My weekly Guardian column:
On a searing hot day last weekend I took the train an hour out of Athens to the Greek city of Corinth. There, one of the country’s largest detention centres sits behind high walls. It was the recent site of a mass hunger strike by asylum seekers, whose protest has now gone nation-wide.
I gained rare access to the Corinth centre with a former refugee as my guide. I spoke to Hazara men who had been imprisoned for as long as two years. We stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire while the detainees gathered on the other side, longing for discussion and human contact.
One man had been shot in the foot by a guard and the bullet remained inside his body. They all claimed to be the victims of physical and psychological abuse by the police. None of them wanted to remain in Greece because of the harsh conditions of their incarceration, and hoped to get to Germany or Sweden in the near future. After 15 minutes of hurried conversation, and despite our protests, we were eventually moved on by police.
Greece is on the frontline of European nations receiving desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The poor conditions inside state-run facilities are well-documented. Many of the men who we spoke with in the Corinth centre had been swept up in Greece’s inhumane Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in 2012, to rid the streets of asylum seekers.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of those picked up were found to be in the country legally, the plan was an effective political fix to show the government was tough on “illegal” immigration. Detainees can now be held indefinitely. Detention centres are set to be privatised.
None of this could happen were it not for Greece’s fractious political climate. The recent European elections saw support surge for the far-right Golden Dawn, backing grow for the leftwing party Syriza and the deep denial (or is it shamefaced acceptance?) by the political class of bigotry among their Greek constituents.
It’s no accident that fascist organs are gaining strength in Greece, across Europe and the rest of the world. Even Indonesia is seeing Nazi chic. Many admire the positions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, because they’re skilfully exploiting economic unease, unemployment and fear of immigrants and Islam. Greece has also seen the return of anti-Roma and anti-Jewish sentiment.
I met one of Golden Dawn’s leading MPs, Ilias Panagiotaros, outside Athens’ high court. He was accompanied by the party leader’s wife, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia. Panagiotaros spoke with determined calm, saying that his party is surging in support in spite of it being investigated by the government as a possible criminal organisation. A few hours after we spoke, Zaroulia was placed under house arrest.
“The cases against GD leadership are 100% political persecution”, Panagiotaros explained. “Every GD MP believes in country and nation, heritage, pride and dignity.” A whistle-blower from inside the party recently revealed that the ultimate goal of the group was to create a “one-party state” and attacking immigrants was viewed as a “badge of honour”.
He praised Putin, said Russia would soon be the world’s leading super-power, liked Moscow’s monitoring of all NGOs (“99% of NGOs should face justice here and be in jail because they’re agents of globalisation”), accused all Muslim immigrants in Europe of being “jihadists” who “plan to take over Europe” and condemned the privatisation of public services (despite Golden Dawn MPs routinely backing the government in outsourcing policy).
He praised Israel and said he would like to copy its laws against “illegal immigration” and was equally effusive towards Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. He “has been tough on illegal immigration and I support his position”.
He claimed that all Muslim immigrants coming to Europe should go elsewhere. “If Syrians, Libyans or Iraqis need to go somewhere they should go to the US, the country that caused the wars in their countries. Let the US take these people in.”
I asked Panagiotaros about photos which emerged this week in a leading Greek paper of the currently imprisoned Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos saluting in front of the Nazi Swastika, and other party members’ nostalgia for Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. He dismissed my concerns.
“So what if our leader was photographed next to a Nazi swastika 40 years ago?” he said. “If you ask every leader in Europe what they were doing decades ago you may find some interesting stories, too.”
I visited another leading Golden Dawn supporter, Dr Epaminondas Stathis, a retired orthopaedic surgeon and losing 2014 European election candidate. His home, an hour from Athens, is a mansion replete with large statues, candelabras, paintings on every wall in every room and many images of Jesus. He said that as he’s “been fighting for patriotic, nationalist ideas all my life”.
He explained that successive governments have for 40 years “destroyed the economy, closed farms and shops; we’ve had a humanitarian crisis for at least 10 years”. What Greece needs, he explained, was a party that respected Greek heritage.
The whiff of conspiracy against the group was never far from the surface, a view that is shared by many Greek citizens who have little faith in the government, media or legal system.
One of the great unreported reasons for the Greek crisis, and barely investigated by the local press except for independent journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, is the European Union’s imposition of disaster-capitalism policies. The aim is to weaken the sovereignty of member states, while allowing corporate interests to buy and exploit assets at low prices. Privatising so much of Greece has been a colossal failure and yet rightwing Greek politicians talk of continuing it. The country has become a giant fire sale, despite massive popular opposition.
These are the political conditions that almost guarantee disruption and unease. While corruption remains rampant and wages low – I’ve spoken to countless young Greeks who tell me that a reasonable wage here is around US$10,000 a year – the appeal of simple fixes, such as offered by Golden Dawn, will thrive. Whether alternative parties of the Left, in Greece and beyond in Europe, will capitalise on these tensions and resist Brussels-directed privatisation is the great challenge of the modern European project.