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.
The past months have seen a sharp rise in racially motivated violent attacks in Greece, with the media reporting incidents almost daily. The Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network documented 87 incidents of racist violence between January and September 2012. The Network’s assessment, based on data from NGOs working with migrants and refugees, is that “the number of known racist violence incidents… [is] only the tip of the iceberg.” In many of the cases documented, the perpetrators’ behaviour and attire indicated that they belonged to extremist groups (for instance, covering their faces, dressing in black, sometimes in military trousers, or wearing the Golden Dawn insignia).
In response to the rise of Golden Dawn, Greek civil society has been mobilising itself to combat fascism and racism through a variety of non-violent initiatives. Others, however, believe that it’s necessary to take the fight to the fascists, using violence.
A few days after an anti-austerity protest that ended in violent clashes between police and anarchists, I meet Dimitris (not his real name), a young anarchist with a background in industrial design, in the Exarcheia area of Athens, a haven for radical left and anarchist groups. He dismisses the violent actions of some anarchists as the work of a small minority who engage in violence for the sake of it. Violence shouldn’t be an end in itself, he says—but it is acceptable to use strategically, as a means to an end.
Over the past months radical left and anarchist elements have been doing just that—carrying out a string of violent attacks on Golden Dawn targets and supporters. On 4th December, for instance, a group calling itself the Anti-fascist Front claimed responsibility for planting an explosive device at the Golden Dawn offices in the Athens suburb of Aspropyrgos.
The statement issued by the Anti-fascist Front contains the following lines:
“Breaking away from… defence, we go on the attack… It’s time to end passivity and defeatism. We attack the fascists by any means—with beatings, knives, screwdrivers, fire, bombings and bullets.
We are cartographers charting the Golden Dawners’ moves, we ambush them, we trash them with punches and kicks, we burn their motorcycles, and we ‘withdraw’ them from their pretentious bullying.”
“We have to take action [against the fascists],” Dimitris says, “because no one else is doing so.”
I ask him if he thinks this strategy might be counter-productive. Isn’t there a risk that it will exacerbate the situation?
“The situation is bound to escalate,” he replies. “You have, lined up on one side, the state, the media, Golden Dawn, the police officers who vote for Golden Dawn [according to some analyses of voting patterns in the 2012 elections, a disproportionately high number of police officers voted for Golden Dawn]. There are even pogroms against immigrants.”
In an ironic parallel of Tsiamanis the pharmacist’s sentiments, he says that “we’re starting to lose our streets, our neighbourhoods. You can’t easily go out at night in Athens anymore, unless you’re in the city centre.”
Might the use of violence trigger more support for Golden Dawn?
“Yes, on the one hand some people would be more supportive of Golden Dawn. On the other hand, some people would become more supportive of us.”
Some people are worried, I say, that the situation could escalate to the point where there’s a civil war.
“There’s already a low-intensity civil war going on—you just don’t see it if you’re not a part of it… The media try to make it look like it’s just gangs attacking each other, but that’s not the true story.”
A few days later, I return to Exarcheia to meet Vangelis Nanos, a softly spoken 33-year-old sound engineer. He used to be an anarchist but now describes himself as part of the anti-authoritarian movement, a broader grouping.
Nanos has participated in recent months in several anti-fascist motorbike patrols that have been organised in immigrant neighbourhoods in response to racist attacks. Although the aim of the patrols is to show solidarity with the immigrants and deter such attacks, if a patrol comes across people who are attacking immigrants they will intervene to stop it. On 30th September, for instance, a patrol attacked a group of neo-Nazis as they were smashing up immigrants’ shops.
I ask whether we should just let justice take its course. If someone commits a crime such as beating up an immigrant, shouldn’t we treat it like any other crime and let the police and the courts deal with it?
“I don’t think it will happen. The fascists are committing crimes, but no one has been arrested,” he replies. “These people must be stopped. If we can stop them by being in the streets, and no one gets hurt, then ok. If we can’t stop them that way and need to beat them, let’s beat them. The important thing now is to stop them.”
The parallels between the reasoning and approach of the violent elements on the far right and the radical left are both ironic and unsettling. Both sides insist that they have to act—even if it means using violence—because no one else is doing anything to address the situation. As one Greek political observer pointed out to me, both sides respect violence as a means to an end.
Nanos argues that the patrols have worked. Before the summer Golden Dawn supporters were carrying out daily attacks on immigrants, he says, but since the patrols were launched the number of violent attacks has dropped significantly. However, according to Kostis Papaioannou, adviser to the Racist Violence Recording Network and chairperson of the National Commission for Human Rights, violent attacks on far-right targets could be exploited by the extreme right in the long term. He tells me “there’s a clear risk that there will be an escalation of violence in the streets” in the months ahead. “Not in the way that we have it so far, with one-sided targeted attacks, but mutual violence: riots and clashes.”
So far, immigrant communities have not yet turned to violence to defend themselves, but it is uncertain how long this will last. If it does happen, Papaioannou says, it would give Golden Dawn “the excuse they need to really go out and create a bigger conflict.”
A few days later I speak to Georgios Tsitsirigkos, a non-violent communication activist. He believes that the confrontations will not be limited to hardcore supporters of the far right and hard left, and radicalised immigrants. As increasing numbers of desperate and angry Greeks are drawn to the more extreme alternatives to the traditional parties, the growing polarisation, combined with mounting violence, could suck the country into civil conflict.
Others that I meet in Athens are sceptical that the situation will deteriorate so drastically. Tsiamanis the far-right pharmacist, however, concurs with Dimitris the anarchist that the violent clashes between the radical left and Golden Dawn already amount to a form of war.
I ask him if the fighting will get worse.
“I want to finish them,” he replies. “Completely.”