ATHENS – The birthplace of democracy has a major Nazi problem. For six months now, cops and intelligence officials have searched fruitlessly for a leading figure of a far-right criminal gang that was for a time Greece’s third biggest political party.
Most of the leadership of Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi organisation, was jailed last autumn, in what was one of modern Greece’s most important political trials. It seemingly marked the end of a very dark period in Greece’s recent history, but Golden Dawn’s second-in-command Christos Pappas, sentenced to at least 13 years in jail for running a criminal organisation, disappeared after failing to turn up at court. Officially, no one knows where Pappas currently is. Unofficially though, it’s a very different, and wild, story involving radical monks, cops with far-right sympathies, and a convicted war criminal.
When compared to its formation on the bloody ethnic battlefields of the post-Communism Balkans and its heyday as a political party that murdered its enemies in public, Golden Dawn’s demise was relatively wholesome.
On a beautiful autumn day last October, tens of thousands of Greeks gathered around the heavily guarded central courthouse in Athens to hear three judges convict the top leadership of the ultra-nationalist party that had terrorised leftists and immigrants across the country for over a decade, for a menu of crimes ranging from operating a criminal gang, to murder. With the convictions, the judges finally ended Golden Dawn’s leap from a violent racist rabble to a violent racist rabble-like political party that received millions of euros in annual taxpayer-funded support from Greece and the European Union.
Two weeks later, the same three-judge panel dropped sentence after sentence on 57 members of the group’s leadership, most receiving about 13 years. It should have been a great victory against fascism, except Pappas, the group’s second-in-command, and Ioannis Lagos, Golden Dawn’s only elected member of the European Parliament, didn’t show up to be jailed. Lagos still sits in a Brussels apartment having invoked diplomatic immunity as an MEP, arguing that his conviction was a political witch hunt. His immunity will almost certainly be voided as the pandemic-slowed wheels of bureaucracy eventually catch up with him, but in the meanwhile he still collects his €9,000 monthly salary (about £7,750), and is furious to have been stripped of his daily €323 allowance (about £280).
But the cops have nothing on Pappas, a former member of the Greek parliament and fan of Nazi cosplay. Half a year later, no one knows where he is.
For civil society, immigrants, and Greece’s committed leftist community that had all been targeted by Golden Dawn’s violence, Pappas’ disappearance is a rude twist to what could have been a reasonably happy ending, and fast becoming a stain on Greece’s international reputation. There’s a sinking feeling that Pappas escaped justice with the help of the Greek security services, the Orthodox Church, and a convicted Serbian war criminal.
That Golden Dawn and Greek police and security units have close fraternal and, even at times, operational relationships, became impossible to deny after a series of arrests in 2013, according to journalist Dimitris Parras, whose unrelenting coverage of the group’s early days was basically ignored in Greece. So it’s hard for many Greeks to take the police claims that they’d properly monitored Pappas’ years-long house arrest seriously.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s, the police and security forces wanted Golden Dawn to do their dirty jobs for them in suppressing Leftist demonstrations, the anarchists and their demonstrations,” Parras said of the era that saw widespread violence between the ultra-left and right. “There was coordination between MAT [the notoriously rugged special riot police] and Golden Dawn — MAT is often recruited from the ranks of the [Army] Special Forces and it’s been well established they coordinated during this era. And there’s the natural affinity of young men in special forces going to gyms, similar ideas of the body and martial fitness. A lot of them worked out together.”
Every weekend there were attacks on immigrants, hundreds of them never reported from what we can determine because of fear of having wrong papers.
They didn’t just work out together. The cops loved to vote for Golden Dawn as they rose to become the third biggest party in Greece in 2012, with police voters giving Golden Dawn heavy support in some areas, according to a 2012 analysis by Al Jazeera. But after the one-time street gang achieved a huge electoral breakthrough to win about 7 percent of the votes, which got them into the Greek and European Parliaments, the situation changed massively, said Parras.
“When Golden Dawn was the biggest far-right party, then we had also a semi-open collaboration between [mainstream] government parties,” he said.
And it's that sense of collaboration between the centre-right and far-right in Greece that has Golden Dawn’s victims wondering if these ties – between the parties, the powerful and conservative Orthodox church that often considers itself the arbiter of what is truly Greek, and the security forces – will allow Pappas to never serve his prison term.
Six months after Pappas disappeared, the official line is he’s in Greece and will be found. But several people, from Greek security officials to regional intelligence officers who have worked war crimes cases in the Balkans, told VICE World News of their suspicions of more official involvement in his disappearance.
