In Greece, while the worst wildfires in decades raged out of control this summer, COVID-19 cases have spiked, driven by an economy reliant on tourism and an anti-vaccine movement similar to the one in the United States. Meanwhile, in its position as one of Europe’s immigration gatekeepers, the Greek government continues to pursue an authoritarian response to a humanitarian crisis. Yet ecological catastrophes may soon put many Greeks in the same situation that refugees entering Greece face today.
In a variety of ways, the situation in Greece offers us a glimpse into a dystopian future in which increasingly authoritarian governments take advantage of ongoing disasters to consolidate power. To understand the future we are facing, we should compare the events in Greece with the consequences of the wildfires and Hurricane Ida in the United States.
In that spirit, we offer this report from Greece, the latest in a series of reports from the Greek context.
Greece has experienced an unprecedented wave of fires this August after an intense heat wave in June and July dried out the forests. For a month, from the countryside of Evia to the Peloponnese and the center of Athens, people woke up to smoke and soot in the air and television reports out of an apocalypse movie. By August 19, the area burned was already 450% larger than the average area burned annually over the last 12 years.
At least two people have lost their lives in the fires, one of them a volunteer firefighter, Vasilis Filoras, who was struck by a falling utility pole. Volunteer firefighters make up at least 15% of Greece’s fire prevention force.
Climate change, rampant exploitation of water, and unsustainable land development have turned the mountains into a tinderbox. In 2018, under the Syriza administration, 103 people died as a consequence of the fires in the coastal town of Mati. The state claimed that a 65-year-old man was responsible for the fires starting the fires by burning wood on his land. There are also accusations about unmaintained power lines and arsons committed by opportunistic developers.
This year’s disastrous situation has nonetheless represented a political victory for the right-wing New Democracy party, as fewer people have died this summer than under Syriza in 2018. All the same, some of the country’s forests have burned to the ground, thousands have lost their homes, many have been injured or will suffer long-term trauma and financial consequences, and countless animals, both wild and domestic, have died or suffered grievous injuries or loss of habitat.
In comparing the death tolls, members of the far right have sought to portray themselves as concerned with the sanctity of human life. However, as we have noted previously, New Democracy has funneled money from hospitals and medical staff towards police and military budgets since they took power. Fire departments and land preservation funds have also suffered cuts. This administration has not prioritized the health of those it governs; it has made opportunistic use of the pandemic to concentrate resources on preserving the status quo at all costs. Its failure to contain these fires was not a matter of prioritizing lives, nor the result of a lack of funds; it was a matter of political will.
At first, some media outlets strongly supported the state narrative. They blamed pyromaniacs and stoked racist, anti-immigrant sentiment with a headline about the arrest of an Afghani woman in an Athens park known as Pedeion tou Areos—nowhere near the fires. This was an attempt, in collaboration with police, to shift attention away from financially driven opportunistic arson, climate change, and unmaintained electrical infrastructure in order to scapegoat a foreign, mentally ill woman found with lighters in a park.
Fascists jumped on this narrative, lumping in anarchists and communists as people likely to be responsible for the fires, in an ugly parallel to the far-right rumor mongering that took place in the Northwestern US in autumn 2020. While fascist groups organized in some regions “on watch” for these nonexistent anarchist and foreign arsonists, police mobilized to prevent many anarchist groups from conducting mutual aid campaigns to fight the fires and assist the affected. Additionally, refugee camps in mainland Greece suffered from heavy smoke and dual uncertainties, not knowing if they would be moved if the fires came closer—like one camp that was fully evacuated—while fearing that fascists might use the fires as an opportunity for arson attacks on refugee camps, as they have in the past.
Eventually, as it became clear that the government had abandoned the middle class, media outlets were forced to shift their approach to reporting on the fires and their causes.
Volunteer and impromptu firefighters have done what they can to halt the fires with little support from the state. This man on the island of Evia is doing the best he can equipped only with a piece of brush.
The New Democracy government approached the fires with the same authoritarian approach it has tested in response to the pandemic. In mass evacuations, police forcefully moved individuals trying to fight the fires. Riot police stopped individuals from filming burning forests with no firefighters in sight and prevented volunteers from assisting. Police forced caravans of donated medical supplies to turn around, as any autonomous effort to alleviate suffering was considered a provocation. Police assaulted individuals protesting the devastation and government failure, enabled fascist attacks on journalists reporting on failure, and themselves did nothing to combat the crisis.
By responding in this way to fires that would have been containable, New Democracy showed through its inaction that it is not interested in preventing harm, only in taking advantage of it.
The Real Causes of the Fires
While the state and the media were quick to scapegoat isolated individuals and marginalized communities, the true cause of the fires lies in structural forces.
