Eyewitness in Athens
The clean lines of the Parthenon, high up on the Acropolis, stand out clearly in the late winter sunshine. Down below, outside the Greek Parliament, a man pushes his supermarket shopping trolley down the hill towards Syntagma Square, where much of the public drama of Greece’s contemporary tragedy has been playing out during recent times. Balanced across the trolley is a discarded metal bath, on its way to be sold for a few euros. So it is that some residents of Athens eke an existence in 2012.
Inside the Parliament, I meet with Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of SYNASPISMOS, part of the Syriza Coalition of the Left which is now attracting support from increasing numbers of Greek electors. That the Left now stands at more than 30 per cent in the polls may be one telling reason why early elections in Greece, promised by New Democracy, the largest party on the right, may still be delayed. New Democracy, with George Papandreou’s PASOK, form the present governing coalition under Lucas Papademos, appointed Prime Minister in November, a member of the influential Trilateral Commission (like Mario Monti, appointed about the same time as Prime Minister of Italy) and formerly Vice President of the European Central Bank.
The democratic legitimacy of the present Greek Parliament is very much questioned by all the currents of the Greek Left. The mood in the country has shifted greatly since the elections in 2009. Then PASOK had 44 per cent of the vote; now it polls just over 10 per cent. The Left says this Parliament no longer has the legitimacy to approve legislation imposed as part of the austerity programmme, including lowering salaries and the minimum wage, and abolishing collective agreements between trade unions and employers. The Parliament does not represent the will of the people in voting for such legislation, which demolishes social gains achieved over decades.
Certainly, the Greek Parliament is in some disarray. Numbers of PASOK and New Democracy Members have refused to vote for this series of punitive austerity measures brought before them at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the so-called ‘Troika’. Such dissident Members often part company with their political parties, although some have subsequently returned. Nevertheless, independent Members now comprise the second main category in the Parliament, although they are not formally constituted as a group. Allegiances appear fluid, to say the least, and this is reflected in wider Greek society.
Meanwhile, Greek Parliamentarians appreciate international support and solidarity during these tough times, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament informs me. Martin Schulz, the newly elected President of the European Parliament, visited in recent days, ending the long absence of senior European politicians seemingly reluctant to see for themselves what is happening in Greece.
‘The bailout is for the bankers,’ Mr Tsipras confirms. Not a euro is for the people. On the contrary, the majority of Greece’s eleven million citizens are expected to swallow bigger and bigger cuts in their living standards, although they are already amongst the poorest in the European Union. Greece constitutes about 2.5 per cent of the European economy. With Ireland, its output is amongst the smallest of the Eurozone group, and shrinking year on year so that its debt to GDP ratio becomes increasingly unsustainable as output falls and unemployment rises. The ‘treatment’ is killing the patient.
The debt crisis is a European crisis, which is presently at its most acute in Greece. In response, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, with some help Mr Sarkozy, the ‘outgoing’ French President, has pushed through the European Fiscal Compact, which has to be ratified by the 25 signatories. (The UK and Czech Republic did not sign.) The Compact is supposed to enforce fiscal discipline and balanced budgets. In so doing, it will drive down economic activity at a time of low or non-existent growth, raising the prospect of a deep slump spreading across the Continent. Meanwhile, the Irish will hold a referendum on the new Compact, which is probably the last thing Mrs Merkel or Mr Sarkozy wanted. Memories of the initial defeats of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties by the Irish electorate remain all-too-fresh.
Mr Tsipras is acknowledged as one of the more incisive critics of the severe austerity policies being pushed through the Greek Parliament by the Papademos Government. The Memorandum of Understanding signed by Mr Papademos and the Troika commits Greece’s payments to bondholders via a Luxemburg account. Thus the so-called ‘bailout’ funds are circulated to international banks, without benefit to the Greek people. Greek national assets serve as collateral against non-payment.
These arrangements serve the bankers of the world. Outside the Parliament, in Syntagma Square, Thessaloniki, and the other cities and towns of Greece, there is a growing mood of resistance to such impositions and cuts in basic standards. This mood is embodied in the eloquent appeal issued jointly by Manolis Glezos who, in 1941, removed the giant Nazi flag hoisted over Athens, an early act of resistance, and by Mikis Theodorakis, the celebrated composer. It begins:
‘65 years after the defeat of nazism and fascism, European people are today confronting a dramatic threat, this time not military, but a financial, social and political one. A new “Empire of Money” has been systematically attacking one European country after another in the last 18 months, without facing any substantial resistance. European governments not only fail to organize a collective defence of European people against the markets, but, instead, try to “calm” the markets by imposing policies that remind us of the way governments tried to confront nazism in the ’30s.’
