Greece’s Use Of Violence On Civilians As A Method Of Coup Proofing


The Issue

A recent Amnesty International Report has criticized Greece for its continued culture of abuse and impunity within governmental authorities like the police. The most recent issues to hit the international media were the allegations of excessive force used to quell peaceful (or largely peaceful) protests, as well as reports of the misuse of less lethal weapons, and arbitrary transfers of protestors to police stations by law enforcement officials (Amnesty International, 2017).  In addition, Amnesty International has claimed that protests have been dispersed recently by using “excessive and dangerous deployments of toxic chemical agents and tear gas cartridges have been fired directly at protestors including in a schoolyard in northern Greece.” In response to such claims, the Greek government either remains silent on the issue or states that it is simply upholding the rule of law, which the protestors are undermining.

Most modern, western democracies are quick to denounce such behaviour by governmental bodies, alongside non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International. Under international law, the Greek authorities and law enforcement officials must ensure they uphold the right to peaceful assembly for everyone within their territory (United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement).  However, the use of force to demobilize political protests is deeply rooted in Greece’s modern history. This has resulted in deep resentment and a widening rift between the government and the people in the birthplace of democracy. Using force to demobilize political protests is a textbook manoeuvre to coup-proof a regime. Such a manoeuvre is particularly valuable in a country that is making the transition to democracy. This paper will argue that due to Greece’s social, economic and political conditions since World War I, Greece has only made the transition to a modern democracy within the past thirty years. The use of force upon citizens is a symptom of a country trying to establish legitimate and respected institutions, where coups d’état have been a regular part of the countries ethos. This is not to justify the use of force, but instead to shed some light on the causes and thus move towards finding a peaceful solution.

Detailed Criticism

The use of force by governmental institutions in Greece to prevent coups de état appears throughout its history, particularly over the past century. Not only is there a subculture of protest and resulting violence in Greece, there are also deep wounds. Social fractures which resulted from historical events is recent enough to continue to resurface today. Greece is suffering from a perfect concoction of social grievances that solidify extreme views, such as those of the Golden Dawn, and thus is a prime country for revolution.

Historical outline of the use of force to prevent a coup d’état in Greece

Although ancient Greece only became an independent state in 1830, it is, in this sense, almost as new as New Zealand. However, following World War I (WWI), Greece was supported by the great powers in invading parts of Asia, including the town of Smyrna. The Turkish forces later defeated the Greeks and destroyed Smyrna which resulted in the population exchange of 1923 between Greece and Turkey (Zinovieff, 2012). The exchange is one of the first examples of ethnic cleansing in the 21st century. Three million “Greeks” were traded for 500,000 Muslims in Turkey and were forced to leave their homeland of Turkey and arrive as refugees in Greece (Al Jazeera, 2016). With a total population of only four million, the exchange and resulting social tensions and grievances laid the foundations for a coup d’état (Amnesty International, 2016). This occurred in 1936, with General Metaxas, the leader of the coup, declared Prime Minister. Only shortly after coming to power, Metaxas declared a state of emergency and suspended Parliament (Zinovieff, 2012).  In order to ensure his power remained, he coup-proofed his regime by violently removing the fundamental human rights of various groups. For example, Metaxas banned communism and established prison camps for political enemies (Zinovieff, 2012).  This is the first example of the use of violence to coup-proof in Greece.

The second example of the government using force to coup-proof the regime in Greece occurred after World War II. Greece was in ruins, approximately 250,000 people had died of starvation, and the Jewish community was destroyed by the occupying Nazi forces (Zinovieff, 2012). A power vacuum also existed as the government and king had fled to Egypt during the occupation. Division as to who would rule Greece ensued. The British Army sided with the more right-wing factions following liberation in 1944, and together they fought the largest “most popular resistance group ELAS in the streets of the Athens.” Further, the United States helped Greek officials defeat the communist controlled democratic army.  By 1949 the left wing was destroyed and its remaining members were forced to flee to neighbouring communist countries (Zinovieff, 2012). The ensuing 25 years were relatively stable, with the right-wing government receiving support from the US under the Marshall plan to keep the communist threat deterred.

