Greece’s Right-Wing Government Is Massively Expanding Police Powers

Since the end of the dictatorship, Greece’s police have remained a deeply authoritarian institution with a strong fascist presence. Yet the breakup of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn hasn’t changed much — and the right-wing government's creation of new special units is encouraging police to crack down on their political enemies.

Riot police detain a man during student protests in Thessaloniki, Greece, on March 11, 2021. (Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP via Getty Images)

Policing has long been a major political flash point in Greece: right-wingers demand harsh “law and order” measures, while the Left denounces a repressive force riddled with fascists. Calls for reform have been particularly strong over the last month following a string of high-profile clashes. Yet with the creation of new special units, including in the country’s universities, it is the partisans of extended police powers who are setting the agenda.

The most recent spate of incidents began on March 7, when a young man was arrested after he failed to follow police instructions to leave a square in Athens’s Nea Smyrni neighborhood. He was beaten by a baton-wielding member of the DIAS motorcycle squad, and footage of the violence soon went viral — forcing the suspension of the officer at the center of the row.

On March 9, there were protests — in turn violently suppressed by members of another police motorcycle squad, DRASI (Action). Officers drove right through the protesters, indiscriminately lobbing flash-bang grenades. A group of football hooligans involved in the gathering managed to wrestle one police officer from the back of a motorcycle, who was then beaten by the angry crowd. The incident was again captured on video, as were other instances of DRASI teams driving over protesters. The government blamed the violence on anarchist and leftist “agitators,” which it linked to opposition party Syriza.

Such violent tactics have become a recurrent theme under Greece’s New Democracy (ND) government, as the Hellenic Police are let off the leash by a right-wing administration. If, in many regards, this violence is characteristic of a revanchist global authoritarianism, Greece’s particular social upheavals and geopolitics invite closer scrutiny.

Indeed, it’s only a few years since upstart Greece mounted an ill-fated challenge to the Troika of European institutions and, by extension, the global financial system. At the time, we warned that the country’s reactionary forces stood at the ready to pounce on Syriza’s failure and reinstitute an authoritarian policing project that was only briefly, and rather ineffectively, postponed. Today, these so-called dark forces are in full control.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has helped facilitate ND’s authoritarian turn, as lockdown measures have been combined with a proliferation of police checkpoints, COVID patrols, and blanket bans on assemblies by order of the chief of the police. All this has facilitated a dress rehearsal for police authoritarianism, allowing ND to strike at its traditional enemies. We have seen this in full force during important annual political commemorations, such as the November 17 celebration of the Polytechnic uprising against the military junta, and the December 6 memorialization of the 2008 police murder of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos: in each case, the assemblies were broken up.

Greece seems to be no exception to the unrelenting pacification of the working class ramping up around the globe. But we may also be witnessing the maturation of a quintessentially Greek bourgeois authoritarianism whose seeds were sown under neoliberal restructuring in the late 1990s, accelerated by nationalist extremism under EU austerity, and institutionally ossified after the collapse of any meaningful left-wing alternative.

National (In)security

We could hardly overstate the disastrous effects of fiscal austerity and economic restructuring forced on Greece in the 2010s under the Troika. Following the public debt crisis, Greece’s access to financial assistance came on condition of drastic salary and pension cuts, mass dismissals, a demolition of the public health and social security system, labor market “reforms,” privatization, and indefinite international debt bondage. Greece’s economy shrank by one-quarter, and unemployment rose above 25 percent (and to 40 percent among youth).

The Syriza-led coalition was supposed to challenge this state of affairs but, instead, it capitulated to the final economic adjustment program after failing to renegotiate Greece’s debt in 2015.  Criminal justice reform took a back seat. All the while, far-right propaganda on the consequences of migrant flows, the refugee crisis and its effect on Greek national cohesion — coupled with agitation about the country’s geopolitical situation — fed continued sociopolitical turbulence. Dubious statistics on crime and media-fueled concerns about lawlessness, especially perceived criminality by immigrant populations, became a suitable channel for Greek insecurities — and anger.

