Monday, 28 October 2013

Elytis on the heroic resistance of Greece

Above is a fascinating short from Finos Films capturing the liberation of Athens from German occupation in October 1944, while below is a repeat post with an extract from Odysseas Elytis’ poem From the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, followed by reflections from the poet on how his participation in repelling the Axis invasion shaped his poetry and view of Greece.  

From the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign
Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
The truest moment of the world rings out:
Greeks show the way in the darkness:
For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.

Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
The most innocent girls
Run naked in men’s eyes
And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful

The truest moment of the world rings out!

With a morning stride on the growing grass
He is continually ascending;
Around him those passions glow that once
Were lost in the solitude of sin;
Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.

Bells of crystal are ringing far away
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!

Elytis on his war experiences
As a reserve officer, the poet Odysseas Elytis was called up immediately after the Italian invasion and served on the Albanian front with the rank of second lieutenant in the First Army Corps. The translator Kimon Friar says of Eltyis’ war experiences that the poet ‘saw in the heroic resistance of the Greek people against superior odds, throughout their long history, a recklessness of spirit, a divine madness. In the spontaneous reaction of the Greek people to Mussolini’s invasion, he saw the victory of a beautiful rashness over self-calculation, an instinct that could distinguish between good and evil in a time of danger’.

In a letter to Friar, Elytis describes the impact of the war on his life and poetry:

‘A kind of “metaphysical modesty” dominated me. The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. His was no doubt the measure and worth of our civilisation, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom that he recreated life out of the stuff of death.

‘Later, with an order in my pocket, I set out to meet my new army unit at the front somewhere between the Akrokeravnia Mountains and Tepeleni. One by one, I abandoned the implements of my material existence. My beard became more and more unkempt. The lice swarmed and multiplied. Mud and rain disfigured my uniform. Snow covered everything in sight. And when the time came for me to take the final leap, to understand what role I was to play in terms of the enemy, I was no longer anything but a creature of slight substance who – exactly because of this – carried within him all the values of material life stressed to their breaking point and conducted to their spiritual analogy. Was this a kind of “contemporary idealism?” That very night it was necessary for me to proceed on a narrow path where I met repeatedly with stretcher-bearers who with great difficulty tried to keep in balance the heavily wounded whom they were bearing to the rear. I shall never forget the groan of those wounded. They made me, in the general over-excitement of my mind, conjure up that “it is not possible,” that “it cannot otherwise be done,” which is the reversion of justice on this earth of ours. They made me swear an oath in the name of the Resurrection of that brave Hellenic Hero, who became now for me the Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, that I would advance into battle with this talisman of my lyrical idea… Nothing further remained for me but to fulfill my vow, to give form to the Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign on multiple levels woven together with the traditions of Greek history, but also involved – in particular – within and beyond death, in the Resurrection, the Easter of God.’

Saturday, 26 October 2013

John Cassavetes on the merits of Socrates

Above is a very funny clip from I’m Almost Not Crazy, the documentary on the making of John Cassavetes’ last film Love Streams (1984). In the clip, which is like a scene from a Cassavetes’ movie, Cassavetes and his cousin and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael passionately argue about the merits of Socrates over a game of backgammon. Below is an interview given by Phedon Papamichael to the Independent Film Quarterly’s Stuart Alson in 2006, in which Papamichael discusses working with Cassavetes.

Phedon Papamichael: My life with John Cassavetes
Being in the film business, sometimes I am asked to serve on the Jury at film festivals. If my schedule permits, I accept the offer


In March 2006, I flew 15 hours from Las Vegas to Cyprus for the their first annual film festival, Cyprus International Film Festival (CIFF). During this business trip I found such a gem. However it was not a film, as I had hoped and expected, but it was a person. Had I not served on the Jury Committee in Cyprus, I would never have met this man.

Phedon Papamichael is 84 years old. He had a film career in Los Angeles working on John Cassavetes’ films.

IFQ: You worked with John Cassavetes for 25 years on his films. What was your job in the film business and how did you get started?