Prior to its electoral breakthrough in the 2012 Greek elections, when it began winning about 7 percent support in successive elections through to 2015, Golden Dawn mainly focused on beating up immigrants and left-wing political figures, according to lawyer Kostas Skarmeas. He represented three Egyptian fishermen nearly beaten to death in their Athens apartment by a local Golden Dawn unit, in a trial which revealed the attack to be a planned operation led by local party members.
“They had a big plan to climb the staircase into the EU and get its money as a political party,” he said, but prior to that Golden Dawn had spent years attacking immigrants – in both an organised and random way.
“Every weekend there were attacks on immigrants, hundreds of them never reported from what we can determine because of fear of having wrong papers, being a refugee or because the perception that the police were aligned with Golden Dawn,” said Skarmeas.
He’s not exaggerating, according to witness accounts and residents of the central Athens neighbourhood of Victoria, a centre of refugee and immigrant life in Greece.
“Terrible time, terrible people,” said ‘Ali,’ a shopkeeping immigrant originally from Bangladesh, who arrived in 1995, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “People would run home after dark from the shops because there would be men chasing you for being an immigrant.”
We were protecting immigrants from the Nazis that the cops had sent after us.
Asked how many people he personally knew who were attacked in such a manner, Ali suggested at least six personally and says he’s known of dozens more. It was common in a community with few Greek friends.
“It’s safer now but the police I don’t like,” he said, complaining of pandemic lockdown checks. “They treat people in a very bad way.”
Ali’s account sounds about right to a one-time leader of an anarchist group in a nearby neighbourhood that tried to provide security for immigrants by brutally brawling with Golden Dawn members.
“There were at least 40 attacks on immigrants that led to serious medical care or hospitalisations over that period [roughly 2010 to 2012] in Victoria,” said the activist in neighbouring Exachia, home to a number of hard-left anarchist collectives who still periodically clash with police riot squads.
“I doubt the police took reports on most of them."
“They would hunt in packs like wolves looking for someone alone to attack, it was every weekend for years,” they said, asking not to be named because they’re no longer involved in anarchist causes.
“Today the [anarchist] movement is dead, the government and various internal and external political conditions have ended most of the militant leftists and anarchist groups,” they said. “But in that era these were real fights, not the political performances you often see with ‘Antifa’ today. These were leftists going out together to battle racist Nazis in what felt like a true ideological fight for Greece. People died on both sides but it was always clear what side the cops were on. We were protecting immigrants from the Nazis that the cops had sent after us.”
But after 2012, the racist gang of Golden Dawn had gone legit in the eyes of Europe’s political establishment. And Greece’s mainstream right parties were clearly looking to work with them. Eagerly, in fact, despite the ongoing campaign of attacks that never became a political issue because the victims were often illegal immigrants or radical leftists. The establishment, starting with the police up through the ministries and even to the media, found them easy to ignore and dismiss.
Outside of some dedicated reporters like Parras, Greeks didn’t want to see the armed gangs literally beating people with impunity on their streets and Greek mainstream right politicians – who share a lot of common ground with the hard right on the issue of immigration – were eager to share political spoils with allies willing to aggressively attack their political enemies. And we are talking about literal attacks.
“Golden Dawn supported the regime and its laws, often voting for them,” said Parras of the right-wing government in power at the time. “At this stage we saw an open collaboration between politics and the security services and Golden Dawn was part of this.”
“All that changes after the murder but the personal ties and relations are still very strong,” he said.
At about 11pm on Sunday, September the 17th, 2013, the members of Golden Dawn’s Nikea branch received a text message from one of their top leaders, Giorgos Roupakias, that everyone had ten minutes to get to the local Golden Dawn office.
About 50 guys made it in time to receive the baseball bats, clubs and knives being distributed by officials from what was, at the time, Greece’s third largest political party. The cause for action? Leftist rapper and union activist Pavlos Fyssas was sitting in a nearby cafe with a handful of friends watching Olympiakos play Paris Saint-Germain.
A well-known figure in both the Greek leftist and hip hop scene, Fyssas was a committed enemy of Golden Dawn and the hard right – not to mention a pretty tough guy: A member of the Syndicate of Metalworkers of Piraeus, just like his father.
