Monthly Archives: March 2015

Greece: Fascists At The Gate

Greece: Fascists At the Gate

Dispatches From The Edge

March 20, 2015

 

When some 70 members of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn go on trial sometime this spring, there will be more than street thugs and fascist ideologues in the docket, but a tangled web of influence that is likely to engulf Greece’s police, national security agency, wealthy oligarchs, and mainstream political parties. While Golden Dawn—with its holocaust denial, its swastikas, and Hitler salutes—makes it look like it inhabits the fringe, in fact the organization has roots deep in the heart of Greece’s political culture

 

Which is precisely what makes it so dangerous.

 

Golden Dawn’s penchant for violence is what led to the charge that it is a criminal organization. It is accused of several murders, as well as attacks on immigrants, leftists, and trade unionists. Raids have uncovered weapon caches. Investigators have also turned up information suggesting that the organization is closely tied to wealthy shipping owners, as well as the National Intelligence Service (EYP) and municipal police departments.

 

Several lawyers associated with two victims of violence by Party members—a 27-year old Pakistani immigrant stabbed to death last year, and an Afghan immigrant stabbed in 2011— charge that a high level EYP official responsible for surveillance of Golden Dawn has links to the organization. The revelations forced Dimos Kouzilos, director of EYP’s third counter-intelligence division, to resign last September.

 

There were several warning flags about Kouzilos when he was appointed to head the intelligence division by rightwing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Kouzilos is a relative of a Golden Dawn Parliament member, who is the Party’s connection to the shipping industry. Kouzilos is also close to a group of police officers in Nikea, who are currently under investigation for ties to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the Nikea police refused to take complaints from refugees and immigrants beaten by Party members, and the police Chief, Dimitris Giovandis, tipped off Golden Dawn about surveillance of the Party.

 

In handing over the results of their investigation, the lawyers said the “We believe that this information provides an overview of the long-term penetration ands activities of the Nazi criminal gang with the EYP and the police.” A report by the Office of Internal Investigation documents 130 cases where Golden Dawn worked with police.

 

It should hardly come as a surprise that there are close ties between the extreme right and Greek security forces. The current left-right split goes back to 1944 when the British tried to drive out the Communist Party—the backbone of the Greek resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. The split eventually led to the 1946-49 civil war when Communists and leftists fought royalists and former German collaborationists for power. However, the West saw the civil war through the eyes of the then budding Cold War, and, at Britain’s request, the U.S. pitched in on the side of the right to defeat the left. In the process of that intervention—then called the Truman Doctrine—U.S. intelligence services established close ties with the Greek military.

 

Those ties continued over the years that followed and were tightened once Greece joined NATO in 1952. The charge that the U.S. encouraged the 1967 fascist coup against the Greek government has never been proven, but many of the “colonels” that initiated the overthrow had close ties to the CIA and the U.S. military.

 

Golden Dawn was founded by some of the key people who ruled during the 1967-74 junta, and Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos, the leader of the “colonels” who led the 1967 coup, groomed the Party’s founder and current leader, Nikos Michaloliakos. Papadopoulos was a Nazi collaborator and served with the German “security battalions” that executed 130,000 Greek civilians during WW II. Papadopoulos was trained by the U.S. Army and recruited by the CIA. Indeed, he was the first CIA employee to govern a European country.

 

Golden Dawn’s adherence to Hitler, the symbols of Nazism, and the “Fuehrer principle”—investing the Party’s leader with absolute authority—is, in part, what has gotten the organization into trouble. According to an investigation by Greek Supreme Court Deputy Prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis, Golden Dawn is split into two wings, a political wing responsible for the Party’s legal face and an operational wing for “carrying out attacks on those deemed enemies of the party.” Michaloiakos oversees both wings.

