In October 2019, as president of the International Federation for Human Rights, I took part in an international civil society donor meeting. Knowing that I’m Greek, one of the participants, extremely influential and well-informed, asked me: “Is there any point in supporting civil society in Greece, for it seems that it will end up like Hungary?”
I must confess that the question shocked me. A super-rich philanthropist, whose foundation funds civil society organizations all over the world, was bluntly telling me that “your country is going to turn into Hungary, so I’m packing up and leaving”. I answered him that prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s government stands on two planks: one comprises the traditional popular Right faction and the other the neoliberal European centre-Right establishment, which the ruling party, New Democracy, has consistently served since the day it was founded. New Democracy is the primary pro-European political party in Greece, and, in that sense, I could hardly imagine that the party of “anything European is good” could mutate into a Viktor Orbán-like caricature of the ethnopopulist Right. This successful synthesis is why I believe that some popular left-wing readings of New Democracy as a “far-Right” party in Greece are misdirected.
Dimitris Christopoulos is a professor of state and legal theory at Panteion University in Athens and President Emeritus of the International Federation for Human Rights, as well as a regular collaborator of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Athens Office. This article first appeared in openDemocracy.
My interlocutor responded that Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, had started off similarly, as the Hungarian version of a transition to a liberal democracy, and ultimately ended up what he is today.
“A society becoming fascist”, the philanthropist said, “is not manifested in a single march on the capital, once and for all. Fascism is the gradual mutation of citizens towards stances that they once detested themselves. Orbán is not Mussolini. He gets angry if you call him a fascist.” The fact that his positions leave a fascist taste in the mouth does not concern him at all. “So”, continued my interlocutor, “if Greece gets pressured anew with its fiscal policy or something else, then it is only a matter of time before it turns into a Hungary”—meaning that the anger will not be channelled into leftist demonstrations, as before, but into a right-wing redoubling.
The crucial opportunity for this ideological mutation is the refugee issue combined with Greece assuming the role of safeguarding the EU-Turkey Agreement on behalf of the European Union.
“From the moment that a country assumes the political duty to turn away refugees at the risk of their drowning, and to perform ‘pushbacks’ with the EU turning a blind eye, it is only a matter of time before it is completely morally degraded”, my interlocutor continued.
We agreed on his concluding thought, and I have not seen him since. If a society facing blackmail gets used to the idea of being Europe’s watchdog, in the end, it will grow to like it.
A month later, in November 2019, tensions were boiling over on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands as a result of a cynical European policy and the Greek implementation of it. The EU policy stated that those refugees who reach the islands must stay there during the course of the asylum process—no one should be under the impression that they can continue their journey. The management of the refugee issue became the first hot potato for the new government, elected in July of that year on the naive belief that it would “solve” it.
On 27 February 2020, as Turkey expected the arrival of more refugees from Syria, the Turkish president declared that his country would open its borders with the EU and not prevent refugees and migrants from crossing into it. This announcement automatically prompted an influx of migrants and refugees to Turkey’s western terrestrial border with Greece of Evros River. In response, Greece took strict measures to prevent border crossings, whereas thousands (up to 25,000) of people started gathering along the land border in Turkey. On 28 February, the Greek prime minister tweeted that no illegal entries into Greece would be tolerated and, accordingly, Greece asked for further EU support for border protection.
On 2 March 2020, for the first time, the Greek state suspended the application of the Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. The Turkish president had, evidently, devised a plan to put as much pressure as possible on the EU, using means that he was sure would cause moral panic in Europe: refugees and migrants amassing on the other side of the border. In Greece, the term “asymmetric warfare” was used to describe the events. During a visit to the Greek-Turkish border, the president of the European Commission literally called Greece a “European shield”, promising 700 million euro to reinforce the shield. The term “warfare” would be used again sometime later, in a different context. People, however, were getting used to it.
The Evros River incident shifted interest from the eastern Aegean to Thrace, where the government achieved a political victory. Henceforth, the impasse on the islands was forgotten, and the government could rest on the laurels of the forceful policy that deterred the entry of migrants. However, that was not destined to last. By February, the pandemic had already landed on our doorstep.
Until the summer, Greece’s management of the pandemic was like that of a medical professor—a technocratic humility inspiring calm and a certain level of trust. After that, things changed. In terms of operations and communications, the government was exhausted. A victim of the great challenges facing the whole of Europe, but even more exposed due to its own hegemonic arrogance and neoliberal fixations, Greece attempted to patch the huge holes by giving money to government-friendly mass media, an unprecedented development in a pluralistic democracy: a list of media outlets that were liberally supplied with 20 million euro as “financial support in the time of the pandemic”.
In any case, the money did not go to waste: when, for example, two “slip-ups” occurred involving the prime minister himself—a lighter one (an alleged breach of lockdown with a bike ride in Parnitha, a mountain near Athens, with a group of cyclists), and a more serious one (a big feast on the beautiful island of Ikaria on the same day as the announcement of tougher restrictions)—the TV stations quickly skipped passed them, resuming business as usual. While larger European media outlets gave the incidents the attention they deserved, in Greece, the country’s private television channels ended up being more pro-government than the public broadcaster itself—a truly remarkable achievement—with TV coverage following a uniform pro-governmental catechism.
Meanwhile, private hospitals in Greece had not yet been commandeered to cope with the pandemic, while intensive care units were filling up. The restrictions on civil rights due to the pandemic assumed endemic characteristics, as also happened in the rest of Europe: a lockdown on civil rights. For the first time in the Third Hellenic Republic, assemblies were prohibited as a precaution with a ban issued by the chief of the Greek Police. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church—not any old bishop—shamelessly declared that “Islam is not a religion, but a [political] party”, while no official came forth to denounce this hate speech. Not even the Left! The church can say what it wants, but that does not apply to the rest of us. In social media, targeted censorship gathered apace.
