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THE GREEK RIOTS: ANOMIC YOUTHS, HEADLESS GOVERNMENT
by Cornelia Tsakiridou
December 19, 2008
Cornelia A. Tsakiridou is Associate Professor and Director
of the Diplomat-in-Residence Program at La Salle University.
THE GREEK RIOTS: ANOMIC YOUTHS, HEADLESS GOVERNMENT
by Cornelia Tsakiridou
Greece is a country that takes great pride in its long
history and rightly so. But it is also a nation where myths
crafted over centuries rule unchallenged. The December 6,
2008 death in Athens of 15-year-old Alexandros Gregoropoulos
by police fire triggered riots and mayhem throughout the
country and caused protests in some of its embassies and
As the riots continue, three myths are dominating public
perception: that those in positions of authority cannot be
trusted; that the rebellious and poor have a monopoly on
justice; and that problems facing the nation are caused by
obscure international enemies and their domestic operatives.
With banks, police stations, and businesses burned to the
ground, Molotov bombs on steady supply, and banner-carrying
students, many underage, claiming revolutionary authority--
e.g., forcing their way into a national TV station (NET),
the chairman of which, Christos Panagopoulos, politely
complained "this goes beyond any limit"--a docile Greek
public seems to have embraced the premise that youthful
rebellion is justified and even admirable.
As a result, the country's middle and higher education
system has been seriously disrupted, with classes suspended
and over 600 schools and 150 university departments and
buildings remaining under student occupation. In Athens and
elsewhere, new recruits in protests and occupations include
The spectacle of young people (and assorted criminals,
leftwing extremists, and self-proclaimed anarchists) on a
smash-and-burn spree wrapping themselves in the mantle of
justice, martyrdom, and victimhood is only rivaled by that
of a government incapable of making a clear and effective
distinction between political grievance and thuggery,
lawlessness and the rule of law.
Despite attempts in the national and international press
(among them Le Monde and The Guardian) to give a deeper
dimension to the Greek riots and to offer a mix of elaborate
psychological and sociological explanations, the truth may
actually be rather plain. The riots happened because the
legal mechanisms designed to protect the public interest
remained idle. The reasons are not difficult to surmise.
First, in Greece the public domain is the designated arena
of political and personal advancement. Thus, except in
rhetoric, there is effectively no concept of public interest
to uphold and defend. There have been no counter-
demonstrations demanding that the violence, looting, and
destruction stop because they are against the public good.
Second, many in the public apparently sympathize with the
rioters' stance that state corruption justifies state
disruption. Third, an increasing number of Greeks across the
political spectrum believe that the riots are the result of
sinister foreign designs too powerful for any Greek
government to deter.
The death of Gregoropoulos was neither sinister nor
symptomatic of systemic police brutality, but what preceded
it was clearly against the public interest. The police claim
that the boy was part of a group of about 30 youths that
attacked them with rocks and petrol bombs and that he was
killed when a bullet fired in the air was deflected and hit
him in the chest--a version that according to the accused
officers' attorney is supported by yet-to-be released
The son of an affluent family and a former student at an
exclusive Athens high school, Gregoropoulos was allegedly
loitering with friends at Exarcheia, a neighborhood
notorious for its disaffected youth, rogue anarchists, and
drug addicts, where taunting the police is a popular sport
and where only last month angered residents came out to
protest the lack of police action. Whether he was actively
involved in the events that led to the shooting, or was
merely an unlucky bystander remains to be determined.
This in the end may matter little. In Greece, facts are not
favored in political rhetoric and reportage. Ideology and
political fiction offer a more certain and rewarding
picture, and the demand for both is high. The state of mind
that leads one to believe that the 9/11 attacks were the
sinister work of the American government--as many Greeks
adamantly believe--will easily conclude that Gregoropoulos'
death was a cold-blooded murder with an elaborate cover-up
already in the works.
As with the 2006 forest fires (reputed to be the work of
arsonists from neighboring countries), conspiracy theories
are fueling speculation about the riots' being part of wider
plots to destabilize Greece--something that the country's
governing parties have been doing quite admirably on their
own for decades. True to the spirit of conspiracy, no clear
picture has emerged about who the rioters are, based on
arrest records and other information. The designation "the
familiar strangers," or "the hooded ones," accords them the
operative status that justifies what many in the public want
But statements like "we have decided to storm only big
businesses, chain stores and banks and not small businesses,
because they are everyday workers" (James Hider, The Times,
December 13, 2008) and a teenager's resolution that "Athens
must burn, especially the banks" (Matthew Campbell, The
Sunday Times, December 14, 2008) suggest an increasingly
emboldened attitude. Athens Institute for Training and
Vocational Guidance (IEKEP) institute director Penelope
Stathakopoulos told The Guardian's Ian Traynor that "a lot
of these kids believe in zero." Myths become especially
powerful when the social order breaks down and the
instruments of law are demonized.