PP: I started doing art design for theatre in France. When I came back to Greece, I met Jules Dassin. He said forget the theatre; let’s make movies. I said that I didn’t know what to do, but he said don’t worry. I did two movies with him, Never on Sunday and Phaedra. Then John Cassavetes came to our home to visit. He was my second cousin. He asked me to come to America to make movies together. I did not go right away, but eventually I did go and we lived together for 25 years and made movies.

IFQ: What was it like working together? 

PP: It was wonderful. I was in charge of art design and costumes. However, whatever movies we made – we made together. We shot and edited them together in the house where we lived. We had two moviolas in the garage.

IFQ: How did you distribute the films?

PP: Many times, we had no money. We would go to theatres and ask them to play the films and they could keep all of the money. Then in the middle of the night, we would go around town and hang posters ourselves. It was all about the art and the work. John Cassavetes was the first independent filmmaker. He did not want money from some moneyman or studio because he did not want them telling him what to do. Everything was done on deferments and everyone worked for free or for points.

IFQ: How did you fund the projects?

PP: John and his wife would do acting jobs and put the money they made into the films. Also if things were tight John would turn to the actors, like Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, and say, ‘Hey you stingy Peter Falk, put 50,000 dollars in to the film so we can finish.’ And they would. It was all about the film, not the money and everyone wanted to work with John. Steven Speilberg was our production assistant. He would go and get coffee and run errands just to learn from John.

IFQ: What were your favorite movies that you made?

PP: I did not have a favorite movie. It was how we made certain movies that made them my favorite. I remember A Woman Under the Influence. We had no money at all. We had no money to feed the crew. We ate at McDonalds. But John said, ‘I don’t care we are going to make this movie.’ It was that type of adventurous independence that I loved. With Faces, it took us four years to finish the film. We would run out of money and John and his wife would take acting jobs and then come back and work on the film some more. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was great fun too.

IFQ: What was the worst thing that happened when you worked with John?

PP: The worst thing that happened was one time we got into a fistfight with each other.

IFQ: What happened?

PP: When we had breakfast together that morning, John told me that he wanted something a certain way on the set and I disagreed. When he came to shoot, he saw that I had not done what he wanted. We got into an argument and I said I was leaving. He shouted, ‘No one walks off my set.’ Of course, the set was actually in our house. I went to leave and we got into a physical fight. I ran away and he tried to chase me but could not catch me. I called later that night after we cooled off. He said to come home. When we saw each other, we kissed and that was the end of that.

IFQ: What happened after John died?

PP: I tried to find someone else with the same love and independence to work with, but I could never find the same happiness. I tried Peter Bogdanovich and others, but it was never the same. 
I stayed in Los Angeles and worked on more films like the The Fabulous Baker Boys. I tried to help new people and give them advice, like Leonardo DiCaprio and others. He had a big party for me last time I went back.

IFQ: Why did you finally leave Los Angeles and return to Greece?

PP: Well, I just could not find anyone to work with who was like John. The last thing I did was with Charlie Sheen, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Nick Cassavetes [John’s son].

 Everyone put in some money and we opened a beautiful production office called Ventura Productions. We planned to make films. We had great offices and receptionists, but everyone just used the place to hang out and party. We did make one film with Gérard Depardieu because he wanted to do a John Cassavetes’ script. 

But that was it, so I came back to Greece where I started my life. I spend time helping new people, when I can and when they will listen. My son [Phedon Papamichael II] and his success give me happiness. [Phedon Papamichael II is a cinematographer whose credits include: Walk the Line, Sideways, Identity, America’s Sweethearts, Patch Adams, and Poison Ivy]. 

IFQ: What advice do you have for new people starting in the film business?

PP: I tell them: If you have talent and you love that talent, then you should go for what you want and do not give up just because things don't go your way sometimes. If you have talent and do not love that talent, then don’t worry about it. I know many people who are talented but do not love their talent.

IFQ: What about stress?

