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January 15, 2013

Demonstrations in Athens

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Athens, Greece, January 12 – Demonstrators once again took to the streets in central Athens Saturday afternoon, in another of a long series of strikes, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience that have rocked Greece since a worldwide economic downturn officially got underway in December 2007.


It was four years ago – in 2009 – that Greece kicked-off the year by announcing its budget deficit would be 12.9% of GDP, more than four times the European Union's 3% limit. Greece was first admitted into the EU in 1981, and in 2001 it joined the Eurozone.


The country of approximately 11 million in population in the eastern-portion of the Mediterranean between Italy and Turkey has barely two-percent of the entire Gross Domestic Product of Europe.


Nevertheless, Greece has prominently stayed in the news for several years as it grapples with its relationship with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and with stands severe internal civil unrest over how to meet its financial responsibilities to the world’s financial markets, recover from a severe national economic downturn and reduce its debt.


Earlier on Saturday, according to various media accounts including that of the Financial Times, Kerin Hope reported that “Greece’s parliament approved fresh tax reforms early on Saturday after a noisy session in which opposition lawmakers claimed the coalition government had ‘hijacked the democratic process…’”


The Financial Times further explained that “Yannis Stournaras, the technocratic finance minister, defended the adoption of emergency parliamentary procedures to push through measures on grounds that international creditors’ deadlines for handing out €14.7bn of aid by March were fast approaching.


“The reforms had to be legislated ahead of Monday’s regular meeting of economic experts from the Eurozone member states and Wednesday’s board meeting of the International Monetary Fund to approve a €3bn loan disbursement to Athens, he said.”


Saturday’s demonstrations take place as Greece remains the flashpoint of the Eurozone economic crisis that has entered its sixth-year. Harsh austerity and debt-reduction measures have left a reported 500,000 people without jobs.


Various recent news accounts indicate that unemployment approaches 25 percent in Greece. Pensions have been reduced and salaries slashed anywhere from 30 to 60 percent.


Meanwhile last Saturday began with signs posted in the Metro that read: “Notice to Passengers. On Saturday 12/1/13, stations, Penepistimio, Syntagma, will remain closed from 10:00 for safety reason…”


Meanwhile the Associated Press reported that “Earlier Saturday, police were seen at subway station entrances quietly searching, and apprehending individuals under suspicion of carrying rocks, batons and other projectiles…” And undercover police officers were observed keeping a watchful eye on the pedestrian traffic on the subway platforms.


Last Wednesday, there were subtle signs of additional tension in Athens as small squads of riot police suddenly appeared in the area of Syntagma Square in front of Parliament and the Presidential Mansion on Herodou Attikou Street.


Later it was revealed that earlier in the day police had arrested about 92 (or 93 according to some accounts,) people after raiding and evicting people alleged to be members of the radical-left SYRIZA party at dilapidated buildings known as Villa Amalias and Skaramaga.


SYRIZA is vocally opposed to the austerity measures proposed by the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. It has been reported that on January 9 police allegedly found gas masks, helmets, and weapons… in the occupied buildings.


Since 2010, Syntagma Square has served as a barometer for rising civil discontent over Greece’s ever-worsening economic crisis. In the past it has been the most popular locale for mass protests and tent-city like occupations, some of which have turned unexpectedly violent in which police have responded en masse with batons, shields and tear gas...


On Saturday, I witnessed more than 5,000 or 6,000 demonstrators marching past the National Archaeological Museum, in a dense, well-organized and loud processional that chanted a Greek chorus of anti-government slogans in a carefully choreographed cat-and-mouse theatrical routine with a full accompaniment of motorcycle police and a phalanx of paramilitary shock riot-police.


Other news accounts reported the crowds from as many as 15,000 or 10,000 to 3,500 participants. Although there was tension in the air, the demonstration, reportedly organized by SYRIZA in response to the detentions earlier in the week, filed past the National Archaeological Museum peacefully. The parading demonstrators are reported to have proceeded from the Propylaea of Athens University and packed Patision Street on its way to the courthouse of Evelpidon.


In addition there were scattered rumors and media reports of tear gas being used on the demonstrators; however there was no evidence of any confrontations between the police and the demonstrators from the this writer’s first-hand observations up as far as the area of where Alexandras Avenue intersects with 28 October Street, otherwise known as Patision Avenue.


Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that in Greece that “the toll the crisis has taken on Greece’s mental health tends to be overshadowed by more urgent concerns about hunger or poverty. Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence of the psychological strain on Greek society – from increased diagnoses of depression to an increase in suicides – and the human wreckage it may leave behind long after the economy has been mended…”


Although this demonstration is understood to have been peaceful, with no injuries; the New Year has witnessed what may be another year of demonstrations and civil unrest in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, as western civilization struggles to climb out of an ever-deepening and daunting economic mess.


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