Recently, Mr Glezos and Mr Theodorakis were attacked by police using tear gas during a protest outside the Parliament as MPs were voting on yet more cuts demanded by the troika. Yet Manolis Glezos seems unperturbed as he strides into a meeting to celebrate Lord Byron’s defence of Nottingham’s Luddites in 1812. This anniversary was thoughtfully observed in Athens where part of the city is named after the noble Lord to honour his memory, including his long-standing defence of Greek refugees. The municipality of Byron (pronounced ‘Vyronas’), on the hills around Mount Ymmitos, not far from central Athens, was established in 1922, the centenary of Byron’s death from fever in Greece whilst preparing to fight the Ottoman occupiers.
This young meteor has his contemporary counterpart in the determined 89-year-old Glazos, who emphasizes to me the importance of international support and solidarity for the struggle in Greece. He echoes the closing passages of the Glazos/Theodorakis Appeal:
‘Europe can survive only if we promote a united response against the markets, a challenge bigger than theirs, a new European ‘New Deal’.
• We must immediately stop the attack against Greece and other countries of the EU periphery; we must stop the irresponsible and criminal policy of austerity and privatization, which leads directly to a crisis deeper than the one of 1929.
• Public debts must be radically restructured across the Eurozone, particularly at the expense of the private banking giants. Banks must be re-controlled and the financing of European economy must be under national and European social control. It is not possible to leave the financial keys of Europe in the hands of banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, UBS, Deutsche Bank, and so on. We must ban the uncontrolled financial derivatives, which are the spearhead of destructive financial capitalism, and create real economic development, instead of speculative profits.
• The present architecture, based on the Maastricht Treaty and World Trade Organisation rules, has established a debt production machine in Europe. We need a radical change of all Treaties, the submission of the ECB under political control by the European peoples, and a “golden rule” for minimum social, fiscal, and environmental standards in Europe. We urgently need a change of paradigm; a return to the stimulation of growth through the stimulation of demand, via new European investment programmes; new regulation, taxation and control of international capital and commodity flows; a new form of smart and reasonable protectionism in an independent Europe, which will be the protagonist in the fight for a multi-polar, democratic, ecological, and social planet.
The international response is growing. ‘We are all Greeks’, as Shelley famously said. This elegant and succinct statement is now heard more and more around Europe. Later in March, Jeremy Corbyn MP will lead a fact-finding mission to Greece and report its findings to the wider Labour Movement in Britain.
Were Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues to visit the Municipality of Byron, the Mayor, Nikos Hardalias, would tell them that local government budgets are being cut by 60 per cent. Huge cuts made by central government are being passed on to local government to implement. It is a story that will be familiar to local councillors in many English towns and cities, if in a rather more extreme form.
Vyronas has a tradition of caring for migrants. An Albanian woman from the Migrants’ Forum testifies to the continuity of that tradition. Even in these straightened times, Vyronas remembers its responsibilities to the vulnerable. Mr Hardalias, a member of New Democracy, accompanied a delegation of local people of Armenian descent on their first visit to Yerevan.
Outside the Mayor’s office, looking out over the Council Chamber, one’s eye is drawn to Lord Byron’s striking profile in relief at the centre of a substantial alabaster medal. This image is reproduced everywhere on posters, publications and stationery as the municipality’s universally recognizable logo. Nearby, in St Lazarus Square, there is a handsome bust of Lord B, with the inscription:
ESTABLISHED ON THE CENTENARY
OF LORD BYRON’S DEATH
TO COMMEMORATE HIS DEVOTION
TO THE GREEK REFUGEES
Local families come out for dinner in the taverna, children play, owners walk their dogs. My host, Panos Trigazis, Chairman of the Byron League for Philhellenism and Culture and International Secretary of SYNASPISMOS, lives nearby and comes to the Square every day for coffee. He knows everyone and generously hands out copies of his pamphlet, Lord Byron: Defender of the Poor. This includes Byron’s maiden speech in the House of Lords against the Frame-work Bill, which would make frame-breaking punishable by death; its 200th anniversary was the occasion for my visit to Athens. Panos’s pamphlet also includes Ken Coates’ essay entitled ‘Byron versus Elgin’, which calls for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
Striking a topical note, especially for Londoners, Athenians frequently complain that the Olympic Games of 2004, magnificent though they were, were extremely costly and contributed enormously to the country’s indebtedness. Now they must pay to maintain facilities that are no longer used. Of course, this was an enormous burden to carry for a small country of just eleven million people. With characteristic generosity, Greeks express the hope that Britain will not suffer a similar legacy from the 2012 Games.
WAR AGAINST IRAN?
