TOPICS > Politics

Greece Grapples With Protests, Anger Over Teen’s Death

December 10, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
Loading the player...
A strike over economic policies in Greece shut down banks, schools, hospitals and flights Wednesday, but did nothing to end the unrest over the shooting death of a teenager on Saturday. Former Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns delves into the country's troubles.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the riots in Greece. We begin with a report from Robert Moore of Independent Television News in Athens.

ROBERT MOORE: It had been intended as a peaceful day of protest to coincide with a nationwide strike. So much for that idea.

Within minutes, the rally by Greek workers was hijacked by anarchists and so began a fifth day of rioting.

The police again chose to contain but not to confront. Whether handing over the streets to the anarchists is weakness or wisdom is a point of major debate.

Even on the fringes of the violence, passions are high. Arguments are breaking out on street corners. You only have to watch and listen to realize this is not just a security problem, but a full-scale political crisis for the Greek state.

And tonight, around Athens University, the heartland of student radicals, rioting has flared up again.

Anarchy in Athens, of course, is nothing new, but what has shaken people is the destructive fury. And it’s being driven, as we find out by talking to people, by a hatred of the state and of police in particular.

GREEK CITIZEN: I participated to this just because I don’t like police, because the behavior of the police against me in the past and actually for no reason was awful.

GREEK CITIZEN: We are here for — for the cops, nothing else.

ROBERT MOORE: But there are other grievances, too. There’s anger at political corruption and at economic prospects. In both Athens and Patras, there is still no sign the protest will end anytime soon.

But in a remarkable sign of an emerging backlash, in some places, shopkeepers and other middle-class Greeks have entered the power vacuum, here hurling stones back at the anarchists.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

Frustration over the economy

MARGARET WARNER: For more on what's happening in Greece, we go to Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and former undersecretary of state. Burns served as U.S. ambassador in Athens from 1997 to 2001. He's now a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

And, Ambassador Burns, thank you for being with us. First of all, do you agree with the report we just heard that this is really a full-blown political crisis for the Greek state?

NICHOLAS BURNS, undersecretary of State: Oh, I think it is. This is an extraordinarily tragic series of events, Margaret, over the last several days.

The murder of a 15-year-old boy and demonstrations has led to this outpouring of anger and frustration all over Greece, not just in those scenes from Athens, but in Thessaloniki and Patras and the major cities and in some small towns.

And I think what it means is that there's a tremendous deal of frustration, obviously, with the unemployment situation, with the world financial crisis. Also, there have been allegations against the government of corruption. All of this has tended to roil the young students and some of the anarchist movement that have been very prominent in Greek politics over many decades.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you speak of the anarchist movement -- and the ITN piece did, as well -- what do you mean?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, there is a group of hardcore self-described anarchists in the major cities of Greece, principally in Athens, and they date themselves really to two iconic events in Greek politics.

The first was the Greek civil war between 1946 and '49 that divided the country bitterly. It was only the intervention of the United States, really, on the side of the conservative and royalist parties that ended that civil war.

And then, of course, the period of Greek military rule, the military dictatorship, which the United States, unfortunately, supported between 1967 and '74. And during that period, there were some very bitter scenes where the government, the military government put down savagely student protests against the dictatorship, in one famous scene in 1973, killing 22 young students.

All of this history is part of what's playing out on the streets of Greece today.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, does that help explain the forbearance that we're seeing on the part of the police now, at least the way it was described, that their strategy is to contain, but not confront?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think the government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and the police have a very difficult job.

On the one hand, they obviously want to make sure that there's no use of excessive police force that might result in further deaths. And it's understandable that people would be very emotional, and rightly so, about the death of a 15-year-old boy.

On the other hand, what the anarchists have done, they've torched hundreds of shops in downtown Athens. They've attacked government buildings. And so there is a basic question of law and order.

And the prime minister and government appear on a knife's edge in trying to decide what to do. Do you put down these demonstrations? Do you try to just let them go and contain them?

And to make matters more confusing, in addition to the anarchist demonstrations, there are a lot of peaceful demonstrations taking place. The government, schools were shut down today. There were massive peaceful demonstrations by ordinary citizens because of the situation.

And all this amounts to a very substantial political crisis for the government.

Government losing grip on power

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the global financial crisis, of course, is having impacts everywhere. Is it worse in Greece? I think I read today that, for instance, the jobless rate is higher in Greece, and particularly for young people, than, say, the rest of Europe or much of Europe.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, unemployment is on average higher in Greece and has been for some time than in most other industrialized countries. And, you know, it's hard to understand the motivation for the kind of violence you're seeing in the streets. There are a number of factors that have come into play that we've talked about.

But I think now what's extraordinary is what you saw in the report. There seems to be, if you will, a middle-class backlash against some of these rioters.

And so one can just hope, for the sake of the Greek people and the Greek government, this situation can be contained and come to a peaceful end.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there's a new newspaper poll out in Athens today showing that 68 percent of the public disapproves of the way the government's handling this. Now, it didn't say why, what they'd like them to do, but, I mean, that's a pretty high level of disapproval.

Is there a political resolution here that looks feasible to you?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, it is a high degree of disapproval. You know, the irony is that Prime Minister Karamanlis has had a very good running government. He is generally -- he's been re-elected, elected in 2004, re-elected in 2007.

He has been very -- he is very well-thought-of in Greek society and in Greek polls, but this crisis seems to have shattered that. And the government will now have to face the prospect of whether or not to stay in power, whether or not there will be a vote of confidence. It's a parliamentary system.

And so it really is unclear now whether the government will stay in power. That, of course, will be decided I'm sure in the next several days.

Greek politics are deeply divided

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the opposition party, which, of course, is calling for new elections, George Papandreou being head of that party. Is the left-right divide, which was certainly very strong in Europe, in Western Europe, classic NATO Europe, for many decades, is that -- does that persist more powerfully in Greece today than, say, much of the rest of Europe? And if so, why?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think it does. I mean, there is a classic division of political power between the New Democracy Party, which is center-right, and the PASOK Party, which is center-left.

But you have in addition to that in Greek politics the tradition of more hardcore leftist parties. There is a Communist Party in Greece that regularly runs for elections and has representation in the parliament for many decades. There are other left-wing parties that roil the politics.

And so it is, in essence, there is a deeper division in Greece, I would say, than in some other countries certainly than, for instance, in the United States.

And in addition to that, you have this element of the anarchist movement. It's relatively small, but it's very powerful. And it makes its voice heard, and that's what we've been seeing over the last few days in Athens.

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, what are the stakes here more broadly, I mean, for Europe, for the region, for the United States?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, first, Margaret, I'd say certainly it's a tragedy for the Greek people, both the loss of life, the damage to property, and just the chaos in the streets. For all of us who loves Greece, one would hope that that could be contained.

But in a larger sense, you know, NATO is at an existential turning point in Afghanistan. NATO has not done the job that it should. And I think it's fair to say that the incoming administration, as President Bush, is going to call on the European governments to contribute more troops.

And as long as there's this type of instability in Greece, at least for the Greek element, that will diminish the prospects of having the Greeks play a larger role, which, of course, we all hope would be the case, to resolve the problems in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thank you for being with us.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Margaret.