"Karamanlis or tanks." That was the choice that Konstantinos Karamanlis posed to Greeks in 1974 upon his return from self-imposed exile in Paris after the overthrow of the country's military junta. The popular former Prime Minister's triumphant return to Athens to lead the country's transition back to democracy was followed by his sweeping election victory and a place in history as one of modern Greece's great statesmen.
Now, 34 years later, Karamanlis' nephew Costas Karamanlis is Prime Minister as Greece faces its worst riots in a generation. Radical youths and riot police clashed Tuesday for a fourth straight day following the Dec. 6 fatal shooting of a 15-year-old by Athens police. During a Cabinet meeting Monday night, Karamanlis considered a proposal to declare a state of emergency, and the possibility that troops could return to the streets of Athens for the first time since the military dictatorship of 1967-74. (See pictures of Athens in flames.)
For now at least, the 52-year-old Prime Minister has ruled out military intervention, hoping the police can restore order without the government's having to resort to martial law. Professor Thanos Dokos, head of the Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP, says that "even the thought of employing the Greek army to quell the civil disturbances ... is preposterous." Beyond the historical burden the armed forces carry in Greece, Dokos says "they are neither trained nor equipped for riot control."
Critics say that the government has lost control over the tactical management of the crisis, with radical anarchists burning shops, cars, banks and even government buildings, including the Hellenic Parliament Foundation and the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic academy. Some 320 stores, 50 banks and a number of other civilian buildings have been damaged or destroyed in Athens, with another 100 stores in the northern city of Thessaloníki targeted. There have also been outbreaks of violence in several small cities and on the island of Corfu.
In Athens' Syntagma square, just across from Parliament, protesters set ablaze a large Christmas tree. Today, more clashes took place in the square and the surrounding streets as police used tear gas to break up a large group of protestors throwing rocks at the Parliament building. Later in the afternoon clashes resumed in downtown Athens with youth groups barricaded in the Athens Polytechnic School, near the Exarchia district, setting up roadblocks outside the school and burning cars and bus stops.
In an Athens seaside suburb Tuesday afternoon, some 3,000 people attended the funeral of Andreas-Alexandros Grigoropoulos, whose death sparked the riots. Shortly after the funeral, rioters hurled rocks and oranges at police forces near the cemetery.
The Prime Minister has said that full justice will be pursued in the death of the teenager, but also emphasized that there will be no leniency for the rioters. Still, the 45,000-strong police seem unable to find a way to quell the unrest. Dokos says the situation has spiraled out of control because "the government made the assumption that police intervention would have inflamed the crisis even further." In a prime-time televised address to the nation, Costas Karamanlis called those who engage in acts of violence and vandalism "enemies of democracy" and asked for unity in order to isolate the radical elements.
The political consequences of failure for Karamanlis may be steep. Already his government was hanging on with a razor-thin majority in Parliament ahead of a crucial budget vote later this month.
George Papandreou, leader of the center-left opposition, accused the government Tuesday of being unable to handle the riots and said it has lost the people's trust. After a somber meeting with the Prime Minister early this morning, Papandreou said that "the best thing they [the Government] can do is resign and let the people find a solution ... We will protect the public."
A previously announced labor strike and further protest marches are planned for Wednesday. With the Government facing a public-order problem at the same time that the economy is suffering, the Prime Minister must find a way to halt his party's freefall in polls and try to convince the Greek people that his center-right government is the only real hope for stability and security. In rhetorical terms, he might even hark back to his uncle with a new choice: "Karamanlis or chaos." Lately, though, few can see the difference.