From the divided streets of Athens

by Niki Seth-Smith

29 June 2015

Everywhere on the streets of Athens, the battle lines are being drawn. The Greek people will vote on Sunday on whether to accept the latest deal from the country’s creditors. Ultimately, a No vote would give Syriza the mandate to leave the euro and break with the brutal austerity dealt out to Greece over the past half decade. A Yes would endorse further austerity, with no debt relief, but ensure, at least for now, Greece’s membership of the currency union.

Tonight is the largest demo yet for ‘No’  – ‘Oxi’ in Greek – and people fill the bars and souvlaki joints, comparing how much cash they have stashed (capital controls are now at €60 a day) and arguing the political and moral case for accepting or refusing the deal. No doubt there will be another social media brawl about whose demo is bigger, once the ‘Yes’ protest starts tomorrow.

Yesterday, Nikos Konstandaras, a columnist for the Greek daily ekathimerini, argued that the divisions in Greece were no longer ideological. He said, “It is between the self-pitying ‘brotherless’ Greeks who look inwards and the cosmopolitans who want to conquer the world.” Spin this sick formula on its head, and we may glimpse a truth. Those Greeks who are most exposed to the damages wrought by the memorandums – the one-in-four unemployment, the suicides, the untreated health issues, the broken relationships and abandoned dreams – are the ‘self-pitying’ Greeks. They will be more inclined to vote No. Those ‘cosmopolitan conquerors’ already at the top of the food chain, with more at stake in the economy as it stands, will largely go Yes.

But this is not a question of visionary radicals versus selfish neoliberals. No one in Greece is under any illusion that returning to the drachma will usher in a brave new world of full employment and growth; in fact support for the euro still stands at 70%. Most Yes supporters accept that the measures proposed in the deal – including job and pension cuts, tax hikes and privatisations – is bitter medicine that may not even deliver a cure. The campaign is keen to emphasise it is anti-austerity, anti-drachma. Having coffee with my friends on both sides, they speak first about their families, their parents and grandparents: no one knows what will happen with the drachma, how will they cope? Greece understands pity: there has been too much sorrow caused by the suffering of others these past five years, and too much fear.

Now people fear social unrest. This referendum is not just about a deal which will, in any case, need to be renewed in seven months. It is about who owns Greece. It is, possibly, about regime change. And it is salting wounds that have long divided Greek society. When anarchists confronted a demo against leaving the euro last week, burning EU flags, they sung songs from the Greek Resistance against the Nazi occupation. Such messages are not only addressed at Germany’s Angela Merkel, or the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which was hugely emboldened by Greece’s loss of financial sovereignty: they are an allusion also to the establishment collaborators within the country. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras has made it clear that he believes the country’s creditors – the ‘Troika’ of the IMF, ECB and the EU Commission – want to overthrow the government. It is dark comedy that Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker can talk today of ‘betrayal’. And there are those inside Greece who would risk delivering this humiliating blow, of imposing yet another technocratic government, a move sure to set fire to a country which, right now, has too much rubble and smouldering cinders.

Those in Syriza knew this day would come. After it won the elections in January, the party asked its activists, many of them young and overcome with joy, not to celebrate too loudly on the streets. I remember staggering home in the early hours, and one of my friends silencing the other as he shouted defiantly at a cop. It was a mistake to claim victory. A good part of the country never accepted Syriza as the rightful government. They have been watching and waiting for the time to strike, just as the head of the Greek central bank did when he abused his supposedly neutral role last week to warn of “uncontrollable chaos” and an exit from the EU and euro if a deal was not signed. Syriza has the parliament, with no meaningful opposition as both the last government New Democracy and the centre-left PASOK are in disarray. But it is hemmed in by the Greek media, corporate interests, establishment elite, and a police and deep state infiltrated – since the days of the Nazi resistance – with fascist elements.

Already, the words ‘civil war‘ are being whispered on the streets of Athens. The riot police, who disappeared from the street corners of the city in January, are coming back, protecting the peace of a government they feel is against them. We’re having summer storms, raining on the protesters and queues of pensioners at the ATMs. But they don’t lift the weight in the air, the feeling of something suppressed that has been left to ferment and grow. For those outside, this may look like a defiant battle of the ‘proud Greeks’ against the 1%, the money lenders and the eurocrats. It is indeed a fight for Europe’s soul. But it may not be enough for democracy to ‘win the day’ on Sunday. When battle-lines are drawn, you can expect a fight.

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