Tensions Mount in Greece as the Trial of Europe’s Most Brazen Neo-Nazi Party Drags On (1/2)
University of Athens Professor Michael Spourladakis discusses the endless criminal trial of Golden Dawn, Greece’s Neo-Nazi party
Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News Network from Athens, Greece. We’ve come back to Athens this month, October 2017 as part of our ongoing coverage of the economic and political crisis in Greece that erupted in 2010. We began that coverage in January of 2015 with the first election of the Syriza government led by prime minister Alexis Tsipras. We returned in July of that year to cover the historic referendum on austerity. We came back last year in the summer to cover the refugee crisis in Lesbos, Greece, and we’re here this year to try to examine whether or not Greece has finally begun to emerge from this political and economic crisis. And yesterday we started our coverage by interviewing some people on the street by the Athens Polytechnic Institute about how austerity policies and the political conditions have affected them, and whether they feel there’s been an improvement in their lives. Today we’ve come to the University of Athens law school, and we’re here today with professor Michael Spourdalakis. Michael is a professor of political sociology and the dean of the school of economics and politics at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He’s also a member of the executive of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, and of the collective of the social register, and he’s also the chair of the hearing committee for revision of the Greek constitution. Thank you so much for joining us again, Michael.
Spourdalakis: Good to have you back.
Dimitri: Thank you. So next month is the 44th anniversary of the massive uprising at the Athens Polytechnic which occurred in November of 1973. It was against a U.S.-backed military junta led by Greek army colonel George Papadopoulos who had been, remarkably, a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War. And months earlier, before that uprising in November, in February 1973, an important protest took place here, at the University of Athens law school, and I was wondering if you …
Spourdalakis: And in this building, this a historical building, [inaudible 00:02:03] students, some of us were there, we occupied this building, and this was the first anti-junta, anti-dictatorship movement of the students that led to the great uprising of the Polytechnic school months later.
Dimitri: And I learned just before we began our interview today that you were there, you were at the Polytechnic, and could you tell us …
Spourdalakis: In both events, yeah.
Dimitri: Could you tell us, just generally, what you saw, what you witnessed, and the role that you feel that that played in the demise of this junta?
Spourdalakis: It contributed to the demise. There’s no doubt, it was a more or less spontaneous event of the students. It was eventually coordinated by a number of students who were organizing very small anti-dictatorship groups, and the rest of us who happened to be a little younger followed. But there’s a dimension of this three day event, which is often forgotten. For example, the Communist Party in the beginning was very hesitant, because it was a spontaneous, as I said initially, kind of event, and they didn’t know what was going on, so they were a bit skeptical about the event. And the other dimension, which is even more important, is that things got off-hand for the regime when workers and peasants from the nearby areas joined the revolt. And at that time, I guess, the junta decided to crush the uprising and send the tanks, and we had several people got killed, and a lot more end up in prison, et cetera. But that was a catalyst at the beginning of the demise of the junta, but it wasn’t the reason for the fall of the junta, one must say.
Dimitri: And I understand that a law came out of … I mean, probably there were many legislative initiatives emerging from the demise of the junta, but one of them, I understand, was a law pertaining to police presence on the campus of the Polytechnic Institute. And is it still the case today that the police are barred from entering the campus of …
Spourdalakis: This is, we call it the asylum, on the basis of academic freedom, and in fact it’s something that even the Germans during the Nazis when they occupied the city, they didn’t violate that unwritten law of asylum in the Greek university campuses. The right-wing, a few years back, or the old regime before Syriza, they tried to undermine this unwritten law, focusing primarily on some exaggeration of the use of that privilege that every university should enjoy, but the Syriza government, according to the latest educational law reestablished legally that privilege to the universities.
Dimitri: We’re kind of at a fortuitous moment for us to have this discussion because prime minister Tsipras was in Washington yesterday, and I believe this is the first time that he’s actually met with President Trump, would that be fair?
Spourdalakis: Yeah. But it was the third time in two and a half years that the Greek prime minister met with a U.S. president. Twice before, with President Obama and now with …
Dimitri: And very interesting historical context, of course, is not only that Papadopoulos had connections to the CIA, the dictator Papadopoulos, but also the administration of Richard Nixon was openly supportive of Papadopoulos, and in fact Spiro Agnew, who remarkably was of Greek origin, the vice president of the Nixon administration, said that Papadopoulos was, quote, “The best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in Ancient Athens.” This was a dictator who presided over torture, the disappearance of …
Spourdalakis: Yeah, I remember his ridiculous, in fact, visit to Greece, when I was a high school student, so we were forced by our teachers to stand on the line and pretend that we are the favor crowds, welcoming the vice president of the United States back in the ’70s. But that’s okay, it’s history, and it’s behind us, and it’s kind of a stepping stone towards a more solid and more genuine democratic rule in this country.