PP: Stress is the worst thing for anyone. Stress can kill a person. You must keep your mind clear and deal with what is in front of you.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The 300 Spartans

The 300 Spartans (1962) – purporting to tell the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae – is pretty silly but not as bad as I remember. When I first saw the film a few years ago, it struck me as a shoddy piece of Cold War propaganda that would have also satisfied the Greek state (particularly the Royal Family and Royal Hellenic Army) – which was heavily involved in facilitating the film. I found the crude patriotic exhortations and calls for Greek unity under the leadership of a brave and benevolent monarch a little hard to stomach. However, watching it again, I enjoyed the spectacle and David Farrar’s portrayal of the inept and bewildered King Xerxes. ‘This is no answer. I’m surrounded by incompetent fools,’ he bellows at his generals after the Spartans, in probably the best scene in the film, infiltrate and set alight the Persian camp. Above is the trailer for the film, which you can watch in its entirety, and in good quality, here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

How the EU funds Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus

Below are extracts from a paper published by Avi Bell and Eugene Kontorvich condemning the recent decision by the European Commission to prohibit EU funding of Israeli activity in territories it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, i.e. the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The two academics argue that the EU’s Israel Grants Guidelines discriminates against Israel and rely on their claim of double standards on the case of EU funding of projects in Turkish-occupied Cyprus. If, Bell and Kontorvich argue, the EU believes it is acting according to international law by denying funds to Israel deemed to be sustaining its occupation of Palestinian territories, then how can it justify its programme of grants and projects in Turkish-occupied Cyprus?

The extracts below are where Bell and Kontorvich refer to EU policy in Cyprus. You can read the whole paper here.

EU’s Israel Grants Guidelines: A legal and Policy Analysis.
On June 30, 2013, the European Commission adopted… a notice with Guidelines forbidding the allocation of European Union grants, prizes and financial instruments to any Israeli “entity” that has an address in the West Bank, Golan Heights, “east Jerusalem” or Gaza Strip…

Proponents of the Guidelines claim that they are mandated by international law. Supporters of the measure have uniformly echoed this justification: because the EU regards the territories as occupied by Israel, international law obligates it to ensure its monies do not support Israeli activities there…

The ill-considered Guidelines expose the European Union to considerable legal risk. The legal theory underlying the Guidelines, as promoted by European officials, is that Israeli “settlements” are illegal and that the EU must cut off grants that “support” settlement activity lest the EU be implicated in the illegality. However, the EU currently and openly supports similar “settlement” activity elsewhere in the world. For instance, the EU has a grant program specifically aimed at funding Turkish “settlers” of Northern Cyprus. If the EU is serious about the legal theory it is using to promote the Guidelines, it means that the EU violates international law with its grant programs in Northern Cyprus. Future challengers to EU policy in Northern Cyprus, as well as other occupied territories like Western Sahara, will use EU arguments regarding the Guidelines to convince courts to rule that EU policy violates international law.

The Guidelines forbid grantees to engage in activities – or be located in – the disputed areas. EU officials falsely argue that this is required by international law, a policy which falls in line with its opposition to potential Israeli claims of sovereignty in the disputed areas. Yet, in Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus, the EU operates a grant program aimed at Turkish Cypriot settlers who were transferred there by the Turkish government.

The North Cyprus program is only the most blatant of numerous EU programs that provide funds to occupation and settler regimes.

Case Study: The EU directly and indirectly funds Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, despite regarding it as illegal.

The EU knowingly and purposefully gives direct grants, funding, etc, to Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus. The EU does so even though the EU regards Northern Cyprus as occupied (indeed, it is an occupation of an EU member state). The EU’s official policy is that Turkey must end its occupation, and the Turkish invasion was condemned by every international institution from the Security Council on down. Nonetheless, the EU maintains an entire program to direct funds to Turks in Northern Cyprus. They even put out a nice colorful brochure last year.

The grants are pursuant to a 2006 Regulation adopted by the EU to “end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community,” and allocated 259 million Euros over five years. The program now operates on a 28 million Euro a year allocation (even this small sum is roughly 0.8 percent of Northern Cyprus’s GDP).

EU-funded projects include study abroad scholarships; grants to small and medium-sized businesses for the purpose of developing and diversifying the private sector; various kinds of infrastructure improvements (iterate and telecom improvements, traffic safety, waste disposal, technical assistance to farmers); “community development grants”; funding to upgrade “cultural heritage” sites, etc. The EU program even puts on a musical concert.

Importantly, the vast majority of the Northern Cyprus inhabitants are Turkish settlers who arrived subsequent to the invasion in 1974 and who do not have EU citizenship. Yet, none of the Commission’s grant or contracting documents limit eligibility or participation to EU citizens.

