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Greek: The language of protest

The language and symbols of the current demonstrations in Greece have historical resonance.

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of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Athens, says the powerful Greek left is now stuck in outdated ideas and deeply resistant to change.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