 

Prosecutors will try to demonstrate that attacks and murders are not the actions of individuals who happen to be members of Golden Dawn, because independent actions are a contradiction to the “Fuehrer principle.” Many of the attacks have featured leading members of Golden Dawn and, on occasion, members of Parliament. Indeed, since the leadership and core of the Party were jailed last September, attacks on non-Greeks and leftists have fallen off.

 

There is a cozy relationship between Golden Dawn and some business people as well, with the Party serving as sort of “Thugs-R-Us” organization. Investigators charge that shortly after two Party MPs visited the shipyards at Piraeus, a Golden Dawn gang attacked Communists who were supporting union workers. Golden Dawn also tried to set up a company union that would have resulted in lower pay and fewer benefits for shipyard workers. In return, shipping owners donated 240,000 Euros to Golden Dawn.

 

Investigators charge that the Party also raises funds through protection rackets, money laundering and blackmail.

 

Journalist Dimitris Psarras, who has researched and written about Golden Dawn for decades, argues that the Party is successful not because it plays on the economic crisis, but because for years the government—both socialists and conservatives—mainstream parties, and the justice system have turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s growing use of force. It was the murder of Greek anti-fascist rapper/poet Pavlos Fyssas that forced the authorities to finally move on the organization. Killing North Africans was one thing, killing a Greek quite another.

 

Instead of challenging Golden Dawn in the last election, the New Democracy Party railed against “Marxists,” “communists” and—pulling a page from the 1946-49 civil war—“bandits.” Even the center parties, like the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) and the new Potami Party, condemned both “left and right” as though the two were equivalent.

 

Golden Dawn did see its voter base shrink from the 426,025 it won in 2012, to 388,000 in the January election that brought left party Syriza to power. But then Golden Dawn is less interested in numbers than it is in wielding violence. According to Psarras, the Party’s agenda is “to create a climate of civil war, a divide where people have to choose between leftists and rightists.”

 

Some of the mainstream parties have eased Golden Dawn’s path by adopting the Party’s attacks on Middle East and African immigrants and Muslims, albeit at a less incendiary level. But, as Psarras points out, “Research in political science has long since showed that wherever conservative European parties adopt elements of far-right rhetoric and policy during pre-election periods, the upshot is the strengthening of the extreme far right parties.”

 

That certainly was the case in last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when center and right parties in France and Great Britain refused to challenge the racism and Islamophobia of rightwing parties, only to see the latter make strong showings.

 

According to the Supreme Court’s Vourliotis, Golden Dawn believes that “Those who do not belong to the popular community of the race are subhuman. In this category belong foreign immigrants, Roma, those who disagree with their ideas and even people with mental problems.” The Party dismisses the Holocaust: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers,” Michaloliakos said in a 2012 national TV interview. Some 60,000 members of Greece’s Jewish population were transported and murdered in the death camps during World War II.

 

The trial is scheduled for April 20 but might delayed. Golden Dawn members, including Michaloliakos and many members of Parliament, were released Mar. 18 because they can only be held for 18 months in pre-trial detention. The Party, with its ties in the business community and its “wink of the eye” relationship to New Democracy—that mainstream center right party apparently printed Golden Dawn’s election brochures—has considerable resources to fight the charges. Golden Dawn has hired more than 100 attorneys.

 

If convicted, Golden Dawn members could face up to 20 years in prison, but there is not a great deal of faith among the anti-fascist forces in the justice system. The courts have remained mute in the face of Golden Dawn’s increasing use of violence, and some magistrates have been accused of being sympathetic to the organization. Golden Dawn is charged with being a criminal organization, murder, assault, and illegal weapons possession under Article 187.

 

Thanasis Kampagiannis of “Jail Golden Dawn” warns that the Party will not vanish on its own. “Many are under the impression that if we stop talking about Golden Dawn the problem will somehow disappear. That is not the case. The economic crisis has burnished the organization, but there are other causes that have contributed to its existence and prominence, such as the intensification of state repression and the institutionalization of racism by the dominant parties.”