Can one imagine a similar EU project in the West Bank funding Israeli traffic safety, or providing grants to Jewish West Bank residents for study abroad and grants to Jewish-owned small and medium-sized businesses. Could one imagine one funding Jewish cultural events in the West Bank?
The relevant EU resolutions and reports on the EU’s Northern Cyprus program make no mention of the international legal issues arising from this policy, though they do note the “difficult” or “unique” political context. One reason the EU gives for the funding is that it is preparing for reunification of an island that is technically in the EU. Yet, it is important to note that funding goes far beyond particular reunification projects, and gives grants to Turkish private business entities, and builds the infrastructure of the occupying government.

The EU’s own reports make clear that preparing for possible reunification is only one goal of the program, and general welfare-improvement goals dominate the considerations behind funding. The EU is doing exactly what it claims that international law prohibits when it comes to Israel.

The contradiction between the Northern Cyprus policy and the Israel policy is much starker. The Guidelines on Israel aim to regulate groups based in Israel proper and they go out of their way to make sure no money might be incidentally spent on “occupation.” Yet no such territorial restrictions are placed on EU funding to Turkey itself, despite the fact that Northern Cyprus’s economy is dominated by Turkish mainland-based entities and direct subsidies from Ankara. The EU funding of Northern Cyprus goes even further than that: it is a specific project entirely dedicated to funding occupation activities.

Indeed, the EU maintains an office in Northern Cyprus to oversee its over “1000 grant contracts… to NGOs, SMEs, farmers, rural communities, schools, and students.” This office liaises directly with the Turkish occupation regime in the territory (which styles itself as an independent republic, but neither the EU nor any other nation recognize it as such).

The Northern Cyprus program is more flagrant in another way. The Israel-related Guidelines make an exception for activities “aimed” at helping “protected persons,” i.e. Palestinians. The Northern Cyprus funding can not (and does not attempt) to claim this excuse, as i) the majority of the territory’s population is composed of mainland Turkish settlers; ii) the ethnic Greeks present at the time of occupation have all fled or been expelled.

The EU justification of the Guidelines is that it has no choice – the EU doesn’t recognize the disputed territories as part of Israel, and so no money can go there, and moreover, the EU has some affirmative duty to prevent money going there. The Cyprus program gives lie to this position. The Israel-related Guidelines are neither the legal nor logical consequence of Israeli activities, but a discretionary European political decision to impose a double standard on Israel.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

On a federation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel

This week Greece’s PM Antonis Samaras made a high-profile visit to Israel for an inter-governmental meeting where the burgeoning relations between Greece and Israel were evaluated (see video above). In light of these developments, Giorgios Malouchos, writing in To Vima, called for a federation between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. The piece, which I’ve translated into English below (read original here), is a little far fetched and here are some problems with Malouchos’ vision that immediately struck me. 

First, what exactly what does Malouchos mean by a ‘federation’? Surely, he doesn’t mean a political union.

Second, Syriza, which has a chance of forming a government in Greece in the near future, trapped by its anti-Zionism and fetishisation of the Palestinian cause, is instinctively hostile to Israel, meaning Israel must harbour serious doubts as to the long-term prospects of Greece being a reliable partner.

Third, Turkey, concerned by developments in the Eastern Mediterranean – not only the budding Greece-Israel-Cyprus axis but also the prospects of Greece-Egypt-Cyprus or even a Greece-Egypt-Israel-Cyprus axis – is making noise about reaching a Cyprus settlement as soon as possible. Of course, what Turkey means by a Cyprus settlement is something akin to the Annan plan, which would allow the Turkish Cypriots to use the powers they would acquire in a federated Cyprus to project Turkey’s interests, for example by vetoing any Cypriot participation in alliances involving Israel and/or Egypt.

A federation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel
By Giorgios Malouchos

Even if it’s been greatly delayed, Greek policy shows that it has at last realised the obvious: that relations between Greece and Israel shouldn’t only become closer as quickly as possible but should reach the point of an alliance; an alliance, indeed, that goes beyond deep co-operation and embraces the logic of a confederation or, why not, a federation.

