Golden Dawn and the “Dark Forces”

As it tries to subdue Greece's oligarchs, Syriza also must rein in the police.

Riot police march in front of the Greek Parliament. Vasilis Germanis / Flickr

Change is in the air in Athens. We have felt it. This past November we were guests at a workshop attended by Greek and foreign academics and politicians, police union representatives, current and retired Hellenic Police officers (including high-ranking ones), and Syriza’s members of parliament and central committee representatives. A meeting of the radical left and the police: it was unprecedented.

The discussions were remarkably candid. Reform — radical reform — of the police and the judiciary was on everyone’s mind. The energy inside the workshop was matched only by the mood on the street. Hope abounded. Change seemed imminent.

Yet despite this momentum, a dark cloud hung over Athens. The police, of course, remained a conservative enclave. They harbored xenophobic attitudes and, in far too many cases, openly aligned with the far right. Last month, as Syriza was being propelled to power, the police once again voted heavily in favor of the fascist Golden Dawn party.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has pledged to “smash” the country’s oligarchs. But can Syriza do so without taming the police?

Varoufakis knows firsthand how difficult this task will be. After he assisted journalists investigating various banking scandals in his previous position as economics professor at the University of Athens, he received an ominous phone call. “A stranger asked me whether my son had already come home,” he recently told the German newspaper Stern. “The caller then described the route my son had taken and said: if you want him to come home safely in the future, then stop investigating the banking business.”

Today the game has changed, but the players have not. Varoufakis, like Syriza, is no longer a radical outsider. The oligarchs are no longer so self-assured. While Varoufakis will no doubt continue to be preoccupied by Greece’s debt restructuring, he has not lost sight of what he calls the “dark forces” — the nexus between the police, the military, and an ossified conservative establishment linked to the oligarchs — that stand ready to undermine democracy.

In Greece, as elsewhere, the implementation of budget cuts, the dismantling of social welfare programs, and the deregulation of labor markets have occurred alongside a marked upgrading of the repressive capacities of the state. The more inequality climbs, the more public and private police are required.

The reverse also seems true: the new government’s firm stance against austerity is complemented by clear declarations to rein in the police. Before the election Syriza enumerated a radical set of core commitments, including the immediate demilitarization of the Hellenic Police, the banning of police use of firearms and masks during demonstrations, and the dismantling of police public order units.

Already Syriza has withdrawn riot police units from routine guard duties in downtown Athens, an at once symbolic and high-impact move directed at the public and, perhaps more importantly, the interior of the police organization. When a large group of anti-fascist activists marched on January 31, they demonstrated peacefully, then dispersed peacefully through the very same streets that had been the site of running battles between heavy-handed police units and anti-austerity protesters only a few months prior. Syriza also removed the iron fence that had separated the Greek Parliament from Syntagma Square.

But Yannis Panousis, the new associate minister for public order and the protection of the citizen, is nonetheless treading carefully. Panousis is one of Greece’s leading progressive criminologists. He also possesses sound knowledge of — and has considerable ties to — the Hellenic Police.

In several interviews he was quick to dismiss isolated calls for more radical change in the Hellenic Police, including their general withdrawal from public places and even the disarming of officers. His programmatic speech before the parliament last week conveyed a gradualist approach, prioritizing the pulling back of riot police units from everyday duties, new rules of deployment for public order police units, and restrictions on the use of chemical agents.

Panousis also outlined a new model for front-line police deployment, terming it “scientific and community policing.” These moves reflect aspirations for a more accountable and democratic form of policing — for “a new era, perhaps, for the relation between citizens and police,” as he puts it.

So what does this look like in practice? The model appears to place a new emphasis on neighborhood foot patrols, complemented by the reorganization and, possibly, the redeployment of the heavily used motorbike patrol units. Panousis is also contemplating the redeployment of a significant number of police officers currently assigned to VIP protection and other ancillary duties. Syriza officials have already shown a disdain for such security precautions.

Panousis has also proposed better police training and the creation of a dedicated judicial police service. Finally, he wants to rectify the uncertainties regarding pay and the status of police officers’ social security fund, which, like so much else, depends on the outcome of the renegotiation of the Greek debt.

The minister outlined a second cycle of reforms without committing to a specific timeframe. These include:

  • A national council for policing that will be accountable to parliament and tasked with developing strategic planning;
  • An exploration of forms of “cooperation between local institutions, social services, citizens, and the police”;
  • New legislation governing recruitment, promotions, transfers, disciplinary, and officer safety procedures;
  • New legislation targeting corruption;
  • Finally, and in stark contrast to previous official positions of the ministry, Panousis explicitly acknowledged Golden Dawn’s influence among rank-and-file police officers as an issue, called for any organized neo-Nazi elements among the police to disband, and warned that any incidents of neo-Nazi political activism within the police force would be “ruthlessly” prosecuted.

