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Dispatch December 19, 2008

"Pay close attention to Greece; at a time of world-wide economic upheaval, it might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009"

by Robert D. Kaplan

Those Greek Riots

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Greece has been torn apart by the worst riots in decades, now entering their third week. Bands of self-declared anarchist youths have rampaged through the streets of Athens and other major cities causing hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, setting off a spiral of unrest in which the nation’s unions, among other groups, have taken part. Both shops and hotel lobbies have been ransacked, and hospitals, airports, and transport have been brought to a standstill. What sparked the riots was the accidental police shooting of a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos. But as usual in such cases, there was much more in the way of causes lying beneath the surface.

Youth unemployment is high throughout the European Union, but it is particularly high in Greece, hovering between 25 and 30 percent. With few job prospects, rampant poverty in the face of nouveau riche prosperity, a public university system in shambles, a bloated government sector in desperate need of an overhaul, and a weak, defensive conservative government with only a one-seat majority in parliament, it is a ripe period for protests, which have had as their aim the fall of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

Greece could now be at a crossroads, which requires a bit of history to explain. Following World War II, Greece had a civil war, which pitted an old guard pro-Soviet left against a pre-modern unenlightened right. The civil war left scars for decades on the country’s politics, pushing left- and right-wing parties into ideological barricades, inflamed further by personal hatreds arising out of the war years. Then there was the dynastic, coffee-house politics of intrigue and corruption that a poor country struggling to erect a modern middle class was prone to. Greece’s very fragility and strategic eastern Mediterranean position during the Cold War led to heavy-handed American tutelage. The Truman Doctrine might have saved Greece from the communism of its Balkan neighbors to the north, but Greeks were not grateful, because of the Latin American-style interference with which Greece was subjected to by America. The colonels who took power in a 1967 coup ruled Greece in a brutal manner that brought forth the worst kind of unregulated Third World-type development. They were backed by the United States, even as they were despised at home. The first real crack in the military regime came in November 1973, when protests at the Athens Polytechnic led to the downfall of one junta leader and the ascension of another, whose regime was toppled the next year with the reinstitution of democracy. From then on, student protests in Greece have had a particularly poignant legitimacy to them, as well as a distinctly leftist edge, laced with the left’s uniquely effective ability to question authority.

The protests of today are not about America; they are about the legitimacy of a government that has been in power for four years without achieving much. With the global recession bearing down on Greece, the country is in desperate need of difficult reforms and privatization measures to help it in the Darwinian struggle to attract foreign investment, upon which much economic growth is dependent. The problem is that despite the probability of new elections, Greece seems destined to suffer through a period of weak governments, which will lack the political capital to do what’s necessary in the way of change. The conservative New Democracy party has been neutered by the riots, even as the left-of-center Panhellenic Socialist Union (PASOK) is compromised by close ties to the very labor unions who would have to be challenged if meaningful reform is to take place. Of course, PASOK could carry out the reforms, in the manner of a right-wing President Richard Nixon going to China, but it could only conceivably do so with a strong majority in parliament, which it will probably not get. What’s more likely is increased influence by smaller and more radical parties, like the communists. Thus, Greece could dither and end up politically paralyzed.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as a purely Greek affair that carries little significance to the outside world. But the global economic crisis will take different forms in different places in the way that it ignites political unrest. Yes, youth alienation in Greece is influenced by a particular local history that I’ve very briefly outlined here. But it is also influenced by sweeping international trends of uneven development, in which the uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism have left haves and bitter have-nots, who, in Europe, often tend to be young people. And these young people now have the ability to instantaneously organize themselves through text messages and other new media, without waiting passively to be informed by traditional newspapers and television. Technology has empowered the crowd—or the mob if you will.

Pay close attention to Greece; at a time of world-wide economic upheaval, it might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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