Events

The Greek Riots: A Political and Historical Analysis

January 22, 2009 // 9:00am10:30am
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The riots that erupted in Greece, in December 2008, brought to light a social phenomenon that has transpired in the country since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974. Creating extreme unrest in the capitol and other urban cities, it left many world leaders concerned about how the situation would unfold. The uprising of youth protests began with the shooting of a fifteen year old student by the Greek police on December 6, 2008. The incident spurred three weeks of extreme unrest in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other leading cities across the country, with estimates at $1.25 to $2 billion in damage to private property.

As protests continued, the police were unable to manage the escalating violence. In one case, a prominent Greek businessman was kidnapped, however, his wife was left to conduct negotiations with the kidnappers herself and police, as yet, made no arrests in the incident. In January police were themselves the target when a terrorist group called "Revolutionary Struggle" sprayed bullets at several officers in front of the Ministry of Culture building.

There have been many suggested conditions that together could have set the stage for the riots. Greece has faced worsening economic conditions, chronic high unemployment rates, especially among youth, failed public education systems with little support for reform, and ongoing political corruption with scandals by both parties, particularly in the last year. However, there is also a historical and political impetus dating back to 1973 when young Greeks at Athens Polytechnic revolted against the ruling Junta. This event has led to the glorification of youth mobilization and activism, and established a tolerance for low level disorder and violence, and a sentiment among the general populace that such activities are a right of passage. Furthermore, decades of communist and anarchist ideologies have promoted among young Greeks anti-western and anti-capitalist sentiments that show little respect for the rule of law and private property rights. Finally, the political leadership of all parties withdrew to a defensive posture in the face of aggression against the nation state. Their fear of being compared to the Junta's dictators should they take decisive action has made them willing to tolerate damage to private property and the larger social fabric of Greece.

In his presentation, Dr. Kalyvas addressed several questions surrounding the riots, including their underlying cause, who participated, and what message rioters wanted to send to the Greek government. In his criticism of the Greek media for being judgmental and manipulative, Kalyvas suggested that the press has been exaggerating the extent of the damage. Although a host of metro and bus stops, traffic lights, banks, and store windows have been broken and vandalized, no violence has been directed towards the general populace. In fact, the damage done to the ATM machines in Athens, impeding people's ability to withdraw funds, has been the most costly to the city's inhabitants. Dr. Kalyvas said that most of the damage to public property was cleaned up within two to three days and the city was able to return to normal.

According to Kalyvas, the profile of the rioters, who are mostly teenagers, could be divided into three main groups. The first, are the "veteran rioters." This group is comprised of anarchists and extreme leftists between twenty and thirty years of age. They tend to depend on their families financially, have some kind of an education, but are either underemployed or unemployed themselves. Because they wore hoods and covered their faces during the protests, they are referred to as "hooded ones." Around five hundred to one-thousand of these rioters gathered in book shops and cafes to organize protests. Other groups, Kalyvas explained, tend to follow the lead of the veteran rioters.

The second group of rioters are the high school students between fifteen and seventeen years of age, most of whom live in the suburbs. They tend to come from middle class families, and are reported to be second generation immigrants. This particular group of rioters has been involved in breaking windows of shops and other businesses. The last group of rioters are the looters, who, according to Kalyvas, are young Greeks living in ghettos. They have caused damage to local businesses by breaking into stores and damaging merchandise.

In his analysis, Kalyvas states he did not find a coherent message beyond anger against the police among the rioting youth. The burning and destruction of buildings, the prevalence of anarchy signs, terms and threats such as, "Better watch out or chaos is coming to town," written on Athenian buildings were indicative of nihilism, he said.

In order to fully understand the root cause of these riots, Kalyvas explained, it is essential to go through a process of "backward reasoning and cataloging of various grievances." The media portrays some of the leading catalysts to be economic crisis, corruption, police brutality, low confidence in institutions, and a weak education system. However, he emphasized these factors are not exceptional to Greece, yet the same degree of unrest does not occur in other European countries that share some of the same difficulties.

Seeking to unearth the underlying motivations for the disproportionate reaction in Greece, Kalyvas suggested that an alternative explanation may be in order. The initial riots were small, and when they began, the government immediately immobilized the police, telling them only to take a defensive position in order to avoid additional victims. In the meantime, rioting and looting were allowed to continue. The flames were fanned, he says, by the media's outcry after the fifteen year olds death. As Kalyvas stated, the media's action was an "open call for protest." Without any accountability, the journalists' message egged on the riots. Adding to this, in many cases the parents of the young high school students were very sympathetic and, in fact, encouraged their own children to riot. Some of these protests took place in front of police stations where many parents were seen checking on their children, bringing them food, and supporting them for further protests.

Riots periodically occur in Greece, particularly on November 17th, in commemoration of the day that the army stormed the Athens Polytechnic University killing a number of striking students in 1973. Their frequency has come in waves, with the first such wave taking place from 1979 to 1981, the second wave occurring from 1990 to 1991, and with the most recent events constituting the third wave.

It is this established culture of protests in Greece that has had a tremendous influence on events. Unfortunately, there are few consequences for protesters and little concern on the part of the public, even when the demonstrations reach the point of violence. This form of protest is almost always understood to be justified. Kalyvas believes that the social and media elite sustain this culture of riot. A weakened police apparatus, with an asylum law that prevents them from entering university buildings--enacted after the 1973 events at Athens Polytechnic--further inhibits their ability to control the riots.

Kalyvas concludes by reiterating that the culture of riots can only be changed if the social and media elites stigmatize such behavior. It will require a deep cultural shift; however, no one at the top has been willing to risk such a move. It appears that without a radical change in mindset, rioting, unfortunately, will continue to be a part of Greek politics in the near future.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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