 

But courts are political entities and respond to popular movements. Anti-fascists are calling on the Greeks and the international community to stay in the streets and demand that Golden Dawn be brought to justice. Germans missed that opportunity with the Nazi Party and paid a terrible price for it.

 

Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column

 

 

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Greece: Memory and Debt

Greece: Memory & Debt

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 14, 2015

 

Memory is selective and therein lays an explanation for some of the deep animosity between Berlin and Athens in the current debt crisis that has shaken the European Union (EU) to its foundations.

 

For German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, “memory” goes back to 2007 when Greece was caught up in the worldwide financial conflagration touched off by American and European speculators. Berlin was a major donor in the 240 billion Euro “bailout”—89 percent of which went to pay off the gambling debts of German, French, Dutch and British banks. Schauble wants that debt repaid.

 

Millions of Greeks are concerned about unpaid debts as well, although their memories stretch back a little further.

 

In July, 1943 Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz, commander of the First Mountain Division, was annoyed because two of his officers had been threatened by civilians in the Western Greek town of Kommeno. It was dangerous to irritate a German commander during the 1941-45 occupation of Greece.

 

Lanz first murdered 153 men, women and children—ages one to 75—in Mousiotitsas, then surrounded Kommeno, where his troops systematically killed 317 people, including 172 women. Thirteen were one-year old, and 38 people were burned alive in their houses. After the massacre, the soldiers ate their lunch in the village square, surrounded the by bodies of the dead, and then pushed on to other villages, killing more than 200 civilians.

 

It was not the first, nor the last massacre of Greeks, and most people in that country can recite them like the beads on a rosary: Kondomari (60 killed); Kardanos (180 killed); Alikianos (118 killed); Viannos (over 500 killed); Amari (164 killed); Kalavryta (over 700 killed); Distomo (214 killed). All in all, the Germans destroyed more than 460 villages, executed 130,000 civilians, and murdered virtually the entire Jewish population—60,000—during the occupation.

 

On top of that, Athens was forced to “lend” Germany 475 million Reich marks—estimated today at 14 billion Euros—to pay for the occupation. Adding interest to the loan makes that figure somewhere around 95 billion Euros.

 

Greece’s public debt is currently 315 billion Euros.

 

The Greeks “remember” a few other things about those massacres. Gen. Kurtl Student, the butcher of Kondomari, Kardanos, and Alikianos, was sentenced to five years after the war, but got out early on medical grounds. The beast of Mousiotitsas and Kommeno, Gen. Lanz, was sentenced to 12 years, served three, and became a major military and security advisor to the German Free Democratic Party. In 1954 he wrote a book about his exploits and died in bed in 1982. Gen. Karl von Le Suire of Kalavryta fame was not so lucky. Captured by the Soviets, he died in a Stalingrad POW camp in 1954. Lt. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, who ordered the Viannos massacre, was tried and executed by the Greeks in 1947.

 

It is not hard to see why many Greeks see a certain relationship between what the Germans did to Greece during the occupation and what is being done to it today. There are no massacres—although suicide rates are through the ceiling—and no mass starvation, but 44 percent of the Greek people are now below the poverty line, the economy shattered, and Greeks feel they no longer control their country. Up until the last election, they didn’t. The Troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—dictated the price of the loan: layoffs, wage and pension reductions, and huge cutbacks in health care. True, their occupiers did not wear the double thunderbolts of the SS or the field green of the Wehrmacht, but armies in pinstripes and silk ties can inflict a lot of damage.

 

Germany dismisses the Greek demand for reparations—estimated at anywhere from some 160 billion Euros to over 677 billion Euros—as a long-dead issue that was decided back in 1960 when the Greek government signed a Bilateral Agreement with Berlin and accepted 115 million Deutschmarks in compensation.

 

“It is our firm belief that questions or reparations and compensation have been legally and politically resolved,” said Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We should concentrate on current issues and, hopefully what will be a good future.”