One of these is land development. Similar to patterns in the Brazilian Amazon, landowners and developers have been accused multiple times of burning vast swaths of forest to undermine environmental regulation laws or force development projects forward through ecocide. By August 10, 586 fires were burning throughout Greece. While we may never know how many of them were intentionally set, some of them may well have been spurred by the profit motive to build new homes, expand farmland, or generate new construction contracts.
Although Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged that the fires were the result of climate change in his August 9 apology for the government’s failure to address the situation, his government’s environmental record is abysmal. The use of fires to clear mountains of trees in order to pave way for wind turbines or other green capitalist projects has been an ongoing issue in Greece as well as other parts of the European Union, including Hungary and Italy. With the drop in tourism due to COVID-19, many green areas that used to be financially valuable on account of their beauty have lost value; for some people, this could be a motivation to burn and clear these areas in order to make room for more profitable ventures.
The deregulation of the Greek energy sector that began in the 1980s may also have played a role in causing the fires. Similar to cases in California, electrical companies bear little legal liability for hazardous infrastructure. The poorly maintained electrical grid was made worse by a freak blizzard last winter that knocked down trees and damaged power lines, many of which were barely repaired due to cost-cutting moves by private industry; this dysfunctional grid poses tremendous incendiary risk to dry forests.
Industrial capitalism is the driving force behind all the aforementioned structural factors, as it incentivizes people to extract as much profit as possible at any cost while supplying ever greater technical means of doing so. Even as the Greek state blames climate change for the fires, it continues to participate in an arms race with Turkey to compete for control of natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. The state and industry have proven that both human and ecological well-being rank at best as a minor consideration in their priorities.
The idea that the resources that sustain humanity are chiefly the result of human innovation rather than the fruit of a healthy biosphere has inculcated a mindset in which people assume that everything in the world today can be replaced. The few who benefit from the current state of affairs are prepared to do everything in their power to preserve the idea that their authority can solve the problems it has generated. The Greek government has announced plans to compensate those affected by the fires and fund new reforestation projects and “eco-friendly” development in the ashes.
Wildfires are spreading across the world. The fires in Greece, while minor compared to those in California or Siberia, shine a light on the broader challenges that we face globally. Both the causes of the fires and the responses we have seen to them indicate the ways that governments will likely continue to act as the climate catastrophe worsens.
The Immigration Crisis
While failing to defend the land under its control from wildfire, the Greek state has responded to the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan by erecting 40 kilometers of new fencing and introducing an array of unspecified high-tech surveillance equipment on the Turkish border. At the same time, the European Union has given Turkey seven billion dollars to prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe. Politicians on both sides of the border are playing on xenophobic and nationalist narratives to appease and distract their frustrated base.
On the island of Xios, the Greek police recently detained 25 refugees who had crossed the sea from Turkey—many of them Afghans fleeing the Taliban—and fined them 5000 euros each. This is the fine stipulated for tourists who come to the country without the proper PCR test or COVID-19 vaccine certificate, just one example of the use of anti-virus mandates to persecute immigrants, refugees, and other “undesirables.” The state only withdrew the fines after left corporate media outlets broke the story. Without press coverage, the refugees could have been stuck in a state of permanent debt within an already notoriously corrupt and bureaucratic system. Similar events may well have passed unreported.
An art action involving a 3.5-meter-high puppet named “Little Amal” resembling a young Syrian refugee has begun an 8000-kilometer walk from Turkey to the UK in an attempt to bring awareness to the struggles of refugees. When this group arrived in Greece in early August, fascists in the city of Larissa met them with threats of violence and intimidation. The puppet was supposed to appear in the center of Athens at the beginning of September, but fascist groups made multiple threats of violence. The puppet finally made an appearance from the safety of a roof, but the participants canceled the walk and display due to the potential of violence.
This symbolic gesture offered a rallying point for the far right; in response, anti-fascists and anarchists urgently assembled in the center of Athens. A group of fascist hooligans with the support of other far-right individuals in the central Athens neighborhood of Metaxourgeio held a rally near the planned art event on the evening of Friday, September 3. Sympathetic police surrounded and defended the fascist youth.
One organized anti-fascist march attempted to march towards the fascist gathering, but riot police immediately tear-gassed and attacked them—creating a situation in which anti-fascists and anarchists were scattered throughout the area. Small groups gathered and chanted until anti-fascists made another attempt to bring people together to confront the fascists. Once again, the police threw tear gas directly into the march, then chased, beat, and arrested many people at random. However, as a result, the puppeteers were able to make their point in an alternative way, and the strength and numbers of the anti-fascists who confronted the xenophobes showed that without the protection of the police, they would have been unable to impose their agenda.
COVID-19 on the Rise Again
The pandemic continues to ravage Greece, appearing everywhere except the headlines. The statistics continue to exceed previous peak infection rates. The hospitals remain underfunded while the far right, as in many Western countries, has adopted an insincere posture of rebellion against the health industry and state health measures. The same people who desire to see fascists and police attack immigrants have the audacity to portray themselves as partisans of personal liberty.
