Greek Fire

Excessive pressure from Brussels on the financial front could cause Greece to explode in violence.

The graphic violence on the streets of Athens in recent days demonstrates that Greece has more than a financial mess; it also has a crisis in domestic security. The complexity of this problem is not well understood abroad, as it comprises three related challenges to public order. Thus far, the new Greek administration has an impressive record in moving swiftly against domestic terror groups, but it faces a daunting struggle with political anarchist violence and imported organized crime.

Greek crime had traditionally been small scale (skimming accounts and cheating tourists), but new migrants from Albania and the former Soviet states have brought the scourges of organized crime and gang warfare to a country unaccustomed to such violence other than on television. Greece became a locus for international narcotics trafficking, money laundering, personal-documents fraud, and other forms of cross-border criminality. The Greek police were entirely unprepared for these imported challenges.

Greece also has a political culture in which extremist views are routinely expressed in violent demonstrations, bombings and anarchist attacks. The country’s universities, among the worst in Europe in terms of education, are legal sanctuaries for anarchist groups and bases for attacks on the police. This tradition flew out of control in a series of very destructive riots in late 2008 and 2009. The scale of the clashes harkened back to the violence associated with the collapse of the military regime in 1974. Parts of Athens and other cities became battlefields. The New Democracy government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis failed to respond effectively to this challenge, contributing to its massive defeat at the polls last October.

The third component of the security crisis is a renewal of domestic terrorism. Mass anarchism is the spawning ground for Greek terrorism, but the result is targeted and often deliberately lethal violence. Greek terror groups have been notable for a combination of sixties-style ultra left-wing doctrine with extreme ethnocentrism, making them distinct from other violent organizations elsewhere in Europe. “Revolutionary Struggle” which first emerged in 2003 and “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” are the two main terror groups operating in Greece today—Revolutionary Struggle has engaged in a series of attacks on the police employing assault rifles and explosives, while Cells of Fire has limited its attacks to property.

This combination of renewed domestic terrorism, a massive upsurge in urban anarchist violence and the pervasive activity of international organized crime would challenge the security forces of even an advanced European state. Greek police for generations were poorly paid and trained, lacked modern techniques and equipment, and—worst of all—were badly alienated from the population they are charged to protect. The poor repute of the police among Greeks is in part a legacy of the military dictatorship of 1967–74, but is increasingly out of date. While the Greek police today are not in a league with their north European counterparts, they have greatly improved in recent decades.

The new PASOK government led by Prime Minister George Papandreou is best known abroad for its efforts to manage the red-ink finances it inherited from its New Democracy predecessor, and from earlier governments led by both PASOK and New Democracy. In a key parallel move, Papandreou also appointed former–Minister of Public Order Chrysochoidis to his previous position in a renamed Ministry of Citizens’ Protection. Alone among the political-level chiefs of the Greek security forces of past decades, Chrysochoidis has a successful record of combating terrorist groups while reforming the police toward the standards of a modern rule-of-law state. Chrysochoidis moved quickly to improve police protection against attacks on property while assuring the civil rights of legitimate protesters. He also initiated a major restructuring of the security forces, which he characterized as “stuck in the 1950’s.” His most difficult challenge is to earn the respect and loyalty of the police while not tolerating corruption or abuse of powers among them.

The public-order tasks are daunting given the systemic financial crisis and the failure of the previous administration to meet the challenge on the streets. The fiscal austerity program was certain to bring Greeks out in massive protests, but the extreme violence has not come from the bulk of demonstrators but from radical semi-students exploiting the current financial crisis for their anarchist agenda. It is noteworthy that, thus far, fatalities and serious injuries have not been the result of police action; indeed, the police have been the victims of firebombing and other violence.

While struggling to maintain control of the public spaces of the capital and other major cities, the Greek police have scored some notable successes against the terrorists in recent weeks. They have arrested a series of suspected members of ‘Revolutionary Struggle’ including its reputed head, based on the use of modern forensic examinations of evidence, something the Greek police could only have dreamed of a few years ago. They are reportedly examining computers with incriminating materials and tracing weaponry used in earlier attacks. While this is still a campaign in progress, it is very encouraging.