The escalation of military threats against Iran causes acute concern throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and particularly in Greece. US and Hellenic naval, air and missile facilities around Souda Bay in Crete, under the auspices of NATO, would likely be used, were the US to join a military attack on Iran. Israel continues to make bellicose statements about Iran. Israel’s relations with Turkey have deteriorated badly in recent years, particularly following its attack on the Gaza flotilla in international waters and May 2010 when nine Turkish participants were killed and many more were wounded. During this time, there has been a marked effort on Israel’s part to improve relations with Greece and Cyprus. The Greek government has, apparently, reciprocated this effort to some degree.
On 1 March 2012 in Athens, a timely Appeal was launched in response to these growing tensions.
APPEAL FOR A DENUCLEARIZED MIDDLE EAST
The Middle East is the most highly volatile region on earth. A region of intense militarisation that absorbs almost 30% of global arms exports. A region that has suffered greatly from foreign military interventions, bloody wars, occupations and brutal violations of rights, above all the right of the Palestinian people to create their own independent state within the borders set in 1967.
We are profoundly concerned about the threat of a new war in this region, this time on the pretext of Iran’s nuclear programme.
We seek to ensure that all diplomatic and political means are employed to resolve the crisis in the relations between Iran and the West on the basis of international law.
We proclaim, once again, that there are no military solutions to international problems. We express our solidarity with the Syrian people and we support their right to decide freely and democratically their future. We are strongly against plans for Libya-type military intervension in Syria.
We state our full agreement with the Ankara Declaration on a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, which was adopted last December by the IPPNW member organisations that are active in countries in the region and elsewhere, including the US, France and other EU countries.
We do not recognise the right of any country in the world to acquire nuclear weapons, especially if it is a country in the volatile Middle East. This is true not only of Iran, but also of Israel, which has already acquired a large nuclear arsenal, more powerful than that of Great Britain, and is the only country in the Middle East that has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
We salute the decisions of the UN General Assembly in favour of creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and call upon all countries in the region to support and contribute to convening an international conference on this subject under UN auspices.
At the same time, we believe that the spread of nuclear power plants, such as those scheduled by Turkey in regions of high seismic activity, constitutes a major threat to the security of the Middle East and the Mediterranean as a whole
The Middle East and the Mediterranean must not experience the nightmare of a new Hiroshima, Fukushima or Chernobyl.
For the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
Tony Simpson, Director
For the Panhellenic Society of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Greek affiliate of IPPNW)
Maria Arvaniti-Sotiropoulou, President
For the International Globalisation Watch
Panos Trigazis, President
For “Veterans for Peace”
Helen Jaccard and Gerry Condon
8 March 2012
26 January, 2007
To the Chairman of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
Dear Professor and good friend Ken Coates
I am well aware that it is much too late for even a gentle request…
Please do not feel obliged in any way, but if by Tuesday morning an email or a note of a tribute by you on behalf of BRPF in memory of Hrant Dink will, by ‘miracle’ reach me, I shall luxuriate in the privilege of reading it at the Commons Tribute!
Yours with all good wishes
In Memory of Hrant Dink
More than a million Armenians were killed in the genocide of 1915. The Turks seized great tracts of Armenian land that have never been returned. Now, Hrant Dink’s murder in Istanbul serves to remind us of this first holocaust of the Twentieth Century, even as the BBC repeatedly remarked on the “alleged mass killings” of Armenians by Turks, notwithstanding the abundant evidence of that genocide that has been presented over the years.
But Mr Dink stood for a different and higher standard of journalism. When we received news of his murder, Ayse Berktay, a Turkish friend of the Russell Foundation who lives in Istanbul, put it this way:
“Our dear friend Hrant Dink, one of the endorsers of the World Tribunal on Iraq, a peace and truth-loving Armenian journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the journal AGOS, a foremost, courageous and most outspoken voice of the Armenian community in Turkey, was murdered in broad daylight in front of the journal building yesterday. He was a staunch but very human and very convincing defender of brotherhood between peoples and put his life at stake to build such genuine brotherhood because he believed that to be genuine, this brotherhood had to base itself on truth and acknowledgement of the identity and plight of one another, on getting rid of prejudices, on recognising the potential richness of the variety of cultures that exist in our land.”
Hrant Dink will clearly be missed by many people in Turkey as well as Armenia, but we should join them in honouring him ourselves.
As Robert Fisk has pointed out, one of the sobering lessons of the Armenian genocide is that some of those Germans who went on to perpetrate the Nazi genocide of the Jews witnessed first-hand the slaughter of 1915 in eastern Anatolia. It is vital that the whole truth is told about these events, which are still more often denied than one would think possible. That is the best tribute we can pay to Hrant Dink’s memory.
Ken Coates, Tony Simpson
on behalf of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation
29 January 2007