Forbidding access to public spaces in moments of political significance is a tactic used with increased frequency by the Greek government. Dissent is thus becoming ever more difficult to be expressed in public, while parliamentary politics and people’s politics hardly ever cross paths.
Blocked off avenues and squares, encircled by police, drained of all signs of human presence have become a common media snap-shot from Greece’s city centres. On the edges of the photos, beyond the police cordons, one can just notice few dissenters who still bother demonstrating in spaces where there is no-one to hear or see them. This is the new reality of crisis-hit Greece: mushrooming barriers and cordons in the urban public space, blocking access to citizens, keeping them out of the literal and metaphorical centres of political life.
This is, of course, a common story in all modern democracies. What is remarkable in the Greek case is the speed in which these measures have been expanded in time and in space since 2009.
The routine is by now familiar. Few days or hours ahead of important political events, various state bodies decree whole areas of a city inaccessible. The most commonly cited excuse derives its rationale from article 11 of the Greek constitution which allows for prohibitions of public gatherings in case of a serious threat ‘to public safety’, or to ‘the socioeconomic life’ of a neighbourhood. (similar to the Breach of Peace legislation in the UK)
Laws are notoriously open to different interpretations, which reflect in their turn the changing needs and culture of the establishment. In Greece now there have been more prohibitions of public gatherings in the years since the start of the crisis than in all the decades since 1974. These are the politics of a state in/of emergency.
These exclusion zones are flash, urban enclosures at the heart of the democratic space. They are implemented by the state itself, and although – or because – they are time and space specific they are of maximum impact. They offer one more way to show who is weak and who is strong in the country now, who has the power and who sets the rules. In this context this policy has to be seen along the wider expansion of the police state, especially since December 2008, the rapid de-democratisation of the Greek urban space (e.g. raids to squats and abolition of the university asylum) and of political life in general.
As a political symbolism, such exclusion zones allow the formation of parallel universes that never meet, one for the policy-makers and one for the protesting public. By focusing on the projected images coming from their own fenced-off world, politicians can thus ascertain the public mood anyway they like. This is exactly what allowed in July 2013 the finance minister Yannis Stournaras to claim that he was not aware of any opposition to the latest round of measures he had brought for voting in parliament. ‘I do not see any reaction. I have not seen any reaction’ (‘Δε βλέπω εγώ κάποια αντίδραση. Δεν έχω δει κάποια αντίδραση’), he said provocatively to the reporters. His space of vision was limited, of course, within the walls of the parliament. This is the surreal and almost comic side of the pseudo-democratic politics of the crisis. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
But when the policy becomes so common that it is used even during the annual national day parades, the high moment of the modern nation-state (as it has been doing since March 2012) then one realises the depth of the problem. Keeping its own citizens out of the shows that were designed as a constant reminder of the union between the nation and the state, then obviously this union is no more. The state, under the real pressures of the crisis, is rapidly losing touch with its founding legitimacy and mythology. The vacuum that is left is both full of dangers but also promises and hopes.
Zones of exclusion were brought in and keep on expanding always as a reaction to the constantly evolving, imaginative uses of the public space by those people protesting and opposing the austerity politics. The story of how they became permanent feature of Greek political life is the other side of the story of popular public reactions to the austerity, as addressed by the state.
The first exclusion zones were enforced early on in the crisis, as part of the state’s efforts to suppress the recurring demonstrations outside the parliament in Syntagma Square. Two areas were declared instantly off limits, one above and one below ground. The first was the road leading to the main entrance of the parliament, which was literally fenced off with a French-made 2-metre fence. The second was the Underground. Before every rally a number of Metro stations were declared closed. The central stations of Syntagma and Panepistimio, it was argued, where closed to keep them from getting vandalised or getting used as hideouts by the protesters seeking cover from the chemicals that were heavily used overground by the riot police. No plausible excuse has ever been offered for the closure of stations further way from the demonstrations (inc. Evangelismos, Acropolis), the only point of which was clearly to deny people even the ability to move the city centre, deterring thus mass participation at the rallies. Extensive metro closures are now such a standard part of the political landscape before any major demonstration that even left wing radio stations merely announce them without bothering to comment.
Then in May 2011 appeared the movement of the Aganaktismenoi, which was partly about contesting the democratic uses of public space. The state’s answer was their eviction from the squares of the Greek cities, this time most commonly in the name of public hygiene and in defence of the tourist-friendly image of the country, arguments that were positively received after a couple of months by a considerable slice of the population, gradually disengaged and tired of the continuing occupations. The evictions of the demonstrators and the violent suppression of any later efforts to return (e.g. 7 July 2013) marked the expansion of exclusion zones, to include the main city squares of Greece, the hearts of the political and urban space.