Dimitri: Right. I was struck, however, by the prime minister’s remarks after his meeting with Mr. Trump, and I was to preface this, I was to be fair to Prime Minister Tsipras, because I come from Canada. Our country has an extraordinary degree of economic interdependence with the United States, and our prime minister, who I think has tried, Prime Minster Trudeau, to characterize himself as progressive, has been, to the disappointment of many people on the left, very, very muted in his criticism of President Trump, regardless of how erratic and dangerous the president’s behavior may seem, so I must be fair to Prime Minister Tsipras and acknowledge that there is this reality about, how do you deal with this president of the most powerful country in the world? But he made this comment after he met with President Trump: “We have common values, don’t forget that the value of democracy and freedom was born in Greece. It’s one of the values that traverses American culture and American tradition. The president now continues that tradition.” Candidly, do you think that this president can be relied upon any more than the administration of President Nixon to be a guarantor of Greek democracy?
Spourdalakis: Well, listen, these kind of statements are part of the ceremony, and the rhetoric of similar ceremonies when leaders of two nations meet. You always find to create a common ground even when there is not much of common ground. And it seems to me that the prime minister’s statement had to do with that, and also trying to preface his main goal, it seems to me, of the visit, and he has to do to promote investments for this country that the country and the society needs them very much. Trying to say that we were trying to improve our geopolitical role in this region, trying to state, and he did, in fact, the problems we have with Turkey, with violation of airspace in the country, and this may end up in an unfortunate accident for two allies within NATO framework.
So, he said another thing, that this is the best period of Greek-American relationship, and in fact it’s true, if one knows the recent history, the president of the U.S. government interference in the Greek civil war, and later on with the junta, as you mentioned, and then the very high-pitched, if you like, anti-American sentiments of the Greek people, this was a fair statement to make, that now we are in a better relations. There’s not much interference, and all that kind of stuff. There is also another dimension. The role of the U.S. in the IMF, and the IMF’s involvement in the troika, the control of this country in the last few years is very important. Probably the U.S. can interfere in the IMF, and relax a little bit the measures of austerity imposed to this country, in exchange of forgiving part of our debt, which is unmanageable. So it’s a bit more complicated, and it has to do with diplomatic language, it seems to me. For those who approach politics in a more sentimental way, their reaction to this statement, it’s absolutely justified and understandable, but it seems to me one should take that within that context, and it’s okay.
Dimitri: Okay. So let’s return to the question of fascism in Greece. When the junta fell, many hoped that we’d seen the end of the scourge of fascism in Greece, but then of course a party called Golden Dawn rose to some prominence within the country, and in the last election of September 2015, it garnered 7% of the vote, approximately, and had the third largest number of seats in parliament, even eclipsing PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which, for many years, had governed Greece after the fall of the junta. And this happened, the 7% was achieved and these seats were won, despite the fact that the leadership of Golden Dawn was in jail at the time, much of the leadership. Why was the leadership of Golden Dawn in jail, and broadly speaking, what has transpired since the September 2015 election in terms of prosecutions of leaders of the movement, of the party?
Spourdalakis: The rise of Golden Dawn, I mean, after the fall of junta, of course there several groupings who were part of the radical right, of neo-Nazis, et cetera, pro junta groupings, you can understand, remnants of the civil war, remnants of the peculiar application of the rules of law after the civil war, the junta, et cetera. So there were some, but at the fringes of mainstream politics, some of them found their way into the mainstream political parties, but that was there. The crisis and the fact that another radical right nationalist group was legitimized by the coalition governments formed after the crisis …
Dimitri: And would this have been LAOS?
Spourdalakis: It was LAOS. So mainstream political parties accepted this, if you like, full runners of the Golden Dawn into the government, legitimized this kind of … And indirectly, of course, they promoted the rise of Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn is an organization, it’s a typical militia organization, and a typical neo-nazi organization. It’s verified by its rhetoric and its organization. The trial, which has been going on for over a year and a half now, has to do with three criminal cases: the killing of the rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, the attack to the …
Dimitri: He’s an anti-fascist rap singer?
Spourdalakis: He was an anti-fascist rap, by a militia group in the working class neighborhoods of Athens. The attack of trade unionists in the area where the shipyards are, and another working class, or nearby working class area, and the attack of Egyptian fishermen, that left a lot of people injured, or handicapped even, et cetera. It took a lot of time and energy for the public prosecution to take place. Eventually, the interrogation started, the Greek system takes a long time, it’s not as quick as in other countries, as we know in Canada or in the U.S., eventually the trial is going on for, as I said, a year and a half. The witnesses for the side of the public prosecutors have almost 150, they had to be interrogated and all that, I was one of them, in fact. About a month ago, or less …
Dimitri: Give us the essence of your testimony at the trial.