The conservative ND won a parliamentary majority in July 2019 promising to implement a tough “law-and-order” agenda. It developed a communications strategy focusing on crime, lawlessness (anomia), and feelings of insecurity. ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis pushed the slogan “Greek citizens feel unprotected,” highlighting the actions of social movements as major disturbances in everyday life. Amplified by mass media, the conservatives accused Syriza of tolerating — indeed endorsing — lawlessness, disorder, and even terrorism.

Once this ubiquitous insecurity had been stoked, ND tapped into it by promising more police, tougher sentences, crackdowns on migrants, and building more prisons. All this was supposedly part of an effort to “tidy up” Greece and set it on a less fractious course.

Moving Right, Feigning Center

Today, the ND government is fulfilling this “law-and-order” mandate — aided by nearly unconditional support from the media and widening swaths of an insecure populace. In this task it has been further bolstered by Mitsotakis’s perceived moderation.

Ironically, this perceived move to the center has been aided by the conviction of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in October 2020. While a triumph for the anti-fascist movement, Golden Dawn’s demise also delivered symbolic gains for ND by disassociating it from its traditional far-right connections. A far-right core still active within ND was freed to promote xenophobia, the criminalization of migrants, and anti-left disinformation without fear of association with the fascists. After all, the media proclaimed, the fascists had been rounded up and jailed.

Serving this perceived maneuver to the center was the heavily touted return of Harvard-educated Mitsotakis, who presented himself as a welcome “moderate” after a divisive era of extremism between the supposed far left (Syriza) and far right (Golden Dawn). The Right claimed that Mitsotakis’s experience as a venture capitalist and banker, as well as his family’s neoliberal credentials, would shift Greece from a recalcitrant Troika outsider under Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis to a “pragmatic” EU insider. This was supposed to bring the country “back into the fold” and generate a better economic deal.

In reality, such expectations of “moderation” have proven fanciful. Instead, Greece’s repressive apparatuses have been consolidated, with all policing, border control, and prison facilities now integrated under one police apparatus. Decisively, these facilities have become an economic circuit — creating essential conditions for the rise of the domestic security-industrial complex. This circuit now even includes universities, with research funding diverted to on-campus policing.

Suppressing Student Dissent

As if to highlight their triumph over any remaining pockets of resistance, in early March, the Hellenic Police rolled onto the campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, crushing a three-week student occupation. Until recently, university campuses in Greece were generally protected from police intrusion — a legislated recognition of the catalyst role students played in ousting the junta and restoring democracy in 1974.

The recent police operation led to the arrest of thirty students and gained widespread publicity. Video surfaced of a student being manhandled, kicking desperately as he was dragged semi-naked in torn clothes across campus while onlookers pleaded for police restraint.

Once ensconced inside the university, the Hellenic Police stayed there. They now maintain a garrison at the university — and new legislation will expand this deployment to campuses across the country. More than a thousand new special police officers organized into “university protection teams” (OPPI) are set to fan out across campuses in the coming months. They will be bolstered by in-house “security protection units” or outsourced to private contractors and, in a brazen disregard for the political optics, will be paid out of each university’s “ELKE” research funds.

If the government’s zeal to squelch student dissent and reposition campuses within the security-industrial complex were not clear enough, the new law goes even further by mandating physical “perimeter security fencing” around each campus. For the government, this is so urgently necessary that the erection of fences will not even require local building permits.

The Rise of the Special Guards

New Democracy delivered what it had promised in the 2019 election — hiring 1,500 more police officers and creating an additional 1,030 OPPI university police. Just as important, however, is that these new recruits are not regular police. Instead, they are part of an ever-expanding corps of Special Guards (Eidikoi Frouroi), a second-tier policing group within the Hellenic Police.

The Special Guards are not recruited via established national examination procedures that form part of standard university entry requirements in Greece. They also do not attend the police academy like regular police officers. Rather, they undergo fast-track training; and beyond the need for a high school diploma, their selection criteria are based on the fulfillment of military obligations, preferably as professional soldiers in special forces.

Special Guard selection, training, and experience is thus based on military values. Special Guards are allocated primarily to increasingly notorious frontline police units, such as the DIAS fast response and DRASI riot control motorbike units.

