Street violence, trade union demos cast shadow on EU summit
Fresh, extremely violent riots in which the Greek finance ministry was set ablaze and an ex-minister was beaten and left with blood streaming down his face rocked Athens on Wednesday (15 December).
Anger at EU-IMF-imposed austerity is boiling over in Greece.
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Some 20,000 workers according to police and 100,000 according to organisers marched through the Greek capital and descended on the parliament as part of a union-co-ordinated 24-hour general strike. Furious protestors threw chunks of concrete, bottles and molotov cocktails in pitched battles with police, who responded with tear gas. Demonstrators launched fire bombs at the second floor of the Ministry of Economics, setting the entrance alight.
Former transport minister Kostis Hatzidakis from the conservative opposition party New Democracy was set upon by a 100-or-so strong group of young protesters after he exited the parliament building. Left bleeding from his head, Mr Hatzidakis sought shelter in a nearby building and was unable to reach hospital.
Violent rucks took place in front of the Athens Polytechnic, where police on motorcycles were attacked and thrown from their vehicles when they attempted to drive into the demonstration. A few thousand strikers attempted to occupy the main offices of the national trade union, the GSEE, complaining of the unions' close links to the governing Pasok party.
Protesters also attacked shop windows and banks across the capital city and set fire to cars, a riot police bus and rubbish dumpsters, as well as starting blazes near luxury hotels close to parliament.
Another 20,000 protesters struck the second city of Thessaloniki, with young people hurling molotov cocktails at a government building and attacking shops and banks.
The general strike itself has paralysed the country: flights are grounded, trains silent and ships stuck in harbours. Schools are closed, rubbish has not been collected, bank workers have been on strike since Tuesday and hospitals are providing minimal services only.
Splits emerging in Pasok
The violence comes after the centre-left Pasok administration won a crucial vote on Tuesday on labour market changes that will see massive pay cuts and severely limit unions' right to collective bargaining with private sector employers.
For much of the past year, the governing party has managed to hold itself together despite the draconian nature of its legislation.
Prime Minister George Papandreou is increasingly bleeding support amongst his own troops, however. He has been forced into meetings with opposition leaders as an insurance policy to get measures through and has resorted to an emergency procedure to pass the latest bill, a method which limits discussion in the chamber to just two MPs from the government's side.
"The way you are behaving is creating a crisis of confidence in the government among Pasok MPs," Pasok MP Costas Geitonas said in Greek daily Kathemerini this week.
Greek case not isolated
The Greek violence comes in the context of wider social unrest in Europe in recent days.
Also on Wednesday, anti-government student protesters clashed with police at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. On Tuesday 100,000 anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Rome. Young people set cars alight, hurled rocks at police and hit officers with metal bars, causing an estimated €20 million of damage. Last week students fought police in London in anger over tuition fee hikes.
In a different set of well-organised and peaceful protests, trade unions on Wednesday also organised a pan-European day of action designed to fall ahead of Thursday's EU summit, which will tackle the latest EU response to the financial crisis.
Events were held in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Spain.
Another one-off day is planned for spring, but left-wing activists in Greece are calling for an indefinite pan-European general strike to oppose the EU-led austerity measures.
The head of the European Trades Union Congress, John Monks, speaking to EUobserver explicitly ruled out the strategy, saying that especially in Germany, France, the UK or the Nordic countries it could not happen.
"I understand if you're in Greece, you might feel: 'Hey, where are the rest of you [in Europe]?' But the reality is this is a multi-speed crisis, affecting countries differently. And countries have different cultural traditions and legal systems," he said.
Commenting on the recent upsurge in violence, Mr Monks warned that the EU's chosen path of austerity "will be marked by greater social unrest, more nationalism, more protectionism."
"There has been an upsurge in militancy and social unrest. There's something new going on," he said.
He added that he was sympathetic to the call for wider action but now is not the right time: "I'll call a pan-European general strike on my last day in office."