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Europe

A letter from Athens

Our correspondent admits to growing sense of unease as a seemingly endless round of protests continue in Greek capital.
Last modified: 3 Nov 2012 20:01
A coast guard officer takes part in an anti-austerity protest with members of the police in Athens [Reuters]

On a narrow street in the run-down Athens neighbourhood of Aghios Panteleimonas, a crowd gathers outside a barber's shop.

They are nervous, and talk in whispers. The shop is closed, and the lights are off, but I'm able to peer inside, and see a shocking sight.

Blood is smeared across the floor, and has collected in a large pool in the middle. I'm told that a black man stabbed the owner the previous evening, and made off with a meagre 20 euros.

The robbery was followed by a wave of retaliatory violence against immigrants in the surrounding streets, according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, involving "150 people, including an unknown number of Golden Dawn deputies".

Golden Dawn (or Chrysi Avgi as it's pronounced in Greek) is a neo-fascist movement, that, according to the latest opinion polls, is also the third most popular political party in Greece.

Outside the barber's shop, opinion is divided as to the merits of Golden Dawn. One woman tells me, approvingly, that it works "for the benefit of local people". But another, her face tight with fury, pulls me aside to say that she is ashamed that "fascism is succeeding where the Greek state is failing".

Just down the street, there is a police station. Wary officers clutch their machine-guns. A group of African immigrants are queuing up outside, next to a burnt-out shell of a car.

They are on parole, apparently, and must report to the police station twice a month. I say "apparently", because my enquiries are interrupted by an angry Greek man, who identifies himself as "a community leader".

"Al Jazeera?! Go back to Pakistan, Afghanistan!" he shouted. Pulling out a mobile phone, he explained to an unknown person that there were troublesome journalists outside the police station, and that he needed "help" to deal with them. We decide to leave.

Just another morning in a poor neighbourhood in central Athens.

Procession of protesters

The sun is shining and the weather is unseasonably warm, but these are not happy days in the Greek capital.

There is a steady procession of protesters marching past parliament. Many of these protests are small, the participants weary.

For instance, the 200 or so who have travelled all the way from Florina in the north to complain about the rising cost of heating fuel.

Then there are the teachers who march in the evening, chanting half-heartedly as they file past smart hotels. The following day, it's the turn of dissatisfied police, firemen and coastguards.

They come in bigger numbers, and with more passion. They chant "thieves, thieves!" outside the parliament building, and light a flare.

The on-duty riot police who are protecting parliament lean on their shields and stare impassively down at their angry colleagues. I try and imagine what is going through their minds.

Strange things happen in Athens these days. The police beat up a Korean tourist, for no apparent reason. There is, understandably, outrage in South Korea, but, as far as I can tell, the Greek press shows little interest in the incident.

Costas Vaxevanis, a magazine editor, is taken to court for violating privacy laws after he publishes a list of Greek individuals and companies that are said to hold Swiss bank accounts.

But the real scandal, argue the foreign press, is that government ministers sat on this list for two years, and never bothered to investigate the names on it for possible tax-evasion, despite making repeated promises in public to finally get tough on corruption. In the end, Vaxevanis is acquitted.

Again, the Greek press show little interest in the case. A charitable interpretation of this lack of media coverage is that the trial coincided with a strike by the Greek journalists union, so many news reporters were not working at the time.

A more cynical analysis (and one which Vaxevanis subscribes to) is that the Greek media is so beholden to powerful political and business interests that it deliberately ignores news that could embarrass the rich and powerful.

Press freedom

Meanwhile, there are murky goings on at the state broadcaster, ERT. Two TV presenters are suspended after they criticised a government minister on air.

Hundreds of ERT journalists hold a protest outside their own headquarters, in solidarity with the presenters. Some Greeks worry that democracy is under threat, with a weak government trying to suppress dissenting voices as it struggles to impose another round of austerity measures.

Perhaps those fears are overblown, but things do seem to be fraying at the edges.

"Our society is in crisis, not just economically but also morally and ethically", says Ilias Panagiotaros, as he shows me round his shop of para-military gear.

There are baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with bulldogs and hooligan slogans, and swastika-like symbols.

Panagiotaros, a large man with a belligerent manner, is one of 18 Golden Dawn members of parliament. Many of Greece's problems, he says, are caused by "three million illegal immigrants", an absurd figure he tosses out with casual abandon.

If the economic crisis has brought misery to many, it has proven a boon to Panagiotaros and Golden Dawn. He speaks of the corrupt elite that has ruined Greece, and tells me that he gives away most of his handsome parliamentary salary to the poor and hungry ("just to Greeks, mind you, the immigrants already have plenty of charities to help them").

He estimates that in two years from now his will be the largest political party in Greece. I think this is extremely unlikely, and tell him so. But as I drive away from Panagiotaros' shop, I have a nagging sense of unease.

Does anyone really know where Greece will be two years from now?

Follow Barnaby on twitter at @BarnabyPhillips