Spourdalakis: Well, my essence, I was called by the public prosecutors in the preliminary procedures to testify about these organizations, and I said basically three things: that their rhetoric is outside the boundaries of the Greek constitution of civil rights, the national declarations that our democratic constitution’s inspired too, because its rhetoric’s hatred against minorities, et cetera, but that’s not the only thing. The thing is that this followed and supported by militia organization, leaders of this militia is the leadership of Golden Dawn, and the leader of, particular of Michaloliakos, their führer, if you like. And the third point I made is that at the time I was testifying, which was three years ago, in fact, they were opening offices, they had a weekly newspaper, they organized several events, and from a research point of view, if you like, one has to see where their funds come from. So this is what I suggested, and I was testified for about six hours. Of course, the defense lawyers, for defense of … They ask me, to de-legitimize me, and other witnesses, of course, saying that I’m all sorts of things. That I read the wrong newspapers, or [inaudible 00:18:56], I’m on the left, that kind of thing, and they didn’t understand why I was called to witness, when at the same time I don’t have ant first-hand knowledge of the three cases.
Dimitri: In essence, you were treated as an expert witness by the prosecution.
Spourdalakis: Exactly, this is what I said. But, it seems to me that this trial is going to go for a long time. There are two or three, maybe, sessions every week. The documents are thousands and thousands of pages, et cetera. So it’s gonna take another year. The important thing, and the interesting thing, is that the media seems to be more or less indifferent about the trial. The media … Yes, there is a trial taking … But they don’t report very much, with the exception of some journalists and some newspapers, one or two newspapers, which are left-center kind of newspapers, and they’re more objective kind of press.
Dimitri: If the prosecution succeeds, what would happen to Golden Dawn? Would it become abolished, would its leaders be convicted to lengthy jail terms potentially? What would you expect?
Spourdalakis: Maybe that, and then we’ll see what happens. Because they are prosecuted not politically, but for criminal actions. So they may end up being in prison with heavy sentences that they have to deal, and I don’t know what is going to happen. Speaking of this section of ideas and politics of the Greek spectrum, it seems to me that the Golden Dawn, where they’re nationalist, racist, and similar kind of ideas, they push the rhetoric of the opposition to the right, okay? They’re promoting rule of law. Not rule of law …
Spourdalakis: They promote anti-refugee, anti-migrant kind of rhetoric. They want to restrict the freedoms of action and freedom of speech, especially of the left. They want to suppress gay rights, et cetera. So all this, it somehow forces the opposition parties to the right. So, to some extent, they are like catalysts to become a more authoritarian, individualistic and more, at the same time, nationalist and authoritarian running of public affairs.
Dimitri: So I want to talk to you about attitudes within the police towards Golden Dawn. There was an analysis that was done a few years ago, I understand, of polling stations and the results in the election, and the analysis seemed to suggest that a majority, in excess of 50% of the Greek police were sympathetic to Golden Dawn. A few weeks ago, approximately 3,000 protestors, anti-fascist protestors, took to the streets of Athens, and demanded that they be held accountable, the murderers of Pavlos Fyssas, and the committers of other crimes of a right-wing …
Spourdalakis: Yes. It was the anniversary of his assassination.
Dimitri: Right. And some of them broke away, I understand, from the main protest and there were clashes with police, and they were shouting, “Crush the Nazis.” Given the reality, or the apparent reality of sympathy within the law enforcement community towards Golden Dawn, do you think that the Greek public can rely upon, they can trust the law enforcement authorities to bring to justice the killers of Pavlos Fyssas, and those who masterminded all of this?
Spourdalakis: I know that the minister responsible for the police and their law enforcing, and the minister of justice are doing their best to control what they inherited, when, as you said, it might not be 50% plus, in some cases, yes, there were, but even 30% of your force is influenced by these kind of ideas, it takes some time, and you have to do … So I know that they are doing their best to put this under control, and to clean the law enforcement community, as you said, from these kind of ideas, individuals and powers.
Now, the clashes with the police, you mentioned, first of all, we see less aggression from the part of the police. The clashes you mentioned for the anniversary of this came from the Black Bloc, who attacked the police, and the police responded to that in the way that almost any police would have done. This is not a good thing about democracy, and it is not good thing about the way that we control democratically, in accordance to the rules of law, this law enforcement community. However, I know that the government is doing their best. They’re renewing the leadership, their educational programs, their introduction of new laws, that they control these, and the most aggressive section of the police was abolished. So there are things that they’ve done, but they’re not where you and I would like to see yet. There is a little more amendment towards acceptance of the law enforcement community, but there’s still a lot of anger, and a lot of friction and hatred among the law enforcement community, and the people who protest. That kind of thing.
Dimitri: Well, I’d like to move on to a different subject. In part two of our interview, I’d like to discuss with you a little bit, efforts of the Syriza government to reign in the oligarchy, and particularly its dominance within the media. So I hope we can continue the conversation.
Spourdalakis: It’s connected, it’s connected. As I said, a lot of these things, the media is trying to blow out of proportions the protests, and the powers of the police, or the violations of the police, and all that kind of stuff, through the media, or to silence the issue with the actions of Golden Dawn, et cetera. So it is connected, Dimitri.
Dimitri: Okay. So we’re gonna talk about that in part two, and this has been Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News from University of Athens in Athens, Greece.