In scenes reminiscent of the Intifada, rock-throwing youths
in masks and headscarves proclaimed Gregoropoulos a martyr
who would live forever in his people's memory. A black-clad
crowd of 6,000 attended his funeral, including hundreds of
high school students accompanied by teachers. TV cameras and
reporters stood by to register the unfolding national drama
and attribute it in somber tones to the profound anxiety
suffered by youth uncertain about their future and
traumatized by Greece's failing government and its
Resorting to Delphic platitudes historically favored by
Greece's ever-vigilant left and aimed especially at gullible
young ears, protesters' signs declared the need for "schools
not bombs," and charged the Greek state with killing its
young--"bullets for your youth, money for your banks."
On the sixth day of the riots, this cheap rhetoric once
again proved successful: emboldened high school students
attacked newspapers and police buildings in and around
Athens and in major cities. A day later, young men armed
with crowbars attacked the office of the accused officers'
attorney and, after smashing everything on site, walked out
of the building undisturbed.
Faced from the start with widespread media condemnation and
calls by socialist (PASOK) and radical left (SYRIZA)
opposition parties for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis'
resignation and early elections, the conservative (New
Democracy) government rushed to issue apologies, effectively
putting its political survival above the accused officers'
right to a fair trial and the rule of law. Police were
subsequently ordered to use minimum force, and the embattled
Interior Minister declared the primacy of human life over
property, a statement that certainly resonated with looters
and vandals all over the country.
The rioters, who are so far winning the game, are taking
advantage of a powerful tool that the Greek state has put at
their disposal. They may rest, go online, and replenish
their arsenal at public expense by taking shelter in
university buildings protected by an asylum law that bans
police from entering unless authorized by university
officials. Student sit-ins and patrols that control entrance
into facilities are a common sight during occupations, while
the absence of a quorum in student meetings virtually
ensures that extremists will monopolize action in the name
of the majority.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2006, Karamanlis tried to
end the constitutional protection of university grounds as
part of reform legislation intended to salvage the country's
deteriorating high education institutions. The response was
predictable. Ten thousand mostly leftwing students clashed
with police, some breaking into the Athens Law School.
Across the country, university buildings and department were
occupied and police were attacked with gasoline bombs and
furniture. The government lost; the extremists won.
The federation of university professors (POSDEP) argued at
the time that the proposed reforms, among them provisions to
establish private universities and restrict matriculation
and examination times (currently students may take a decade
to finish their degree), would devalue and commercialize
state degrees. It was a bizarre warning given the poor
showing of Greek universities in international rankings
(only two universities make the lower end in the Shanghai
listing of the world's best 500 universities), an
accomplishment for which the professors should collectively
Karamanlis and his then Education Minister Marietta
Yiannakou underestimated entrenched political and economic
interests in the academy and public education sector and the
influence of Greece's radical left on student organizations.
Had the legislation become law in 2006, the events of this
December might never have taken place, at least on this
Since the riots began, discussion of endemic corruption and
related social ills has dominated editorials in the Greek
press as many experts and political personalities have
rushed to interpret the behavior of the rioters, who are
purportedly rebelling to correct the failures of adults. But
punditry of this kind rarely raises real issues like making
parents (if they can be identified) accountable to the full
extent of the law for damages incurred by their children or
sending the bill to radical left parties whose members
unabashedly proclaim the need for perpetual revolution and
destruction of the establishment, even though their
leadership is among the country's wealthiest citizens.
The total cost of the riots to the Greek state is still hard
to determine, since they are far from over. Currently (Dec.
18), damages to businesses are estimated to have reached
over 200 million euros, while the disruption of the
country's lucrative tourist industry is likely to last
beyond this coming summer. With the largest account deficit
in the Eurozone, one fifth of its population under the
poverty line, rising unemployment particularly among youth,
and a global crisis soon to hit hard on all sectors of the
economy, this is the last thing that Greece--or any country-
-would wish upon itself.
As the majority of New Democracy supporters have conceded in
recent polls, blame falls squarely on the Karamanlis
government for failure to restore law and order and maneuver
conniving opposition parties, PASOK and especially the
radical left SYRIZA (whose hand in the riots is all but
certain) into a show of unity. But even if against all odds
Karamanlis proves resilient and survives this crisis, the
mindset that made it possible and the dangers it poses for
the country's internal security and stability will persist.