Posts Tagged 'syriza'

Potami runs dry as support flows to main parties

By Harry van Versendaal

Sunday’s snap vote saw To Potami (The River) fall from would-be kingmaker to bit player, putting its political future in doubt.

The centrist pro-market party won 4.09 percent, about 2 percent down on its previous result eight months ago, and far from the 10 percent target set by its leader, Stavros Theodorakis. In absolute numbers, it lost 151,780 votes compared to January’s elections. Potami was reduced to sixth place, behind neo-fascist Golden Dawn, the left-of-center PASOK socialists and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), as well as front runners SYRIZA and ND.

Exploring the reasons behind the party’s poor performance reveals a mix of political circumstance, character, strategy and ideological credo. Some of the traits have plagued other liberal projects in recent years.

Polarization

Extreme polarization – partly because opinion polls had pointed to a tight race between SYRIZA and New Democracy (ND) – no doubt stole a considerable chunk of votes away from Potami. Early exit poll data indicate that 17.2 percent of those who voted for the party in January defected to SYRIZA, while another (surprisingly smaller) 14.5 percent went to ND. Just over half of those who voted for Potami in January renewed their support. In the end, and much to the embarrassment of most pollsters, the leftist party of Alexis Tsipras went on to win the vote with a comfortable 7.5 percent margin.

Potami’s purportedly pragmatic strategy to announce that in order to “save” the country it would be willing to join either a right-wing or left-wing government and serve as the balancing force did not seem to resonate with voters.

“The deeply nonpartisan message ‘I can cooperate with ND and SYRIZA if it means preventing the country from being left without a government’ eventually backfired. ‘In that case,’ voters said, ‘why not give my vote straight to ND or SYRIZA?’ And this is what they did,” Potami candidate Petros Tatsopoulos said on Facebook. Perhaps more controversially, Tatsopoulos said the party should shed its pretentions of being the “virtuous loner” and seek to join forces with PASOK.

Populism

Founded in February last year, Potami found itself slap-bang in the middle of a tectonic shift in the Greek political landscape caused by the devastating debt crisis. As the two mainstream parties PASOK and New Democracy lost their supremacy, smaller movements began mushrooming along the bailout fault-line, aligning themselves either for or against.

But Potami positioned itself as a post-bailout and post-political movement firmly anchored in the European Union and the eurozone. It shunned the typical trappings of Greek politics. Instead of flag-waving rallies, its leader, a former TV journalist, opted for small town-hall meetings with a seated audience.

Instead of creating a youth wing replete with chants and slogans, Theodorakis wandered around beaches passing out portable ashtrays to smokers and set up eco-friendly camping tents as campaign kiosks to attract disenchanted urban voters. He preached pragmatism, reason and common sense while calling for radical reform of the country’s dysfunctional public sector. Around him, he gathered a motley crew of academics, businessmen and nonpolitical individuals.

Less than a year after its creation, Potami seemed to have succeeded where other liberal-leaning parties had failed after gaining 6.05 percent and 17 seats in Greece’s Parliament. But then things turned sour.

The aversion to populism was key to the party’s failure, according to Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Yale. Given Theodorakis’s visibility and popularity, Kalyvas says, the absence of populism meant that his appeal would find a limited market mostly consisting of intellectuals and intellectual professionals.

“There are just not as many of them, especially in a time of crisis when downwardly mobile intellectuals tend to be particularly spiteful and hence not open to the serious and optimistic message of Potami,” Kalyvas said.

However, its cerebral message was not Potami’s only impediment.

In Parliament, with few exceptions, Potami MPs seemed muted and awkward. Despite its abhorrence of populism, the party’s most visible MPs, apart from a former general secretary of revenues, became a second-rate actor and a former travel show presenter – neither academics nor intellectuals. Its slick marketing was not accompanied by a clear political message. And Theodorakis himself lacked political gravitas, often giving the impression he was acting the part of a political leader, reading his lines in his smooth TV presenter’s voice.

To make matters worse, Theodorakis’s dispassionate everyman was obliterated by the supernova of Alexis Tsipras, the youthful, magnetic leader of SYRIZA who was convinced – and convincing – that he was on a mission to save Greece and change Europe.

“Even if Theodorakis had picked populism, the niche was already taken by the time he emerged, and SYRIZA had a first-mover advantage,” Kalyvas said.

Elitism

Although Theodorakis assumed responsibility for the poor electoral result, he did seem to claim the high ground, feeding allegations of elitism.

