Will Greece's silent majority break its silence?

ATHENS, Greece — Fotini was not surprised when a riot police unit stopped her and a friend for an ID check on Thursday. She showed her national identification card and opened her bag for inspection. But her indignation mounted as she was ordered into a patrol car before plainclothes policemen transferred her into an unmarked van and drove her to a detention facility.

“The whole experience was surreal,” said Fotini, a PhD student who declined to give her last name for fear of repercussions from the authorities. “It’s against my constitutional rights to stop me from attending a demo.”

Precautionary detentions are not a novel phenomenon in Greece, where the police often use heavy-handed techniques to quell violent demonstrations. But there has been an edge to recent operations by a police force starting to wonder whether continued protests against economic austerity measures might prove a threat to the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“No Greek government has ever been stopped through demonstrating,” said Ilias Kavourakis, an aging electrician who describes himself as a retired anarchist. “The only solution is for a popular protest movement divorced from political parties that will demand Greece’s exit from the bloodsucking [European Union], the return to the drachma and a fresh start.”

Two weeks ago, massive protests against the strident austerity measures introduced by the Greek government to tackle its 250 billion euro debt resulted in anarchists burning down several buildings, including a bank. Three employees suffocated to death in what was one of the largest protests since the collapse of the United States-backed Colonels’ junta in 1973 and the restitution of democracy. But Thursday’s protests, which still drew large crowds, were a tamer affair and lacked stridency.

One reason for this is the marked absence of Greece’s massive petit bourgeoisie. The hard-working class known in Greek as noikokyrei occupy positions of influence in both the public and private sectors. Although the austerity measures have hit their wallets hard, recent opinion polls reveal that they overwhelmingly support government plans to reduce Greek debt.

“They’re a silent majority who are absent from the streets, never protest, watch developments from a distance, are only active during election seasons and usually have political opinions but don’t express them loudly,” said Theodoris Georgakopoulos , the editor of the Greek edition of Esquire Magazine.

Thursday’s nationwide strike was the first since Greece’s parliament voted through a 40 billion euro austerity package that will see public sector salaries trimmed by up to 20 percent, value added tax raised to 21 percent and a crackdown on income tax dodgers. The measures have angered Greeks who are demanding that corrupt politicians pay, instead of civil servants.

“Even if this government falls, it’s beside the point because others rule us,” said Dimitris Makrozoidis, a protester, in a reference to the widespread belief that the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank are fronts for international capitalists determined to take advantage of Greece’s crisis to privatize its industries.

"Prime Minister [George Papandreou] must understand that he can't go very far without the support of the society,” said Alexis Tsipras, the leader of a coalition of left-wing parties called SIRIZA. “Either he'll withdraw the austerity measures or he'll have to leave by night."

In Exarhia, a neighborhood of non-conformists that is the spiritual heartland of Greece’s anarchist movement, all was quiet Thursday aside from a couple of trash bins simmering gently. Inside the warren of grungy cafes and graffiti-daubed walls where police seldom venture, groups of long-haired young men and women in the anarchists’ trademark black T-shirts dissected the day’s events.

“There’s a majority who sit in front of the TV, don’t think that the [austerity] measures are as necessary as the government presents them, but also believe that any resistance is futile,” said Elli Syvilla Gregou, a lawyer and a leftist who has attended dozens of protests. “They’ll cheer on the people who go to the streets and protest but also view their action as totally futile.”

But the silence of the noikonyrei may not last much longer, warned Georgakopoulos, warning that the consequences will be social polarization and class tensions.

“They’ll have to find a voice at some point and I don’t know against whom it’ll be directed,” said Georgakopoulos. “Deep inside them the noikokyrei know that they are to blame for what happened in Greece, part of a denial that is also expressed by the protesters.”

Greeks are preparing for a long summer of strikes, tourist cancellations and an anticipated second explosion of violence in the fall, after the crisis has ground through the hot vacation months.

Back at the police detention center, Fotini and her friend were fuming alongside about 100 other people. By the time they were released three hours later, the demonstration was over.

“They want to terrorise people into not attending demonstrations,” Fotini said. “They didn’t find any pretext to arrest us, not even an empty bottle. There was no need to take us in. It was a theater of the absurd.”