Greek riots spark fear of Europe in flames

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Seldom do Greek academics attain the heroic status that was bestowed last week on Christos Kittas, an eminent professor of pathology and rector of Athens University. 

More comfortable in front of a whiteboard Kittas, a wiry figure with grey hair and a silver beard, found himself on the front line in what looked like a war zone. 

From his palatial office on the first floor of the university, he organised a “human chain” of colleagues to defend the historic building from being ransacked in Greece’s worst street violence in decades. 

“I’m terrified,” he confided on Friday as yet another column of demonstrators filed past the building, screaming abuse at police – “killers in uniform” – for having shot dead a teenager six days before.

“I haven’t slept in days now,” he added, sitting beneath oil paintings of previous rectors going back to the 1830s. 

Downstairs, other teachers had formed a line on the steps to prevent hardcore demonstrators from breaking into the building and using it, as they had done previously, as a base from which to hurl Molotov cocktails and stones at police. 

A week of protests and rioting by students venting fury over the death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos has thrown Greece into turmoil, causing hundreds of millions of pounds of damage and focusing attention on economic, political and social woes. 

“It feels as though we are in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Kittas, peering once more through the window. “I think I can hear them,” he said nervously. “I think they’ve broken in.” 

It turned out to be a false alarm. However, Kittas, who has become the unlikely star of TV chat shows, has every reason to be jittery: a year ago, when protesters broke into his office, they took a knife to two of the portraits. “I’m worried that this time they'll burn the place down,” he said. 

The protests continued yesterday and more demonstrations are planned. Some see a foretaste of the next phase of the global financial crisis, sensing in the tear gas and chants a warning to European leaders of what may unfold elsewhere if they do not take into account the frustrations of their people. 

Sympathy protests from Moscow to Madrid helped to fuel such concerns, as did Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who mentioned the Greek upheaval to justify his rejection of budget proposals that would have cushioned the wealthy from losses. 

First in the line of fire, however, were Greece’s ruling elite, who had been bolstered in recent years by a bonanza of European Union and the eupho-ria surrounding the hosting of the Olympics in 2004. 

Last week they faced a popular uprising by thousands of citizens over a host of grievances from corruption in the government to low salaries and unemployment among the young. The rhetoric was enough to send a shiver down the spine of world leaders meeting in Brussels to discuss a multi-billion-euro bailout. 

“Athens must burn, especially the banks,” a teenager called Marios in a hooded sweat-shirt and jeans told me during a protest on Friday. 

Nearby, rioters had smashed the display screens of cash dispensers and shattered dozens of shop windows, carting off mobile telephones, watches, clothes and computers. A few rioters dragged a drinks refrigerator on to the street, ripped off the back and filled their arms with bottles and cans. They drank a few and used the rest as projectiles. 

Down the road, policemen watched from behind riot shields but did nothing: the government has ordered them not to use force in order to avoid further bloodshed. This has fuelled anger among shopkeepers who complained that Athens, after being rebuilt amid great fanfare for the Olympics, had been left to burn. 

“People have a right to demonstrate,” said Katarini Halaounis, who lost thousands of pounds worth of stock when protesters looted her jewellery shop on Monday, “but not to destroy shops and businesses that have taken a lifetime to build. The government just doesn’t seem to be interested.” 

A target of wrath was Costas Karamanlis, the conservative prime minister since 2004. Since narrowly winning reelection in 2007, he has been plagued by a series of embarrassing scandals in which several of his closest associates have been forced to resign. 

Rumours swirled about the capital that he was suffering from severe depression, so inactive has he appeared during the sacking of Athens. 

In Brussels on Friday for a European summit, Karamanlis said there would be a “sober assessment” of how the authorities had handled the protests, adding: “We should not confuse the actions of groups destroying public property with the right that people, students and workers, have to protest.” 

With more protests scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday, Petros Doukas, the assistant foreign minister, suggested that new directives would soon be given to police to help restore order. 

“The feeling is that from now on, this sort of thing won’t be tolerated,” he said. 

The trouble began with the killing of Grigoropoulos last Saturday night by a policeman who claimed to have fired warning shots when a group of youths threw a firebomb. Witnesses claimed that he had aimed at the boy. 

Riots quickly spread across the country and to the islands of Crete and Corfu. The policeman was arrested and charged with murder, but this did nothing to dispel the mob’s fury and most of Athens was soon smelling of soot. 

On Monday night, protesters set ablaze the city’s huge Christmas tree, which had only just been installed in the central square. Some of the protesters sang carols as they watched it burn. 

Grigoropoulos was buried on Tuesday but the crisis intensified on Wednesday when unions rejected government pleas to call off a long-planned general strike that ended up paralysing the country. 

On Thursday, the policeman’s lawyer claimed a ballistics report showed Grigoropoulos was killed by an accidental ricochet. The protesters called it a cover-up. 

Grigoropoulos was hardly an ideal martyr for a movement suspected of being heavily influenced by a hard-left party known as Syriza. His mother runs a jewellery shop opposite Prada in the Bond Street of Athens and his father is a bank manager. 

He apparently belonged to a cluster of Athenian youths from well-to-do families who enjoy goading police on a Saturday night in the troubled district of Exarchia. 

The shooting prompted parents all over the country to examine the liberties they have been permitting their children. 

“My 12-year-old daughter has been getting text messages inviting her to join demonstrations,” said Constantine Michalos, president of the Greek chamber of commerce. “One of the messages said, ‘Don’t go to school today. We need to show our power on the street.’ I had to lay down the law.” 

He had publicly predicted trouble as far back as September, not just because of Greece’s penchant for protest – there were 902 demonstrations in Athens last year that closed the central square at a cost to the economy of some £1.3 billion. 

Michalos blamed an economic downturn that has had a brutal impact on the shipping industry, the mainstay of the Greek economy. Unemployment has soared to 21% among 20-to 30-year-olds. 

A fifth of the Greek population is living below the poverty line, which has been measured at €486 (£437) a month. The protests also highlighted the emergence of a so-called “€700 generation” made up of young graduates who complain of not being able to find jobs paying little more than £600 a month. 

Some dismissed such complaints as being unfounded and the angry backlash against protesters appears to be gathering momentum. 

“Spoilt doesn’t begin to describe it,” said Renee Pappas, a Greek-American public communications consultant, describing Greek teenagers. “Nowadays we’re in Europe,” she added. “If they can’t find a job in Athens, there’s plenty of other cities in which people can work.” 

The authorities have always been indulgent of student protests. Ever since the shootings of protesters in antimilitary demonstrations in the early 1970s, Greek police have kept off the campuses, not wanting to be accused of the same “fascist” methods as the colonels. 

This allowed protesters sheltering last week in the Polytechnic – a symbol of resistance because tanks drove through the gates on November 17, 1973, killing at least two dozen students – to manufacture Molotov cocktails there with impunity. None of the professors sought to interfere. 

At Athens University, by contrast, Kittas argued that what some referred to as a “right of asylum” in universities was a “myth”. He resigned on Monday when police refused to evict rioting students. 

The government pleaded with him to stay on, and he has since taken to organising the defence of his beloved building. “I’m a professor, though, not a police detective,” he said. “The world has gone mad. What is happening to us?”  continues here

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