“Maybe in times of crisis society is not in a position to make a cool assessment of the situation and to give its support to a party that represents reason and progress,” said Theodorakis, lending weight to critics bothered by the party’s alleged elitism and intellectual snobbery.

Writing for the website Protagon in the wake of election day, liberal author and former Potami member Nikos Dimou too appeared to suggest that the root causes of defeat lay with the public, and not the product.

“Everyone, even rivals, agreed [Potami] had the best officials. But that too was destroyed by this abhorrence of excellence. You put a man like [constitutional expert] Nikos Alivizatos in a prominent position? You’re asking for it. A party ruled by excellence and reason has no business in a Roman bazaar,” he wrote.

Network

Much in keeping with its post-political profile, Potami decided to skip local party organizations across the country, a standard but costly tradition for Greece’s mainstream political parties. Instead, Potami relied for the most part on an Internet-based campaign that affected its influence – particularly in the Greek countryside.

“In a low-turnout election, where MPs were elected according to their position on the lists of party candidates [rather than the ‘crosses,’ or votes, each received], campaigning is crucial. As a result, Potami’s presence was weak outside Athens,” said Spyros Kosmidis, a political expert at Oxford University.

On top of that, Potami was damaged by low turnout among young voters, the party’s main reservoir of support.

Vanity

None of the liberal parties launched in Greece in the past 15 years – including the Liberals of Stefanos Manos, Drasi, Democratic Alliance and Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) has been able to break into the mainstream. Analysts tend to point out Greek liberals’ inability to communicate their message, to do single issue politics and get involved in the daily grind of Greek politics. Another reason is the vanity of small differences: Despite their similar platforms, parties are unwilling to compromise on basic issues, leaving the country without a meaningful center-left.

It is happening again. As Potami’s licks its wounds, the once-dominant PASOK is waiting around the corner. A subtle overture from Socialist officials on Wednesday was turned down by Theodorakis, who said that the party would either “remain independent or break up.” He said he was not willing to see the party “become an appendage to New Democracy, PASOK or SYRIZA” and called a congress for the beginning of December, where members are expected to debate what went wrong during the election campaign.

“I find it hard to believe that PASOK and Potami would join forces so long as Theodorakis remains in charge of the party. Timing will certainly play a key role in any future move,” Kosmidis said, adding two more critical factors: the identity of ND’s next leader and the trajectory of SYRIZA’s popularity.

Purists certainly fear that a merger would pollute Potami beyond recognition. The recent election of Fofi Gennimata, an old-school PASOK apparatchik whose father was a senior party official, as the Socialist leader, has fed to skepticism. On the other hand, analysts say a collaboration would bring together the newcomers’ know-how and intellectual seriousness with the Socialists’ far-reaching network of local organizations.

For Alexandra Patrikiou, an expert in political history, a merger would be a boon for the country’s fragmented center-left. But it also seems inevitable for Potami.

“The absence of a clear political identity was not necessarily a handicap. It made the party more flexible and more adaptable, at a time when that was necessary,” Patrikiou said.

“But this absence renders the party hostage to circumstance. It means that it will not be able to survive long-term unless it transforms itself into something different. Today’s strength will become tomorrow’s weakness,” she said.

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Austerity pinch, SYRIZA breakup threaten Tsipras’s teflon suit

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

By Harry van Versendaal

Less than a week after Greek lawmakers voted through the country’s third massive international bailout, Antonis Bertsos, a 69-year-old retired businessman who lives in Athens, has no regrets about supporting SYRIZA in January’s general election. He says he would happily do so again even though the party had to abandon its policy pledges.

“Tsipras is alone among Greek politicians to have truly negotiated with the nation’s creditors,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

Bertsos, who used to work for a German multinational firm, has seen his pension drop by 43 percent since 2010 due to a series of cuts demanded by Greece’s creditors. A former supporter of the socialist PASOK party, he later migrated to the more business-friendly conservative New Democracy: the two parties that dominated the country’s post-dictatorship politics. Now, Bertsos justifies his newfound preference by pointing to SYRIZA’s moral advantage and its youthful leader’s unblemished political record.

“He has never put his hand in the cookie jar,” Bertsos said of the 41-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former member of the Communist party youth movement who became Greece’s youngest party leader at the age of 33.

During Tsipras’s tumultuous tenure as premier, the country has fallen back into recession, sunk deeper into debt, and introduced stringent capital controls as banks shut down for three weeks. On top of that, after the country’s economy all but shut down, Tsipras, elected on a pledge to end austerity, signed up for a 86-billion-euro cash-for-reforms rescue agreement a mere week after Greeks massively backed his plea to reject a less brutal deal in a controversial, nationwide referendum.

