Greece braces for violence on uprising anniversary

ATHENS, Greece — Nov. 17 is an important date for Greeks, especially for the left. It is a day of mourning, in commemoration of the Athens Polytechnic uprising in 1973 when the Greek military junta stormed a Greek university and killed an unknown number of students protesting the regime.

The day also gave its name to the country's longest running, most deadly terrorist group. The group, which was broken by Greek police in 2002, killed at least 23 people over a period of more than 27 years.

But as Greece marks the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising this year, the country is bracing for a new wave of anti-authoritarian violence.

Over the past year, there has been a surge in anarchist and anti-authoritarian attacks in Greece, primarily against government and political targets. The escalation in violence was sparked by the killing last December of a 16- year-old boy by police in a neighborhood known as a stronghold of extreme left-wing groups.

The shooting set off weeks of riots and gave new life to extremist groups. Analysts say the riots tapped into simmering youth discontent in Greece — especially over rising unemployment and corruption — and helped win extreme groups new recruits.

"There has been an increase in incidence, there has been an escalation," said Mary Bossis, a professor at the University of Piraeus who studies Greek terrorism. "And it will only get worse."
Greece has a long tradition of far-left political violence and a high public tolerance for such acts, as long as they stay within certain limits.

Large protest marches, including the annual one to the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 17, usually end with clashes between masked "anarchists," armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, and police. And small, late-night bomb attacks against multinational companies or government offices are frequent.

But another legacy of the events of the Nov. 17 Polytechnic uprising is that the Greek public holds the police and other law enforcement in low regard. And police are barred from entering university or school campuses, which allows extremist groups to use them as bases.

In recent years, since the breakup of 17 November, political violence has been largely symbolic, intended to cause damage rather than hurt or kill. Often, warning calls about bombs, for example, would be made in advance.

"Youth violence that in other societies would express itself as football [soccer] violence, here is expressed as political violence," said Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat who is writing a book about 17 November.

But over the past year there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of attacks — and a number of incidents have claimed casualties.

On Oct. 28, two gunmen opened fire on a police station in northeastern Athens, injuring six officers. In September, a bomb exploded outside the Athens Stock Exchange, injuring a bystander. And in June, a policeman was murdered while guarding a witness in the trial of another defunct extremist group.

A number of different groups have claimed the attacks, and in the tradition of November 17, the perpetrators often publish long manifestos justifying their actions. The groups, said Kiesling, do not have a single unifying ideology, except their opposition to the state, and range from more traditional Marxism to nihilism.

They vary too in the degree of violence they see as justified. A group calling itself Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, for example, has claimed a number of recent bomb attacks. But that group has also made warning calls. Another group, Sect of Revolutionaries, claimed responsibility for the gun attacks against police — whose motive seems clearly to kill.

The government says it is investigating whether any of the groups have links to November 17, but at the very least, experts agree that today's extremist groups see themselves as the older group's ideological heirs.

Bossis said she has been monitoring the chatter on extremist websites and believes groups are planning more attacks for later this year.

"I think there will be a lot of violence coming up," she said. "They are preparing."

She said she believes that the attacks will continue to escalate because Greece's deteriorating economic climate and widespread public discontent means such groups have many ready recruits. But Kiesling thinks the recent election of a Socialist government may help defuse the situation — he said far-left violence has tended to decline in Greece when left-wing governments were power.

Greece's government is worried and has promised to reform the country's outmoded police system to help it better tackle modern threats like terrorism and organized crime. It wants to create a new, FBI-style unit with highly trained specialists that will handle anti-terrorism efforts along with other crimes.

In the meantime, the new government has replaced several high-ranking members of the anti-terrorism unit with people who were involved in the successful case against November 17 — although that group was eventually captured only when one of its members accidentally blew himself up while attempting to set off a bomb.

Bossis, who has served as an advisor to previous government, said there is widespread agreement that reforms are needed, but so far, no government has been able to follow through.