 

But that is a selective reading of history. There was never any “resolution” of Nazi Germany’s post-war debts because the country was divided between East and West. The 1953 Treaty of London cut Germany’s obligations in half and stretched out debt payments, but the Treaty did not address reparations because they were supposed to be resolved in the final peace treaty. However, with Germany divided, there was no such agreement.

 

When Germany was unified in 1990, the Greeks raised the issue of reparations, but the Germans dismissed the issue as resolved by the combination of the London Treaty and the 1960 payoff. But not according to historian Hagen Fleischer, who has studied the reparations issue and the original loan documents. Fleischer says that Germany first argued that as long as the country was divided, Berlin could not consider repaying any debts. “Then after German reunification Helmut Kohl [then Chancellor] and Hans-Dietrich Genscher [then Foreign Minister] said that it was now much too late. The matter was ancient history.”

 

According to the Syriza government, the 115 million marks Germany paid in 1960 were only in compensation for Greek victims of Nazism, not the physical damage to the country, the destruction of the economy, or the forced loans.

 

“Germany has never properly paid reparations for the damage done to Greece,” argues Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras. “After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be solved. But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”

 

Many Greeks refuse to accept what they consider a paltry sum for the vast crimes of the occupation. Four descendents of the 214 civilians massacred by the 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division at Distomo sued and, in 1997, were awarded 37.5 million Euros, a ruling upheld by the Greek Supreme Court in 2000. When Germany refused to recognize the verdict, the defendants took their case to Italy, and in 2008 an Italian court ruled that the plaintiffs had the right to seize German-owed property in compensation for the Greek award, including a villa on Lake Como.

 

Germany appealed the Italian decision to the International Court at Hague, which found in favor of Berlin on a principle of international law that countries are immune from the jurisdiction of other states.

 

However, Germany has assets in Greece, including property and the Goethe Institute, a leading cultural center in Athens. Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos says he is ready to begin seizing German assets in Greece.

 

Tsipras says Germany has a “moral obligation” to pay reparations, a sentiment that some on the German left agrees with. “From a moral point of view, Germany ought to pay off these old compensations and the ‘war loan’ that they got during the Occupation,” says Gabriele Zimmer of Die Linke, a party closely allied to Syriza in the European Parliament.

 

Addressing the Greek Parliamentary Committee for Claiming the German Reparations on Mar. 10, Tsipras asked “Why do we tackle the past” instead of focusing on the future? “But what country, what people can have a future if it does not honor its history and its struggles?”

 

Dismissing the argument that reparations are ancient history—“The generation of the Occupation and the National Resistance is still living”—Tsipras warned about the consequences of amnesia: “The crimes and destruction caused by the troops of the Third Reich, across the Greek territory, but also across the entire Europe” are memories “that must be preserved in the younger generations. We have a duty—historical, political, ethical—to preserve, remember forever what Nazism means, what fascism means.”

 

Nazism is not a memory that needs a lot of refreshing in Greece. Sometime this spring some 70 members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, including 16 current and former Parliament members, will go on trial for being members of a “criminal organization.” The anti-Semitic and racist Golden Dawn Party has been associated with several murders, attacks on leftists, trade unionists, and immigrants, and has close ties with the police and several of the billionaire oligarchs who dominate Greek politics and the economy.

 

Indeed, its profile is eerily similar to that of the German National Socialist Party (Nazi) in its early years. Golden Dawn has 17 members of Parliament and is the third highest vote getter in the country, though its support has recently dipped.

 

Old memories certainly fuel Greek anger at Germany, but so do the current policies of enforced austerity that Berlin has played a pivotal role in inflicting on debt-ravaged Greece. “Germany’s Europe has finished,” says Greek Social Security Minister Dimitris Statoulis, the Europe “where Germany forbids and all other countries execute orders.”

