Posts Tagged 'immigration'

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

The dubious politics of Fortress Europe

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By Harry van Versendaal

An estimated 800 people died on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe capsized near Libya. The disaster came a week after two other shipwrecks left some 450 people dead. Little will change as long as European politicians insist on blocking all existing legal ways of setting foot on the continent, claims a new book on the subject of the European Union’s immigration policy.

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom.

“Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said.

Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy.

“There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said.

The book documents the growing interest of Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in purchasing drones to enhance its surveillance capabilities in the context of its unfolding Eurosur project. Eurosur, a surveillance and data-sharing system that first went into effect in late 2013, relies on satellite imagery and drones to detect migrant vessels at sea.

The author goes back to October 2011 to tell the story of how the Warsaw-based organization hosted and financed a show for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems in Aktio, northwest Greece. That was, Fotiadis claims, where Greek officials for the first time pondered the idea of acquiring drone technology. Greece is expected to sign a deal later this year.

The European Commission has defended the agency’s moves, saying that it is within the legal obligations of Frontex to participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of the bloc’s external borders.

“What they are doing is not necessarily illegal. However, an entire network of institutions has been held hostage as they have installed a non-transparent mantle behind which they promote their own interests,” he said.

No magic recipe

Fotiadis researched the subject for three years. Access to information was not always easy, he says, as much of what is at stake is decided behind closed doors. Despite the interesting insights, Fotiadis’s gripping book does not offer possible ways out of Europe’s problem. The author holds that efforts to come up with foolproof solutions are in vain. There simply aren’t any.

“There is no specific reason why migration occurs. Hence, there is no magic recipe. It is a constant problem which requires constant adjustment. The point is to have a genuine debate on it – which you don’t have – so that you can carry out the right adjustments,” he said.

More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 as people try to escape violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The Italian-run Mare Nostrum, a 9-million-euro-per-month mission launched in the aftermath of the 2013 Lampedusa drownings was ditched because it was deemed costly and politically unpopular. It has been succeeded by a much more limited EU-led mission called Triton.

Although there are no magic solutions, the Europeans could nevertheless shoulder some of the blame for the trouble, Fotiadis says. “The EU’s foreign policy is a push factor. The nature of many of the ongoing crises has in part been influenced by decisions of European states,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls to intervene in Libya in 2011, an idea that found backing among other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“By no means wishing to defend authoritarian regimes, the current situation is not necessarily better than the previous one,” Fotiadis said, adding that Europeans made similar mistakes on Syria as they continued to arm and fund the rebels even after the situation there had spun out of control.

“Europe likes to present itself as part of the solution while it’s actually part of the problem,” he said.

Significant in the overall process, Fotiadis argues, is the willingness of the EU to gradually externalize its immigration controls, setting up screening centers in the countries of origin – a process which he saw at work in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.

A 10-point action plan put forward by the European Commission and backed by EU foreign and interior ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday foresees the deployment of immigration liaison officers abroad to gather intelligence on migration flows and strengthen the role of EU delegations. The plan was set to be discussed at an emergency EU summit in Brussels late Thursday. However, according to a report in the Guardian, EU leaders were due to only allow 5,000 refugees to resettle in Europe, with the remainder set to be repatriated as irregular migrants.

‘Sinister bulwark’

The book focuses on Greece which, being part of the EU’s external frontier, has become a major gateway for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. More than 10,000 people arrived illegally in the first quarter of 2015, while the number is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. Greece’s handling has been mostly awkward but Fotiadis is equally keen to point a finger at the hypocrisy amid the nation’s European partners.

“They want Greece to do the dirty work and, at the same time, criticize it for any human rights’ violations. They know very well what goes on here, but they keep sending funds to keep this sinister bulwark in place,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have in the past accused Frontex of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating and systematic degradation of undocumented migrants.

Does debt-hit Greece have what it takes to deal with the problem? For one thing, Fotiadis argues, the country has never seen a proper debate on the issue of immigration while news coverage has been largely hijacked by populist and scaremongering media.

“The topic has been communicated in a hysterical, vulgar manner. When the discourse is that of ‘hordes of invading immigrants,’ there is inevitably very little room for a reasonable reaction,” he said. “Throw them in the sea or else they will eat us alive,” said the headline of an ultra-conservative tabloid published ahead of the interview.

Otherwise, Fotiadis believes, there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people.

“All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

As the death toll of people trying to reach Greece rises, Fotiadis was happy to see leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call for greater European solidarity to deal with the problem and plead for “diplomatic initiatives” to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

He also defends the leftist-led government’s controversial decision to shut down migrant detention facilities across the country, saying that its conservative predecessors had abused the legal detention limits. However, he argues the government should have been better prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision.

“As with many other issues, they were well-intended but ill-prepared,” he said.

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

Pressed by human rights activists, Greece pledges to stop deportations of Syrian refugees

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greece on Wednesday pledged to halt deportations of Syrian refugees, as human rights activists called for measures to ensure that asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle Eastern state have access to Greek territory and safety.

“No Syrian refugees will be detained or returned,” Manolis Katriadakis, who is responsible for migration issues at the Ministry of Public Order, told a conference organized in Athens by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“Deportation decisions on Syrians will be suspended and reviewed every six months,” he said, adding that authorities were trying to improve access to asylum services for them.

Two years since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is estimated that more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died while tens of thousands of political prisoners remain unaccounted for. The UNHCR reckons that over 1.3 million refugees, 71 percent of whom are women and children, have fled Syria and a further 2 million have been displaced within the country as the Arab Spring-inspired protest movement degenerated into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

“The Syria situation is one of the most complex and dangerous in the world and the largest and most quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet,” UNHCR regional refugee coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said.

“The situation is desperate and is becoming explosive,” he said.

Greece, a key transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to sneak into the European Union, has been relatively unaffected by the Syria crisis, figures suggest.

Last year, about 8,000 Syrians were detected entering or residing in Greece illegally. A total 1,623 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first quarter of 2013. There is no official number of the Syrians living in Greece at the moment.

“Greece must remain on standby, but it is by no means faced with a [humanitarian] crisis, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, adding that the brunt of the refugee exodus has been borne by Syria’s neighbors.

Lebanon has received an estimated 417,827 refugees while 432,263 have fled into Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Iraq has provided refuge for 130,379 people.

Strengthened security in the Evros region, including a 10.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the Turkish frontier, has led to a spike in arrivals on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast. Would-be immigrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars for space on a packed rubber dinghy. Dozens drown in the sea every year. Those who manage to get a foot on the ground have to deal with messy asylum and immigration systems and the growing menace of far-right thugs.

Like all other immigrants, Syrians are subject to arrest, detention, rejection of asylum, pushbacks and deportations, activists say.

In 2012, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the first instance was just two. Because of Greece’s bad reputation, most don’t even bother to apply for protection status – only 152 applications were submitted last year. Meanwhile, at least 55 have been deported since last year according to Human Rights Watch, although Greek authorities deny the allegations, saying these concerned voluntary repatriations.

“Detention is problematic and conditions are inappropriate,” Tsarbopoulos said of the overcrowded and underserviced migrant camps across the country while stressing the problems caused by the lack of interpreters and qualified interviewers to even establish if the asylum seekers are Syrians or not.

“Clearly, they are not treated the way they should be by the authorities,” he said.

Greece’s much-criticized asylum system is finally set for a revamp. In 2011 the country, which has often complained of unfair burden-sharing to its peers in the 27-member bloc, was found in breach of the Convention on Human Rights over detention conditions at immigrant camps. The new asylum system, which will not involve the police, is to go into effect on June 1, Katriadakis said.

“That will hopefully solve most of the problems,” he added.

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Twilight of the idols

By Harry van Versendaal

The most poignant message to come out of Greece’s latest ballot was that Golden Dawn, the xenophobic party with the meander emblem that closely resembles the swastika, is here to stay.

