In Athens

David Patrikarakos

The way forward? Equestrian statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis in Stadiou Street

Charred bricks and broken glass form the bulk of what was once the Attikon cinema, burned down by hundreds of rioting Greeks in protest at the harshest austerity measures Europe has ever seen. Five lethargic firemen hose water onto the smouldering ruins. Behind them a ring of about 20 camera crews film the scene, and behind them, a ring of bystanders hold up their phones and take pictures. Even for crisis-hit Greece, the violence has been severe.

The Attikon, previously a fine example of Athens’s dwindling neoclassical architecture, is on Stadiou (stadium) Street, one of several that lead into Syntagma (Constitution) Square, where the parliament sits. On Sunday night, thousands of people poured through Stadiou and into Syntagama, fighting police and looting shops while inside parliament MPs argued over the latest austerity package required by the eurozone and the IMF in return for a €130 billion bailout, which Greece needs to make the next repayment on its huge sovereign debt, and so avoid bankruptcy and the potential collapse of the eurozone.

The bill passed but the governing coalition – of the two main parties, the centre-left Pasok and centre-right New Democracy, and some smaller ones – was forced to expel more than 40 deputies for voting against it. The cuts include a promise to lose 15,000 public-sector jobs, laws to make it easier to fire employees, and a lowering of the minimum wage by 20 per cent to €600 (or in some cases €450) a month. Outside, the crowds demanded to know how anyone was supposed to live on that.

Katerina, a 30-year-old businesswoman, joined the thousands of peaceful protesters in Syntagma Square at around five on Sunday afternoon. The mood darkened at around 10 p.m., two hours before MPs began to vote, and the police decided to disperse the crowd. Dividing Syntagma into sections, they fired volley after volley of tear-gas into the corner where Katerina was, forcing the choking crowd to take the one channel of escape that was eventually opened to them – away from the parliament. A couple of Katerina’s friends fled into a nearby hotel and watched dozens more tear-gas canisters pound the glass doors behind them. The were around 80,000 peaceful demonstrators, and a black bloc of a few hundred. ‘Everyone is saying that 300 thugs burned down the city,’ Katerina told me, ‘but inside parliament three hundred arseholes are burning down the country.’

The government says it has no choice; it may be right. On television on Saturday, the technocratic prime minister, Lucas Papademos, a former vice president of the European Bank, warned of even worse economic and social chaos if the measures weren’t passed. The country, he warned, was a breath away from ‘Ground Zero’. Even the bailout is not yet certain – despite the vote. Greece has a €325 million ‘gap’ in its budget that the EU is demanding be filled before it pays up. And the people are out of options: even the ballot box offers little hope, after eurozone leaders demanded assurances that the package will be implemented regardless of who wins the general election in April.

Across Greece, unemployment and poverty have soared, and so have the conspiracy theories. Yannis Haralambous, a 28-year old courier, told me that the Americans are behind the cuts, which are designed to punish Greece as Washington seeks to destroy its great rival, Europe. More serious is the widespread belief that the violent anarchist groups are riddled with undercover police to stir up more violence and help provoke the inevitable crackdown. A photo bouncing around the internet shows a policeman wrestling a violent ‘rioter’ to the ground. Both men’s boots are circled – they are identical, regulation police issue.

The morning after has a familiar smell in the city these days. Acrid traces of tear-gas hang in the air and Athenians walking to work have developed a familiar gait: shoulders hunched, a tissue or scarf pressed over their mouth in an echo of the bandanas worn by the violent protesters. Outside the parliament, I spoke to Costas Harzides, who has been unemployed for a year. ‘Every few months we go through this,’ he said. ‘It doesn't change a thing. Nobody knows what our future is.’

Eighty yards up from the Attikon, outside Athens’s Museum of National History, is an equestrian statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis, who smashed the Ottoman army led by Mahmud Dramali Pasha in 1822, during the Greek War of Independence. The statue’s right arm extends outwards, pointing east, away from Europe.


  • 14 February 2012 at 7:32pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Why were the parties "forced" to expel those 40 deputies? They were doing exactly what they should do - exercising their right to vote according to their convictions and not obeying a three-line whip because that's what the pm wants. There is no way out of this shlamazzle other than going bankrupt so that's what should happen and fast - otherwise they will be paying Billions in interest for ever.

  • 14 February 2012 at 8:10pm
    ander says:
    Argentina didn't pay. Equador paid a third, and nothing to the banks which lit the fuse to ignite this depression. Today both prosper. Greece should kick out Papademos, examine the bill it was presented with a magnifying glass, and than refuse to pay any amoutunt whatsoever if it were to go to a big bank.

  • 15 February 2012 at 1:13pm
    GeorgiaP says:
    If you do not confirm your sources, this is simply bad journalism. I never expected that from the LRB. You are trying to make a point, but you spoil it. The photo you give the link to is a hoax. It is from demonstrations in Canada in 2007. Greek Police do not wear such uniforms. This has circulated on the net 3 days ago. Here is your link:
    Secondly, the Attikon cinema was burnt only from the outside, the inside is intact and will be working again soon.
    And finally, Kolokotronis' statue is pointing towards Istanbul, not away from the West, let's not reduce everything to black and white logic.
    Very poor article for the quality of LRB. If you wanted populistic sensationalism, congrats then.

    • 15 February 2012 at 2:11pm
      The author does not clarify that the photo was misused, left unclear on purpose to create sensation.
      Your photos from Attikon do not show that it was burnt inside. Quite sensational, too.
      And finally if the world for you is black or white, good or bad, then yes, I suppose you understand 'towards Istanbul' as 'away from Europe'.

    • 5 March 2012 at 7:02am
      Whether 'towards Istanbul' and 'away from Europe' meant similar things at the time of Kolokotronis you should better ask Byron, Shelley and others. Or just read them.

  • 16 February 2012 at 4:58pm
    kat says:
    As already stated above, the photo to which you link is a hoax. You should have checked it, there's no excuse for sloppy journalism in these very trying times (in the LRB of all papers). Greece is going through a phase of political instability and circulation of falsehoods only makes things even more dangerous than they already are. The issue of political violence in Greece is truly complex and if you do not care to research it a little, at least do not publish simplistic, populistic conclusions - of which we have already had more than enough inside the country itself.

  • 17 February 2012 at 9:34am
    Greco1 says:
    Yassou David,

    You give the feeling of life on the ground, and Katerina's quote is the wittiest yet on the subject, thank you.

    The reforms needed in Greece are not purely administrative or financial. The problem is a psychological one also: how do you change the mind set of a people who for centuries have lived in a society where clientelism and rousfeti (bribes for a permit or a doctor or whatever)? It takes a long time.

    The recent revelations about how in the UK the state has connived in a form of bribery for high level civil servants who are allowed to get away with cheating the tax system, and similarly for non-doms, shows it is not unique to Greece. There, it happens for everybody not just the wealthy.

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