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Implications of Rising Violence in Greece

The past several weeks have seen a wave of new terrorist attacks and anti-government activity in Greece, in reaction to yet another round of austerity measures imposed by the government. Prime Minister Samaras has repeatedly stated the government’s desire to put an end to ‘lawlessness’ and attacks on public and private property, but the government is proving ineffective in its efforts to curb violence. Its impact on the health of the Greek economy and the psychological well being of the Greek people is likely to grow with time. The latest clashes between the police and the anti-government groups has prompted a series of debates between members of the tripartite government, especially New Democracy — the leading coalition party — and several Ministers of the Syriza Coalition — the main opposition party, which is left of center.

The primary political conflict concerns the legality of police raids, arrests and charges against several individuals as a result of the discovery of materials that can be used to create firebombs and Molotov cocktails. This has also created tension between ELAS (the Hellenic Police), the Minister of Civil Protection, and the judicial elite of the country, which blames authorities for lacking sufficient evidence to be able to formally charge those in possession of the materials. Public sentiment is generally against the government’s handling of the rise in violence.

Some 18 attacks of various magnitudes have occurred over the past few weeks, and although there have been no casualties thus far, the wide range of targets points to a general breakdown of law and order, which is a source of great concern.

Targets have included the residence of the brother of the government spokesman, journalists’ offices and political establishments, the most serious being a bomb having been placed in one of the largest shopping malls in Greece (“The Mall”). It was the first time a bomb was placed in a highly popular centrally located public place. The government views this as a possible signal of more to come.

Another event of particular concern took place against the new headquarters of the governing New Democracy Party — carried out by an AK-47 and a Magnum 357 — both of which were used for the first time in an act of political protest. The ease with which the attack was carried out has raised a number of questions about the effectiveness of the Greek intelligence service and security forces. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although Nucleus of Fire — the most important of the post-N-17 organizations – is suspected by police because of the materials used at The Mall.

Speculation is rife that the rise in violence is a direct result of the government’s efforts to crack down on various anti-authority and anarchist groups. There is speculation that the acts may not be random and may instead be part of a larger plan to create general insecurity among government ministries while having the ancillary benefit of simultaneously causing angst among the general population.

A general consensus among analysts in Greece is that there is a need for significant change across the security spectrum — the police, the National Intelligence Service, the SDOE (the financial crimes police) and other security forces, including Public Protection Service. Changes in their structure, operational methods, and hiring practices are being called for by a wide range of observers. With a limited budget due to the austerity measures, intelligence and law enforcement bodies are facing unique challenges, while low morale and rising corruption run counter to their operational objectives. The latest attacks indicate a need for deep, structural and holistic reforms across the security forces, and a new approach to the issue of providing public and state security.

Greece has suffered a major blow to its image and self-esteem over the past four years; the media attention and travel warnings stemming from these attacks has only exacerbated this but has also brought back fears of a resurgence of extremist groups. The presence of such groups fell into the background because of the country’s economic malaise. Given Greece’s history of turbulent politics and a plethora of political groupings, it is in some sense surprising that no truly serious incident had occurred during this time. The importance of the perception of stability and security has never been more imperative.

The reaction of the state, lawmakers, the public, the media, and the security forces will collectively determine how this new wave of violence will progress. The question remains whether this is the beginning of a new cycle of terrorism and anti-government violence, or whether it is more a reflection of general public dissatisfaction with the government, in view of the severe ongoing social and economic distress. The ability of the state to react effectively will prove crucial to the future direction of the Greek economy. Given the austerity programs in place — which severely limits resources — and the performance of the security services to date, it is questionable whether the government will be able to effectively counter the rising security threat.