A Mediterranean alliance between Greece, Cyprus and Israel will change everything for all concerned. Nothing divides the three countries. There exist no conflicts or rivalries. In fact, much unites them, with each country able to add something to the other and, together, to the whole.

A federation will allow the three states to jointly secure the exploitation of the massive hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, while Israel, arguably, has the best airforce in the world, its navy is less adequate. Greece’s navy, on the other hand, has the potential to become the most powerful in the region.

Also, Israel lacks strategic depth, something which Cyprus and Greece can offer it.

The strategic unification of an area that stretches from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Adriatic, will bring unprecedented developments with wide ramifications.

Furthermore, the Jewish and Greek diasporas, if they work in a deep and systematic way in pursuit of common goals, will emerge as key players in shaping American policy in the region.

At the same time, Greece, a member of NATO and the EU, would be able to extend its support to Israel in these forums.

Naturally, apart from an alliance in the energy field, there exists enormous potential for wider economic co-operation.

Grand politics today mean exactly this: will Greece dare to go down new roads that lead to new possibilities? Will Greece make a leap forward, act dynamically, change the agenda, and assert its capabilities? The creation of this triple alliance – perhaps even this federation – will contribute like nothing else to a reinvigorated Greece.

Do we dare, or will we remain satisfied with words and half-measures?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

‘Behold the Greeks! They shit on you now and forever’

It’s often assumed that because Greek is the language of science, philosophy, poetry, the Christian religion, etc, that it might be lacking when it comes to its ability to be profane, vulgar, insulting and downright rude. Of course, this is not the case.

In his The Greeks and Greek Civilization, Jacob Burckhardt writes:
‘Right from the outset, the Greeks thoroughly understood kertomein, the ache in the heart that words can inflict. It is particularly associated with mockery of unsuccessful attempts and actions; Homer tells us of the victor’s jeering and the pain it gives to the vanquished; the reader hears the full accumulated bitterness of Odysseus in his justifiable vengeance on the blinded Cyclops, and the venomous mischief-making of Theristes.’
Burckhardt then goes on to say that in the post-Homeric age ( i.e. in what he calls the ‘Agonal Age’ of Greek civilisation – from the end of Dorian migration to the end of the sixth century BC – during which the nobility, reigning throughout the Greek world, disdaining commerce and manual labour, devoted itself to ‘the practice of arms or work for the games or the state’), verbal abuse (loidoria) became an artistic genre, a style, best represented by a poet like Archilochus, and his ‘impartial abuse of friend and foe’.

No doubt when we think of Greek rudeness and vulgarity we think most of Aristophanes, who wrote his comedies in the fifth century BC; but this essay by Maroula Efthymiou – Cursing with a Message: the case of Georgios Karaiskakis in 1823 – reminds us that the ability of Greeks to dish out vicious abuse survived into the modern age.

Karaiskakis, Efthymiou says, as well as being the ‘charismatic military leader of central Greece in the 1821 revolution… a brave and daring man of wit and invention’ was also ‘irritable and ambitious, proud and magnanimous, prankish and persistent, [and] notorious for his loose tongue and the brazen torrents of obscenities he uttered.’

As proof of his obscene torrents, Efthymiou draws attention to Karaiskakis’ address to the messenger of the silihtar Boda, the Albanian general in charge of a force of 5,000 Muslim Albanians who, in the spring of 1823, were confronting Karaiskakis’ forces in central Greece:
‘Come on, you shitty Turk... Come on you Jew, you pawn of the gypsies... Fuck your faith and your Mohammed. What did you think, you cuckolds...? You should be ashamed to ask us to sign a treaty with such a shitty Sultan Mahmud. I shit on him and your vezir and that Jew silihtar Boda, the whore.’
For Efthymiou, given that for hundreds of years Greeks had lived as second-class citizens in the Ottoman empire, ‘obliged to show respect and humility towards their social and political superiors’, the ferocity and vulgarity of Karaiskakis’ outbursts against the Muslim overlords were as much a revolt and an inversion of the status quo as the armed insurrection.

But more than a revolt against the Ottomans, Efthymiou says, Karaiskakis’ vehement language was also designed to define his own status, as a Greek, as someone who was no longer a subordinate and contemptible creature – a Jew, a gypsy, a Turk or a whore – but the heir to a glorious race and civilisation.