But there’s no version of tough that can handle 50 Nazi skinheads carrying bats and knives jumping you and a handful of friends with the intent to kill. And the testimony in court, which lays out the run up and organisation of the murder in sickening detail, makes it absolutely clear that Roupakias came for murder as he and five other men with knives specifically hunted down Fyssas among his wildly outnumbered friends, who’d gone from drinking beer and watching football to fighting for their lives. Of course they killed him, there was never any intention for this to be a fair fight – it was an assassination.
If nobody cared about scores of brutally beaten immigrants, the notion that a political party had openly organised the murder of a political opponent via text message – and then committed that murder in public with scores of attackers – finally defined Golden Dawn in terms that even the most craven political opportunists on the mainstream right couldn’t ignore any longer.
Starting to understand why we figure Pappas won’t get caught? At home these guys are protected by the government but they can travel because they have lots of friends in the Balkans.
Warrants were issued, and raids on offices and members’ homes found the hard drives and mobile phones that proved the longstanding but not publicly admitted ties between Golden Dawn and the mainstream parties.
“There was millions of euros in the hands of a criminal gang,” said Skarmeas of the period between the 2012 elections and the murder of Fyssas, whose slaying he said represented Golden Dawn’s shift away from targeting immigrants to “focus[ing] on attacking the Greek Antifa-Communist movements.”
“After the arrests, inspections of the laptops and mobile phones showed close communication with [politicians who today back the ruling New Democracy Party] speaking as friends, trading votes,” he said.
“Starting to understand why we figure Pappas won’t get caught?” an Athens resident told VICE World News. “At home these guys are protected by the government but they can travel because they have lots of friends in the Balkans.”
A central European intelligence official who works in counter-intelligence in the Balkans was forthright when asked about the Pappas situation in January.
“The Golden Dawn guy? We think that crazy fucking Serb cult got him out,” he said via encrypted messenger, explaining he’d worked undercover in Greece on a related operation about a decade ago. “Yeah [Golden Dawn] has close ties to the security services but in a case like this he can’t hide forever because most of the cops in Greece are actually looking for him.”
“If they haven’t arrested him in some filthy monastery in Greece within a few weeks, he’s probably with ultra-right Serbs who got him out,” he added. “He’s got ties to Šešelj and the Serbs going back to the Balkan wars, check out the Greeks at Srebrenica.”
The “filthy” monastery, it turns out, really is filthy because it’s a neo-Nazi squat, according to a church official, who told the local press that he believed Pappas had sheltered at the Esphigmenou Monastery on Mt Athos, famous for being in the hands of renegade conservative monks since the 1970s.
“When I heard that Pappas had disappeared, my first thought was they have him in the monastery. I don’t know if they have investigated, but the police would have a hard time trying to search the monastery, which they have turned into a fortress,” Abbot Vartholomaios of Esphigmenou Chapter of Mt Athos told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
We will of course look for him with any lead here in Greece. But I think that’s only if he comes back. He’s being hidden by his Serb friends.
Vartholomaios, who like the Greek police, intelligence services, justice ministry and prime minister’s office, refused to speak on the record for this story, is the legally assigned abbot to the monastery and the cult of radical monks has been occupying his belfry since the 1970s. He cheered the October verdicts against Golden Dawn because he claimed the group had been using the place as a hideout and training camp, with even rumours of people being held prisoner.
The legal battles and church schisms involved are literally too Byzantine to explain in detail, but Mt Athos, an isolated, rocky peninsula in northern Greece, is legendary or infamous depending on your religious point of view. Filled with more than a dozen monasteries and cut off from the mainland, it’s basically been controlled by monks in near-complete religious rebellion against mainstream church authorities since 2002. The community is so extreme that it can’t reconcile with the already hardline Greek Orthodox Church, which itself refused to stop offering communion from the same silver spoon to elderly people during the pandemic. The stated reason was Satan poses a bigger threat than COVID.
Police did actually raid the monastery in February but missed Pappas. A Greek police official, speaking on background, believed Pappas had used the area as a hideout after he first went missing following his last October check-in with police before he was due to be jailed.
“If he wasn’t there himself, it was being used by the people helping him hide and we have information Athos was part of the journey out of the country into Serbia or Kosovo,” said the Greek police official, who pointed to an international arrest warrant issued by Greece in February.
“We will of course look for him with any lead here in Greece,” said the official. “But I think that’s only if he comes back. He’s being hidden by his Serb friends.”
