Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Greece is rioting, again. The details seem rather sketchy, but apparently two police officers shot and killed a teenager in the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens, which set off Greece's very large anarchist community. Now, there are molotov cocktails being thrown about, the Christmas Tree on Athen's main Syntagma Square has been burned down, and there are pitched battles with police in Larissa and Thessaloniki.

I don't want to downplay the violence, or the death that sparked it. It's all terrible. But since it is getting play on CNN, perhaps American is getting just a glimpse of our not-so-friendly southern neighbors, beyond the beaches and feta. I'm always irked by the idea that Greece is a sunny bit of Western Europe, and across the northern border is the Slavic 'Dark Heart of Europe'. Greece is a Balkan country. It may have escaped communism, but at the expense of a bloody civil war and subsequent military dictatorship. Of course, this was during the Cold War, so the USA - and specifically, the CIA - was extremely supportive of those uniformed clowns. Combine that with a few hundred years of overly-romanticized Hellenism, and most people have an image of Greece that is very far removed from reality.

I should also say that the Greeks tend to riot and protest quite a bit. Greece has a very, very long political tradition of communism/leftism/anti-establishmentarians/anarchy, which eventually helped to bring down the military government in the 70's, after several bloody protests. These groups didn't fade away, though; there were terrorist attacks throughout the 80's and 90's by small leftist cells, usually without much injury. Every now and then they would torch a diplomatic vehicle, or launch a rocket at the US Embassy. No biggie, right?

Even during my brief stay in Athens, students staged a bloody riot on Syntagma, and lobbed a molotov cocktail at a bank building near the Polytechnic University. An interesting note on this Polytechnic University - the riots that eventually brought down the military government started here, after a few students were gunned down. When the Greeks brought about their new government, a law was passed that no police officer could ever enter the grounds of the Technical University, as a sort of token protection for that revolutionary spirit. Therefore, during these riotous times, students or other protesters tend to occupy buildings on campus, without fear of arrest. It also means that quite a lot of drugs are peddled on campus . . . more so than a normal university, anyway.

Greece is a beautiful country with an amazing history. I'm happy to be in Macedonia, partially because I can take an easy vacation to Greece. And these riots are really terrible, and I hope they settle down soon, with minimum damage. But the media coverage - the English language coverage, that is - has an underlying premise of - "Riots? Christmas trees burned? How could this happen in sunny, white-marbled Greece?!"

Well, there are riots in Greece because there are always riots in Greece, because it is a complicated country of 10 million people, where there is a long history of violent protest against any and all types of authority. Hotels, package tour operators, and the Greek tourism industry are pretty careful to ignore that part of the country, for obvious reasons. Greece tries very hard to separate itself from the idea that it is 'Balkan'; it wants to project itself as just another EU country. This can make problems like political instability or riots seem like unexpected, surprising, unprecedented events, especially when reported piecemeal by the Western press. They puncture through a false - or, at least partially false - image, and that understandably makes people nervous.

Context, though, is key.

No comments: