WASHINGTON, October 3, 2013—A government crackdown on Greece’s extreme right wing Golden Dawn party, including the arrest of several of the party’s top leadership, raises concerns regarding the country’s deepening political, economic and social crisis.
Three senior party leaders were released on bail Wednesday pending criminal trials on charges ranging from creating and participating in a criminal organization to money laundering, possession of illegal weapons and murder.
A fourth lawmaker, Yannis Lagos, was denied bail, as was the party leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, who will remain in custody pending trial.
The crackdown was prompted by the September 17 stabbing murder of left wing hip-hop rapper and activist, 34-year-old Pavlos Fyssas. The alleged perpetrator arrested at the scene identified himself as a party activist, BBC reported. Golden Dawn, however, continues to deny any connection to the suspect or the incident.
After Fyssas’ murder sparked public condemnation and protests, the Greek government issued arrest warrants Saturday for five Golden Dawn senior members and at least 14 other prominent party affiliates.
Since then, the offices and homes of several party members have been raided and searched as party leaders were led to jail in handcuffs, literally kicking and screaming. Police officials suspected of being sympathetic to the group were suspended or removed from their posts, including a deputy police chief in an Athens immigrant neighborhood.
A fringe party no more
Founded in 1980 as a socialist magazine, Golden Dawn has until recently remained at the fringes of Greek politics, with little public support. The group has been linked to violent attacks against immigrants since as early as 1987, according to Deutsche Welle.
Gaining less than one percent of the vote as recently as 2009, Greek popular support for Golden Dawn has multiplied in the last few years. The party won almost seven percent of the vote in two 2012 elections, gaining 18 seats in the country’s 300-seat parliament.
Analysts attribute Golden Dawn’s rise in popularity to the feelings of despair and rage brought on by the Greek economic meltdown, causing record levels of unemployment and poverty. The Greek economy has shrunk by 30 percent while the country is being decimated by severe austerity measures imposed by the European Union.
The increase of undocumented immigrants flowing into Greece, however, is generally credited with launching Golden Dawn into the center of the national discussion. The influx of immigrants in recent years is generally attributed to Turkish foreign policy measures giving immigrants headed for the European Union easy access through its borders,. Since 2006, the number of undocumented immigrants living in central Athens, for example, has quadrupled according to Ekathimerini, a Greek media outlet.
Since 2009, Golden Dawn has been cited in the international media for attacks against immigrants and homosexuals, as well as holding “Greek only” food and clothing handouts in the poorest neighborhoods of Athens.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented Golden Dawn-organized motorcycle gangs prowling the streets of Athens’ immigrant neighborhoods, using clubs to beat anyone who does not look Greek and smashing market stalls operated by foreigners.
Until the murder of Fyssas, however, the government and police have been unwilling to take any action against the party and its supporters.
According to the Greek Racist Violence Reporting Network, most of the recorded 154 racially motivated attacks in 2012 and 104 attacks so far in 2013 have been linked to Golden Dawn members, BBC reports.
Many believe that the reason nothing has been done about the anti-immigrant violence is collusion with police forces, with BBC reporting one in every two police officers in Athens voting for Golden Dawn in the 2012 elections.
Golden Dawn rejects the neo-Nazi label, but their political rallies with leaders flanked by young men in black combat pants and tight black T-shirts standing at attention and other young men similarly dressed yelling slogans like “Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!” does not lend much credibility to their claim.
Additionally, the response from the party leadership has left little doubt about whether they are violent. Party spokesman and rising star, 33-year-old Ilias Kasidiaris, according to CTV News, reportedly kicked and punched reporters and photographers as he left police headquarters on 50,000 Euro bail Tuesday. This is the same man who slapped a female Communist party member on live television last year.
The future of Greece?
It would be easy to regard Kasidiaris, Michaloliakos, Lagos, and the dozen other party leaders as extremist thugs that are finally being brought to justice.
However, this would ignore the current Greek political, economic, and social atmosphere that created this situation.
For one thing, nearly half a million Greeks supported Golden Dawn and its leadership in two elections last year. In a country with a voting population of almost nine million and currently ranking as Greece’s third largest political party, Golden Dawn can no longer be called a fringe group.
While the majority of those who voted for Golden Dawn in 2012 are not neo-Nazis and do not form part of the motorcycle gangs that beat up foreigners, given the dire situation, Golden Dawn’s message about governmental corruption, crippling austerity measures, and European Union leaving Greece to its own devices when it comes to immigration resonates with the millions of Greeks who are out of work and facing the worst economic times in living memory.
“These voters are poor, and many are unemployed. Some, especially in central Athens, feel frightened by the dramatic influx of equally desperate migrants from Asia and Africa,” wrote Barnaby Phillips of Al Jazeera. “In the grimmest neighborhoods of Athens and Pireaus, thousands of Greeks have been fed and clothed by Golden Dawn throughout this economic crisis. These people feel that the party has looked after them better than successive Greek governments.”
There is also the fact that Prime Minister Samaras himself contributed to the current anti-immigrant climate in Greece. During the last elections Samaras used strong language against immigrants, since winning power has not allowed anti-racism legislation move forward, and has opposed a law that would allow the children of immigrants born in Greece to obtain Greek nationality.
Further, others protest that it took the slaying of a white Greek citizen for the government to take action when human rights groups have been complaining about Golden Dawn’s activities against immigrants for years, as reported by the LA Times.
Nikos Dendias, Greek Minister of Public Order, answered these allegations by claiming that the Fyssas case was the first in which a clear chain of command to party leadership could be established.
Samaras’ New Democracy party has also come under fire, accused of persecuting its political opponents.
Whatever the case, many are predicting the end of Golden Dawn. In fact, the BBC reports that since the beginning of the crackdown, popular support for the party is six percent, down from a high of 15 percent two weeks ago—more than double what it got at last year’s elections.
Others think that the future of the party and its ideology will depend largely on how the Greek judicial system handles the cases against Golden Dawn members. Ekathimerini argues that party members must receive and appear to receive a fair trial, and that negative, inflammatory comments from Prime Minister Samaras and other New Democracy leaders should stop in order to erase any hint of political motivation.
“Much will depend on the strength of the authorities’ case,” comments Phillips. “If the upcoming trials are botched, and if evidence is seen to be weak or unconvincing, this could yet backfire to Golden Dawn’s advantage.”
Ekathimerini also highlights the importance of addressing racial hatred and police complicity through a change in the government’s own attitude towards immigrants, as well as providing training and guidelines for police to deal with the new influx of foreigners.
A lot is hanging on the upcoming trials and the way the government and Greek citizens in general react to its outcome. Even if it is indeed the end of Golden Dawn, changes must go much deeper in order to eradicate their ideology.
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