Defence

Unrest spreads to military as retired Greek officers storm defence ministry

04.10.11 @ 16:55

  1. By Leigh Phillips

The Greek armed forces now appear to be entering the political and street-level debate in the country over EU- and IMF-imposed austerity, with a group of retired Greek officers storming the defence ministry and the armed forces’ professional organisation issuing a stern warning to the government that the military’s confidence in the “intentions of the state” regarding their pensions has been “shaken”.

  • The Greek military professional association has warned the government its confidence has been shaken (Photo: EUobserver)

Hundreds of retired Greek officers furious at EU-IMF-imposed cuts to their pensions invaded the Ministry of Defence on Friday (30 September), breaking doors and dismantling machinery.

Amid a wider protest of some 2000 officers, around 300 stormed the building as the crowd shouted “down with the Pasok junta” - referring to the governing social democratic party.

Defence minister Panos Beglitis denounced the officers’ actions as “anti-democratic bullying” by “the state within the state” and instructed the prosecutor of the Athens Military Court to conduct a preliminary investigation over whether the group had perpetrated any criminal offences against military institutions.

"Such bullying and anti-democratic behaviour that goes against the democratic government of the country are an insult that will be immediately repressed," said the minister.

"The retired military cannot act as a state within a state and they don't have the right to act anti-democratically," he declared.

The officers removed doors and the dismantled security equipment that scans for the presence of weapons.

After the chief of the general staff came down to speak to the crowd and asked them to leave, the officers abandoned their action at around four o’clock.

On Sunday in a measured but pointed open letter to the government, the Association of Support and Cooperation of the State Armed Forces, the professional association of full-time staff, warned that the Greek Armed Forces are monitoring the government’s moves “with increased concern” and that their confidence in the “intentions of the state” have been “shaken”.

“The executives of the Greek Armed Forces are monitoring with increased concern the latest developments regarding issues related to their needs after retirement,” the letter reads.

While condemning the behaviour of those who stormed the building, the association attacked the minister for his threat of "repressive violence".

“After the rally of demobilised personnel of the armed forces - regardless of the conduct not consistent with status of retired men - and the known statements of the minister of national defence regarding the use of repressive violence against them, the confidence of the uniformed personnel of the armed forces has been shaken regarding the intentions of the state to assist them," the letter continues, "after the rapid accumulation of subsistence problems, which hinder their undistracted devotion to the execution of their duties''

“Targeted escalating contempt and exclusion, denial of any dialogue and ultimately the threat of repressive violence is a serious blow to the morale of senior staff. This blow is extremely critical in the present geopolitical developments in our region," the letter continues.

“The military has every moral and legal basis to defend itself, and it will do so by any legal means,” the letter, signed by the president and general secretary of the armed forces association, concludes.

The defence ministry invasion comes atop angry protests last week by other elements of the Greek security forces, in this case, sections of the police, who demonstrated outside the European Commission offices and German and French embassies in the capital.

The officers, upset at having their pay docked along with other civil servants as part of austerity imposed by international lenders, dropped a massive banner from Mount Lycabettus in Athens and denounced the EU and IMF.

Last month, on a visit by Belgitis to Military Hospital 424 in Thessaloniki, employees blockaded the entrance and booed the minister. The cabinet member and his entourage were forced to exit their cars and enter the hospital on foot.

’Road of internal conflict open’

The incident also comes two weeks after Beglitis issued an ominous warning declaring: “The road of internal conflict is open.”

On 19 September, in an interview with Ta Nea newspaper, the minister said: “Recent days define the end of an epoch for Europe and for Greece. If we do not move immediately on orderly and conscious sacrifices, the road of internal conflict is open.”

Repeated efforts by EUobserver to extract a comment from the Ministry of Defence were unsuccessful.

The minister has regularly insisted that the government will not go so far as to deploy the army to maintain order.

However, on 4 February this year, according to the Athens News Agency, the Hellenic Army staged a mock battle with anti-austerity protesters. The Defence Ministry would not respond to requests for further detail on the military exercises.

Code-named ‘Callimachus’ after a commander of the Athenian army during the Battle of Marathon, the war games took place at the Koromila base in Argyroupolis, a village near Kilkis in northern Greece.

The army’s 71st airborne brigade, which participates in EU peace-keeping operations in an EU battlegroup together with units from Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, practiced “feuding parties control”, “conflict deterrence” and “crowd evacuation”, according to the newswire, quoting military sources.

According to Diktio Spartakos, a network of trade-unionist conscripts in the army, a captain recently warned his troops to be on alert in case of the need to intervene against social disorder.

Trade unionism by draftees is forbidden in the Greek military, so the group does not operate openly or use their real names or ranks.

State of alert order

On 17 September, in a military camp near Heraklion, the capital of the island of Crete and the country’s fourth biggest city, a Captain ‘S’ informed his unit of a “top secret” state of alert order, according to soldiers from the trade-unionist network.

According to the group, “Captain S., who was in charge of the unit, informed the guard about the existence of 'top secret' state of alert order and said that all units should be on guard and apply increased security measures.”

The captain then allegedly went on to say that the order is linked to the announcement of new austerity measures, the laying off of tens of thousands of civil servants and new property taxes “that may provoke social disorder for which the army should be ready.''

While a military junta known as the ‘Regime of the Colonels’ ruled the country from 1967 to 1973, the Greek armed forces have for more than a generation been ‘normalised’ under civilian command and few analysts expect the military to autonomously intervene against civil unrest.