And what Serb friends Pappas appears to have. Vojislav Šešelj, a hardline Bosnian-Serb politician convicted of war crimes and living openly in Serbia, was named by three officials, including the central European intelligence officer, as a close friend of Pappas with even closer ties to the radical elements of the Orthodox Church very much suspected of direct involvement by almost everyone VICE World News spoke to for this story.
“It is worth noting that the Golden Dawn had close relations with Šešelj, for example he visited Thessaloniki in 2017 and he gave a press conference together with Golden Dawn,” one activist said, providing a link to the event.
“Šešelj is part of that old [network] used after the wars in the 1990s to keep people out of war crimes trials,” said the central European intelligence officer, who worked in Serbia and Kosovo on war crimes cases. “His ten years in prison in The Hague, his role in the pre and post war political movement of ultra-Serbian nationalism makes him very well respected in these circles. Is he the most powerful man in Serbia? Far from it, but he’s got the ability to hide an old Nazi from Interpol. At least for awhile.”
The Serbs deny everything officially, but a foreign ministry official told VICE World News that police were actively searching for Pappas based on tips and would certainly arrest him if he was found.
Serbs really don’t like to give up Serbs. And Pappas might be popular with radicals but he’s not Serb.
“That's the official line and it's the truth,” said the Serb diplomat. “The unofficial line is we know that these radical friends of his helped him escape Greece and while he probably passed through Serbia, I don’t see much evidence he stayed, the most logical and safest thing for him would have been to move to remote areas of [Serbian-held] Kosovo or [the Bosnian Republika Srpska] to hide with the crazy monks. If we find him in Serbia we will arrest him but in those places I don’t know who can do it.”
The Serbian political entities in Republika Srpska and Kosovo are considered much more nationalistic and work harder to protect fugitives than Serbia proper, according to multiple war crimes investigators who worked in the region.
All three officials agree that, using monasteries in Mt Athos as a support hub, Pappas had moved to the area around the beginning of October.
“By the time of the sentencing two weeks later we have intelligence that indicates he’d passed through [North] Macedonia into either Serbia or Kosovo, with repeated mentions he was dressed as a monk,” said the Greek police official.
“This is consistent with Pappas having grown a beard while on trial and awaiting sentencing, we used to joke he was doing it for the church,” said Parras, the reporter who followed Golden Dawn for years.
The Central European official agrees that Serbia wouldn’t kill itself looking for Pappas, but with enough pressure it would be perfectly willing to arrest him.
“Serbs really don’t like to give up Serbs,” he said. “And Pappas might be popular with radicals but he’s not Serb and I can’t see the Serbian government willing to take pressure over him. But if he’s in [Republika Srpska] or Kosovo? Those are much more radical local governments with far less influence over the monks, and we learned [from] hunting down Serb war criminals in the 1990s that [non-monk] Serbs might turn on a Serb but the monks will never cooperate with the police.”
And Golden Dawn certainly has war-crime credibility with those elements of ultra-Serbian nationalism going back to the early 1990s, via dozens of Greek volunteers who went to Serbia and Bosnia to fight as the former Yugoslavia violently fell apart.
In its earliest days, Golden Dawn actually hated ethnic Slavs and even pushed for eliminating Christianity all together from Greece in a return to its neo-pagan roots. But this stance proved to be too metal even for the Greek hard right, and the fighting in nearby Bosnia – defined by many in Serbia and Greece as a battle against Turks not Bosnians – unified the movement under a version of Orthodox nationalism and ethnic paranoia. And while at the time Golden Dawn was just one of a number of tiny groups in the right wing scene, dozens of members of the Greek hard right fought alongside the Serbs in their own Greek volunteer unit. And about a dozen Greek fighters were present at the fall, and subsequent massacre at Srebrenica in 1995.
The Athens neighbourhoods of Victoria and Exachia are no longer the scene of pitched battles between Communists and Nazis, as the restive anarchist squats have been badly weakened by arrests and police pressure, and the Nazis remain quiet or locked up after the trials. But the surrounding streets and parks are heavily patrolled by riot police and motorcycle jump-out teams that conduct heavy-handed lockdown checks and often demand papers from carefully masked refugees. In many cases the fear of Golden Dawn has been replaced by fear of the police.
But still the change is noticeable, even during a stroll in a local park. Hundreds of Greeks and refugees – mostly South Asian and Afghan – mingled together, playing cricket and football, enjoying the sun.
“Oh yes I remember sometimes you would see a gang of [Golden Dawn] guys with big dogs on chains chasing people, immigrants I think,” a local resident said. “Right here in this park. Nobody did anything.”