 

Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column

 

 

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Greece: Whispers Of Battles Past

Greece: A Whisper of Battles Past

Dispatches From the Edge

 

March 5, 2015

 

 

The recent negotiations between Greece and the European Union (EU) bring to mind Themistocles, a man who knew when to retreat and when to fight. The year was 480 BC and Xerxes I—“the king with half the east at heel”—was marching on Greece with a massive army accompanied by an enormous fleet. Against the invasion stood a small Greek army, led by Leonidas of Sparta, and an equally outnumbered navy, commanded by the Athenian, Themistocles.

 

It didn’t look good for the Greeks in August 480 BC. The Persian army was at least 10 times the size of the Greek force, and Themistocles was outnumbered almost three to one. It didn’t look good for Syriza in 2015: not a single EU member supported the Greek call for easing the debt crisis and ending the punishing austerity regime that has shattered the country’s economy and impoverished many of its people.

 

The Greek army and Leonidas were destroyed at Thermopylae, but the wily Themistocles first bloodied the Persians at Artemisium, then retreated, buying time to lay a trap at Salamis. With a little deception and a wind at his back—always a plus when you are ramming other people’s ships—the Greeks annihilated the Persian fleet and defeated the invasion.

 

Can Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis pull off a Salamis and best what looks like another unbeatable foe? It is too soon to tell, but the deal they cut in Brussels bears a resemblance to that long ago battle in the Straits of Artemisium: both sides took losses, but the Greeks bought themselves valuable time.

 

And as Varoufakis recently remarked, “Time is our most precious commodity.”

 

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Feb. 20 agreement approved by the 19 European finance ministers.

 

First, Syriza did not have a mandate from the electorate to play one of its most powerful cards: “give us a deal or we leave the Eurozone and maybe tank the Euro.”

 

Second, Greece had a gun to its head: a Feb. 28 deadline, after which its banks would have lost support from the European Central Bank (ECB), one of the “Troika” members that include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission. Without ECB support, Greek banks might have gone under, forcing Athens to default on the debt and force it to exit from the Eurozone.

 

In the long run the Greeks may decide to default or drop the Euro, but that is not a decision that a freshly elected government that relies on a coalition to stay in power can make in a few weeks.

 

Third, as attractive as it is to think of scrappy little Greece defeating the mighty Troika and the EU, let’s be serious. Greece represents about 2 percent of the EU’s GDP. Its foes would have made Xerxes’ tremble: Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands, and even the debt-strapped governments of Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.

 

Syriza’s critics charge that the Party folded in Brussels, getting little more than a few cosmetic word changes in the Memorandum of Understanding that the Troika forced on Greece back in 2010. But language, as economist James Galbraith points out, has power. In “Reading the Greek Deal Correctly,” the University of Texas professor argues that substituting words like “the current programme” with “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” means the agreement is extended “but the commitments are to be reviewed.”

 

Analyzing the centerpiece of the agreement, Galbraith concludes that there is no “unwavering commitment to the exact terms and conditions” of the 2010 Memorandum. “So,” he writes, “No, the Troika cannot come to Athens and complain about the rehiring of cleaning ladies.”

 

Georgos Katroughalos, a Syrizan minister, called the Feb. 20 agreement a study in “constructive ambiguity” that “allows different readings. Our reading is that we are not applying the Memorandum program. We are applying our agenda.”

 

What Syriza accepted were those sections of the Memorandum that mirrored its own program: running down tax evaders—unpaid taxes are estimated at 76 billion Euros—ending corruption, targeting fuel and tobacco smuggling, modernizing public administration, and tackling the “humanitarian crisis” with programs for food stamps, free medical care, and electricity for the poor. There will also be a pilot program for a minimum income for those under the poverty line—Brazil has had much success with this—and mortgage relief.

 

Which is not to say there were no casualties.

 

Syriza backed away from its pledge to end privatizations, although it added a caveat that the sale of public property must actually bring in significant amounts of cash. To date, many privatizations have been inside deals at fire sales prices. The privatization part of the agreement could be a retreat, or a loophole to put the brakes on the process. People will just have to wait and see what Syriza does.

