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Greece: Democracy Comes Home to Die | The Nation

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Maria Margaronis

Maria Margaronis

Politics and culture, news and views from Europe.

Greece: Democracy Comes Home to Die

There’s a chant that used to irritate me when I heard it on Greek protests against austerity last year: “Bread, Education, Freedom, the Junta didn’t end in 1973.” (It’s a bit better in Greek; it rhymes, at least.) If you call an elected government a junta, I thought, however catastrophic its policies, what will you call a real junta when you see one? And if you conflate disparate historical moments—the military dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years from 1967, say, with the collapse that began in 2010, when the socialist government declared the coffers empty and signed up to the EU and IMF’s disastrous austerity program—how will you make sense of what’s actually happening?

I still don’t like that chant. But it is also true that Greece can no longer be called a functioning democracy. (Some might say it never could; but that’s another story.) Here, very briefly, are three reasons why:

One: A significant part of the police, elements of the judiciary and some sections of the coastguard have been infiltrated by supporters of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which won eighteen seats in parliament in June and has been soaring ever since. Police not only turn a blind eye to increasing far-right violence against immigrants and leftists: they sometimes participate in it. (For more about the rise of Golden Dawn and its penetration of the police, see my long report for The Guardian, Paul Mason’s for the BBC and this from Borderline Reports.)

Having allowed a fascist organization to hijack law enforcement through a lethal cocktail of intention, incompetence and inertia, the state is still failing to address the problem. A scheme has just been announced to set up a central police database that will record all racist incidents, but there is no plan to purge and reform the police force itself. Instead, the government will create a new unit to combat racist violence—which suggests the surreal image of opposed police squads fighting each other on the street.

Two: Allegations of police mistreatment and torture of anti-fascist protesters, unreported by the Greek mainstream media until The Guardian published them and now partially confirmed by a medical examiners’ report, were met by Nikos Dendias, the minister of public order and citizen protection, not with a promise to investigate but with threats to sue the paper for “defaming Greek democracy.” In response to questions tabled by the left party Syriza, Dendias has now said that the allegations will be investigated as part of a “sworn administrative inquiry,” described by UNHCR in 2008 as an internal and confidential police procedure designed to protect the rights of the officer involved rather than those of the complainant.

Three: Press freedom, always precarious in Greece where most private media are in the hands of well-connected oligarchs, is a dead letter.

On October 27, investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis of the magazine Hot Doc published the “Lagarde List”—naming 2,059 Greek citizens with deposits in a Swiss bank passed to the government two years ago by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, as an aid to investigating possible tax evasion. Tax evasion has been estimated to cost Greece 28 billion euros a year—double the 13 billion in further cuts being demanded by Greece’s lenders, which will fall mostly on pensioners, working people and the poor. The list, mysteriously mislaid by Greek officials, includes the names of a former culture minister, finance ministry employees and prominent businessmen.

Vaxevanis made it clear in his editorial that not everyone on the list is guilty of tax evasion; he was arrested the next day on misdemeanor charges relating to privacy laws. His trial begins on November 1. “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands,” he said “they’re trying to arrest the truth and freedom of the press. I’ll say something very simple: Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide. Everything else is public relations.”

Then, on October 29, Greek state television suspended the two presenters of a popular morning talk show, Marilena Katsimi and Kostas Arvanitis, because they discussed on air Dendias’ threat to sue The Guardian over the torture allegations and pointed out that medical reports confirm police malfeasance. Aimilios Liatsos, the broadcaster’s news director, said that the journalists had “violated the basic rules of journalistic practice” and made “unacceptable insinuations” against Dendias. ERT journalists are planning a wave of twenty-four-hour strikes until the presenters are reinstated. Meanwhile, in Corfu, a man has reportedly been arrested for posting on his Facebook page photographs of police officers in company with members of Golden Dawn at a parade commemorating Greece’s entry into World War II…

So, in the “cradle of civilization,” we now have state security services infiltrated by a violent fascist organization; a failure to independently investigate allegations of police violence; and a penchant for shooting the messenger. I won’t call it a junta, but it’s not democracy either.

To see a less-than-democratic practice in the US, check out Ross Tuttle's report on New York's stop-and-frisk law

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