Riots Show Europe Can't Overlook Greece

Greece, a NATO ally and member of the European Union, a country of stunning beauty and an even more imposing history, has for a week been the scene of violent demonstrations and clashes with police. Downtown Athens and — to a far lesser extent — other cities have been trashed by youthful demonstrators, many of them hooded, others proudly branding themselves as anarchists. Ostensibly, the fury was blamed on the death of a 15-year-old shot by a police officer.

Quickly, pundits in Europe and elsewhere read a lot more into the riots and offered pet theories as to their cause, marketing a fear that these riots would spread to other nations. This was, some wrote, the “explosion of pent up frustrations of social inequalities,” the first salvo of the “credit crunch,” the “beginning of the new left” — the theories went on and on. The demonstrators, facing unemployment and a bleak future, simply unleashed their innate fears. The fact that the country is governed by the center-right party of New Democracy was offered as another reason. Kostas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister will have to go. He is the Greek George W. Bush and the country (and the continent at that) is in dire need of (the pre-election fantasy) of Barack Obama.

Not quite.

To begin with, the riots were absolutely nothing unusual, and although life in some cities was disrupted and property was damaged and looted, it was not much more than the hooligan, alcohol-augmented, trashing of European and American cities following defeats or major wins in sporting events. The government and the police acting in quite a restrained, almost timid, fashion, actually let the riots last for a lot longer than necessary and the rioters obliged. Arrests were in the dozens not hundreds and, thankfully, there was no loss of life.

But what was truly appalling is that Greek opposition and some European politicians, labor syndicates and some highly politicized academics actually either vocally supported or tacitly endorsed the violence. “The root causes were….” take your pick.

There are root causes but not the ones that were invoked, the trite and failed slogans of almost a century of European “–isms” and attempts at social engineering.

Greece, the country that bears the name of a 5000 year civilization that spread at a much larger geographic area, is actually a very young nation not quite 200 years old. It was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, from which also sprang many of the truly unstable nation-problems that beset the Middle East from the Balkans to Palestine. Greece grew piecemeal and painfully at the fringes of the great European conflicts. Few outsiders realize that the last chunk of Greece was added after World War II. Cyprus might have been the next had it not been caught in a conflict with a newly-assertive Turkey, aided by the Cold War.

Greece — caught in maelstrom after maelstrom for over a century — never developed social and civic institutions or a free market economy, making it unlike western European nations and more like the neighboring Balkans, Turkey and certainly the Middle East. Greeks hate to hear this, but the country for decades had many more things in common with Egypt than Holland or Denmark.

This is not to say that Greeks are incapable of doing better. Far from it. It has always been a running joke among us Greeks in the diaspora that one has to get out of the country to succeed. And many did. Greeks in the United States are some of the highest income and highest educational achievements ethnic groups.

At the end of World War II, following the trends all over the region, Greeks split into two warring groups. One was the nationalists, headed by an imported royal family and, following the Truman Doctrine, closely aligned with NATO and, especially, the United States. The others were communists. Greece went through a miserable 30-year period that included a civil war, myriad substandard governments, the abdication of the monarchy, a 7-year military junta, the Greek-engineered coup in Cyprus and the Turkish invasion.

Greek still suffers echoes of communism. Its obvious imprint was seen in the recent riots is a particularly virulent type. It is mindless, ideological, unrepentant and clearly not one having plans to govern. It has lots of plans to pontificate and even de-stabilize. It is one of the most striking manifestations of personal inferiority complexes masquerading as a social and political movement.

Anti-Americanism is a sport but against a nebulous and today outdated notion of that country. After all, every Greek has a “cousin” in New York or Chicago.

Greeks in Greece (and not just the communists) developed one of the most blatant cultures of dependency and demand for entitlements, both personal inside the country and national from outsiders. Europe in particular “owed” the Greeks because of history and because of recent sacrifices in wars. Europe obliged. Shortly after the collapse of the junta, Greece was admitted to the European Union.

But the country was untested and undeveloped, and Europeans looked the other way. While Spain, after 40 yeas of Franco, joined the EU along with Greece, the two countries have not evolved the same way, as even a cursory visit can show. There are few countries in the world, let alone Europe, that have such a huge fraction of the population working for the government as in Greece. Tax evasion is legendary. Privatization is a figment of the imagination. It is not surprising that one of the most successful Greek enterprises, shipping, does the vast bulk of its business outside. Olympic Airways, for example, has been losing at least a million dollars per day for years and is still kept flying. Business success in Greece in a transparent enterprise is practically impossible. How does one know what is OK and what is not?

The current government is making a valiant effort, but the odds are slim and the needed bar is way too high. One of the problems is that a large swath of the population has yet to understand the difference between a responsible and modern government that has to take the painful measures to establish a modern country and a demagogue such as the late Andreas Papandreou, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who himself ought to have known better. Instead, he took the country backwards for decades. His half-American son is now the leader of the Socialist Party.

Europe has to take a stand on Greece (and on other countries too.) Perhaps the current economic crisis may have a silver lining after all. It is one thing to tolerate shabbiness when one is rich. Tightening of belts requires a lot of people to take actions to straighten things up that can no longer be afforded.


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