Greece has been torn apart by the worst riots in decades, now entering their third week. Bands of self-declared anarchist youths have rampaged through the streets of Athens and other major cities causing hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, setting off a spiral of unrest in which the nation’s unions, among other groups, have taken part. Both shops and hotel lobbies have been ransacked, and hospitals, airports, and transport have been brought to a standstill. What sparked the riots was the accidental police shooting of a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos. But as usual in such cases, there was much more in the way of causes lying beneath the surface.
Youth unemployment is high throughout the European Union, but it is particularly high in Greece, hovering between 25 and 30 percent. With few job prospects, rampant poverty in the face of nouveau riche prosperity, a public university system in shambles, a bloated government sector in desperate need of an overhaul, and a weak, defensive conservative government with only a one-seat majority in parliament, it is a ripe period for protests, which have had as their aim the fall of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.
Greece could now be at a crossroads, which requires a bit of history to explain. Following World War II, Greece had a civil war, which pitted an old guard pro-Soviet left against a pre-modern unenlightened right. The civil war left scars for decades on the country’s politics, pushing left- and right-wing parties into ideological barricades, inflamed further by personal hatreds arising out of the war years. Then there was the dynastic, coffee-house politics of intrigue and corruption that a poor country struggling to erect a modern middle class was prone to. Greece’s very fragility and strategic eastern Mediterranean position during the Cold War led to heavy-handed American tutelage. The Truman Doctrine might have saved Greece from the communism of its Balkan neighbors to the north, but Greeks were not grateful, because of the Latin American-style interference with which Greece was subjected to by America. The colonels who took power in a 1967 coup ruled Greece in a brutal manner that brought forth the worst kind of unregulated Third World-type development. They were backed by the United States, even as they were despised at home. The first real crack in the military regime came in November 1973, when protests at the Athens Polytechnic led to the downfall of one junta leader and the ascension of another, whose regime was toppled the next year with the reinstitution of democracy. From then on, student protests in Greece have had a particularly poignant legitimacy to them, as well as a distinctly leftist edge, laced with the left’s uniquely effective ability to question authority.