The Greek protests are not just about the economic crisis

Aditya Chakraborrty writes:

A sunny Saturday afternoon in central Athens, and Christos Roubanis is sitting outside having a beer, while telling me about the death threats he’s received. We’re in Victoria Square, one of the most racially mixed areas in the capital. The nearby payphones have queues of Bangladeshis waiting outside, and after every few shops comes that telltale feature of immigrant-ville: a Western Union money transfer booth. Locals reckon that more than a third of residents are non-Greek subjects.

And that’s made the neighbourhood the target of fascist activity, especially since Greece plunged into severe recession in 2009. A few minutes down the road is a playground, complete with seesaws, slides and climbing frames. It was where Afghans and others used to take their kids – until the Nazis marched in and declared it a no-go zone a couple of years ago. Although most of the equipment inside looks like it’s working, the entire rec is still locked up.

Just outside, on the stones in front of the handsomely domed church, is daubed various graffiti. “I love my country” reads one in the national colours of blue and white. Another is more direct: “Immigrants go home.” Sprayed on the shutters of nearby shops are swastikas. They look particularly incongruous in a country that tried so heroically to fend off Hitler’s invasion.

Christos lives here, but can’t walk me to the playground for fear of getting beaten up. Bald, with a small greying moustache, he’s previously stepped in to prevent immigrants being hassled – so the Nazis have turned their attention on him. They ring his mobile “and call me a bloody communist and say they will kill me”. Once, he was trapped by a fascist gang brandishing wooden poles. “They brought them this close,” he says, his hand stopping just in front of his thick glasses.

Under the awning of this bar, Christos and his friends Afrodite and Olga can debate how waves of badly-managed immigration have put pressure on this working-class neighbourhood. But one thing they agree on is that the fascists are managing to exploit the tension in the area. In elections at the end of last year, the extremist Golden Dawn party won 10% of the municipal vote.

Numbers like that flatly contradict the cosy view of the popular Greek reaction to the spending cuts as being articulate, engaged, left-wing. And it is – in parts. But as Christos and his neighbours will tell you, the politics of austerity can boost the thuggish right as well as the post-enlightenment left. Indeed, the defining feature of the Greek protests is not ideology – it’s visceral hostility to anything that smacks of the mainstream, whether in politics, or business or the media.

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