Saturday, November 18, 2006

Greek riots relive the terror of the Generals

At least 10 people were injured in Athens on Friday as police and protesters clashed during a rally marking the anniversary of a 1973 student uprising. There were two flashpoint locations; the Prime Minister’s official residence and the US embassy. Rioters threw flares and rocks at police who responded with tear gas. Some 15,000 demonstrators participated in a march marshalled by 7,500 police. The match was timed for the 33rd anniversary of the student uprising against then-ruling military junta. Many were killed in those riots which eventually led to the overthrowing of the government a year later. In recent years the march has been organised by anarchist groups and police were ordered to take a tougher line. There was also trouble in Greece’s second city Thessaloniki where protesters damaged a sports museum by throwing stones and smoke bombs.

The course of Greece’s modern political history dates back to the Second World War. Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany after it successfully resisted an Italian advance in 1940. The Germans were eventually forced to withdraw in 1944 and the country descended into civil war between communist-led Democratic Army and Hellenic Army. This war lasted until 1949, when the communists were defeated in the battle of Grammos-Vitsi. The Greek national army was well-equipped with US and British weaponry and ammunition and surrounded the exhausted Communist forces at Mt Grammos. To avoid total defeat the Communists fled into neighbouring Albania and the civil war was over. Greece joined NATO in 1952 and the country experienced a gradual and consistent economic growth, aided by significant grants from the Marshall Plan.

The peace lasted until the mid sixties. In 1963 Greece elected a liberal Prime Minister George Papandreou. The King openly opposed Papandreou's government and there were frequent ultra-rightist plots in the Army which destabilised the government. Eventually the army, supported by NATO worried about Greece’s new leftist leanings, launched a coup d’etat against the elected government in the early hours of April 21, 1967. The colonels were able to quickly seize power by using surprise and confusion. All the leading politicians were arrested. The Regime of the Colonels would last for the next seven years. Although supported by the US, the regime was deeply unpopular within Greece after it abolished civil rights, dissolved political parties and arrested and exiled most politicians.

The focus for opposition was the universities. The junta had banned student elections and drafted leftist students for the armed forces. In February 1973 law students went on strike and barricaded themselves inside the university of Athens demanding the cancelling of the law that imposed forceful drafting of "subversive youths". The strike was brutally broken up by police. In November students at the Athens Polytechnic commenced their own protest, built a barricade and launched a radio station. In the early hours of 17 November, the junta leader George Papadopoulos sent the army in to crush the demonstration. With the city in total darkness, a tank crashed through the gates and crushed the barricade. Though no-one inside were killed, at least 24 people died in fighting in the streets outside the campus.

A junta hardliner Taxiarkhos Ioannides used the uprising as a pretext to re-establish public order and staged a counter-coup that overthrew Papadopoulos one week later. He reinstated strict military law. Ioannides ruled precariously until June 1974 when he botched a coup attempt on Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios. Turkey used this excuse to invade Northern Cyprus and the Greek regime imploded under the political pressure. The Greek public feared all out war with Turkey and emptied supermarkets in the panic and indecision that followed. Ioannides was booted out and a government of national unity was established. Constantine Karamanlis (Greek leader from 1955-1963) was recalled from exile in Paris to lead the government. Upon news of his impending arrival Athenian crowds took to the street cheering and chanting his name. Karamanlis quickly defused the tension with Turkey and presiding over the move to democracy. He legalised the KKE (the Greek Communist Party) and freed all political prisoners. He called elections for November 1974.

Karamanlis won a massive majority for his new conservative party New Democracy in the election. The monarchy was abolished and replaced by a presidency and a new constitution was agreed in 1975. Karamanlis won another election in 1977 and ruled for another three years. The socialist PASOK party under George Papandreou’s son Andreas finally won power in 1981. It was the first socialist government in Greece’s history. That same year, the move to democracy was firmly entrenched when Greece was accepted as the 10th member of the European Community (now Union). Ever since, Greece has experienced remarkable and sustained economic growth based on tourism and shipping. The highlight was the return of the Olympic Games to its spiritual home for the 100th anniversary of the modern games in 2004. The wheels of politics turned again and Kostas Karamanlis (nephew of Constantine) won back power for New Democracy a few months prior to the Olympics marking his party's first electoral victory in nearly 11 years.

However, the anarchist movement remains relatively strong in Greece, especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. The movement developed in the 1970s strongly influenced by German and Italian groups such as Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigade. The movement was shaped by the 1973 insurrection against the colonels. And 17 November every year is the movement's finest hour as it attempts to relive the glory days of fighting against tanks and repressive governments. Unfortunately for them, democratic Greece has moved on a long way since the 1970s and the movement's support remains confined to poverty-stricken ghettos and the last vestige of radical students.

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