As government verges on collapse, Papandreou fires military chiefs

02.11.11 @ 09:48

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - EU supremos Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel have called Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to a meeting in Cannes ahead of the G20 summit (3-4 November), following the shock announcement of a referendum on the EU's latest bail-out deal.

  • Greek soldier in ceremonial dress outside parliament. If Papandreou does not win the vote of confidence on Friday, his government will likely fall (Photo: Nikita Avvakumov)

EU leaders are horrified at the Greek leader's plans to put the rescue plan and its accompanying austerity measures before the people, fearing a No vote could sink the euro and plunge the European Union into political crisis.

Merkel and Sarkozy are to insist to Papandreou that the "only way to resolve Greek debt problems" is to adhere to the deal cobbled together at an EU summit in Brussels last week.

Ignoring the fury in capitals across Europe and in the face of public opposition to his referendum plan from some of his own ministers, Papandreou won grudging backing from his cabinet colleagues late Tuesday night (1 November) for his plans.

The leader pressed his cabinet colleagues over the course of a seven-hour meeting to either back him or to vote against the government in Friday's vote of confidence in parliament - where the centre-left administration's majority has been reduced to just 152 in the 300-seat chamber after yet another MP resigned this week.

"The cabinet expressed its support," government spokesman Elias Mossialos said after the meeting.

Given the discord within his party, it is unlikely that the prime minister will survive the confidence vote. Four MPs have said they will vote against the referendum and a series of party leaders have called on him to step down.

Pressure is also mounting on the streets, with fresh protests called to coincide with Friday's vote.

Meanwhile, in a development that has stoked fears of a potential military coup in the country, Papandreou on Tuesday also fired the entire high command of the armed forces along with some dozen other senior officers and replaced them with figures believed to be more supportive of the current political leadership.

The heads of the country's general staff, army, navy and air force were all dismissed following the meeting of the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defence, the supreme decision-making body on national defense.

The ministry maintains that the change in the military high command had long been scheduled. But such reshuffles, which take place every two to three years, do not normally result in the dismissal of the entire leadership.

The opposition instantly attacked the move as irresponsible at a time when the governing party’s hold on power is hanging by a thread.

"You're finished. Hands off the armed forces," shadow defence minister Margaritis Tzimas said, calling the move "undemocratic".

The radical left Syriza party classed the reshuffle as "giving the impression that [the government] wants to create a highly politicised armed forces that it can control at a time of political crisis."

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 under civilian command. Few analysts expect the military to autonomously intervene against civil unrest and rumours of a military coup have not been circulating in the country,

However, in late September, some 2,000 retired officers protested outside the defence ministry against plans to cut their pensions and some 300 stormed the building, breaking doors and dismantling weapon scanners.

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.

Then, in an open letter to the government, the Association of Support and Co-operation 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."

In February this year, according to the Athens News Agency, the Hellenic Army staged a mock battle with anti-austerity protesters.

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, which quoted military sources.

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