Democracia y PolíticaEconomía

Could Greece become the European Venezuela?


A male protester with an SOS Halkidiki flag, during a protest by locals back in November against the Canadian-run goldmine in Skouries

For a country facing bitter splits over Sunday’s EU bail-out referendum, the tiny Greek village of Megali Panagia offers a harsh lesson in the politics of division.

A hamlet in northern Greece’s Halkidiki hills, today it is one of the few areas unscathed by the austerity crisis, thanks to jobs at the nearby Canadian-owned gold mine. Yet as the graffiti daubed all over the signs to the village makes clear, not everyone appreciates the foreign investors’ presence.

Ever since January, the forested hills around the mines have echoed the sounds of violent protests after Syriza, the hard-Left government which swept to power that month, revoked part of the mine’s licence on environmental grounds, threatening its future.

For local Green groups who have long opposed the mine, the move was a welcome show of force against a company they accuse of blighting the landscape. But for the 2,000 miners who depend on the plant for a living, the decision smacked of a far bigger agenda than mere nimbyism.

The move, they say, was also about the desire of Syriza’s radicals to pull big business back into state hands – a policy that Syriza’s critics fear will turn Greece into Europe’s answer to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

«This region has mined gold since the days of Alexander the Great, and to this day we depend completely on mining income,» said Xristos Zafeiroudas, president of the local miners’ union.

«Now all that is at risk. Syriza are all for the state and public sector, but that is the mentality of the past. What kind of Left-wing government does not support ordinary working people like us?»

The answer, according to the Greek opposition, is one that makes no secret of its admiration for the Chavista regime in Venezuela, where nationalisations of foreign-owned businesses have spurred an economic meltdown even more calamitous than Greece’s.

In Caracas, shortages of basic goods are now a daily reality, something that Greeks too got a glimpse of last week when the closure of banks sparked panic-buying in supermarkets.

Nonetheless, Athens and Caracas have formed close links since Syriza came to power, united by a passion for socialism and a disdain for «economic neoliberalism». The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, attended Mr Chavez’s funeral in 2013, and on coming to power got a standing invite to visit Caracas, which hailed his victory as «fresh political air for Europe.”

Last Tuesday, as the Greek government finally went into default with the IMF, it also got a message of «solidarity» from Mr Chavez’s replacement, Nicolas Maduro, on his weekly TV show.

“Fear not, Greek sisters and brothers,» he said. «The path forward is to break the chains of international financial capital and the IMF.»

The fear among Syriza opponents is that Greece is now about to do exactly that, thumbing its nose at its creditors, crashing out the Eurozone and taking the country into an economic wilderness. Stuck on its own in an increasing unstable neighbourhood – Greece is bearing much of the migrant flux from nearby Syria – the likes of Venezuela and Russia could end up being its only friends.

«We need to look at what quality of democracy we will end up with,» said Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a senior MP in the centre-right New Democracy party. «Some people think Greece will end up as neo-Chavista, semi-authoritarian regime that will have more resemblance to Venezuela than a European country.»

Certainly, the «fresh political air» around Megali Panagia has become distinctly toxic, with the unions accusing Syriza of hijacking the environmental protest to win votes, and of bussing in hardcore militants from Athens to intimidate the miners.

«We understand the need to preserve the environment, but they did this on purpose in order to divide the society into two parts, just for politics,» said Mr Zafeiroudas, 49, who spent 27 years down the mines himself.

He says he realised the government’s agenda he met Panagiotis Lafazanis, the minister who revoked the permits, which the previous government had granted. A grizzled ex-communist whom even Mr Tsipras considers hard-line, Mr Lafazanis wants Syriza to fight not just Greece’s Eurozone creditors but also «neoliberalism and finally capitalism itself».

«Lafazanis asked me why the workers themselves did not take control of the mine, or why the state did not do so,» Mr Zafeiroudas said. «I personally would have no problem with public ownership, but I also have no problem with the mine being privately owned, as the company runs it well.»

«Syriza are not competent economically. Lafanzanis told me that they are going to f*** the Europeans and never pay them back.»

True, the fight against mine – a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Eldorado Gold – goes back to well before Syriza took power. For the last three years, local green groups have complained about tree clearance and water drainage activities around the mine, which they say risks starving the forest of water and puts tourists off the area.

In a sign of how fractious Greek politics has become during the austerity crisis, the issue has divided the area village by village. Mr Zafeiroudas’s own offices are daubed with anti-mining graffiti, and he dares not show his face in the nearby coastal town of Ieirissos, where the few miners who do live there suffer a «climate of fear«.

«Some of my colleagues have had their cars set on fire and their houses petrol-bombed,» added another miner, who asked not to be named. «But we have been doing this job since our grandfathers’ time, there is no other option.»

Green campaigners accuse the miners themselves of aggression, and deny any wider agenda. «This is nothing to do with turning Greece into Venezuela, it is just about protecting the environment,» said Eleanna Ioannidou, an activist and councillor in the nearby city of Thessaloniki.

However, in Greece’s polarised political environment, hopes that central government itself could act as an impartial broker have been futile. While the previous conservative administration backed the investment – denouncing the protesters as hooligans – Syriza has taken the opposite tack, accusing police of heavy-handedness in dealing with demonstrators.

The result is that the normally picturesque villages of Halkidiki now resemble the coal fields of Orgreave or Bilston Glen during Britain’s miner’s strike. Graffiti on the road signs leading to Megali Panagia denounces it as the home of «scabs and traitors». A picket of the mine in March turned violent, with masked «professional» protesters attacking the workers with catapults, according to Mr Zafeiroudas.

«These guys try to terrify the workers and create further tensions,» he said. «They come for war, and there is someone behind it. I would like to think it’s not Syriza, but who knows?»

A decision on the company’s permit, which had previously been granted by local officials, is due in coming weeks. Eldorado itself, which insists it always acts with «respect for the environment», has warned that if it is not reinstated, it could be forced to «reconsider its investment plans for Greece,», which currently run to around £1bn.

Syriza insists its review of the Eldorado permits is simply part a policy to submit foreign firms to appropriate scrutiny, something many of Greece’s corrupt previous administrations never bothered with. It claims that pressure from Greece’s creditors means that there is now even greater temptation to turn a blind eye to corner-cutting by foreign investors.

skourries-protest_3364453b (1)

Gold mine workers protest against Greek new leftist government’s plan to scrap the gold mine project (AFP)

Supporters of the mine, though, say that in the current dire economic climate, Syriza cannot afford to be too high-minded. Once again, they accuse the party of putting ideology ahead of the welfare of ordinary Greeks – just as they say it has done in its brinkmanship over the EU bail-out deal. «For Syriza, the mine has become a symbol of the struggle against capitalism and the bad guys,» said one senior mining industry figure.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that ahead of Sunday’s referendum, Mr Zafeiroudas and his union is mobilising the «Yes» vote in his village. Like many, they fear a «No» verdict may see Greece bow out of Europe’s embrace altogether – after which there will be even less to hold Syriza’s more radical elements in check.

«We need to remain as part of Europe,» said Mr Zafeiroudas. «Otherwise we will have no future.»

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