The next big push of urban exclusion zones came in 2012, this time affecting the school and military parades of the country’s two major national days, March the 25th and October the 28th, which are supposed to mark, more than anything else, the supposedly sacred link between the state and its people. But the crisis has proven this link to be under extreme strain.
On October 28th 2011, the usually passively attending crowds stormed the streets, stopped the parades and chased off the politicians. This was the closest to a spontaneous revolt that the crisis had yet generated. The establishment was shocked and the government’s answer was accordingly severe: the next parades, due for March 25th 2012, were to be held in vacuum. Access to the main streets, from where school and army units were to pass, was prohibited, bar few special invitations. In Athens, journalists were ordered to stay put in one designated area opposite the politicians’ stands. Metro stations were once more closed. Police barriers were again set up, vans blocked even visual access to the events in the streets, four thousand police were brought in and snipers were positioned on rooftops. Similar practices have been followed in all national days ever since.
Then came the German chancellors’ visit to Athens on 9 October 2012. Security measures for the occasion marked the expansion of the exclusion zones to include official visits by foreign politicians and lenders. The pattern was by now very familiar. Following a decree issued by the Attica General Police Directorate (ΓΑΔΑ) 7000 police and 300 members of the coastguard fenced off the Greek capital for the duration of Merkel’s stay, marking out an exclusion zone that started from central Athens and finished dozens of miles further out, at the airport where Merkel was due to land. Few months later similar measures were taken for the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble who visited Athens on 18 July 2013. In both cases a neutralised, de-politicised zone was cutting through the city’s map, from its outer periphery to its very heart.
Many made easy comparisons to the deserted streets that the German army met in Athens in April 1941. Others compared the measures to those taken for Bill Clinton’s visit to Athens thirteen years earlier. (German media even claimed the security precautions this time were bigger) The latter was a much more fitting comparison, with direct tactical links to the present. Indicatively for the way political culture has changed in such a short time the PASOK government in 1999 had initially refused to outlaw any demonstrations against the US president. It had asked instead, in an extraordinarily un-diplomatic move, for the visit to be postponed by a week so that it would not precede the annual demonstrations commemorating the 17 November 1973 revolt against the junta. The change to the timetable was accepted by the US, but when Clinton final arrived in Athens, on 20 November 1999, the Athens chief of police issued a prohibition of rallies for the duration of the visit in a wide zone including the route to and from Athens’ airport and in the vicinity of the US embassy. ‘Greece simply has never seen anything like it’, a security officer had told the Guardian then. And this was indeed the case.
Another mass enclosure took place four years after Clinton’s visit, during the signing of the EU expansion treaty in Athens in April 2003. Few Greeks recall these events, though, partly because the atmosphere at the time was rather de-politicised, partly because the measures were successfully sold as relating only to traffic, and partly because demonstrators were allowed at Syntagma Square, while the mandatory closure of all schools, municipalities and public services in Attica left a taste of holidays for many. But the fact is that gradually, within ten years Greece developed a memory of the totalitarian practice of mass exclusion zones – it got used to the idea of closed-off streets.
The easiness with which the government now de-democratises the urban space is a legacy of such previous moves. A pattern clearly emerges in which step by step the exclusion zones become ever wider and stricter, initially for presidents then for a chancellor and now for a finance minister. It is worth noting that while Syntagma Square remained open to demonstrators during Merkel’s visit it was closed during Schäuble’s. The enclosures of today are creating a new normality. They are a series of interconnected moments that all together create a constant state of emergency. Prohibitions descend on the public space and are lifted like theatre curtains, at the director’s whim, without any debate, more and more accepted as a rather ordinary part of the democratic act. This is the essence of the de-democratisation process.
It is clear where the future lies, at least in the way the government sees it. On 28 May 2013 plans were announced for a forthcoming law that will curb the rights of demonstrations below 200 people in cities above 100.000. No public debate has taken place up to now. On 24 July 2013, ahead of one more controversial ‘food for Greeks’ event planned by the Golden Dawn, the police prohibited all public gatherings in west-central Athens. The new element in this case is that the exclusion zones are brought in against a planned party political activity. The fact that this party is the Golden Dawn is irrelevant (or, just proves the usefulness of the far right in the system’s plannings). Nobody complained against this extraordinary expansion of the cover area of the state of emergency. And the Golden Dawn still held its rally, untouched by the police. Next time, for another party it most likely will be different.
Last edited: 30 December 2013
A revised version of this article, in Greek, can be found here.