Demonstrating their determination in Greece

February 18, 2015

Sarah Levy reports from Athens as the showdown between Greece's new left-wing government and the rulers of Europe reaches a critical new level.

THE SUNDAY night gathering in Athens felt more like a celebration than a demonstration. For hours, more than 15,000 people packed Syntagma Square, the plaza in front of parliament building, and the surrounding streets in support of the newly elected government as it continued with negotiations with Eurozone government officials over Greece's massive debt and against the policies of austerity.

The February 15 rally followed a 20,000-person-strong turnout the previous Wednesday night--on both days, there were similar demonstrations in the Greek cities of Thessaloniki, Patras and Volos, as well as Crete and other islands.

A crowd also gathered in Athens on Monday evening as the latest round of talks between the left-led government and European Union officials continued. Later that evening, it was announced that the talks collapsed with no agreement on the demands for a new arrangement on Greece's debt and the austerity measures imposed as conditions for the rescue of Greece's financial system. This neoliberal program of spending cut, privatizations, layoffs and regressive taxes is commonly referred to as the Memorandum, after the agreements made by previous Greek governments.

Thousands gather outside parliament to show their support for the government in its confrontation with the EU
Thousands gather outside parliament to show their support for the government in its confrontation with the EU

Now, the clock is ticking on a deadline for the debt to be renegotiated, or Greece could be forced into default and/or out of the euro currency.

Despite the tension, however, the mood on the streets over the last week has been one of hope, solidarity and determination. On Sunday, people sang, danced and paraded around. Lining the square and the streets around parliament were huge banners reading, "European people all together," "Smash the Memorandum and neo-Nazis," "100% against the Memorandum," "We are not Merkel's colony" and "Breathe in dignity! We won't take a step back."

Several people performed political street theater that depicted a battle between Prime Minister Alex Tsipras, who held a giant pair of scissors to cut the ribbon that tied Greece to its debt, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who together held a giant syringe labeled "austerity."

"WE CAME here to stand by the new government of Greece in order to stop the austerity, to end these policies that oppress the people, and to seek a new future for our country," said Dimitris Vasilakis, a member of SYRIZA since 2012, when the Coalition of the Radical Left suddenly emerged from the political margins to come in a close second place in parliamentary elections.

Another demonstrator, Panagiota Bletas, spelled out the stakes for this struggle: "We want our lives back, we want our country back, and we want our dignity back. The conditions that have been forced on us--unemployment, no health care or support--have made life impossible in Greece. And so we are demanding what belongs to us."

Another SYRIZA member and Athens resident, Panayotis Pantos, sounded the same themes:

We are here for two reasons. One is for ourselves and for the Greek people to show that, united, we can achieve our goal, which is to have a country without the Memorandum and a country where the poorest can have a chance for a future. And it's also a message abroad to the Eurogroup and to the EU that it needs to accept the Greek people's sovereignty and accept that this program, which has clearly failed and which has resulted in disaster for the Greek people, has to change, even if this means that the richest people or the banks or the big enterprises would have to have smaller earnings.

At just 17 years old, high school student Antonis was one of a small number of young people at the February 15 rally. As he said in an interview:

It's important to be here because the only way to change the situation in Greece and in Europe is through public movement. Of course, it will take more than this to change things, but during this period of the negotiations, it is crucial to show that the Greek side has many supporters who want to change the existing program. I believe that the people who are here today don't only support one side or one government or one party, but it's a movement for change."

For many people, the chief reason for the demonstration was to show support for the government "for trying to stop austerity here in Greece," said George Makris, who works as an IT consultant. Makris is still employed, but said he now works twice as many hours for the same pay as he did before the crisis. "It's a difficult task, and we want to give all our support."

But Costas Gousis, a lawyer and a member of ANTARSYA, a smaller coalition of anti-capitalist groups, said, "We are not here to support the government, we are here to support the people. We don't want some austerity--we are against austerity 100 percent. So we will be 100 percent in the demonstrations. The people fight, and the people must pose their rights to the government and to everybody."

Vaguelz Vilaz echoed this sentiment: "I came today because I don't think change will come from SYRIZA. It will come from us. I'm here for my country, not for SYRIZA."

SYRIZA IS leading the Greek government today after winning parliamentary elections with 36.3 percent of the vote, well ahead of the former ruling party, the center-right New Democracy with 27.8 percent. But after two weeks in power, an opinion poll gave the radical left party even stronger support, at 45.4 percent, with New Democracy dropping to 18.4 percent. Asked how they judged the early performance of the new government, an overwhelming 83.1 percent replied "positively or mostly positively."

