ATHENS, Greece — Outside the charred and blackened Marfin Egnatia Bank branch in central Athens, where three workers met a fiery death during a violent demonstration May 5, an impromptu shrine is growing.
Thousands have left flowers, notes, teddy bears and votive candles, expressing their outrage that the protests against financial austerity measures turned deadly. Up and down the street, smashed windows still testify to the violence that rocked the city.
“Shame,” reads one sign, “to those who did this and those who encouraged such behavior.”
Greeks are still coming to terms with the tragedy and the economic crisis that sparked it. As they wait for rescue money from the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to start flowing and pull them back from the edge of bankruptcy, the country is awash in a raft of complicated, and sometimes conflicted, emotions. There’s humiliation, anger, fear and even perhaps a little bit of perverse pride that their tiny country has the ability to rock global markets and shake the foundations of the European project.
But there’s very little relief. One of the few things all Greeks can agree on is that the immediate future here looks bleak.
Before the deadly protests last week, public sentiment was tipping against the government and anger was growing at the cost Greece is being asked to pay for help. The deaths have deeply shocked Greeks and the tragedy may help dampen the protests and give the government some breathing room.
“Someone has to put an end to the violence,” said Costas Tavernarakis, a 36-year-old computer engineer who joined a candlelit vigil outside the burned bank on Sunday evening. He supports the austerity plan and says the protesters don’t reflect the will of the Greek people. He dismisses the rioters, whom he blames for the deaths, as a dangerous fringe. “There’s a faction of the population that has little regard for law and order. They believe in revolution.”
Among Greece’s youth — unemployed, disaffected and cynical about the future — there are those who are indeed agitating for an uprising. For the far-left in Greece, the current crisis is simply proof that they were right all along and that the capitalist system is broken.
“All this happened because people just get pressed and pressed,” said Alexandra Kolla, an unemployed 30-year-old who joined a peaceful anti-IMF protest over the weekend. “And after a while you go and burn things.”
Kolla, like many young Greeks, questions the official story that the bank fire was set by Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchists, despite eyewitness accounts that say the crowd taunted workers with anti-capitalist chants even as the building burned.
The current crisis has turned Greece’s political world topsy-turvy, and is scrambling old political alliances. Elected on a platform of stimulus spending, the country’s socialist government has been thrust into the arms of the IMF and forced to implement the harshest austerity plan in the country’s history.
As they pushed the painful package of pay cuts, tax increases and liberalization measures through parliament on May 6, the governing Socialists found support only from the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and a single member of the country’s main opposition, New Democracy. The center-right New Democracy — which billed itself in last October’s elections as the more fiscally prudent party, but was swept from power by public anger over corruption scandals — joined the Greek Communists and other far-left parties in opposition to the measures.
Europe, and the euro, has long been seen as a stabilizing force that helped usher in an era of prosperity and growth after decades of war, turmoil and poverty. But although Greeks are proud of their historical place at the heart of European civilization, they’re often uncertain about their role in the modern club. And there’s disappointment that Europe didn’t come more swiftly to their rescue.
“By the end Greeks didn’t have an option [about going to the IMF],” said Thanos Contragyis, who helped organize a peaceful protest this weekend against the austerity measures and IMF involvement in Greece. “I think Europe had other options, but did not take its responsibility.”
Although the city of Athens is awash with anti-IMF and anti-EU graffiti, most Greeks reserve their most furious criticism for their own government. “Thieves!” has become one of rallying cries of protesters, who feel ordinary people are now paying for decades of graft by their leaders.
“Over the last 20 years, the people in government have stolen our money,” said Tasos Kefallonitis, an unemployed 28-year-old who said he participated in the protests on May 5. “In previous times we may have taught people about democracy, but now we don’t know how it works.”
“This is not democracy,” he added, gesturing at Parliament.