Will Violent Protests Imperil Reform in Greece?

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Nikolas Giakoumidis / AP

Riot police stand outside the burned branch of Marfin Egnatia Bank, where three people died, in Athens on May 5, 2010

These were the images Greece's government had hoped to avoid: masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails, cars and buildings aflame, and tens of thousands of protesters shouting their fury amid billowing clouds of tear gas.

Ritual protest violence is part of the political culture in Greece, but the anger that erupted on the streets on Wednesday was on a different scale. Three bank workers died in the chaos, trapped in a burning building that had been firebombed by rioters. Greek officials say the crowd prevented emergency vehicles from reaching them on time. "This is where uncontrolled violence leads, and this is where political irresponsibility takes us," Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said, defending his activation of the $145 billion bailout from the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "The other option was failure: bankruptcy of the country. And bankruptcy would not touch the lives of the rich, only the working class, the pensioners who are already suffering. This scenario was very real and very frightening."

The international community's faith in Greece's indebted government, which has admitted to cooking its books to join the euro, is already at an all-time low. Papandreou has persuaded European nations and the IMF to come to his nation's aid — though at a high price for the Greek people, who will face a harsh austerity program. But markets remain unconvinced about the country's long-term future, and there will be greater doubt now about whether the government can push through promised reforms in the face of such public anger. The government plans to bring legislation authorizing the austerity program — which includes cuts to civil service pay, higher taxes and sweeping reforms to pensions and labor laws — to a vote in Parliament on Thursday. Now that vote will take place in the shadow of the violence of the previous day.

When the chaos erupted, the news was channeled first through the international media. Greek journalists had joined a nationwide strike as part of the protests, so there were no national television or radio broadcasts on Wednesday morning, and newspaper editions for Thursday were canceled. But when things turned ugly, Greece's newsmen and women couldn't ignore the story and raced back to work.

The mood in Greece has been shifting since May 2, when the government announced that a deal had been struck with the IMF and euro-zone partners and that it would include even deeper cuts to state spending. Teachers, municipal workers, pensioners and even members of the military have taken to the streets in recent days, protesting pay cuts and increased taxes.

But the march in Athens on Wednesday was shocking both for its size and ferocity. Police say at least 30,000 people took part, but other estimates put the number much higher, as the snake of demonstrators stretched several kilometers throughout the city. The protesters set out from the Field of Ares, named after the god of war, and many arrived prepared to wage battle, armed with gas masks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. It's not unusual in Greece for a small minority to cause trouble during a protest, but on Wednesday the rage ran deeper. It wasn't just masked anarchists who charged police; men in polo shirts joined in too.

Although protesters marched under banners reading "Out with the IMF!" and an E.U. flag with the stars rearranged in the shape of a swastika, most reserved their harshest criticism for their government. They tried to storm Parliament, booing loudly and shouting "Thieves!" "We want our politicians to go to prison," said Vassilis Tsimpidis, 46.

By Wednesday evening, the protesters had dispersed, but the mood remained tense, with both the government and ordinary citizens bracing for continued social unrest. The specter of Greece's December 2008 riots, which were sparked by the police shooting of a teenage boy, looms large. But the deaths of three innocent bystanders will likely lead to deep soul-searching. Although Greeks have a high tolerance for dissent, they draw the line at the spilling of blood. "This isn't what the demonstration was about," said a woman, who identified herself only as Maria, as she was milling around the charred bank. "This is awful."