Many people had hoped that a number of high-profile, controversial incidents that occurred after an inconclusive vote last month would put voters off by exposing the true character of the party.

They were wrong. Golden Dawn eventually managed to hold its ground and once again secure some 7 percent of the national vote, vindicating those experts who claim that the structural conditions are in place to guarantee that the Greek neo-Nazi party won’t be just a flash in the pan. This would mean that even if the economic crisis were to disappear, the extremist threat would remain.

“I think that Greece’s historical conditions and institutional shortcomings have played a more important role in the party’s rise than the economic crisis,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens. “Golden Dawn has been strengthened by the collapse, or in any case perceived collapse, of the country’s party and political system,” she adds. The party has tried to exploit this by relying on anti-systemic, highly divisive discourse to attract support. “I’d like to thank the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who did not ‘correct’ their vote, as they were urged to do by paid journalists and propagandists, and stayed on the side of Golden Dawn,” party boss Nikos Michaloliakos said in a televised message after Sunday’s vote.

Over the past 10 years, public surveys have consistently found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Asked to rate their trust in politicians on a scale of 0 to 10 in a European Social Survey in 2002, 80 percent gave responses from 0 to 5. By 2010, this percentage had gone up to 96 percent.

The economic crisis has been a catalyst that has accelerated the dismantling of a deeply dysfunctional political status quo. Greece, which depends on a EU/IMF bailout to stay afloat, is currently in its fifth year of recession. Brutal salary and pension cuts, and a significant drop in the minimum wage to under 400 euros, have failed to put the brakes on unemployment, which skyrocketed to a record 22.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Textbook stuff. The tumultuous economic environment and soaring crime, in part a result of unchecked immigration into the country, have pushed big chunks of disenchanted, angry or simply insecure people to the far right. The Golden Dawn party was elected on a platform of kicking all immigrants out of the country and placing land mines along the Greek border with Turkey.

“The degradation of public order, the ghettoization of large parts of downtown Athens, and the rise in crime and insecurity are the primary vote-getters for Golden Dawn in Greece’s urban centers,” says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale.

With the exception of multiculti idealists on the left, most people here are ready to acknowledge the disruptive fallout from the massive influx of clandestine immigrants. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, 57,000 illegal immigrants — from Africa, Asia and the Middle East — were recorded trying to cross the Greek borders in 2011. More than 1 million are believed to live in Athens today. Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations, Greece has to accommodate all migrants entering the bloc via its borders; transit to other EU countries is not permitted. With the economic downturn resulting in a lack of jobs, many of them are stuck in limbo, unable to move into another European country or back home. Some resort to crime to survive.

Greece’s handling of the problem leaves a lot to be desired. Chronic neglect has been interrupted by sporadic, knee-jerk campaigns — mostly publicity stunts aimed at appeasing voters. Prompted by the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, bigger parties have cynically toughened their rhetoric and signed up for heavy-handed measures like the construction of a 12.5-kilometer razor-wire-topped fence along the Turkish border in the northeast. Critics say that government policies such as so-called sweep operations and the construction of detention camps have legitimized hardline policies, while often making xenophobic phraseology part of the political mainstream.

“Politicians have in the past couple of years appeared to aim to further polarize the migration issue, as if they were trying to deflect people’s attention from other issues. But the policy has backfired,” blogger Achilleas Plitharas says. That said, he is less willing to share another oft-heard view, mostly shared among centrist liberals here, that leftist tolerance of anti-establishment acts and language — like the makeshift gallows in Syntagma Square and slogans about the 1967 military regime — in fact helped prepare the ground for the rise of Golden Dawn.

“I don’t think that the vast majority of those protesters went down some neofascist path. Nor do I believe that the Indignant movement pushed people toward Golden Dawn,” Plitharas says of the massive anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens last year, adding however that the extremist party has tried to exploit the tense political environment.

