Costas Tsiamanis, a 40-year-old pharmacist, is telling me his story in a café in Agios Panteleimonas, the area of Athens where he grew up: how and why he became a member of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Tsiamanis recounts how he joined others in his neighbourhood in 2008 to clear the immigrants from the main square. He “had to do something,” he says. The area was “covered” with immigrants who were “involved in criminal activity,” “making it dangerous for people to walk in the street after dark.” The community had requested assistance from the mainstream political parties to tackle the problems in the area, but to no avail. Following their anti-immigrant drive, Tsiamanis and the others turned to Golden Dawn for support. The party established a presence in the area and Tsiamanis became an active member.
Tsiamanis goes on to elaborate on the kinds of “assistance” that Golden Dawn provides. The under-resourced police, for instance, often don’t have enough officers to respond when crimes are reported, so Golden Dawn members go to “help.”
“How does Golden Dawn help?” I ask.
“We meet force with force,” he says. “We fight everywhere—every moment, in every place.”
“So for example, if an immigrant steals something from someone on the street, you go and beat him up?”
“We find him, and then we beat him up and send him to the hospital.”
Alternatively, if an immigrant isn’t paying the rent on an apartment, the owner will call Tsiamanis, who will then go to the flat with “the team” to eject the tenant—using force “if necessary” (but “only as a last resort”).
I ask whether Golden Dawn has a strategy of using violence against immigrants to discourage immigration altogether. Tsiamanis complains that I’m “focusing too much on violence,” but replies in the affirmative. “Yes, that’s true. It’s a paradigm: if you experience violence somewhere you won’t return to that place.”
First launched as a political party in 1993, Golden Dawn was until recently a fringe phenomenon on the extreme right: in the parliamentary election of 2009 it took only 0.29 per cent of votes. The party’s share of the vote leapt to 6.9 per cent in the legislative elections of May and June 2012, allowing it to enter parliament for the first time, and it has consistently come in third place in opinion polls over the past five months, averaging 10-12 per cent. Golden Dawn uses populist rhetoric to exploit fears and resentment over the economic crisis and the recent sharp rise in illegal immigration. Its anti-immigrant campaign has been accompanied by widespread violence against immigrants by Golden Dawn supporters and other far-right sympathisers.