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Riots push Greece to the edge

Police battle youths in Athens (20 December 2008)
The riots are estimated to have cost businesses in the capital more than $1bn

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

Pulsating punk rock was stoking up the black-clad army of students outside the University of Athens, as, yet again, they prepared to march on parliament.

The Stranglers were singing: "Whatever happened to all the heroes? All the Shakespearoes? They watched their Rome burn."

The setting was appropriate: the Propylea, as the university's main building is known, resembles a temple from Greece's own glorious classical era.

All along Panepistimiou, or University Boulevard, security men in upscale jewellers, boutiques and the Attica department store, hastily lowered the electronic shutters.

The guards at the Bank of Greece retreated behind supposedly impregnable bronze doors, and steeled themselves for yet another assault on the symbols of wealth, prosperity and unbridled capitalism.

Since a policeman shot dead 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on 6 December, daily riots are estimated to have cost the entrepreneurs in the capital more than $1bn.

Economic crisis

In among the hooded tops and Arab scarves was a man with owlish glasses and an immaculate mane of silvery, white hair.

Panos Garganas
The economic crisis is huge and Greece is showing, I think, the future for what will happen in other countries
Panos Garganas

Panos Garganas is a career protester who has taken part in every annual 17 November march on the US embassy.

That march commemorates the day in 1973 when tanks of the US-backed military dictatorship smashed through the gates of the Polytechnic university and crushed a student uprising.

Whether it is a demonstration to support asylum seekers or to complain about the intrusion of privacy threatened by CCTV before the 2004 Olympic Games, Mr Garganas will be there.

He is a member of the hard left Socialist Workers' Party and is the total antithesis of the stereotypical rabid Trotskyite: unfailingly polite, articulate, and persuasively reasonable in his arguments.

I asked him to apply some historical context to the most serious civil disturbances in Greece since the fall of the colonels' military dictatorship 34 years' ago.

"I think we should see today's developments in terms of 1989," he replied. "Back then, it was the Eastern bloc that collapsed under the pressure of economic crisis, and popular movements in the streets. Now we are seeing the same in the West."

A worker paints over graffitti on one of the buildings of the University of Athens
The unrest is fuelled by anger at high unemployment and unpopular reforms

"The economic crisis is huge and Greece is showing, I think, the future for what will happen in other countries. We could say that 2009, 20 years on, will see the collapse of Western capitalism."

I asked him if he was not simply looking at the recent unrest through the rose-tinted glasses of an old left-wing romantic.

"Well, yes, of course. I am all of those things you just said," he replied. "But this democracy is failing people and the present revolt is much deeper, it will last much longer, it will affect society much more profoundly."

"It does mean misery... in terms of people losing their jobs, their homes and their pensions. There's going to be a lot of suffering. But at the same time people are reacting, not in a resigned way, but with anger and with action and that's always hopeful."

The unrest across Greece is no longer an outpouring of youthful anger over the "martyrdom" of a schoolboy in the Athens district of Exarchia.

As Mr Garganas explained, for many protesters it is now a vigorous attempt both to topple the conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, and to create waves across Europe.

European fears

Further confirmation came from the mouth of Petros Constantinou, a bearded firebrand wearing wire-rimmed spectacles that might have fitted Leon Trotsky.

Petros Constantinou
Many of the left-wing protesters want to see the government stand down

I asked him to justify the burning and looting of shops belonging to people not remotely connected to the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos.

"When we have revolutions, we don't drink tea in our saloons, we have fights in the streets," Mr Constantinou shouted.

So should Greece's European Union partners dismiss this talk of revolution as being little more than extremist rhetoric, or is there something more substantial to fear?

The riots have clearly unsettled France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy. He has postponed plans to reform the curriculum of secondary school pupils in case they ignite copycat protests.

"In the name of symbols, they can overthrow the country. They are regicidal," Mr Sarkozy told the French parliament. "Just look what's going on in Greece."

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is also deeply concerned and has advised governments to spend more money in an effort to ease the global economic crisis.

In a BBC interview, Mr Strauss-Kahn spoke of 2009 as "really being a bad year".

