Rise of Golden Dawn: A presage of doom?

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As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can't sustain them, says Hatef Mokhtar.

Hatef Mokhtar is chief editor of The Oslo Times.

"The undisguised extremism promoted by Greece’s neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is a chilling watershed in its post-war democracy.

Fascist gangs are turning Athens into a city of shifting front lines, seizing on crimes and local protests to promote their own movement, by claiming to be the defenders of recession-ravaged Greece.

An opinion poll published by KAPA Research in October showed that support for the extremist political group had grown from 7.5% of the population in June to 10.4% currently.

The Golden Dawn emerged from political obscurity into the mainstream in May, after winning 7% of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since then, the country has reportedly witnessed an upsurge in racial violence connected to the right-wing group.

The party has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third most popular political party in the country - a noxious omen for the euro zone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the EU itself, which received this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29% of the vote.

Last year, however, Golden Dawn - rebranded as an anti-austerity party - won nearly 7% and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament.

Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies' being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centres and hospitals.

As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organisations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs.

The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. "Soon we'll be running this country," says Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens.

Public Love from Fear

"The people love us," says Ilias Panagiotaros. Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80% of the EU's un-documented migrants. Frontex, the EU border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010.

Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines.

Some seek asylum, and because of EU rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry - in this case, Greece - which often takes years to review the applications.

As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can't sustain them.

Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn's black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups.

In June 2012, a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. "It was a hate that was inhuman," says Mubarak, who is still recovering.

In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and performing fascist salutes.

Like others who have been assaulted, Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he says. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”

It's now common to see police lineup immigrants from South Asia and Africa in public squares and along streets in central Athens. Those without legal-residency permits are arrested and sent to detention centres to be deported.

Police claim they have detained nearly 42,000 people since August, though only about 3,400 were arrested for not having residency papers. They defended the crackdown, which was strongly denounced by human-rights groups, by comparing undocumented migrants to the Dorian invaders who purportedly brought down the Mycenaeans in 1100 B.C.

The most recent example of fascism shown by Golden Dawn in its series of discriminating activities is when it said a visit to Greece by American Jewish Committee (AJC) leader David Harris is meant to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

David Harris, executive director of AJC, is leading a Jewish delegation to the region to meet with several Greek leaders, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

"The only solidarity of this gentleman is to his compatriots – the international loan sharks, who are humiliating the Greek people. His concern most likely is related to the inability of Greece to make the payments of the predatory interest rates of the vile loans,” Golden Dawn said in a statement, adding: “We do not need the crocodile tears of a Jew.”

Worldwide expansion

Barely a month after their electoral victories, Golden Dawn launched a widely-criticized branch in Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Athens.

In October, several groups protested the opening of a Golden Dawn office in New York City, which had opened for the explicit purpose of building support for the party among Greek expatriate communities and collecting food and medicine to distribute in Greece – only for Greeks.

Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats - Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners - for their ills.

Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received.

“But the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”

What’s at stake, however, is the health of European democracy, and the values and institutions on which it rests. But while the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends."

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