Sat Sep 10th, 2011 at 08:16:08 AM EST
The Thessaloniki International Trade Fair (TITF) holds a special place in Greek politics. Traditionally it is there that the Greek Prime Minister presents his government's economic policy, every September. Leaders of other parties also give press conferences in response. It is the event that marks the beginning of Greece's political season, and as such it is an annual milestone, some times critical: A lame appearance in TITF in 2008, was a watershed for the Karamanlis government, the former PM, and a turning point for the Socialists on their way back to political power.
Traditionally also the TITF was ground for protests, as various groups demonstrated during the PM's visit, airing their grievances and their demands.
This year however what we're witnessing is of a different order of magnitude under a much darker mood.
First the PM: For the first time in history his exact residence is unknown, as he didn't show up in Macedonia Palace (where PMs traditionally reside for their visit) and his exact abode is presently unknown, although it is rumoured he is staying rather far away from the city center, near its airport. He also will not visit the kiosks of the Fair, again a first, and will avoid public appearances.
His main speech will not be delivered in the usual forum either. He will forgo the comforts of the Vellidio Convention Center, for some specially adapted port warehouse! The Prime Minister is hiding. He didn't even show up for the Fair's inauguration. He is hiding from thousands of protesters who have gathered in the city to protest the sum total of the, laughingly named, Socialists' policies.
Today 10/9/11, early morning encounter with protesters: The Prime Minister is booed as he visits the Mayor's office
There are to be ten demonstrations spread around the city as the PM delivers his speech. Everything from the official unions (which used to be PASOK strongholds) to parties of the left demos, anarchists, "indignados" and social movements, taxi-owners (who are also striking across Greece), even football fans protesting to their teams relegation to the second division - and of course students, who are protesting the new university law in Greece and the austerity imposed on public education: at this time there are over 300 university departments across the country under student occupation, promising a hot autumn... The city is full of demonstrators from around Greece - and cops. Thousands of cops.
Nearly eight thousand policemen are spread around the city. From sharpshooters at the roofs of main public buildings, to riot cops in every corner (and reports say this is not an figure of speech) of the city, to undercover cops infiltrating the demos. This is again unprecedented. As is the fact that yesterday there was a large demonstration of police officers and firemen against the government.
The Prime Minister's speech starts at 8 pm local time. He is admittedly between a rock and a hard place. After some posing, his government caved in to the demands of the troika under "threats" that Greece will be expelled from the Euro otherwise. He is expected to defend the austerity policy and shift discussion to his proposals for the new tax system. This at a time when almost all of his tax measures to date have targeted the usual victims and the poor: Public and private sector employees that do not evade taxes, pensioners and even the precariously employed...
This whole insane austerity policy is of course bound to fail, and disappointment expressed by various EU leaders is pure theater. Thanks to the measures already implemented, the Greek economy has contracted a further 7,9% during the first six months of the year, non-seasonally adjusted apparently because the numbers would then be even more scary... (compared with a prediction pf -3% in early 2011, and an imminent recovery predicted for the end of 2011 by both the PM and the IMF)... Unemployment remained at 16% even in June even as the (decent) tourist season was starting. At the same time Greece is ordered to sell now as many and as much of its public infrastructure and companies it can, at rock bottom prices (as the Athens Stock Market has tanked), and there is talk of "special investment zones" with diminished labor rights and wages ~500 Euro, suggested by German industrialists (and seriously discussed by the Greek government) as ways to "increase investment".
Polls show the Socialists collapsing electorally, from 17 to 24% of the vote. Increasingly it is becoming hard to separate their rhetoric from that of the far right LAOS party - an ally by now. The conservatives are leading, but it seems that the sum of polling percentages for the two mainstream parties is stuck at around 40-50% (of those that will vote - because there is an intended 50% abstention rate according to the same polls, again a record).
In such a climate, the demonstrations and protests in Thessaloniki are seen as a huge test. I'm worried about the scale of police violence that might be unleashed, as last June it was only by luck that deadly injuries were avoided. Demos will also occur in most Greek city squares during the PM's speech. It is an open question whether the Greek government will survive September. It is an open question what our troika overlords will do in such an event...