­ing more aid. A crit­i­cal vote is to be held in Par­lia­ment to­mor­row and Thurs­day. Mean­while, un­em­ploy­ment has soared to 16 per­cent and crime is on the rise.

The protests have truly brought to­gether a very di­verse crowd but one that is not al­ways pulling in ex­actly the same direc­tion. Brows­ing through the crowd massed in the square, you en­counter a mot­ley crew of left­ists rail­ing against global cap­i­tal­ism and ne­olib­er­al­ism. Posters of Che Gue­vara hang next to used tear gas can­is­ters launched by po­lice dur­ing the re­cent ri­ots. The spicy fumes waft­ing from the as­sorted stands of hot-dog ven­dors oc­ca­sion­ally mixes with the pun­gent odor of mar­i­juana. At the assem­bly, peo­ple dis­cuss the neg­a­tive ef­fects of Europe’s Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy on Greek farm­ers be­fore talk­ing through some or­ga­ni­za­tional is­sues. With time, the dis­course at the meet­ings has be­come more pro­gres­sive and as­sertive. A re­cent res­o­lu­tion called for ac­tivist-style in­ter­ven­tions like the oc­cu­pa­tion of TV sta­tions and pub­lic build­ings. For Mari­nos, some de­gree of rad­i­cal­iza­tion is a “nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion.” “You can­not make an omelette with­out break­ing eggs,” he says.

But a de­ci­sion to give the move­ment a more ac­tivist ori­en­ta­tion, some an­a­lysts say, would most likely alien­ate the big mass of sup­port­ers. “Some peo­ple would like to see a fall­back to tra­di­tional prac­tices. But I am not sure that many peo­ple will want to fol­low,” Ge­or­giadou says.

Just up the steps from the assem­bly, in front of the il­lu­mi­nated Par­lia­ment build­ing, a dif­fer­ent group is chant­ing slo­gans and hurl­ing in­sults against the “thiev­ing politi­cians who de­stroyed Greece,” call­ing them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the coun­try.” Demon­stra­tors make the dis­parag­ing open­palm “moutza” ges­ture against the House and point green laser beams at tele­vi­sion crews on the bal­conies of the Grande Bre­tagne. Mock gal­lows and ban­ners taunt­ing Pa­pan­dreou as be­ing “Gold­man Sachs’s em­ployee of the year” dec­o­rate this part of the square.

The rowdy be­hav­ior and na­tion­al­ist over­tones of the peo­ple sta­tioned in front of the House have caused oc­ca­sional spats with their left-lean­ing coun­ter­parts down the steps. “I don’t un­der­stand what is go­ing on down there,” Gior­gos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cig­a­rette. “I don’t have a so­lu­tion to the cri­sis. All I know is that I am an­gry with all this,” he says. The blan­ket re­jec­tion­ism and some­times xeno­pho­bic pos­tur­ing of peo­ple like Gior­gos con­veys a sense of un­cer­tainty, of lost bear­ings per­haps, in a world swept up by rapid so­cial change.

Elias Magli­nis, a writer and jour­nal­ist in his early 40s, is put off by some of the crass be­hav­ior. “The gal­lows, the com­par­isons to the 1967 mil­i­tary coup and the slo­gans that the dic­ta­tor­ship did not end in 1973 make me an­gry. These peo­ple have no mem­ory or have no idea what a dic­ta­tor­ship or fir­ing squad is,” he says.

Most an­a­lysts pre­dict that the In­dig­nant move­ment will fiz­zle out. “Be­cause these move­ments re­ject any link­ages to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, trade unions and other well-es­tab­lished or­ga­ni­za­tions, they do not last long,” says Ni­cos Mouzelis, emer­i­tus so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the LSE. But the longterm im­pact on Greece’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture must not be dis­counted. “Politi­cians will not be able to op­er­ate ’as usual’ any­more,” he says.

Back in the square, the assem­bly is vot­ing on the res­o­lu­tions pro­posed over the course of the day. Am­bling over to the crowd, Mari­nos says that what hap­pens dur­ing the strike may well de­ter­mine the fu­ture of the move­ment. He pon­ders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three em­ploy­ees died when the premises were fire­bombed dur­ing an anti-aus­ter­ity rally. “Should there be hu­man losses like then, the whole thing will die.”

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