Anarchists tossing firebombs celebrated the Greek government's latest round of economic austerity measures. In their violent revelry's afterglow, four dozen or so Athenian buildings became party candles and 150 Athenian shops provided presents to any rioter willing to loot them.
As for the majority of the 80,000 Greek demonstrators protesting austerity measures? Violent provocateurs hijacked their peaceful assembly. According to media reports, the morning-after carnage left them shaken and dismayed. Fires burned two iconic movie theaters, one with particular architectural significance. Government security officials claimed the shop looting was preplanned. A New York Times reporter found a doorman who had witnessed arson. "It felt like war," the doorman told the reporter. "I could not believe I was in Athens."
Genuine anguish. The question is, did this dose of organized anarchy -- an oxymoron and menacing reality -- leave a lasting lesson, one that will strengthen the Greek public's political will to address their nation's desperate economic condition?
Greece's coalition government is touting its leadership. Despite the riots, the government said it will stand by the latest austerity agreement and Greece will remain a euro-zone member. That latest deal reportedly cut 15,000 government jobs and lowered the minimum wage by some 20 percent. Defense was another 300 billion euros. A senior Greek economic official said the Greek people must choose between bad and worse. He's right.
Tough rhetoric from a fragile government. Over the last 10 days, several politicians have quit the coalition. Far left and far right political groups smell the weakness. The extremists totally reject austerity. Their solution? Put us in charge. Meanwhile, we'll toss firebombs.
The Greek economic and political crisis, which is also an identity crisis, follows a repetitive cycle -- a vicious that violent political extremists see as an opportunity. We have witnessed the un-merry-go-round for over four years. The Greek economic crisis deepens. Creditors and economic modernizers demand reform. The Greek government debates reform, occasionally showing the political will to implement it. Functionally, that means budget-cutting (austerity) in order to reduce debt and begin economic restructuring. Opponents, however, blame foreign interests, conspiratorial capitalists and other sinister forces.
Street demonstrations erupt, with anarchists and communists and various hard-right factions battering the police. Meanwhile, European Union leaders worry that Greek default will lead to other euro-zone government defaults (Portugal, Spain, Italy and perhaps Ireland). Lurking behind the EU's fiscal worry is deep concern for political instability and violence spreading throughout Europe. Austerity protests just toppled Romania's government.
This cycle became apparent in fall 2008. StrategyPage reported on Dec. 14, 2008: "Riots in Greece continued. Greece is now referred to as an 'economic Balkan powder keg,' and Athens is a war zone.' That's hyperbole -- but Greece's high unemployment rate and rising poverty level signal a society with deeply embedded problems."
That word again, except as a four-year-old prequel to the Athenian doorman's anguish: war. The "Balkan powder keg" erupted in 1912, with the First Balkan War, a prelude to World War I. Europe 2012 isn't 1912. "War" is still hyperbolic -- right now. The analog EU leaders fear is the great 1930s depression. Desperate people gave political extremists (like Nazis) a hearing.
Political extremists are exploiting Europe's current economic instability -- and have been since 2008. On Dec. 28, 2008, StrategyPage asked: "Will Greece's extensive riots spread to the rest of Europe? The phrase 'winter of revolts' began appearing after police in Denmark and Spain arrested violent demonstrators who were consciously imitating Greek protestors." There were calls "for insurrection everywhere."
Greece suffers from embedded economic and political problems that more European loans will not solve, nor will firebombs. It lacks competitive industries and labor. Corruption stymies economic innovation. Default and then departure from the euro-zone makes economic sense for Greece. It makes economic sense for the euro-zone to manage a Greek departure -- and perhaps Portugal's.
Economic sense, however, conflicts with political fear based on terrible history. Departure is one thing; fragmentation leading to radicalization another. The euro-zone is bad enough, but EU leaders fear worse lurks. Arson in Athens indicates they have a point.