A third and slightly paradoxical example of the use of force to coup-proof the Greek regime took place in 1973. In 1967, a group known as ‘the Colonels’ executed a coup d’état and established a dictatorship. However, in 1973, a large student protest erupted at the Athens Polytechnic. The Junta responded with tanks and many young people were killed. This use of force created the social backlash that eventually ousted the Junta (Zinovieff, 2012).

Consequently, it has only been 40 years since the social and political atmosphere in Greece has allowed the establishment of a democracy (Zinovieff, 2012). The history of the relationship between the government and the people is so fresh and so rife with emotional tension that the government has not yet managed to establish well trusted, and operational governmental institutions.  The culture created and social grievances caused by Greece’s tumultuous history not only explain the background to contemporary society with its mass protests and political dissent, but also explains why Greece opts to use force to coup-proof its government. This understanding can be applied to the recent use of violence in the anti-austerity riots.

Current Social Climate and Grievances

Although the historical undertone for the use of force by the government on its citizens is present, it does not give the sole explanation for the recent resurgence in violence. The burdensome conditions Greece is facing set the scene for the population to feel they need and deserve radical change. This heightens the likelihood of a coup, and subsequently the use of force to suppress it. As Amnesty International reports, Greece is well into its sixth year of crippling economic recession. Combined with this, are the extremely high unemployment rates. The “inevitable impact of severe austerity measures and a deep resentment of the political establishment have led thousands to take to the streets in protest.” Further, Greece has once again experienced a great change in population dynamic as “one of the main entry points of mixed migration flows into Europe” (Amnesty International, 2016). A crippled Greece is finding itself unable to look after its own citizens, let alone carry the majority of migrants fleeing from violence and persecution abroad.

As conditions in Greece decline, citizens are likely to only become more frustrated and demand more change. Placing the blame on a tangible group has often been humanity’s way of coping with enormous social upheaval. In this situation, the government is an easy target for such blame. Thus, the rising threat of a coup explains the rising use of violence by the government.

Alternative Solution

A comprehensive and forward-looking plan needs to be implemented to end Greece’s cyclical pattern of protests, met with violence, to deter coups. The process is contradictory and the use of violence has not proven effective in achieving its goals in the long term. In fact, the use of force tends to fuel discontent and motivation for regime change, as seen in Libya, Egypt, and Thailand.

To begin with, the Greek government must address the underlying historical tensions. It should do this by removing extremist groups from the government that use sectors of society as scapegoats for past hurts. Groups like ‘Golden Dawn’ use inflammatory language to create rifts in society. Instead, a unilateral healing process should be inspired from the top down. If parts of the government continue to incite hate and violence for revenge, Greece will never heal the wounds of the past century.

The second tier in a coup-proofing modern Greece strategy should include a creative way of addressing current social tensions. One proposition is that Greece encourages wealthy businesses from other European countries that fear the impacts of mass migration of refugees to fund temporary Greek social work and refugee rehabilitation programmes. The money would be used to train local unemployed Greeks and pay them to address the migrants’ integration needs. If the money went to pay young Greeks, who need the employment, for building communal living spaces for refugees and to address educational, medical, social and other needs it would effectively re-enter the Greek economy and revitalise Greece’s economic landscape. In turn, this would alleviate the social pressures on the government to provide jobs and methods of coping with the migration crisis until it subsides.

Although the proposed plan is idealistic, it does potentially begin to address the historical and social undercurrents that are conducive to the conditions in which violence is perceived to be needed as a method of preventing a coup d’état. At the least, it could be used as a broad framework from which to build policy proposals and workable, peaceful solutions to a very complex matter.

Megan Fraser

Megan is a Postgraduate student at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. She studying towards a Masters of Laws in International Relations and Politics.
Megan Fraser

About Megan Fraser

Megan is a Postgraduate student at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. She studying towards a Masters of Laws in International Relations and Politics.