But this devastating record does not seem to have put a dent in SYRIZA’s popularity.

A poll by Metron Analysis conducted late last month found that 63 percent of voters deemed that reaching an agreement with lenders was the right move. The survey put voter preference for SYRIZA at 33.6 percent, leaving main opposition New Democracy in the dust on 17.8 percent, or trailing 15.8 percent.

Fresh opinion polls are expected after the summer lull.

The government’s scattergun technique and dismal record, analysts say, has not prevented SYRIZA spinmeisters from building a strong narrative of defiance and victimhood.

“While in opposition, SYRIZA succeeded in tweaking public perception of the bailout agreement. Far from an imperfect, even problematic, remedy to a problem, the memorandum came to be seen as the very source of the Greek crisis,” political expert Elias Dinas told the newspaper.

In the process, SYRIZA casually slipped into nationalist language at odds with its previously progressive rhetoric to attack its conjured enemies. They were, by and large, mainly to be found at home, and were made up of all Greek administrations between 2009 and 2015.

SYRIZA stuck to a similar strategy after climbing to power and winning the January 2015 election. But the strain from trying to keep promising its outrageously untenable campaign pledges, a manifesto known as the “Thessaloniki program,” meant that SYRIZA had to scramble to find a new target. They did not have to look far.

“The villain was now the Germans, [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schaeuble, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, the vaguely defined conservative circles and elite groups inside the European Union,” Dinas said.

“The ideological content of these targets is secondary to the nationalist dimension: They are portrayed as enemies of the Greek people and this generates emotional responses that, of course, favor the government,” he said.

Poor competition

Another reason that Tsipras and his ministers were able to dominate the political scene despite some of the biggest flip-flops in recent memory was the stark absence of a convincing alternative.

“There is simply no viable opposition party that could gain votes from SYRIZA,” said Spyros Kosmidis, an expert on elections and public opinion.

“This leaves a lot of wiggle room for mistakes and delays,” he said.

Following former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s ignominious exit, New Democracy seems pretty much locked in existential mode. The conservatives recently voted Vangelis Meimarakis as their new leader. He is a no-nonsense party stalwart who is popular across the political spectrum but whose presence at the helm reflects the lack of alternatives for the main opposition party. Its most recognizable faces are also those that took part in the ND-PASOK coalition that suffered a landslide defeat in January. It will take time until ND manages to present itself as a real competitor to SYRIZA.

In the Socialist camp, the party’s spectacular decline was sealed by the election of the underwhelming Fofi Gennimata as its new leader. Her sharp jibes at Tsipras have fallen on deaf ears, and the extinction of the most dominant force in Greek politics has left a vacuum at the center.

Seeking to fill this vacuum, the pro-European, pro-business Potami party, which was launched last year, represents the most serious bid to energize reformist voters, yet it does not have what it takes to occupy the middle ground.

And for a large chunk of voters who abandoned longstanding ties with other parties, it doesn’t even matter whether someone else would actually be better for the country – it would be hard to accept that the change they believed in could turn out to be false.

“These voters will be rationalizing their choice for quite some time,” Kosmidis said.

Nascent impact

Although SYRIZA’s ratings have escaped relatively unscathed, Tsipras’s teflon suit could start to wear uncomfortably thin as voters begin to feel the pinch of the mounting austerity measures.

Studies estimate that the total burden on the average household from changes to VAT rates will reach 650 euros on an annual basis.

After trying to shirk responsibility for the six-month economic decline, SYRIZA is likely to try the same on the impact of the third memorandum.

“Attributing blame to creditors or the previous governments can be a successful strategy, but it has a short expiry date,” Kosmidis said, adding that the fallout, especially on employment, will inevitably hit the government’s popularity.

“When that happens, the ‘bad Europeans’ narrative will no longer work,” he said.

But then again, maybe we won’t see a sharp drop in the popularity of SYRIZA and Tsipras. PASOK, after all, went on to win the 2010 local elections six months after the first bailout agreement.

“SYRIZA’s decline will be gradual and linear to economic outcomes. The opposition’s support for the third bailout agreement will help them maintain some support,” Kosmidis said.

Yawning divide

Experts deem that the most likely factor to accelerate popularity loss is the nascent split within SYRIZA – officially known as the Coalition of the Radical Left.

