10th Dec 2019


Athens burns and with it a history of democracy

As Athens and cities across Greece burn, an erratic police force reflects the state of a government in meltdown.

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis on Monday (8 December) convened its first council to discuss events that began on Saturday evening.

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  • The ruins of the Acropolis - Athens is known in history as the cradle of democracy (Photo: EUobserver)

The riots were sparked by what now seems to be the unwarranted and fatal shooting of a 15-year old student by a policeman. Televised eyewitness reports and home videos of the incident suggest that the policeman who drew his firearm did so out of anger rather than his initial claims that he did it out of self defence.

For two hours, the government convened in closed session while another night of chaos saw Athens burn. Journalists and citizens wondered where the state and the police force were, while the capital succumbed to a third night of riots, petrol bombs, burnt shops, banks, cars and rubbish bins.

Symbolic of this ongoing tragedy was the torching of a large Christmas tree in the centre of Athens, with angry plumes of smoke reflected in the smashed windows of the hotels and shops nearby. More disturbing were reports that a fire from petrol bombs had started in the new archaeological museum, endangering invaluable artifacts from world history. Perhaps worst of all were additional reports that students initially prevented fire fighters from reaching the museum fire by throwing rocks at their heads from terraces above the building.

The police seem unable or unwilling to react in the face of these extended disturbances, perhaps fearing further retribution from the mass of youngsters that have used the death of a teen to engage in the worst riots seen in the city for at least 20 years. Another theory is that police were warned to step back and not to harm any more youths, who poured out raging on to the streets en masse. Whatever the case, it left a city in the hands of a young, rampaging mob.

Meanwhile, other citizens sit back and watch helpless and fearful as cars are overturned and shop owners see their sources of income and assets go up in flames. "What we all want," said one Greek journalist, "is to feel safe."

According to televised reports, not even the largely popular president of the republic, Karolos Papoulias, was left untouched, as he had to move from his apartment in the centre of Athens to the "Megaro Maximou" - the building which houses the prime minister's offices - due to attacks that saw the entrance to his apartment block shattered.

The death of a 15-year old child was unforgivable. The sinking of a city into chaos is inexcusable. Citizens watch their television sets stunned by the speed of the unfolding unrest, a capital turned into what journalists are calling a "war zone" and all exacerbated by a government unable to get a handle on the situation.

The government has been incapable of reacting and has seemed out of touch with the reality of the situation, only convening its council during the third and possibly worst night of the troubles. Mr Karamanlis' attempt to distance himself from unsavoury events that his government is responsible for has backfired.

The government has been weakened to a majority of just one seat in parliament and has recently been rocked by a series of corruption scandals that it has unsuccessfully tried to distance itself from. Recent polls showed that the Greek population had already turned against it.

Political pressure building

It seems inevitable at this time that Mr Karamanlis' New Democracy party will not be able to retain control of the country in the face of these new events.

The country is mired in political intrigue, facing the hardships of an economic crisis and now the prospect of seeing one of its main sources of income, tourism, fall into a black hole. More and more politicians are calling on the prime minister to take responsibility for the events and pressure is growing to call new elections.

The message from the youth of Greece seems clear. It wants a break from the past. It wants to be heard and wants to know that it has a future to look forward to with prospects, education and jobs. "Don't we have a right to a voice? Is that democracy?" cried one bloodied female student as she tore away from the arms of a policeman, in a street overlooked by the Acropolis.

Democracy seems furthest from the minds of the young people at this time. They burn the national flag. They feel they have not been promised a future, have not been heard and are making themselves forcefully present by shattering the foundations of a state that has ignored them.

Neither the killing of an adolescent by organs of the state nor the burning of a city by an angry crowd demanding a voice befits the history of a city hailed as the cradle of democracy.

Paul Kidner is an independent commentator living in Athens


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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