Tuesday, December 09, 2008

As riots continue, Greece faces mounting political crisis

Protesters throwing stones at riot police in Athens on Tuesday. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

By Rachel Donadio and Anthee Carassava

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

ATHENS: Thousands of mourners turned out here Tuesday for the funeral of a 15-year-old boy whose shooting death by police officers has tipped the country into its worst riots in decades, exposing the government's fragile hold on a deeply divided society.

The authorities said more than 100 people were arrested for looting on Tuesday, as roving bands of militant youths threw gasoline bombs and smashed shop windows in central Athens for a fourth day, clashing with riot police who did not seem able to contain the violence.

Greece's two largest labor unions said they would push ahead with a planned 24-hour strike Wednesday to demand more state social spending. But they cancelled a protest march in an attempt to avoid further violence. Flights and ferry links are expected to be cut and train services severely limited. The governments of the United States, Britain and Australia warned citizens to avoid traveling to Athens.

Overall, the clashes Tuesday were seen as less intense than those on Monday, when after dark hundreds of self-described anarchists broke the windows of upscale shops, banks and five-star hotels in central Athens and burned a large Christmas tree in the plaza in front of Parliament.

On Tuesday, rioters also fought with the police for the fourth day in a row in Salonika, Greece's second largest city, while in the port city of Patras, citizens trying to protect their shops came into conflict with rioters.

That the shooting death of a teenager, however tragic, could bring an entire country to its knees speaks to the deep political, social and economic unrest in Greece, a powder keg disguised as a functioning, middle-class democracy.

The center-right government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis hangs by a one-vote majority in Parliament and is roiled by a corruption scandal in which two senior ministers have already resigned. Unemployment is high and the global recession hitting hard.

For the second day in a row on Tuesday, students, teachers and workers used the demonstrations inspired by the death of Alexandros Grigoropolos, 15, to protest everything from school reforms to the grim economic situation.

On Tuesday, the Socialist Party leader, George Papandreou, renewed his call for early elections. Yet it remained unclear whether the riots would cause the government to fall.

"What I foresee is a prolonged political crisis with no immediate results for two or three years," said George Kirtsos, a political commentator and the publisher of City Press, an independent newspaper. "In that time, the country will be going from bad to worse."

On Tuesday, as youths scuffled with the police outside Parliament, Karamanlis met with government members and opposition leaders in an effort to get their backing for security operations.

He said that there would be no leniency for the rioters. "No one has the right to use this tragic incident as an alibi for actions of raw violence, for actions against innocent people, their property and society as a whole, and against democracy," Karamanlis said after an emergency meeting with President Karolos Papoulias.

Yet even Karamanlis's closest advisers conceded that the government did not have the security situation under control. "He's seriously troubled," said Nicholas Karahalios, a strategy adviser to the prime minister. "Whereas before we were dealing with a political and economic crisis, now there's a third dimension attached to it: a security crisis."

The authorities seem to fear that cracking down on the militants might lead to other unintended deaths and provoke more rioting. Asked why they had not contained the riots, a spokesman for the national police, Panayiotes Stathis, said "violence cannot be fought with violence."

Demonstrations, even violent ones, are nothing new in Greece, which has a long tradition of political protest and has been relatively tolerant of the self-described anarchist groups that routinely hold anti-government demonstrations.

Ever since the country shed decades of military rule to became a democracy in the mid-1970s, the police have been seen as a throwback to the era of the military junta. Although Greece has a comparatively high ratio of more than 45,000 police for 10 million people, in the popular imagination, they are seen as ineffective and corrupt.

To some, the instability reflects deeper problems. "These riots are a symptom of a deep cultural problem rather than a social one," said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University. Since the mid-1970s, Kalyvas said, civil disobedience has been seen as "almost always justified."

Indeed, Grigoropolos was shot on Saturday night in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, where youths routinely fight the police. The police have said Grigoropolos died when officers encountered a mob. But one officer has been charged with premeditated manslaughter in the case and another has been charged as an accomplice.

On Tuesday, thousands lined the street outside the cemetery and small, whitewashed chapel where Grigoropolos was buried in Paliro Faliro, an upscale residential neighborhood where he grew up. His father is a bank manager and his mother a jeweler.

Although the funeral passed peacefully, dozens of militants fought afterward with the police and smashed car windows, though no one was injured.

Earlier Tuesday, two demonstrations of teachers, students and workers wound their way largely peacefully through central Athens. Once they neared the Parliament building, some students shouted "Down with the government of murderers" and "Let it burn, let it burn, the brothel, the Parliament." Other militants fought the police.

Before the rioting, Karamanlis was popular, even if his government was less so. He won by a wide margin in 2004, promising change after two decades of Socialist rule. He was re-elected in 2007, but his center-right party's lead in Parliament fell to one vote.

But in the autumn of 2007, the government was stung by a corruption scandal in which it was accused of selling a monastery that is prime Athens real estate before the 2004 Olympics in exchange for cheaper land elsewhere.

Last month, two top ministers resigned over reports of more than 250 land swaps and lawmakers unanimously agreed to start a special investigation. The scandals have deeply weakened Karamanlis's government and curbed his chances of implementing changes.