Before dawn on the last Friday in January, Greek riot police stormed a train depot in Athens where unionized subway workers were protesting against the government’s proposal to cut their salaries by 20 percent. After one week of the strike, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras invoked a “civil mobilization” law from the Greek military-junta period that forced the strikers to go back to work. Otherwise, they faced five years in prison.
As a new wave of economic austerity and political repression hits the Greek people, a delegation from left-wing opposition SYRIZA visited New York. They spent several days in Washington, where they visited the State Department, met with officials of the IMF, and arranged a talk at the Brookings Institute. In the general elections last summer, SYRIZA stunned the Greek political elite by receiving 27 percent of the vote.
According to the latest polls, they are Greece’s biggest political party. From an American perspective, SYRIZA seems to have accomplished exactly what Occupy failed to achieve: encouraging street protests while simultaneously creating a formalized organization. In eight years, SYRIZA has evolved from an insignificant alliance of marginalized socialist parties to Greece's official opposition, with 30,000 active members. Since the Samaras government rests on a very slim majority, a reelection with a subsequent SYRIZA victory isn’t unlikely.
As the coalition’s leader Alexis Tsipras recently put it in Die Zeit, the current government "will not last for long." He arrives in New York as the rising star of the European left. He is 38 years old, wears finely tailored suits, and talks thoughtfully about the situation in Greece. In two days, he lectured at Columbia and CUNY, arranged an open press conference, and was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. My attempts to meet him were futile.
The American media's sudden interest in Tsipras seems to reflect the fact that the political establishment now regards him as a politician with a "realistic" vision for Greece. After last year’s elections, Tsipras abandoned the promise to tear up the EU’s loan memorandum and made clear that Greece would pay back all the private banks’ debts. While he is still a firm—and heavily criticized—opponent of the loan agreement in its current form, he now believes that Greece must "serve the European idea, solidarity and social cohesion." Questioning that position, critics have argued that Greece should follow Iceland's path and simply refuse to let its population bail out irresponsible banks. At SYRIZA's first national conference in December, a number of parties in the coalition formed a "left platform” to oppose what was perceived to be the leadership’s concessions towards the EU.
After giving up my attempt to interview Tsipras, I managed to get into a classroom at New York's City University, where the SYRIZA delegation was invited to discuss political strategies with a bunch of scholars from the Left Think Tank.
But Tsipras didn’t show up, and the economic spokesman Yiannis Milios was double-booked and disappeared. Left in the room was SYRIZA parliamentarian Rena Dourou, best known outside Greece for getting a glass of water thrown in her face by a politician from the fascist party Golden Dawn. She looks tired, says that there is an "emergency" in Greece. Many Greeks can't even afford heating oil, she explained. Just like after World War II, they are using wood to heat their houses.
SYRIZA are trying to combat poverty by setting up collective supermarkets and medical centers, but there are no funds. The Golden Dawn thugs are working with similar methods, distributing food to people they consider “real Greeks.” In spite of the seemingly hopeless situation, however, Dourou seemed mildly optimistic. "SYRIZA will form a government," she says. "Not because we have the great solution to all of Greece's problems, but because we are the only party that consistently oppose the austerity measures."
When someone brings up the question of a Greek exit from the euro, she grew irritated. "I can’t stand that eternal question. SYRIZA have already discussed this thoroughly, but we don’t gain from using the either/or terms that our enemies are trying to force us into."
The rumors of the SYRIZA leadership's efforts to steer a new political course have apparently reached New York. When people flow into the City University auditorium to hear Alexis Tsipras speak, a member of an American Socialist party stands in the door and distributes flyers entitled "Tsipras offers his services to the Troika.” Tsipras can't be trusted, the man claims, because he will just keep pumping money into the banks. But few of the visitors in the auditorium seem to care about his warnings. When Tsipras enters the stage, half an hour after the appointed time, he is met by endless applause.
"Greece is now entering the seventh subsequent year of recession," he began. "They call this crisis a 'possibility.’ But a possibility for whom? For the speculators, for capital, for those who want to abolish the rights which we’ve fought for over a hundred years." He calls Greece a "guinea pig," an experimental workshop for a brutal policy that threatens to spread all over southern Europe. Without an alternative policy that puts human needs above profit, the same will happen in Portugal, Italy, and Spain.
Tsipras points out that the crisis is not only Greece's, but all of Europe's. When SYRIZA takes power, he explains, the coalition will call a European conference in order to reach a common solution to the debt issue. But why, an attendee asks, should the Greeks then pay at all? Tsipras gets a little evasive. "Greece is a small country," he fumbles. "We can't afford to isolate ourselves from the rest of Europe."
Afterwards, SYRIZA returned to Athens, leaving important questions dangling. How can the coalition put an end to the dismantling of the Greek state and still keep paying the banks' debts? Is Alexis Tsipras's new rhetoric merely a tactical game to appease the political elite, or is he gradually evolving into a Greek version of France's President Hollande? Whatever the answers turn out to be, these are questions that concern all Europeans. As Tsipras pointed out during his talk, Greece is just the front line of a much more extensive struggle over the future of the European welfare state. Those subway drivers who are violently forced back to the rail don't only represent themselves, but all workers in the age of austerity.