Tsipras has on three separate occasions relied on votes from ND, PASOK and Potami to pass legislation mandated by creditors as SYRIZA MPs rebeled. The process has exposed the party’s pre-existing division between a majority of pragmatic MPs and a vociferous minority of dissidents spearheaded by former energy minister and head of the mutinous Left Platform Panayiotis Lafazanis. A day before Greek lawmakers endorsed the bailout deal, Lafazanis announced that he would help set up a new, anti-bailout movement.

The fracture has made elections unavoidable, but it is still unclear whether Tsipras will hold a vote of confidence to trigger a snap vote, as some of his close aides have advised him, or choose to first pass the bulk of legislation implementing reforms Athens has committed to by the end of September.

New dichotomy

In any case, SYRIZA will most likely seek to transform the pro- vs anti-bailout cleavage that has animated Greek politics into a pro-euro versus pro-drachma one.

“It is ironic that the party which built its popularity on this dichotomy will now try to abandon it, but nothing is written in stone when it comes to electoral politics,” Dinas said.

Although it should not be ruled out, a collaboration between SYRIZA and center-left parties, including Potami, is unlikely.
It is also not necessary, experts say, as SYRIZA still has room to play the critical pro-bailout force without deviating into center-left territory.

“SYRIZA’s populist discourse has a nationalist component that enables the party to draw support from the non-leftist section of society without having to approach the median voter in ideological terms,” Dinas said.

“This is thanks to a populist tradition that goes a long way back, but one that SYRIZA has served very well since the beginning of the crisis,” he said, indicating the decision to join forces with the populist nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Shrugging off the repercussions of the fresh barrage of cost-cutting measures, Bertsos suggested that the source of most woes is, in fact, far from home.

“Sure, Tsipras has made mistakes, but the pressure on him from outside was unprecedented. They [foreign creditors] really wanted to rip him to shreds,” Bertsos said, adding that Athens paid the price of antagonism between Brussels and Washington.

“When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled,” he said.

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.

Cynical SYRIZA puts its soul on the line

By Harry van Versendaal

If there’s one thing core SYRIZA voters were not prepared for before the January 25 ballot, it is the degree of cynicism that has come from the direction of the newly-installed administration.

Hours after winning a snap election that it triggered itself, the left-wing anti-bailout party of Alexis Tsipras went on to announce it would form a government with the populist right-wing party Independent Greeks (ANEL). The news broke so fast, mere hours after the conservative New Democracy party had conceded defeat, few out there had any doubts the deal had actually been sealed long beforehand.

Despite immense differences in overall ideology, the two parties have been united for nearly three years in their opposition to the country’s bailout agreements and the brutal austerity policies that came with them. Panos Kammenos, the ANEL chief who left New Democracy over the bailout program in 2012, stands for everything that makes a good old SYRIZA voter shudder: he is a nationalist, anti-immigrant, homophobic and devoutly Orthodox Christian. He was given the Defense Ministry portfolio, a dream job for the outspoken and short-tempered politician, while his appointment suited the leftist party, often accused of being soft on security and foreign policy. In one of his first acts in office, Kammenos caused Turkey to scramble fighter jets by flying in a helicopter over the uninhabited islet of Imia in the eastern Aegean over which Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war in 1996.

The alliance with ANEL left a bitter taste in the mouths of grassroots voters who have stuck up for SYRIZA from the time when it was still a miniscule political force (founded in 2004 as an umbrella party for several leftist groups, the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA’s full name, won just 241,539 votes, or 3.3 percent, in its first election later that year, just entering parliament). Many would have preferred to see an alliance with To Potami (The River) which ended up fourth in January’s election. Notwithstanding its fuzzy rhetoric and uncertain direction, the centrist newcomer sits closer to SYRIZA’s liberal, progressive values.

It did not take long before To Potami criticized SYRIZA’s hardline approach to debt negotiations that have now sparked warnings of a euro exit. Its reaction added voice to the more pragmatic folk within SYRIZA who had ruled out a collaboration with the party of Stavros Theodorakis on the grounds that bargaining for a better deal should be SYRIZA’s top priority and that an ambivalent, half-hearted To Potami would have no qualms about throwing SYRIZA under the bus. Once it has clinched a better deal, the argument goes, an empowered SYRIZA can win an absolute majority after calling a snap election.

The irony is that few SYRIZA voters really expected that the party would make true on its campaign pledge to clash with the nation’s foreign creditors. More, rather, had taken for granted that Tsipras would perform a “kolotoumba” (somersault, or about-face) the instant he took office. But they did not mind, as long as the despised New Democracy was swept from office.