This assertion of the new state of affairs brought about by the 1821 revolution is exemplified by another outburst Karaiskakis made against the Turks:
‘You cuckolds! The ones you captured were your own men; they were Turks and Jews because that’s what rayas means. Behold the Greeks! They shit on you now and forever!’

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Golden Dawn: a very Greek phenomenon

There’s a lot of nonsense written about Golden Dawn, both by Greeks and the international media, the latter having a lurid fascination for the ultra-nationalist party and its activities. Two of the most popular assertions is that Golden Dawn is a Nazi party and that Golden Dawn’s success is a direct result of the economic catastrophe that has overwhelmed Greece. Neither of these contentions stands up to scrutiny. First, to characterise Golden Dawn ‘Nazi’ is to diminish the term and overlook the specific cultural, historical and political context that allowed for the rise of national socialism in Germany. Nazism may appeal to some in Golden Dawn, but the party draws most of its ideology from the authoritarian nationalist tradition present in Greece, which Christopher Caldwell (in this piece for the FT, published below) identifies with idealisation of Sparta, the Metaxas regime of 1936 and the military junta that ruled Greece between 1967-74.

As to whether Golden Dawn is a phenomenon of the Greek economic collapse, I’ve already written that the emergence of anti-immigrant, hyper-nationalist politics in Greece predates the economic crisis. Before it voted in favour of the troika bailouts, LAOS – several of whose MPs were frequently accused of being fascists and Nazis – had successfully mined the same terrain as Golden Dawn. Furthermore, we note that other countries that have suffered similar economic turmoil as Greece and with even more significant authoritarian traditions – Italy, Spain and Portugal – have not experienced a resurgence of the far right. Clearly, the far right requires more than economic collapse to sustain its appeal. Indeed, the fact that the far right has revived in Greece but not elsewhere in southern Europe suggests that Golden Dawn is a specifically Greek phenomenon with specific Greek causes. In particular, I would attribute Golden Dawn’s success not to Greece’s economic malaise, but to the evisceration and discrediting of the Greek state in the post-1974 era, in which the economic collapse is a symptom not a cause. Now, who eviscerated and discredited the Greek state after 1974 is another story.

Greece should crack down on crimes, not beliefs
By Christopher Caldwell

In mid-September, polls showed that at least a 10th of Greeks would consider voting for the nationalist and anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party. One of its MPs was looking the favourite to become mayor of Athens in next year’s elections. And at just that moment, a group of about 30 men, allegedly party sympathisers, surrounded a leftwing singer outside a café near the Athenian waterfront and killed him. The man who confessed to the deadly stabbing was a regular visitor at party offices in nearby Nikea.

There had been reports that Golden Dawn members bullied immigrants, extorted money from street vendors and showed traits of a paramilitary organisation. Too few people paid attention. But before dawn on Saturday last week, police dressed in balaclavas began arresting dozens of party members. Eventually, six parliamentarians, including the party’s leader and deputy leader, were arrested, along with several police officers.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of the New Democracy party is taking a gamble. There is a good case for attacking Golden Dawn robustly. But the criminal case must be strong – precisely because the government is not.

At least until the murder, Golden Dawn was becoming more popular. It helped patrol dangerous neighbourhoods and provide food and services for the poor. The unemployment rate in Greece is about 30 per cent. Golden Dawn benefits from not saying a kind word about liberal capitalism, while the government defends austerity plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the EU.
Golden Dawn’s foes call it neo-Nazi. Its members give straight-armed salutes, the Greek “meander” that is its symbol looks like a swastika, and investigators released photos of German military memorabilia allegedly found at the home of deputy leader Christos Pappas.

The party’s manifesto warns that Greeks are “in danger of becoming ethnically cleansed in their native homeland”. But leader Nikos Michaloliakos said this week: “I am not a Nazi.” There is no particular reason to disbelieve him. Alien though most Greeks find his ideology, it appears cobbled together out of elements in their country’s authoritarian past, not Germany’s. His role models are the Spartans, Ioannis Metaxas, the 1930s hardline anti-communist prime minister, and the anti-communist “colonels” who ruled until 1974.