Babis Plousis, one of demonstrators outside the parliament building, didn't vote for SYRIZA. He cast a ballot for the Independent Greeks, known by the initials ANEL, a right wing party that is also anti-Memorandum. Having fallen just short of a majority in the Greek parliament, SYRIZA negotiated an agreement that gave several ANEL leaders positions in the new government, including the defense minister.

Plousis said he decided not to vote for SYRIZA because he was skeptical of how much the left-wing party was promising to do. "But so far," he said, "it looks like SYRIZA is actually trying to accomplish [many of those promises. Honestly, if the elections were tomorrow I would probably vote SYRIZA."

Plousis said that none of his friends have jobs: "They can't live, they can't get married, they can't have kids, they can't do anything." The youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent is a major cause of "youth flight" from Greece. "We are [a population of] 10 million people, and we have 9 million adults," he said. "We don't have kids, we don't have anything. We are a country that is dying."

Plousis himself works as a mechanical engineer for a small company, but hasn't been paid for 18 months. He said that he believes his boss, like many others, has money, but is using the crisis as an excuse not to pay workers.

With the showdown continuing between the government and the European financial and political elite, the debt was the most important issue on everyone's minds--but most people see the question in everyday terms, through its connections to the issues of jobs, food and health care.

Half the people I talked to are unemployed--some of them for many months, and some for quite a few years. People are living with friends and with their parents. "There are children in primary school who faint because they don't have enough food to eat," said Martha Souli. "Its unbelievable."

Stavroula, a middle-aged woman who is unable to work because of a health condition, explained that there are thousands of families who wouldn't have food if not for the churches, neighbors or the solidarity networks--organizations where the unemployed cook for the unemployed and are sustained by donations of food and other help from ordinary people. Since 2011, Stavroula's monthly pension has been cut to 300 euros a month. "That's not enough to live on," she says.

Yet while most people, such as Nick Gerokostas, said they had faith that the new government would "do the best they can do" in negotiations with the Eurogroup finance ministers, there were varying ideas of what a preferable outcome should be.

Dimitra Efthimiou, unemployed for four years since she graduated from university after studying history and archaeology, said she thinks Greece should exit the Eurozone so that it can meets its own population's needs and "not be strangled" by the European governments that have to power to require austerity measures in Greece.

Costas Gousis, the activist with ANTARSYA, agreed:

We are ready even to get out of the Eurozone and the European Union. We are not afraid of this, because right now, the common currently is only uniting bankers and the rich, while dividing the people of Europe. If we get our own currency, we can have another politics that will not have the pressure of the European Central Bank and will not have the pressure of the European capitalists. We know that the Greek capitalists and the Greek bosses want the Eurozone just to put pressure on people, but the people are ready for their freedom. We do not want to compromise about our rights.

But when I asked another group of people whether it would be better to leave the Euro, they burst out laughing.

"I think that [the Eurogroup] doesn't actually want us to go out," said Martha Souli. "I think it's just blackmail. They are just trying their hardest techniques to force us to accept these deals, but if we don't accept, then they will move toward us. That's why it's important that we stand strong, especially during the negotiations."

MANY PROTESTERS said they didn't expect SYRIZA to accomplish all its goals, but even partial progress--after the example of previous governments, which relentlessly drove through austerity measures and repression--will be a victory.

Another common theme was the understanding that Greece isn't alone in this crisis, but stands as an example of what other countries might soon be facing.

"All of Europe is a boat that is sinking," said Babis Plousis, the former ANEL voter. "We are underwater, but all the other countries that are above the water will be pulled below the surface with us in time. The other countries need to support us now, because otherwise, they will find themselves in our situation in the future."

Seventeen-year-old Antonis pointed out another lesson from the Greek situation.

"If there's one thing that people should know, it's that this policy of the Eurogroup, where the strong countries lend money to the poor countries so they can control them, cannot work for a long period of time," he said. "After a certain period, because of the suppressive form of this lending, people will start to protest. So the whole system of relations between European countries must change."

Yanis, an electrical engineer who is still working, but has seen his wages cut dramatically since 2011, added, "We hope that all the people will work together in order to achieve their rights and be one. The people have so much strength, but sometimes the people have fear. If more and more come to realize that this fear is unnecessary, then we can unite and succeed in many things."

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