Realpolitik was again at full play during this week’s presidential election – the political process that triggered Greece’s premature election in the first place. Once again, the party let down those who expected a leftist president – among them WWII resistance hero and SYRIZA MEP Manolis Glezos – to succeed Karolos Papoulias, a former PASOK minister. Despite rife speculation that he would nominate Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former conservative minister currently appointed at the European Commission, Tsipras picked Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former interior minister and parliamentary spokesman for New Democracy.

Pavlopoulos, who was comfortably elected president earlier this week, has been accused of filling thousands of state sector jobs with conservative party cronies and acolytes during his stint as interior minister between 2004- 2009. He is as much a supporter of the bailout agreements voted in Parliament, as a symbol of the causes that forced Greece to sign them in the first place. He also was in charge during the massive riots that broke out in Athens following the police shooting of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008.

During a speech to the party’s parliamentary group, Tsipras defended the decision to nominate Pavlopoulos saying it was aimed at forging “unity and consensus” in society at a difficult period. A better explanation might be that the nomination enabled SYRIZA to forge a split inside the traumatized New Democracy of ex-premier Antonis Samaras. At the same time, Tsipras made an overture (not the first one) to the conservative faction controlled by former Premier Costas Karamanlis, a moderate who won two consecutive elections in the 00’s by swaying Greece’s so-called middle ground.

All that could be forgiven (though hardly forgotten) if SYRIZA manages to come back with a meaningful result from tense negotiations in Brussels. If it clinches a deal, the party will gradually have to deliver on issues like police reform, immigration, justice and labor rights to reassure leftist voters. If it loses the bailout fight, the party may prove unable to win back its soul.

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

Mazower warns Greece is underestimating threat of Golden Dawn

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greeks must not underestimate the threat of Golden Dawn if they accept it as a legitimate, mainstream political movement British historian Mark Mazower said Tuesday.

Speaking during a lecture on Greece’s political extremes at Deree – The American College of Greece, Mazower did not hesitate to draw parallels between the Greek far right party and the nationalist socialist (Nazi) party of the 1930s.

“There is commonality of approach,” he said of the two parties stressing their emphasis on biological racism and violent street tactics that sets them apart from other European nationalist movements like Le Pen’s National Front party.

Golden Dawn officials vehemently deny any Nazi affiliation saying they are Greek nationalists and that they have nothing to do with Hitler or Mussolini.

“Any right-wing party worth its salt is keen to stress its nationalist credentials,” said 55-year-old Mazower, an expert on Greece and the Balkans who teaches history at Columbia University.

Greece’s brutal financial crisis has catapulted Golden Dawn, for years at the fringes of domestic politics, into the spotlight. A recent opinion poll put the party’s support at 11.5 percent, compared to the 7 percent that it garnered in June’s election. This puts the party, which currently holds 18 seats in the 300-member House, in third place behind conservative coalition leader New Democracy and leftist opposition SYRIZA.

Reports of deadly attacks against immigrants by alleged supporters of Golden Dawn and its open endorsement of the country’s 1967-1974 military dictatorship have not dented its appeal among voters in a country where national self-understanding has to a significant degree been shaped by the fight against the Nazis and opposition to the junta.

Mazower, who has written a number of books on 20th century Greek and European history, said Greece’s political class has failed to assume culpability or accept even a symbolic share of the burden that the population has had to shoulder as a result of the painful bailout agreements. Nevertheless, he said, Greeks must not turn their back on the democratic legacy of the post-1974 era.

“People need to defend the achievement of the metapolitefsi,” he said of what is widely regarded as the longest period of democratic stability in the country’s modern history.

However, he said, they should try to remedy the system’s failings starting with “the credibility of the political class.”

Mazower was critical of the Greek left “that never made a mental break from the image of revolution.” But in a nod to the ongoing debate among pundits and historians in Greece concerning public toleration of leftist radicalism, the London-born academic drew the line at of equating far right and far left violence.

“Some say all forms of lawlessness are equally dangerous. I disagree,” said Mazower adding that left-wing protests and law-breaking behavior have not put Greek democracy in jeopardy.

He said historical attempts to underline the “fundamental kinship” between fascism and communism – bringing them both under the label of “totalitatarianism” – are flawed.

“The totalitarianism thesis has been abandoned for very good reason,” he said criticizing recent attempts by conservative politicians in Greece to revive the debate in a bid to score political points against SYRIZA.

Instead of going after anarchist-run squats in Athens which are of little political importance, New Democracy should rather direct its energy and attention at the bigger threat that is Golden Dawn, Mazower said referring to recent police raids on several abandoned buildings in Athens.

“Unfortunately the Greek state does not seem to realize the urgency of the situation,” he said.

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.


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