The Greek Riots: How Did It Come To This?

On the fifth day of civil unrest in Greece- the worst the country has seen in decades- one fifteen year old student, the same age incidentally as the young Alexandros Grigoropoulos who has become the symbol of the Greek riots, said; “last year, the mountains were burning; this year, the cities are burning.”

Indeed, Greece is on fire once again, and it’s not only the buildings that are raging; the people are, too. The riots kicked off quickly, with the shooting of fifteen year old Grigoropoulos acting as the spark that ignited a fierce and savage backlash against the police force, and the state itself.

In what many have described as a sluggish response, Greece’s prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis today insisted that “those responsible for these senseless acts of violence will be held accountable for their actions.”

However, when some shopkeepers and witnesses are asking “Where are the police? Where is the state?”, the allocation of blame is something that is confusing the whole population of this country. Who or what is responsible for this?

In the last ten years, Greece has undergone dramatic modernization.  The introduction of the euro in 2002, saw inflation spiral at an alarming rate. A simple example of this is how the cost of a return ferry trip to the island of Crete cost ten thousand drachmas in 2001, the equivalent of thirty euro. A year later, that same ticket cost sixty euro. Today, Athens is the 29th most expensive city in the world, yet university graduates can only expect a seven hundred euro salary; a wage that would cover bills and rent at most, of course, this is the case when they are lucky enough to get a job.

The appalling wages are the reason why so many people take the public exams to enter the civil service, which promises a well-paid job, pension and benefits for life. It is a common acknowledgement that this a “job for life”, and once you’re in, you’re in. Yet like a ‘private club’, your chances of getting ‘in’ are slim to none unless of course you have the right connections. “Sometimes even the brightest minds haven’t got a chance in hell,” comments one thirty year old. Greece is still a long way from becoming a meritocracy.

As a teacher of Greek university students, I engage in conversations about job prospects on a daily basis. The general consensus? You ain’t getting nowhere unless you know the right person, which might even explain why the leaders of Greece’s two main political parties, Pasok and New Democracy, have almost always carried the same name; Papandreou and Karamanlis; a fact that has led to great discontent and political apathy particularly amongst the younger generation.

For high school students, their view of the civil service is that their teachers are inadequate for the job, and do not care about educating their students. As a result, students are forced to supplement state education with hours of extra classes a week at ‘crammer’ schools offering courses ranging from English to Science. “What hope do we have when our politicians send their children to private schools, rather than public?,” asks one. 

This feeling of abandonment explains much of the actions of Greek youths today. Almost every month, students in different parts of Athens hold what is known in Greek as ‘katalypsi’, in other words, a student occupation of their school for various reasons. These can last from anything to one day, or, as Greece saw last year, weeks and months. In universities, occupations disrupted a full school year as almost every public institution of higher education protested the Greek government’s education reforms.

However, the New Democracy education reforms were not as bad as the students made them out to be. The proposed changes were to introduce assessment into universities and schools, something that has been commonplace in Britain since the formation of Ofsted under the Education (Schools) act in 1992. Another suggestion was a move to depoliticize universities, which have always been traditional recruiting and training grounds for a myriad of political parties from all points of the political spectrum.

None of these were, in fact, unreasonable and instead aimed to modify Greek education in accordance with E.U. expectations. Another reform that met with huge student protests was one that would finally recognize foreign degrees, something the tens of thousands of students who study abroad or in foreign institutions in Greece would gladly welcome.

In truth, these students seemed ill-informed in their protest and many suspect an ulterior motive to protect and preserve the phenomenon known as ‘the eternal student;’ and that is not in the Socratic sense. Because the Greek education system is free and degree courses are without a specific time limit, students are able to stretch out their courses over years, with some students ‘studying’ for up to ten years. Imagine what strain these students put on university resources as well as budget.  These very students are the reason why many are dismissing the protests as “just another excuse to cause trouble.” 

Nevertheless, it was not just the government’s education reforms that have been stirring up anger amongst the people, and it is important to remember that is it not just students who are involved in both the rioting and the protesting. Privatization has been aggravating the Greek public. Under the New Democracy government, Greek companies have been sold off the highest bidder, something the Greek people are all too aware of. Even the national telecommunications provider, OTE, was put up for sale, a move that garnered huge discontent from the public. In 2008, the sale of Olypimc Airways instigated national strikes in response.

To the people, the New Democracy government is selling Greece off, piece by piece. Even last years fires saw the inefficiences of government to control the destruction of Greece’s most treasured natural landscapes. When Parnitha, Athens’ ‘lungs’ were burning, only the casino was saved. The rest of the forest was left to burn. One year later, the government has played an instrumental role in allowing commercial developments to build on burnt land that, by law, should be protected by the state.

Meanwhile, Kostas’ Karamanlis’s government has been at the centre of corrupt scandal after scandal which have involved the highest members of the state and cost the New Democracy party four ministers. Currently taking centre stage is the Vatopaidi affair, starring two monks from the Vatopaidi monastery, who parlayed 2,500 hectares into hundreds of millions of Euro in public lands through exchanges with the state under New Democracy. 

Thus, not only does the government get richer as the people get poorer, they do it openly, go unpunished and act without remorse, which brings us to the December riots.

The Greek economy is suffering, and the people are being forced to carry this burden. They cannot trust their government, nor can they fully trust the opposition parties who are clearly using the riots as a platform. Perhaps this is why for the last eight days, the whole of Greece has become rather introspective. The students have a clear enemy and a clear purpose in their protests; the police and the ‘unprovoked murder’ of Alexis. On the other hand, the adults are slowly beginning to realise who their enemy has been all this time; the very government they voted for and in effect, themselves, for having allowed the scandals, the corruption and the ineffiencies to continue for as long as they have done.

So, will calling early elections solve the problem?

Perhaps. 

But as one student predicts, “after this is over, young people will become more aggressive.” With so much pent up anger having been released, young people have found a new way in which to attack their state. If they succeed in bringing about early elections, and effectively toppling the government, how will they react when the economic aftermath of the riots are made evident? What will they do when they realize that nothing can change quickly? How will they respond when the economic crisis hits Greece harder? Considering the fact that Greece’s growth rate has dropped to 2.9%, it is still in the honeymoon phase. Could it be that the bad times have only really just begun, or is Greece finally taking the step towards more transparent governance?