Greek riots signal troubled future for Europe


WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Cleanup teams started work on repairing an estimated $300 million worth of damage in Athens Thursday, but as Greece still simmered from its worst riots in 40 years, fears grew around Europe that the violence may be a sign of the shape of things to come.

For the first time since last Saturday, life seemed to be returning to normal in the capital, but there were reports of high school students joining the violence and demonstrating outside police stations across the country.


Sympathy demonstrations in Madrid and Barcelona also turned violent.

The riots centered on the central Athens district of Exarchia. They were set off last Saturday when two police officers dealing with a gang of youths shot a 15-year-old boy dead. A lawyer representing the two police officers Thursday said forensic examination showed the fatal bullet was badly deformed, indicating it had hit the teenager only after ricocheting off another surface.


The government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis has responded to the riots with a textbook case of weakness, delays and appeasement.

Karamanlis was badly discredited, to begin with, following major corruption scandals that forced the resignation of two senior ministers, and his party is hanging onto power in the Greek Parliament by a majority of only a single vote.

The government failed to rush in sufficient police and troops to smother the protests in Athens after the first days of disturbances, and as a result scores of banks and department stores in Exarchia were rapidly reduced to burned-out hulks. The Athens Trade Association estimated the total cost to the national economy of the destructive attacks around the country to be as high as $1.3 billion.

Greece is no stranger to fiery national protests, but the extent and fierceness of the rioting and the damage it has caused are unprecedented in the country for at least 40 years.

As was the case in the U.S. inner-city riots of the 1960s, pundits, politicians and self-proclaimed "experts" have offered as many explanations, causes and even justifications for the riots as there are stars in the sky.

Greek commentators have described the protests as an eruption of anger by the "600 euro a month" people -- members of the Greek underclass who earn only that amount or less. Anti-immigration campaigners have even claimed that Islamic activists were involved in stirring up the violence, though the evidence for that seems almost non-existent at the moment.


Students were certainly involved. One major question, therefore, is whether these riots were just sparked by anger at the economic downturn in Greece, or whether they set off a continent-wide fashionable season of protest leading to more widespread violence across other nations of the 27-nation European Union.

Greece is one of 15 nations in the EU that have the euro as their common currency. Slovakia is scheduled to become the 16th nation to join the eurozone on Jan. 1.

But the global economic crisis has hit the smaller, more vulnerable nations of the European Union like Greece, Ireland and Belgium very hard. And the common euro currency has deprived the national governments in Athens, Dublin and Brussels of their old economic safety valve of devaluing their local currencies.

The euro, in fact, has become a trap for such smaller and more financially exposed European nations. To pull out of the common currency now would risk triggering a full-scale banking crisis and economic meltdown in any of them.

The Greek riots are certainly not unprecedented in recent European affairs. France has suffered far more violent and widespread mob violence in widespread clashes with gangs of immigrant youths who for months at a time made vast poor neighborhoods around Paris and other cities virtual no-go areas for the police.


But the Greek riots are noteworthy because they are the first widespread expression of urban anger in Europe since the global financial crisis erupted out of the Wall Street financial meltdown in September. The central role of the students also recalls the destabilizing role a large, overeducated but impractical and underemployed student population played in the fierce anti-American riots that swept Europe 40 years ago.

American and European intelligence and senior police officers have privately expressed concern for many years that the combination of low economic growth and generous, perpetual welfare benefits in many European countries was creating an angry, alienated subclass that could turn resentful and hostile to public safety and responsibility, especially when economic times turned tough.

The violence across Greece suggests those fears may be tested very soon.

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