That raises a more practical problem with tying the movement to Nazism: the constitution. Almost every foreign observer notes that not since the colonels has any Greek government moved against opposition parties in this way. Greeks remember that period as an abusive dictatorship.

Thereafter, Greece put into place strong protections for even the most unpopular views. Its constitution does not permit the outlawing of political parties, although it does allow banning criminal organisations. This is the tack the government is following. In going after Golden Dawn, prosecutors must distinguish between criminal violence, which is unacceptable in a democratic system, and ideology, which Greece has promised to respect, in all its occasionally disheartening variety.

The Greek state’s ability to do that is open to question. Certainly it is serious about proving Golden Dawn a criminal organisation. The National Intelligence Service has been tapping party members’ phones for years, and its recordings include several made around the time of last month’s murder. Leaked wiretap evidence is alleged to link prominent members to pimping, protection rackets and money laundering.

Worries about the strength of the case spread this week when judges ordered the release of three of the arrested MPs. One prosecutor said the party used a “Führerprinzip”, as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party did. But doesn’t every organisation have a leadership principle? He noted that Golden Dawn is divided into a political and an operational wing, and added that Golden Dawn has weapons hidden throughout Greece. Might it have been wiser to wait until those caches were discovered before proceeding? Mr Samaras’s government risks looking opportunistic. It is pursuing legislation to suspend funding for parties charged with – as opposed to convicted of – crimes.

The government aims to ban Golden Dawn in all but name. That is why it 
is imperative to proceed based on what Golden Dawn has done, and not 
on what it thinks. Otherwise, there will be a temptation to examine the similarly “populist” message of the largest opposition party, the leftwing Syriza. Greece is admitting that its modern democracy lacks the roots to weather certain challenges. Such an admission may be the best course. The most precious asset governments have is credibility, and right now Greece’s government has more need of it than most.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The real reasons for the crackdown on Golden Dawn

Many right-wing supporters of prime minister Antonis Samaras must be asking themselves if the theory of the two extremes – which suggests that Syriza and Golden Dawn are equivalent in their willingness to deploy violence and extra-parliamentary means in pursuit of political goals – has now, with the crackdown on Golden Dawn, been abandoned. And if, rather than the more recent brutality of Golden Dawn, it isn’t the tolerance of leftist violence and terrorism since 1974 that has undermined the social and political fabric of the country; and given its support and sympathy for the murder and mayhem anarchist and far left elements have caused in Greece, whether Syriza is just as much a criminal organisation as Golden Dawn; and if it isn’t the case that the prospect of a Syriza government is much more of a threat to Greece than the thuggish antics of Golden Dawn.

In which case, supporters of Samaras must be wondering what has prompted the prime minister to go after Golden Dawn in the way he has, concocting a case – which many Greek legal experts regard as flimsy (see video above) – that aims to prove that the ultra-nationalist party is in fact a criminal organisation.

Dr Giorgos Filis, who teaches international relations at the American College in Athens, suggests in this article (in Greek) the following political and geopolitical factors must be taken into account when considering Samaras’ motives:

The increasing popularity of Golden Dawn had to be halted, especially given that 2014 is a year of local and European Parliament elections. Filis also suggests that the action against Golden Dawn is a useful means to divert public attention from the catastrophic economic situation and the new measures to come.

Furthermore, Filis says, it is not a coincidence that the moves against Golden Dawn took place at a time when Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos was visiting the USA and having important contacts with US officials and luminaries from the Jewish lobby and on the eve of the prime minister’s visit to the USA, where he will be having similar contacts.

Regarding Israel, which has obvious sensitivities to phenomenon such as Golden Dawn, on 8 October Samaras is due to visit Jerusalem to preside, with his Israeli counterpart, over the convening of the Greece-Israel High Level Cooperation Council. Filis also points out that Israel has a defining role in the unfolding energy and geopolitical developments affecting Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, Golden Dawn’s anti-semitism and neo-Nazi reputation couldn’t be allowed to derail or undermine this nascent Israel-Cyrpus-Greece axis.

Filis says the Greek government has every reason to clash with Golden Dawn and has, in fact, been preparing to do so for months, collecting relevant details, waiting for the appropriate pretext and the right alignment of external and internal political factors.