Whether through misguided belief in divine protection or concern about supposed Jewish conspiracies, the far right in Greece have set themselves against vaccination. As in the US, first-world access to the vaccine does not guarantee that Greece will have a widely vaccinated population.
In their largest demonstration in July, participants in the anti-vaccine movement clashed with police as they sought to invade Exarchia to look for anti-fascists and anarchists. While these people deserve no sympathy, it is true that the regime has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate power while people are at their most anxious and vulnerable. There is no way to predict if there will be another lockdown, and infection rates are high after summer, but come winter, tourist money will not be here to protect us from government mandates that exist to serve political power.
As AirBnBs used by “Golden Visa” holders are losing steam due to the pandemic, locals are once again confronting debt and stress. COVID-19 has caused many to lose their jobs and rents are skyrocketing in some neighborhoods that used to be popular with tourists. Rent in Athens is far outpacing the average Greek income of 600 euros a month—for those who have a job at all. Many locals who cannot afford property taxes or rent await eviction.
Earlier this summer, residents of Exarchia kicked out surveyors who were sent to help plan an unwanted metro station and vandalized an AirBnB, helping to express the local opposition to gentrification.
Patriarchy Returns to the Headlines
In our last report, we highlighted ongoing demonstrations against patriarchy. While rape, abuse, and femicide have long been components of Greek society arguably reinforced by the Orthodox Church, COVID-19 has both exacerbated this type of violence and shined a light on it.
Dimitris Bougioukos, a Greek police officer, was arrested in July for trafficking a 19-year-old woman. Bougioukos kidnapped her and forced her to perform sexual acts, take cocaine, and sign a contract to perform for a pornographic company called Sirina entertainment. Multiple parties now face prosecution, including the woman’s father. Demonstrations in response to the arrest took place in South Athens, part of a growing movement against the deeply embedded Greek patriarchy.
Repression and Solidarity
As we have described in previous reports, police operations in Greece are finally coming to resemble the techniques familiar in the United States. For example, the authorities recently demanded that a student arrested during the occupation of a university last year must provide a DNA sample. During the eviction of the occupation, the police seized bottles and tested them for DNA. One of the samples they claim to have found on the empty bottles was allegedly similar to blood found on some papers on the street of Exarchia in 2014 after Delta police were attacked with Molotov cocktails in the night. These allegations seem to be based on flimsy and circumstantial evidence. However, the willingness to pursue investigations targeting both confrontational and non-violent actions for many years after an event, utilizing a great deal of resources in a country that faces severe fiscal problems, represent a new approach to policing modeled on the so-called “quality of life” policing familiar from New York City.
Anarchist comrade Dimitris Chatzivasiliadis, whose ongoing persecution we detailed in our last report, was arrested on August 9 after an expropriation attempt at a bank. He had been on the run since 2019, sentenced in absentia to 16 years during the trial of Vangelis Stathopolous. Since his arrest, he has been transferred to isolation in Athens’ notorious Korydallos prison. Dimitris released a statement regarding his current imprisonment and the circumstances of his arrest. In previous statements while on the run, Dimitris discussed a police raid in 2019 and expressed solidarity with Michael Reinoehl and the broader struggle in the United States.
A banner hung in Athens in solidarity with Dimitris.
As discussed in our February report, a huge movement exploded in response to the hunger strike of Dimitris Koufontinas. Dozens of individuals are still facing charges, fines, and other forms of ongoing repression as a consequence. A group is soliciting financial support.
In addition, Tameio, which provides support to long-term prisoners, is soliciting funds continuously, especially following the lockdown and the lifting of the university asylum policy, both of which have rendered previous forms of fundraising almost impossible.
Onward into an Uncertain Future
The summer months have not eased our frustration; they have just shifted the focus of our anxieties from the pandemic to the climate. The state’s simultaneously authoritarian and neglectful response to the fires, the refugee crisis, and the pandemic showcases an approach to governing that may become more common around the world as conditions continue to deteriorate.
Several difficult trials lie ahead here. If universities open in the spring, the students will face armed police after decades during which the campuses were legally recognized as spaces of freedom. Thousands will be compensated for homes destroyed during these fires—at least until the headlines shift attention to some other subject. The pandemic and the economic crisis show no signs of abating.
Nonetheless, direct action, mutual aid campaigns, and organizing efforts continue, along with actions in solidarity with struggles across the world. The future is unpredictable, but we’ll meet it on our feet.
This update is part of a long-term effort to foster international awareness of and solidarity with the anarchist movement in Greece. The authors have provided consistent updates here over the past few years. This report is no longer associated with the Bad News Report or Radio Fragmata Greece, though both projects continue and we encourage you to follow them for updates on movements in Greece and abroad. We also recommend athens.indymedia.org. The twitter @exiledarizona, Abolition Media Worldwide, and Enough is Enough 14 also consistently post in English about events in Greece.