"I'm especially concerned by the fact that our forecast, already very dark... will be even darker if not enough fiscal stimulus is implemented," he said.

Memorial to Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia
An improptu public memorial has been set up at the site of the boy's death

"The question of having social unrest has been highlighted by journalists and I can understand that, but its only part of the problem," he added. "The problem is that the whole society is going to suffer."

At present, the demonstrations across Greece are mainly attracting students, high-school pupils, veteran leftist campaigners and members of the so called 700-euro generation - disenchanted graduates who are unable to break through the ceiling of this nation's minimum wage.

The working and middle classes are staying away, perhaps because of the petrol bombs and tear gas.

There is neither a co-coordinated plan of action, nor a charismatic revolutionary leader.

But Greek trades unions and university students are now trying to mobilise sympathisers who are watching the troubles on television rather than participating.

Sleeping giant stirring

Pay attention to the old-fashioned, Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Remember them?

If you are coming to Athens in 2009, pack a gas mask with your bikini, just in case

Despite the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet bloc, the Greek hammer and sickle has never conceded the demise of its ideology and has maintained a consistent level of support across the country of about 6 or 7%.

Since 1989, the KKE has appeared something of an anachronism, but the sleeping giant is stirring.

The communists have been among the more responsible politicians over the past fortnight, condemning the violence and exerting tight discipline over their protest rallies.

Intelligently, they are doing their utmost not to alienate the masses, whereas Syriza, the coalition of the left, supported by younger voters in the last general election, has been accused of stoking the flames.

Foreign income

Pay attention also to Greece's key sources of foreign income next year. If they fail, then Mr Constantinou's revolution could attract more foot soldiers.

Tourism and shipping each contribute around 20% towards Greece's national earnings.

Straits of Salamis
The Straits of Salamis are filling up with empty, unused cargo vessels

The sight of smoke obscuring the Acropolis is likely to deter American tourists doing a grand Mediterranean tour.

The collapse of sterling against the euro means that British tourists, who help sustain Crete, Corfu, Halkidiki and other package holiday destinations, may choose to get their annual sun fix in Croatia or Turkey.

The desperation of Greek hoteliers will be used by British travel companies as an excuse to drive even harder bargains.

This year, during a break in Corfu, the owner of a quaint clifftop apartment complex told me that his colleagues were struggling to break even, as they were only getting five euros per bed, per night.

The crash earlier in 2008 of British travel firm XL has left scores of Greek hoteliers close to bankruptcy.

Some had been waiting a year for XL to pay their 2007 invoices. The demise of XL will mean that some island entrepreneurs will lose two years' income.

If you fly into Athens International Airport, take a look out of the window as you cross the Straits of Salamis between the port of Piraeus and the island of Salamina.

George Gratsos
You could get $235,000 a day for transporting iron ore - now you can barely get $3,000

George Gratsos, President of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping

This is the location of one of what was arguably the most important sea battle of all time.

In 480 BC, the Athenian navy destroyed the armada of King Xerxes of Persia and thus ensured that Western civilisation evolved under Greek, rather than Asian, influence.

Today the straits are filling up with dozens of cargo vessels, rocking at anchor and going nowhere. Their owners can no longer afford to run them.

According to George Gratsos, president of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, in May of this year, when cargo rates were at their peak, you could get $235,000 a day for transporting iron ore.

"Now you can barely get $3,000," he told me.

That amounts to less than a vessel's daily running costs.

Greek ship owners, who are amongst this country's richest and most powerful people, can afford to sit on their enormous financial cushions and ride out the economic crisis.

But what about the 100,000 Greeks who depend on the shipping industry for their livelihoods?

Most middle class Greeks have been working 16-hour days to provide the bare necessities of life.

Protection is fitted to the front of the Attica department store
Businesses in Athens are braced for further riots and more damage

Many are now facing ruin through no fault of their own.

So how can Europeans stop Greece's social uprising escalating?

Well, for a start, they could help by taking a holiday in Greece.

Whatever the dire threats of the would-be revolutionaries, the riots are not going to reach the thousands of idyllic beaches and inspiring archaeological sites.

But if you are coming to Athens in 2009, pack a gas mask with your bikini, just in case.

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