The growth of Special Guards consolidates a two-tiered policing model whose emergence we had detected as part of neoliberal restructuring in 2003. Their numbers will now exceed the 10,000 mark in a 55,000-strong police force.

The Special Guards already create serious implications for both the style and quality of policing in everyday life. Their increased use undermines the prospect of a professional police force. Equally, it undermines police union demands for better work and workplace conditions as a cheaper workforce separate from regular, academy-trained, career police officers.

Perhaps most alarmingly, highly militarized Special Guard units have provided fertile ground for the growth of far-right ideology. The influence of the defunct Golden Dawn party was known to be very high among these units, leading to a proliferation of documented abuse, torture, and violent police responses, particularly against immigrants and left-wing protesters.

The problem is sure to get worse, as the government has shown its preference for setting up a variety of specialized frontline police units. DELTA — a fast-response motorbike unit disbanded by the Syriza government due to its excessive use of force — was reinstated by the conservatives, now under the name DRASI. Another frontline unit, OPKE, originally intended to deal with serious crime, now operates ubiquitously against “lawlessness” — in practice forcibly evicting political occupations and squatters.

ND’s investment in militarized, specialized units populated by Special Guards coincides with a divestment from regular policing, including local police stations and criminal investigation units. It would be convenient to link the rise of Special Guards to the conservative compulsion for suppressing dissent. And yet these changes were first initiated by the social-democratic PASOK party under neoliberal restructuring as far back as the 1990s. More revealing, perhaps, is the fact that the major architect for these changes, public order minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, has returned to public service (switching from PASOK to ND) to finish what he started over twenty years ago.

The Return of Chrysochoidis

The minister presiding over the current shakeup of the police is the same man who set in motion the neoliberal restructuring of public order in the late 1990s. While his PASOK promised a “modernization” of Greece in this era, Chrysochoidis’s reign is associated with its failure to wrestle control of the police from the Right. Instead, his tenure was marked by (1) the introduction of new second-tier Special and Border Guards units; (2) the resurrection and insulation of Hellenic Police HQ command; (3) the arrest of the far-left November 17 terrorist group in 2002; (4) the introduction of draconian anti-terrorist legislation that created intrusive police powers; and, finally, (5) steering the police apparatus during the first wave of anti-austerity mass popular mobilizations in 2010.

Having left the remnants of PASOK in 2019, Chrysochoidis has returned to the political scene as ND’s “Minister for the Protection of the Citizen.” In many respects, Chrysochoidis’s apparent permanent role as minister of public order in Greece serves as a reminder of the continuity of late PASOK and ND policies toward neoliberal restructuring — and the Greek security apparatus’s ties to their US counterparts.

A 2009 foreign embassy memorandum released by WikiLeaks makes it clear that Chrysochoidis worked cooperatively with US intelligence like the FBI and DEA and invited US support, logistics, and training. He provided detailed briefs to the US ambassador in Athens about ongoing police restructuring plans before they were known to Greek citizens and provided assessments of the threat of leftist terrorism. When, with American support, he oversaw the investigation and arrest of the November 17 terrorist group, he was publicly praised by the US ambassador — a unique occasion in Greece’s political history. The election of an American-educated international banking executive as prime minister will no doubt further facilitate a cozy relationship between the Hellenic Police and US interests. Such ties are not new, even though Syriza may have tested them.

The government understands that the determined efforts of what scholars call the “social police” — the disciplining function exerted by banks, insurance companies, credit surveillance, labor relations, and the tax system, emboldened by the memoranda years and ardently promoted by ND — will likely not suffice. Chrysochoidis’s comeback is thus an emphatic return of the bourgeois establishment, embarking on an effort to intensify neoliberal restructuring through continued pacification. With austerity measures again looming large in the wake of the pandemic, the government is preparing to respond to a fresh wave of immiseration by strengthening the tools of repression.

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Georgios Papanicolaou is a reader in criminology at Teesside University, UK, and coauthor of Organised Crime: A Very Short Introduction.

George S. Rigakos is professor of the political economy of policing at Carleton University, Canada and author of Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification.

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