The parade on Friday was supposed to commemorate Greece's resistance during World War II. Seventy-one years ago on this day, Greece refused to let Italy's fascist ruler, Benito Mussolini, take his troops into the country. Greeks took to the streets chanting "Ohi!" (No) to show that they wouldn't give up their sovereignty to anyone.
But this year many Greeks went to the parade to say no to austerity. As schoolchildren in navy-blue-and-white uniforms walked past Parliament in Athens waving Greek flags to marching-band music, antiausterity protesters booed riot police and told off their politicians. "We want freedom, not another dictatorship!" they chanted.
"We have got to stop the corruption," said Silia Vitoratou, a 35-year-old statistician at the demonstration on Friday. "We no longer feel like we're represented by our politicians. [We feel] that the bond between citizen and state has been irrevocably damaged. We've got to make ourselves heard because, as the old folks say, if you're not part of the answer, then you're part of the problem."
The protesters are clearly not impressed with the landmark deal made early Thursday between European leaders and international lenders to write off half the face value of Greek debt and give the country another $140 billion in bailout loans. Under the deal, Greece must still implement the austerity measures that Parliament has already passed, which include job and wage cuts in the public sector, tax hikes, a controversial new property tax and privatization of state assets.
Many Greeks blame their politicians for the country's debt woes, but the ruling center-left PASOK party has taken the brunt of the criticism for signing on to the pact that exchanged austerity for billions in international bailout loans. Both Prime Minister George Papandreou and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos assured Greeks on Thursday that the new deal means no new austerity measures this year and next.
In a televised speech to the nation, Papandreou said the deal would also give Greece breathing space to move forward on the biggest challenges, such as rooting out corruption and clientelism and making the country an efficient and creative economy. "Each of us can have our own revolution to make a better country," he said. In time, he added, Greeks can create a state with a vibrant economy that promotes development.
But many say the deal means that the government is handing control of Greece's destiny to foreign powers. This sense of losing sovereignty resonates deeply in a country like Greece, which has deep nationalist undercurrents. It has elicited a broad range of responses, ranging from left-wing demonstrators comparing Papandreou's government to the hated 1967-74 junta to opposition leader Antonis Samaras, who leads the center-right New Democracy party, declaring that "we won't kneel to anyone."
In reality, every European Union and euro-zone country had to give up some of its sovereignty willingly just to join the bloc, says Dimitris A. Sotiropoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Athens. But in Greece, "nationalism is the platform that everyone shares in politics," he says. "There's this underlying, strong belief here that Greece is unique. Indeed, Greece has fought very, very bitter wars against foreign armies, including the German and Italian armies. And there was a dictatorship that was tolerated by the U.S. So we have a very complicated relationship with foreign powers."
A few Greeks got ugly in expressing that nationalism during Friday's protests. There were banners that read "Merkel equals Hitler," in reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been the leading voice during the E.U.'s attempts to deal with the region's economic crisis. In Thessaloniki, where protests got so intense that the authorities shut down the military parade for the first time in history, anarchists spat at retired military officers and demonstrators heckled President Karolos Papoulias, who was one of the few politicians attending the event. Papoulias, a grandfatherly figure with a long history in Greek politics, was furious. "When I was 15, I fought against Nazism and the German occupiers," he told reporters at the event. "Who are they to call me a traitor? Shame on them."
Meanwhile, fringe neo-Nazis took the general sense of discord as an opportunity to join the fray. On Friday, a gang of young thugs beat up antiausterity protesters in central Athens as well as several Bangladeshi men selling miniature Greek flags for the parade.
Agathi Papanoti, a 31-year-old archaeologist, watched in horror as one of the fascists beat up a friend so badly, he ended up in the hospital. She fears that the long-dysfunctional state has collapsed under austerity, cutting the wages and pensions of Greeks to the bone and leaving them with the burden. "We're turning against each other, and it's a new civil war," she said. "It's way too many problems for such a small country right now. And I believe that it's all because of the crisis."