State of Emergency
Conjuring up the pandemic has proved to be a convenient argument for the implementation of extrinsic political goals in most European states. The pandemic has put a strain on democracy everywhere. The government wants to keep legislating as per normal, but also to restrict people’s constitutional rights by invoking a state of emergency.
So, with the universities closed due to the pandemic, legislation was passed to station police on campus, in an environment where the TV channels pushed the image of educational establishments as dens of iniquity on a daily basis. Various public chatterers describe university professors as a “degenerate elite”, while not even trying to disguise their aversion for the Greek public university and the “left-wing hegemony” within it since 1974, the start of the regime change (Metapolitefsi) away from the seven-year junta.
Police officers are constantly involved in increasing incidents of violence and abuse, thus prompting a wave of uproar and gatherings, which, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, appear as pretexts for the establishment of a neoconservative agenda of “law and order”. Hence, the country entered a spiral of increasingly deeper polarization.
As is well-known, Greek society has been in the vortex of consecutive crises for a number of years now. One crisis is nested inside the other, like the famous Russian matryoshka dolls. A crisis inside a crisis. In the past few years, and probably for the next few, too, it has been the memorandums and the refugee issue. A national debt of 200 percent of GDP no longer makes international headlines. Still, it’s there.
Today, the country is in the vortex of the pandemic; tomorrow, it will be at the mercy of the entrenchment of poverty. To these issues, which are vital to our future, you can add a Europe that is faltering politically, with a far-Right constantly on the lookout, and Turkey going through an extended period of constitutional and geopolitical haze. Crises inside crises that alone can exacerbate division within the body politic. Crises that stir memories of past schisms, most of which have not been properly healed by consensus, but by force.
One would think that, in such a polarized context, the Greek government, whichever party it is, would have enough sense not to contribute to the creation of new sources of division. Alas, Dimitris Koufodinas, a member of the terrorist organization 17 November, imprisoned for murder, launched a hunger strike. From a trivial, technical issue of penitentiary policy relating to a prison transfer (an issue under the jurisdiction of the prison board or of the justice system), the hunger strike turned into a major stake in the country’s ideological and political division, scratching at the wounds of fossilised schisms of the twentieth century. During the hunger strike, which eventually ended on 14 March without having satisfied the demands of the striker, whoever spoke of the necessity for the Greek state to respect the rule of law and not discriminate against any convict, as it did in this case, was labelled by pro-government media and certain government officials an “ally of the terrorists”.
In April 2020, we had just completed our first month in a state of unprecedented lockdown. Greece’s health image was unbelievably good. This filled with courage and pride a society shaken in many ways, which attracted admiration for its performance for the first time after years and years of disrepute. Today, what we collectively felt last year through the disciplined stance that we subjected ourselves to, and that planted us in front of our TV screens at 18:00 to listen to what a humble scientist had to say, now sounds absurd.
Trust was ingloriously wasted. The EU managed to set up perhaps the worst possible example for the management of the coronavirus crisis globally, and Greece arguably one of the worst examples among the member states. Today, people don’t even bother. They just experience a feeling of general futility due to the legislative disarray, contradictory announcements, backpedalling and ministerial appearances on TV, the frequency of which leaves one wondering when these politicians have time to work. And at the end of the tunnel, summer tourism is expected to save whatever can be saved.
Yet, with the evaporation of trust, obedience was no longer felt as a duty. Some continue to behave legally, or to act like it, but even they ask themselves what the point is.
Herd Immunity Rears Its Head
Since the beginning of autumn 2020, we have seen an apparatus for repressing problems put in place (with the generous contribution of most media) and fantasizing that some deus ex machina will magically solve everything. Meanwhile, the tracking and shielding of health hit a low level. People are dying and herd immunity is the new unspoken strategy.
In the new unspoken fantasy, however, there is something a lot more prosaic than the vaccine: it is the 30.5 billion euro that the country expects from the EU Recovery Fund for the 2021–2026 period (18.1 billion in subsidies, 12.4 billion in low-interest loans). Everything now rests on this expectation. But there is something unethical and petty about this deal of “don’t speak, don’t ask, there is money on the way”. And this is going to become all the more evident.
The objective failure to manage the pandemic on an operational level, one year on from the first lockdown, has sparked spreading insecurity. Insecurity breeds panic. It is only natural. This is not some Greek particularity. In the polls, the government’s credibility is more fragile than ever, while the opposition cannot seem to profit from the government’s losses. But if the dissatisfied do not move to the left of the government, only one alternative remains.
The Future of Europe
Read the above as an unsuspecting observer of a third European country, towards which you have neutral feelings. Would you ever consider that the philanthropist capitalist could, ultimately, be right? In any case, Orbán himself once stated that: “Twenty-seven years ago here in Central Europe we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.”
These words will haunt any democratic citizen who witnesses the authoritarian shift of states, such as Greece today (France is another example and there are others), combined with the far-Right consolidation in Central Europe. The spread of fascism is “a process without a subject”, to return to the philanthropist with which I began.
So, Greece has not become Hungary. It is, however, on the “Right” path. If nothing changes course, what seemed weird and strange up to a couple of years ago will now seem right on track. Even if you think this scenario excessive, we must remain vigilant, for, as the greatest Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis, who came from the conservative space himself, said: “When the face of the monster stops scaring us, then we should be afraid, because it means that we have started to look just like it.”