Page last updated at 03:04 GMT, Sunday, 14 December 2008

New generation flexes its muscles

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

An old friend of mine, a retired British Army officer with a wealth of military experience in Northern Ireland, chose this of all weeks to take a holiday in Greece.

Greek riot police outside parliament during a demonstration in central Athens (Dec 12)
The rioting was sparked by the killing by police of a 15-year-old boy

He felt very much at home amid burning barricades, hate-rich, high-cholesterol rioters' chants, the explosion of petrol bombs, the stinging fog of tear gas, the percussion of truncheons on Perspex police shields and the sorrowful sight of the Parthenon shrouded in arsonists' smoke.

The officer, whose identity I cannot reveal, was convinced that the international media had overplayed the story of the biggest civil unrest in Greece since the end of the Colonels' military dictatorship more than 40 years ago.

"You had the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. These are the Velvet Riots," he said.

"No one has been hurt in the disturbances. There is an unwritten pact between those throwing stones and the riot police. Neither side is trying to hurt the other.

"Sure, buildings have gone up in smoke. But the government should be praised for allowing all these young people to vent their anger and that there have been no casualties. This has been a huge non-event," he said.

'Feudal and flawed'

I have nothing but respect for my friend's military experience. True, there have been no serious casualties. But to dismiss this past week as insignificant because nothing has really changed, is premature in my opinion.

A youth bares his chest to riot police
The disturbances started in Athens and spread across Greece

The initial street clashes, which ignited in Athens and rapidly spread to university cities across Greece, were undoubtedly spontaneous outbursts of anger over the death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos from the service pistol of an experienced 37-year-old police special guard.

But, as unrest engulfed communities in Greece's agricultural heartland and idyllic holiday islands, it mutated into a cluster bomb of grievances against the deep flaws of the Greek state and its power structure.

Greece has the potential to be the most wonderful country in Europe. Besides exquisite landscapes, brilliant climate, unrivalled history, it is blessed with a well-educated youth whose ambitious parents are willing to sacrifice their present to enable their children to have a better future.

But young people's expectations are suffocated by a system that borders on the feudal.

'Power of the pimps'

Despite having good degrees, many graduates find it impossible to get a job that matches their ability. People rely on patronage to make progress. Bribing an official to smooth the path is easier than taking the honest road.

The bullet which killed Alexis has also done for Mr Karamanlis

This is a land of European prices and African wages. Many breadwinners hold down two or three jobs and still can't make ends meet.

Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said that he wanted to break the power of what he called the pimps who really control the country.

He didn't refer to them by name, but they are widely believed to be some of Greece's wealthiest media barons and industrialists.

There is a common perception here that they use their newspapers and television stations to smear and undermine their opponents. They prefer compliant politicians who pose no threat to their oligarchies.

Mr Karamanlis has failed to diminish their influence. He has failed to eradicate the tradition of the fakelaki, the envelope packed with high denomination notes passed under the table. His administration, which promised to be squeaky clean, has been mired by corruption scandals.

The bullet which killed Alexis has also done for Mr Karamanlis. He was never radical enough to implement the structural changes required to clean up Greece and enable youth to flourish. He will not get another chance.

The alternatives are not inspiring. Statesmanship is not an abundant quality amongst Greece's leading politicians.

Whither idealism?

What needs to emerge from this tragedy is a new incorruptible force that is brave enough to challenge Greece's vested interests, implement essential reforms, ignore the political cost, and to inspire selflessness and civic responsibility.

The courage and sacrifice of young people helped bring down the military dictatorship four decades ago.

Undoubtedly many of the rioters are hard-core trouble-makers and possibly even some criminals.

But the stone-throwers who have had their first taste of street battles this week are just discovering their own strength. They are brimming with self belief and the purity of idealism.

Who knows what they might achieve?

That is why the veteran of Belfast may have spoken too soon.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 December, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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