Greek: The language of protest

ATHENS, Greece — In Greece, political turmoil has a scent, the sweet, peppery smell of tear gas. As Greece's government raises taxes and implements painful cuts to public spending in order to stave off bankruptcy, the streets are again filled with the angry bellows of protesters and the pageantry of left-wing dissent.

Protest is political theater in Greece and even when the country's economy is not in crisis, it's a visible part of political debate. But the intensity of dissent — and the degree of violence — ebbs and flows depending on the current political climate.

With public servants being asked to take pay cuts and the population as a whole facing a host of tax increases that will raise the prices of everything from gas to clothing, Greece's culture of left-wing protest is on full display. There are the frequent mass demonstrations that bring the capital to a standstill, as well as scattered strikes and occupations of government buildings. Revolutionary graffiti is proliferating on building facades and the rhetoricians of the left are hard at work churning out the posters and banners that are as essential to any protest as the crowd.

More on the Greek economic crisis:

"The wealthy should pay!" "No to working to the grave!" "We must become their crisis!" According to the ideology of the left, Greece's massive state debt is the result of thievery and corruption by the country's wealthy elite — and it's the wealthy elite who should suffer now to pay it off.

The language and analysis of international class struggle is still a powerful force here. Increasingly too, the European Union is seen by the left as a tool of capitalism. "Their goal is to weaken the worker to increase the wealth of employers," said Nikos Theodorakis, a 27-year-old protester and communist.

Perhaps only in Greece, birthplace of democracy and origin of many English words describing forms of political organization, does everyday political rhetoric regularly refer to the "plutocracy" (government by the wealthy) and the "oligarchy" (government by a small group).

"The crisis should be paid by the oligarchy, not the democracy," shouted a man with a bullhorn at one recent protest. "War against the plutocracy," read a sign at another.

These days the streets of central Athens are adorned with political slogans in dueling black and red. In Greece, communists generally use red spray paint, while anarchists leave their messages in black. "Molotovs not loans," scrawled one anarchist on the wall of a bank. "Their wealth, our blood," remarked a communist.

Of course, the economic theorists who run European financial institutions and international banks point to a different cause for Greece's current crisis. They blame the country's culture of nepotism and the bloated civil service it created.

Yiannis Stournaras, of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Athens, says the powerful Greek left is now stuck in outdated ideas and deeply resistant to change.

"In other places, [these ideas] have been swept away by the winds of change," he said. "Greece may have invented democracy, but our problem now is that we have too much democracy."

The man behind Greece's current austerity program, Prime Minister George Papandreou, is a Socialist with a storied history on Greece's left — he is the son and grandson of left-wing prime ministers. That has probably helped mute the scale of protest against the measures. On Friday, Papandreou appealed to the country's largest union, which has staged a series of strikes and protests against the measures, saying that sacrifices needed to be made because Greece was one step away from being unable to borrow. But the Greek left includes a fractious mix of ideologies ranging from communism to anarchy to union socialism, not all of whom see the governing Socialists as friends.

The question now is whether the left's anger will peter out in the face of the country's current economic predicament or continue to grow. Given the wide legal protections protesters enjoy and the Greek left's history of fierce resistance to any change they see as threatening their hard-won gains of recent decades, many Greeks are bracing for a period of uncomfortable social unrest.

Recent protests haven't yet reached the level of destructiveness seen during Greece's December 2008 riots, but the organized nature of the violence during the last general strike on March 11 mimicked some of the tactics used then. Small groups of masked protesters staged quick, coordinated strikes on police, banks and luxury stores, leaving shattered glass and burning rubbish in their wake.

But even in the most intense, tear gas-perfumed protests, only a small number resort to violence. Despite the size and anger of some recent demonstrations, few involved had much hope the government would reverse its recent decisions. In a country where successive governments have generally caved to protesters, that in itself shows times have changed.

"I don't think they will take back the measures," said Sandy Theodosiou, a 29-year-old postal employee. "But for me, it's the only way to tell them I have problems."