In the Wall Street Journal this week, Greek political official Takis Michas gives us a 2011 snapshot of Greece’s fabled capital that simultaneously reminds us of ancient Athens’ downfall in the time of Thucydides, and warns us about the perils of our own future.
Athens has been here before – been here, for that matter, more than once since the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. But not in our lifetimes. In our lifetimes, Athens and Greece have been “Europe”: law-abiding, at least superficially; determined on utopian socialism; a bit prissy, but usually there in a pinch as a NATO ally. Orderly and on-board with the West, outside of that business with the Soviet flirtation in the ‘70s. Sure, there were the wing-nut guerrilla bands now and then, the national freak-out over “Macedonia” in the wake of the messy Yugoslavia break-up, and the occasional reminder that Greece is Southeastern Europe, where you may find yourself feeling a particular sympathy with the tourists from Germany and Denmark, who, like you, expect public toilets to work and trains to actually run.
But you could go to Greece as a tourist and enjoy the benefits of being in a modern EU nation, or perhaps work and live there as a foreigner and not have to deal with a local bureaucracy or civil disturbances that were any worse than those in, say, southern France or southern Italy.
As Mr. Michas recounts, that’s changing. Here are some of his points (emphasis added):
The country is at the mercy of militant activists who are inspired by various factions of the hard left.
In one case last year, a group of militants badly beat a former center-right New Democracy minister in front of television cameras. No arrests were made.
In another case, a group of thugs accosted a leading Greek journalist while he ate in a restaurant. A similar incident happened last month, the victim that time being a minister of the governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement. No arrests were made in those cases, either.
In May 2010, three employees of the private bank Marfin suffocated to death when a hard-left mob firebombed their offices during a riot. Again, no arrests.
Last summer, the Communist Party organized hundreds of union members to block tourists from boarding ferries to Greek islands [note: tourism in the islands is one of Greece’s biggest sources of revenue]. Yet even after the courts ruled that the move was illegal, no arrests were made.
Militants are claiming territory as well as lives and revenue:
…there exist today areas of Greece where the government no longer exercises sovereignty… One such area is the village of Keratea, near Athens International Airport. Keratea’s inhabitants, supported by anarchist “freedom fighters” from the greater metropolitan area, have been engaged for two months in near daily pitched battles with the police, using firebombs, stones and rubble. Their complaint is the government’s decision to construct a landfill near the village.
This meltdown can be seen as the product of the totalitarian left’s open attempt to exploit the economic crisis and destroy Greece’s existing democratic and economic institutions. What we are witnessing is not a descent into chaos, but a descent into organized lawlessness. Sowing pandemonium and forcing Greece to default will, according to Greek Stalinists’ analysis, bring the revolution nearer.
And, as he points out, “The problem … lies with the political and ideological passivity of the parties that … represent Greece’s broader middle classes.” It is indeed a bizarre passivity that sees citizens being beaten by thugs and does nothing. But the yearning for order is powerful; Greece cannot continue like this.
I’m not convinced, however, that Stalinists are the movement that will get Greece organized. If the existing “social-democratic” political parties – representatives of the modern middle classes – can’t mobilize in a useful way, there is an older pattern that is likely to kick in: the affinity of Orthodox Greeks for the Serbs and Russians with whom they share a religious, and to some extent a cultural, heritage.
Greece has both retained and renewed ties with post-Soviet Russia, ties that include bilateral military activities, arms purchases (by Greece from Russia), cooperative arms development, oil and gas development, and extensive Russian involvement in Greek Cyprus. Greece is also a perennial supporter of Serbia and the Orthodox Serbs, her affinity with whom has deep roots in the history of resistance to the incursions of the Ottoman Empire.
The more “modern democracy” becomes associated with leftist militancy and anarchy, the more the peoples of the West will seek refuge in autocratic alternatives with the pull of history on their tribal memories. Russia and Serbia are comparatively autocratic, but they aren’t the worst autocracies around. Russia has reverted to a level of autocracy and repression more characteristic of the czars than the Stalinist era. Resistance to affiliating with Serbia and Russia – primarily, at first, in a de facto sense – will probably weaken among liberal Greeks if civil lawlessness increases.
Other factors will drive this as well, including the growing regional activism of Turkey (Greece’s enduring rival) and the unrest in the Muslim Middle East – much of which, for Greece, is only a ferry ride away. The important thing, however, is that, in the absence of a singular charismatic leader, the outcome is more likely to be reversion, to old, familiar patterns, than progression, to something for which there is no vision in the public consciousness.
The US-led NATO alliance has supervened the entrenched patterns of this region for the last six decades. But that ascendancy is coming to an end, and as it does, the old patterns will start to reemerge. As 2400 years ago, Athens faces a descent into organized lawlessness. The spirit of liberalism faces a recurring crisis – how to balance intellectual and political freedom with public order – and history and geography are waiting in the wings to prejudice the answer.