Though welcome and overdue, to most leftist eyes these changes hardly seem sweeping. Panousis’s gradualist approach also seems at odds with Syriza’s more radical manifesto on policing and public order. But in Greece, the historic ties between the Hellenic police and the conservative establishment are so strong that even these modest reforms won’t be easy. While something on the scale of a police coup is highly unlikely, the police enjoy substantial operational autonomy.

There is thus good reason for caution. Syriza needs allies among the police — or at least not intransigent opposition — if it is to go after the oligarchs. Panousis has made overtures to the police by taking the union’s campaign on pay and personnel issues seriously — an area in which the previous center-right party had lost credibility and which was partially responsible for the rank and file’s embrace of Golden Dawn.

Perhaps the most important change to the state’s repressive capacities has been Panousis’s recent pledge to shut down the detention centers that house immigrants in appalling conditions. Last week, standing in front of the Amygdaleza Detention Centre in Western Athens, where a Pakistani man had allegedly committed suicide, he declared, “We’re finished with them.” He then went further: “I’m here to express my shame, not as a minister but as a human being. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I really could not believe it. This must change, and it must change immediately.”

The detention centers are a product of project Xenios Zeus, a conservative government initiative that resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of mainly Asian and African immigrants in makeshift storage containers under conditions the UN condemned as inhumane.

They are also a reminder of the Right’s determination to use fear of crime and immigration to muster support among an insecure populace. Conservatives will blame any disorder on the Syriza government. Indeed, the most significant threat to Syriza is not debt restructuring but rather the resulting terrain of public order.

The Right has always used its influence and exerted its propaganda and muscle to make electoral inroads on the issue. It is why Panousis must continue to act prudently but make the structural changes necessary to democratize the Hellenic Police as soon as possible.

It is also why the oligarchs need to be challenged sooner than later. They have a tight grip on the news media, where reporters regularly self-censor in order to avoid disrupting the status quo. Without reliable crime statistics, any sensationalized news story can focus popular attention on a criminal case and sway public opinion, undermining the Syriza’s reform plans.

Last week, hardly backing down from Varoufakis’s earlier pronouncements, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, “We have made the decision to clash with a regime of political and economic power that plunged our country into the crisis.”

He has appointed supreme court prosecutor Panagiotis Nikoloudis, a specialist on economic crime, as new anti-corruption minister. The government has proposed new measures to re-license private TV channels, eliminate sweet loan deals for oligarchs, exert the state’s voting rights in private banks, unwind odious privatization deals, and aggressively audit those with large offshore accounts.

It intends to use a list of roughly 2,000 tax evaders that French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde gave to the Greek government in 2010 and that remains uninvestigated. And Varoufakis has been tracking more recent cases where, in one instance, someone transferred €1.5 billion to foreign accounts while declaring an income of only €5,000 for the last twenty years.

For now, support for the fight against the oligarchs and Greece’s creditors is very strong in Greece. Recent polls have shown Tsipras with an approval rating exceeding 80 percent. Which raises the question: to what extent will Greeks mobilize for what amounts to an international and domestic class war?

If an election were held in Greece today, Syriza would win in a landslide. Support has drained from all other opposition parties. Greeks have rallied in unprecedented pro-government demonstrations at Syntagma Square, not long ago the site of violent battles with police. But recent history has proven things can change very quickly.

So Panousis’s gradualism is probably wise. The previous major reform attempt, undertaken by the center-left Pasok government, failed to produce sufficient organizational and cultural change. But police reform must go beyond constitutional standards of rights, good administration, and fairness by means of high-level policy declarations and external controls. That vision falls far short of Syriza’s more comprehensive manifesto.

What is needed is a consistent strategy toward redefining both the role of police and their engagement with the public, which will require deep organizational changes in the Hellenic Police and the broader Greek policing landscape.

Greece’s “dark forces” will try to block police reforms before they even begin. This cannot be allowed to happen. The ideological battleground of “public order” is an often-neglected, yet crucial sphere for all leftist struggles. Syriza must imagine and implement a regime that is safer and more democratic than the fear-mongering and authoritarianism it seeks to replace.

In this regard, the Greek government’s tackling of corruption, its closure of immigration detention centers, its moves to track down tax evaders, and removal of the barricades in Sytagma Square are all about opening up new possibilities. It will need to go further in subduing the police, just as it is subduing the oligarchy.

As the case of police reform shows, Syriza is not just an experiment in anti-austerity and pro-democracy government. It is an experiment in how a progressive social order can be brought into existence.