Youth magnet

Unlike mainstream political parties that seek to establish a balanced organizational presence across the country, Golden Dawn always tries to first establish itself in specific areas where it finds fertile ground. “They seek to establish strongholds first; they then try to diffuse their power across the country. Now we’re in the diffusion phase,” Georgiadou explains. The party, which will now be entitled to some 3.5 million euros in state subsidies, scored its biggest shares of the vote in the center of Athens, Piraeus’s second constituency and in other smaller urban centers across the country including Laconia, Messinia and Corinthos, where it grabbed a stunning 11.1 percent.

Golden Dawn has been a magnet for young voters, placing second in the 18-24 age group. Experts attribute its strong appeal to the declining influence of ideology among younger generations and to a weak historical consciousness. “Younger generations are not aware of the negative repercussions that authoritarian regimes have had on the country. I am not sure if the ’junta’ means anything to a 18-year-old today,” Georgiadou says. Commentators have been surprised to see the party, which officially denies any Nazi leanings, attracting votes in places of WWII atrocities like Distomo, Kalavryta, Kaisariani and the village of Kommeno in Arta.

In a world where traditional institutions of authority have lost their sway and credibility, Golden Dawn understandably offers a vigorous, vitalist alternative that strikes a chord with young people. “Its emphasis on collective action, uniform-like garb, and a local presence supplies elements of structure to many youths who feel dejected, aren’t inspired by what they see as a cynical culture around them, and are no longer able to accede to the consumerist culture that had come to dominate Greek society,” Kalyvas says.

Six weeks elapsed between the two ballots as Greece struggled to find its political footing. Local media and journalists who had previously snubbed the extremist party altered their stance in a bid to expose it in the eyes of a purportedly misguided electorate. But pollsters were surprised to discover that a number of controversial incidents, most infamously the attack by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris against two female leftist deputies during a live televised debate, actually worked in the party’s favor. As one commentator put it, when it comes to fascists, violence is porn.

“What took place between those two elections was pretty much inconsequential,” according to writer and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos. “Golden Dawn voters applaud violence and hate speech. Those vulgar displays only reinforced a choice they had already made,” he says.

After the election on May 6, which saw the party enter Parliament for the first time, attacks on immigrants by suspected right-wing extremists have become a regular occurrence. A Pakistani man was stabbed at Attiki metro station, near central Athens, after the vote on Sunday. Police detained 25 people believed to have been involved in the assault but they were all set free after the victim failed to identify any of them. Victims have in the past been warned against identifying their attackers or face been beaten up. A quick browse through the social media reveals that the TV studio attack failed to invite universal condemnation. Even fewer Greeks would identify with the stabbed victim, a foreigner. “After all, such incidents are very rarely shown on TV and, as a result, many people may not even believe that they’ve even taken place,” Georgiadou says.

Free rein

Banning Golden Dawn is obviously not a solution. “Even if there were a way to disband this party immediately, its voters would still be there among us,” according to Georgakopoulos, who also falls behind the truism that hatred, racism and bigotry must be rooted out of schools as well as homes. Most liberal analysts would agree that it’s better to let extremists expose themselves to ridicule and historical scrutiny than pose as martyrs. At the same time, there is an equally important need to separate despicable ideas from criminal acts like organized attacks against immigrants. For Kalyvas, “Golden Dawn benefits from both the tolerant ethos of the Greek polity and the collapse of public order and the justice system.” After Kasidiaris struck Liana Kanelli of the Greek Communist Party, a prosecutor ordered his arrest on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm. The 31-year-old former commando lay low until the arrest warrant expired while police launched a rather unconvincing manhunt to trace him. Allegations of police bias are not uncommon. Questions have been raised after footage from demonstrations emerged showing members of the party and policemen on friendly terms. Figures indicate that an unusually high percentage of Athens police officers — some reports put it at up to 50 percent — voted for Golden Dawn in the past two elections.

