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ICSR Insight: Who are Greece’s new fascists?

16/05/2012

By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Peter Neumann and John Bew

The recent Greek general elections have seen the rise of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), which gained 7 per cent of the popular vote and 21 seats in parliament.

Golden Dawn is a fascist political party and a street movement with an occasionally violent history. Exploiting fears about immigration and thriving on a widespread sense of insecurity caused by the country’s economic crisis, Golden Dawn is likely to become a permanent feature on the Greek political landscape.

Its blend of populist politics, social welfare activism and street fighting is deeply reminiscent of the tactics used by the national socialist movement in Germany in the 1920s.

Where do they come from?

Golden Dawn was registered as a political party in 1993. It  took inspiration from the fascist regime of Ioannis Metaxas, which ruled Greece from 1936-41, and its founder, Nicholas Michaloliakos, had close links to the leaders of the Greek military junta, which ran the country from 1967-74.

Though the party is rooted in the history of Greek fascism, recent years have seen a growing influence of neo-Nazi ideology and symbols. Michaloliakos has used Nazi salutes and his party’s symbol resembles the Nazi swastika.  (The party claims it is based on a meander found in ancient Greek art.)

When Golden Dawn was formed, one of its main concerns was Albanian immigration into the country. At the time, many Greeks associated the influx of Albanians with rising crime and unemployment. Members of Golden Dawn – often in association with football hooligans – became involved in beatings and murders.

Another wave of immigration – this time from Afghanistan and Iraq – provided the backdrop for the party’s first electoral success in 2010. Following a series of attacks against immigrants, Golden Dawn received 5.1 per cent of the vote at the local elections. Michaloliakos gained a seat on Athens’ City Council.

Why are they successful?

The rise of Golden Dawn is often explained as a result of Greece’s current economic crisis. To some extent, this is true. Greeks are deeply unhappy about the ‘political establishment’ and their handling of the economy. The strict financial conditions imposed on the country by international institutions have sharpened economic divisions. They also gave rise to a sense of national humiliation, which Golden Dawn has captured and articulated.

The underlying reasons for Golden Dawn’s appeal, however, are more profound. At the heart of Golden Dawn’s agenda is the failure to manage immigration. For around 90 percent of illegal immigrants entering the European Union, Greece is their first stop, but many never leave. Many cities have seen the growth of immigrant ghettos, which have been abandoned by the state and where crime has escalated.

With the failure of successive governments to respond effectively, Golden Dawn has presented itself as the only defence for indigenous Greeks. The elderly, often afraid to leave their homes, are escorted to supermarkets and cash machines. In the Athens neighbourhood of Agios Panteleimonas, party skinheads serve as vigilantes, roaming the streets and exacting their own form of justice. Others are said to be selling protection to shop-keepers.

Golden Dawn, therefore, is ingraining itself into the social fabric of the country and its success must not be written off as a temporary protest vote. Though its share of the vote remains small, its infrastructure and presence on the street is extensive. In the recent elections, the party did well throughout the country. Most disturbingly, exit polling shows that more than half of the country’s police officers voted for the party.

What do they want?

Much of Golden Dawn’s rhetoric is similar to that of other European far right parties. As leader, Michaloliakos portrays mainstream parties as plutocratic establishments serving only the needs of a privileged minority, while selling the country out to immigrants and foreign institutions. In his own words:

 We embrace all those Greeks, and only Greeks, who want to be part of this movement… [W]e are not going to become a party of the petty bourgeoisie, appointing friends to senior positions and doing favours… Instead, [we] will fight to free Greece from both domestic and foreign tyrants who sell out this country and exploit the hard work of the Greek people.

The party’s policies reflect popular sentiments on issues such as immigration, the economy and banks, law and order, and what is presented as the European Union’s ‘attack on Greek national sovereignty’.

Immigration is often referred to as Greece’s ‘single biggest problem’. Speaking at a recent party meeting, one of Mihaloliakos’ deputies, Ilias Kasidiaris, lamented the influx of ‘foreigners who have come into this country and ruined everything’. He wants to seal off Greece’s borders with armed soldiers and anti-personnel mines ‘to prevent these Muslim invaders from coming into the country’.

The party’s stance on law and order is an extension of its immigration policies. In Kasdiaris’ view, ‘The immigrants have taken advantage of [our weakness] by robbing, stabbing and raping the Greek people’. To stop this, Golden Dawn want to establish labour camps for immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.

On the economy, Golden Dawn blames previous Greek governments and banks in equal measure. Party leaders such as Kasidiaris frequently pour scorn on ‘thirty years of being sold out by our governments’ yet also demand ‘the immediate nationalisation of all [banks] that have received funds guaranteed by the Greek people.’

Harking back to a practice used by the country’s military juntas, Golden Dawn suggests that the political elites who ‘have sold us out’ be sent into internal exile on specifically designed Greek islands.

Are they violent?

The party and its associates have a history of violence against immigrants stretching back to its foundation in the early 1990s.

In October 1999, a member of Golden Dawn carried out a racially motivated shooting spree in Athens, killing three people. More recently, party supporters have been involved in the raiding of unofficial mosques in Athens, vandalising properties and terrorising worshippers. In May 2011, they organised a coordinated series of beatings of foreigners in Athens.

During the recent election campaign, the party’s website threatened a Greek journalist and her family after she had published an article critical of the group. With a nod to the group’s neo-Nazi inspirations, the piece ended in German: ‘Kommt Zeit, Kommt Rat, Kommt Attentat!’, which roughly translates as ‘Watch your back!’

Though unlikely to launch a terrorist campaign, it is reasonable to conclude that the group or its supporters will continue to engage in violence. Any challenge to its street presence – especially in areas where it has become part of the social fabric – is likely to be met with a response.