 

“Labor reform” is another area around where sparks are certain to fly. By “reform” the Troika means cutting back minimum wages, abolishing collective bargaining, increasing the retirement age, and laying off workers. In theory this is supposed to make Greek workers more “productive” and more like German workers. In fact, Greeks work longer hours than German workers, but Greece does not possess Germany’s modernized infrastructure, including computers, high-speed rail, and autobahns.

 

Much of the German “modernization” was paid for by the U.S. to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries. The 1953 London Agreement that canceled much of Germany’s World War II debts and stretched out payments—Syriza is asking for something very similar— was not done out of kindness, but as a critical ingredient in the Cold War. Germany would be part of the “west wall” against the Russians.

 

Syriza has agreed to “phase in” raising the minimum wage but is vague about implementing the rest of the “reform” package. Again, this could be seen as capitulation or as a temporary retreat. The measure of that will be what the Greek government actually does.

 

Greece is facing some deadlines this summer, and there is pressure from the EU for yet another bailout deal. But if Athens gets its anti-corruption program up and running, throttles gas and tobacco smuggling, and successfully collects taxes, Greece will have cash on hand to fulfill some of its election promises to restore jobs and pensions, and fund health care. The agreement recognizes that Greece is facing a “humanitarian crisis,” wording that might give Syriza more space to maneuver.

 

Greece is not alone in this fight. While it received no support from other Eurozone countries, most of those countries have growing anti-austerity movements that back Syriza. The Greek party’s close ally in the European Parliament, Podemos, is now the second largest party in Spain. And while governments in Portugal and Ireland have demanded that Greece stick with its austerity program, those governments are under siege at home for their own austerity regimes.

 

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelhois is one of Syriza’s sharpest critics, dismissing the Greek Party’s position as a “children’s fairytale,” but his center-right Social Democrats are running behind the Socialist Party (SP). While the Socialists negotiated the original austerity agreement with the Troika, they have since turned against it. Antonio Costa, the recently elected major of Lisbon and leader of the SP, says austerity has brought nothing to Portugal but poverty and unemployment. On Feb. 12 a multi-party group of 32 leading politicians, economists and scientists urged Coelho to end his “punitive” approach to Greece and instead declare “solidarity” with Athens.

 

Even the Germans are not all on the same page. While Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble—sounding more like a Wehrmacht commander than a European politician— snarled that Syriza “would have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was far more conciliatory.

 

What about just dumping in the Euro and declaring bankruptcy? Argentina did that and its economy grew for several years straight. But Argentina still cannot borrow money without paying onerous interest rates, and the IMF’s blockade of international finances has hurt Buenos Aires. In any case, Argentina has a much bigger economy than Greece and close ties with other South American countries through the trade bloc, Mercosur. In short, it has far greater resources than Athens.

 

The Euro has not been good for Greece, or for most of Southern European members of the Eurozone. A common currency doesn’t work when some economies are big, industrial and strong, while others are smaller and, like Greece, rely on business like tourism. Indeed, Greece has lost some of its industrial base since joining the Eurozone. When the playing field is uneven, the big dogs take over, which is why Germany dominates the EU.

 

The consequences of withdrawing from the Euro are uncertain, and not something a newly elected government can responsibly take. In any case, the vast majority of Greeks have yet to have that conversation.

 

In the coming months it will be obvious whether the latest agreement was a defeat or a tactical maneuver by Syriza. If the new government is to successfully resist the Troika, however, it will need support, not only within Greece, but from Europe and beyond. As UK political activist and journalist Tom Walker put it, “This battle is a long way from over,” and “the future of austerity across Europe now rests on what happens in Greece. If we give up on them we are giving up on our own struggles too.”

 

In 480 BC the Spartans held the Persians for three days, and poems were written about their courage, but they all died. It was Themistocles, who knew when to retreat and when to fight, who saved Greece.

 

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