Plitharas expects that Golden Dawn’s presence in Parliament, where it won 18 seats, will help undermine its influence. “It will be like exposing a vampire to light,” he says. But it won’t be enough. After all, he says, the biggest problem with Golden Dawn is not its presence in the House during the day but rather the legitimation of its free rein in the streets of the city during the night. “If you can freeze the organization’s nighttime activity, it will then be easier to curb its dynamism; it will be like its blood transfusions have stopped,” he says, emphasizing that the first step of the authorities must be severing the party’s ties with members of the security forces. At the same time, he says, the government must take pragmatic steps to cope with the security void around city neighborhoods and, of course, push its European peers for a change to Dublin II treaty to ensure fairer burden-sharing over unregistered migrants.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, for Greece’s political class. Their response will decide nothing less than the future shape of the nation, and their own place in it.

Economic, political crisis catapults far right LAOS into the mainstream

By Harry van Versendaal

Embarrassing foot-dragging by the mainstream parties and growing political turmoil, even for Greece’s anarchic standards, has enabled a small far-right party to claw its way up the greasy pole of domestic politics by successfully asserting itself as champion of a crisis coalition government and accelerator of political developments.

In a bid to ease a crisis that brought Greece closer to a default and a eurozone exit, leaders of the PASOK socialists, New Democracy conservatives, and ultranationalist LAOS party last week agreed on an interim administration under technocrat economist Lucas Papademos. Since its establishment in 2000, LAOS has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, nationalist platform.

“A leadership vacuum presented an opportunity for LAOS, which used it to its own advantage by seeking, and imposing, its own participation in the government,” Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Greece’s debt crisis proved too big for PASOK to tame, causing the dramatic fall of its leader George Papandreou from the country’s top seat. The endgame came after Papandreou’s explosive decision to put a 130-million-euro rescue package agreed with euro area leaders in October to a referendum. The announcement rattled financial markets and sent shock waves through Greece’s European peers. It also proved a catalyst for political developments at home, as Papandreou eventually agreed to step down and make way for a cross-party government.

The power-sharing deal was struck after 10 days of Byzantine negotiations and cringe-worthy political theater. After a boycott from Greece’s left wing parties who rejected the talks as “anti-constitutional,” the provisional government brought together deputies from PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS. (LAOS, which means “the people” in Greek, is short for Popular Orthodox Rally).

“With the two biggest parties unable to govern, and the rest unwilling to govern, LAOS appeared to be the only party that wanted to accelerate developments,” Georgiadou said.

LAOS chief Giorgos Karatzaferis repeatedly called on Papandreou and conservative leader Antonis Samaras to join hands for “the good of the country.” A previous bid between the two politicians to strike a unity government in June fell through.

Greece’s communists, better known after their acronym KKE, have branded the transitional government the “black alliance,” attacking LAOS officials as the “ideological heirs of dictator [Ioannis] Metaxas” — a reference to the country’s leader between 1936 and 1941. SYRIZA, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, has levelled similar accusations.

But a lot of the vitriol, critics agree, is hypocritical. By choosing to stay in the political safe zone, parties on the left effectively gave LAOS more space for maneuver in the bargaining, and more influence in the new government.

“Those who see threats in LAOS’s participation in the government should not overreact now. Not because their fears are unfounded, but because they did nothing to prevent this from happening in the first place,” Georgiadou said.

Cynical conservatives

LAOS, which garnered less than 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 general elections, is over-represented in the 48-member Cabinet with one minister, one alternate and two deputy ministers.

The reason for this interestingly lies with New Democracy — which itself is underrepresented in the new Cabinet. Samaras — who has given critics many reasons to question his commitment to the interim administration — is said to have wanted a heavy LAOS participation in the transition government in order to prevent the party from trawling for New Democracy supporters while in opposition.

Reservations about LAOS’s role have also been voiced inside PASOK, while a Muslim PASOK deputy this week voted down the new government in a vote of confidence.

Critics outside Greece were not too impressed either. France’s Socialist Party expressed “shock” at the news while the Central Committee of German Jews was also adamant, saying that “a professed anti-Semite [such as Karatzaferis] cannot serve in a government with which the German government will need to negotiate billions in aid.”

Greece depends on loans from a 110-billion-euro rescue package agreed in 2010, when mammoth borrowing costs blocked Greece from international markets. That bailout later proved inadequate, forcing the a new loan agreement in late October that will also see a writedown on Greece’s privately held debt by 50 percent.

Past imperfect

To be sure, misgivings about LAOS are justified. Its officials have often made extremist and intolerant comments in the past.

“We are the only real Greeks. We are not from these Jews, homosexuals or communists,” Karatzaferis said in 2000. Two years later in a debate with Israel’s ambassador to Greece, he seemed to dismiss the Holocaust as a myth. “Let’s talk about all these tales of Auschwitz and Dachau,” he had said.

The past of LAOS’s Makis Voridis, the new minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, is also a political minefield. In the early 1980s he led the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group that was founded by ex-dictator Georgios Papadopoulos from inside Korydallos Prison. Five years later, Voridis was kicked out of the law school student union for engaging in extremist acts. In an infamous picture taken at the time, he is seen wielding a hand-made ax (he later said it was for self-defense).

In the mid-1990s, Voridis established the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), a nationalist party with close ties to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. In 2005, Hellenic Front merged with LAOS and Voridis was elected to Parliament two years later.

Voridis, who showed up at the swearing-in ceremony carrying his child in his arms, has toned down his language over the years. Seeking to resonate with a largely middle-class electorate worried about rising crime and economic insecurity, he has sought to wed his trademark law-and-order rhetoric with talk about public sector reform.

His party leader, the media-savvy Karatzaferis, has done his fair share of airbrushing himself. In an interview with Reuters this week he denied he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, describing him as the “greatest criminal” of the 20th century. He also said he regretted previous remarks that Jews were warned to leave the World Trade Center before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

And then there is Adonis Georgiadis. A sort of televangelist who is mocked for hawking his wares (nationalist history books in pseudoscientific disguise), the new development deputy minister began his tenure with changing office signs for ones using the accent system dropped in the early 1980s. But despite his colorful antics, his career has very often verged deep into bigoted territory, such as defending Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Political filter

The rise of the right is not exclusive to Greece, of course. A mix of xenophobia, Europskepticism and unemployment has sent far-right politicians making it into parliament in many European countries including Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Some analysts argue that letting populist parties join a government — provided they have enough votes — is the best way to moderate their message and influence.

“If a party is regarded as populist, it’s also safer to have them inside the government sharing responsibility for the difficult decisions rather than having them outside stirring up reactions on the street,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Georgiadou is not so sure.

“Extreme parties that take over government posts are obliged to adopt less extreme positions, to abandon the politics of protest and to become more institutional and systemic actors,” she said.

“But that does not mean that their voters will be willing to follow,” she added, explaining that voters who disagree with how their party evolves will turn to new groups and organizations to vent their extremist sentiment.

One does not need to look too far. When LAOS decided to back Nikitas Kaklamanis, the New Democracy candidate, in the race for Athens mayor a year ago, the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi group succeeded in swaying far-right voters to elect its own representative in City Hall.

Although LAOS’s participation in the provisional government does not necessarily mean it will inflict permanent damage to the political system, Georgiadou argues that its participation in the government nevertheless sets “a bad precedent.”

Others remain more sanguine.

“Given the depth of the crisis, a wider political base for the government is essential,” Featherstone said, adding that this needs to be as broadly based as possible to be effective.

“Including LAOS achieves this aim, but the exclusion of Dora Bakoyannis, a centrist, was a missed opportunity,” Featherstone said of the Democratic Alliance party that claimed to have been left out after a Samaras veto.

By any measure, the cross-party government marks the end of politics as it was known in this corner of Europe. Like every government, this one too will be judged by its results. But the LAOS contingent — whose part in the coalition risks alienating the core of their grassroots supporters — would seem to have more reasons to make this work than their coalition partners.


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