1929 all over again?
There is a nasty underbelly to Greece's new 'national unity' government in the form of the three junior ministers and one minister from the ultra-right-wing LAOS party. By Yanis Varoufakis.
It will prove to be George Papandreou’s ugliest legacy: his last-minute childish maneuvering to maximise his waning hold on power (while negotiating his eviction from the PM’s job), have brought into the new ‘national unity’ government four self-declared racists (some of whom are neo-Fascists and one a neo-Nazi of some renown). It is also wildly ironic: for Mr Papandreou’s best quality has traditionally been his ardent cosmopolitanism, his demonstrated anti-nationalism, his genuine commitment to minorities and deep seated intolerance of racism. Alas, such is the lure of power, it seems, that the entry into the new government of one minister and three junior ministers representing LAOS (a small ultra-right wing party) was cynically judged as a smaller price to pay than handing more control of the new regime to Mr Papandreou’s political opponents in the two major parties – his own PASOK and New Democracy, the conservative opposition.
To non-Greeks watching breathlessly the swearing into government of the serpent’s egg’s latest hatchlings, this news from Greece will surely resonate terribly. As it should! For yet again a Great Depression has given fascism another twirl. And while Greece is small and ought to be irrelevant, its past has spawned great perils for the world at large. Lest we forget, the Cold War did not begin in the streets of Berlin but in the alleys of Athens back in December 1944. Greece was also one of the first countries to have established a fully-fledged fascist regime after the Crash of 1929: the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936. More recently, a CIA-backed coup brought Greek fascists into power six years before General Pinochet rolled his tanks against the Presidential palace in Santiago, quite obviously inspired by the ‘success’ of his Greek brethren. Nowadays, with Greece leading the chorus of Europe’s headlong dive into a new recession, and a renewed disintegration complete with racial overtones (Germans loathing the Greeks and vice versa), it is time for the world to take note. Feeling the irony of Papandreou’s tragic end will simply not do. Progressives around the world must remain vigilant.
A brief history of LAOS
The junior member of Mr Lucas Papademos’s government is a party called LAOS. Its acronym stands for Popular Orthodox Rally but forms the Greek word for ‘People’, or the equivalent of the German ‘Volk’. Its leader is a certain Mr George Karatzaferis; a former third rate TV journalist with an eye to the benefits of appealing, via right wing populist means, to the right of the conservative party. Back in the late 1990s, when his TV career was refusing to take off in the big league channels, he shrewdly invested in a small TV channel of his own (called Telecity) which he used, American style, as his personal fiefdom. On the basis of TV rants with substantial racist overtones, he managed, unperturbed by the awful quality of his programs, to secure a small band of loyal lower class right wing viewers. His weapons were three:
- unrestrained attacks against the socialist party, PASOK; especially against Andreas Papandreou (George’s father);
- an unbridled racist campaign that fanned the apprehension of a Greek society caught out by the sudden influx of immigrants, especially Albanians (following the implosion of Greece’s neighbouring country in 1991);
- the wave of national anger and self-loathing spearheaded by the post-1991 breakup of Yugoslavia which led the former Yugoslav state of Macedonia to seek independence under the name Republic of Macedonia; a turn of events that unleashed mass nationalist hysteria in Greece, not confined (it must be said) to the Right of the political spectrum.
At first, Karatzaferis operated as a populist within the mainstream conservative party, New Democracy. Indeed, courtesy of his TV station and its small but loyal band of followers, he managed to get elected in Athens as a New Democracy deputy with clear majorities. Nevertheless, New Democracy’s leadership, while trying to keep him on a leash, never gave him a role in the party’s higher echelons. And when the party entered a period of intense internal divisions (as a result of PASOK’s great electoral successes in the 1990s), Karatzaferis seemed to have backed the wrong horse and thus found himself marginalised within. (His eventual parting with New Democracy came when he targeted the party's spokesman, a young handsome man that was politically close to the then New Democracy leader, insinuating unequivocally that he was gay.) At that point, Mr Karatzaferis took the bold decision to get out of New Democracy and use the combined firepower of his position as MP and of his lamentable (quality-wise) TV channel to start a new ultra-right party. The choice of acronym, LAOS, appealed to the Greek Orthodox church (the O in LAOS stands for ‘orthodox’) while his anti-immigrant rants were intended as a means of bringing into the fold (a) despondent Greeks (the unemployed, the distressed petty-bourgeois etc.) and (b) assorted neo-Fascists.
Judging by the personnel he peopled LAOS with, it would have been very easy to dismiss LAOS as a non-starter. None of them had any political kudos in mainstream politics. They comprised geriatrics who waxed lyrical about some non-existent glorious Greek past, remnants of the old Royalists (estranged since 1975 from the mainstream Right, when the latter’s leadership espoused republicanism), a small band of supporters of the 1967-1974 fascist junta and, most importantly, a small but dynamic band of younger supporters who were keen to find a political home for their explicit anti-migrant narratives (which polite society had no time for). Crucially, within this mish-mash of rightist groups lacking any serious ideological compass, two figures stand out: Mr Voridis and Mr Plevris. Two young men with an uncompromising ideological position and definite plans for LAOS.
Two examples of LAOS stalwarts
While Mr Karatzaferis is an accidental leader, and is probably not more racist than many politicians in the mainstream political parties (in the sense that he only formed LAOS when he judged that his private fortunes were better served that way, rather than by staying in mainstream New Democracy; and then gave it a racist spin to differentiate his ‘product’), this is not so for some of LAOS’ leading lights. Here are two telling examples.
Plevris is the son of the foremost postwar Greek Nazi ideologue. Please note that the use of the Nazi epithet here is not an attempt to attach a term of abuse to him. For Mr Plevris was proud of it (National Socialist was, I must admit, his preferred term, though he did not balk at being labelled Nazi). His books and publications strove to defend the ‘national socialist’ version of history, including the ardent persecution of Jews (as a natural defence of Aryan people from the Jewish conspiracy), Holocaust denial, a systematic defence of the Nazis’ occupation of Greece etc. etc. Indeed, father Plevris had formed a number of neo-Nazi organisations after 1974 and had shown a remarkable determination to stand his neo-Nazi ground at a time when the Greek Left was resurgent and the ultra Right was in retreat. Had Mr Plevris been younger, he would have played an active role in LAOS. The next best thing, as it turned out, was that he promoted his son within the new party – the result being that Plevris Junior is now an MP. While it is important not to presume that a son must necessarily bear responsibility for his father’s views and political activities, in the case of Plevris Junior he has not questioned (at least in public) his father’s considerable legacy.
Let me now turn to a second young man, Mr Voridis, who is now a government minister (holding the Public Works portfolio). Voridis was a neo-Nazi activist with a chequered past of violence (he has been known to partake of attacks against left wing students and activists) but also a bourgeois education (he graduated from the American College of Athens, a major incubator of the Greek elite). While he is now denying that he is a Nazi, and calls himself a nationalist, not once has he renounced the essence of his anti-semitism, anti-immigrant past. He speaks well and knows how to speak to people’s anxieties, while holding back on the darker side of his putrid ideology.
I recall, not so many years ago, that upon returning to Greece from Australia, I would try to treat my jetlag, in the morning’s wee hours, by watching Telecity, Mr Karatzaferis’ appalling TV station. It was hilarious. To this day I cannot forget a program in which some crazed right-winger unfolded a magnificent argument which, I must admit, I had not seen coming.
He started by declaring that, though a devout Orthodox Christian, he now believed in Darwin. This captured my attention and thus I watched on. He went on and on about how the fossil record makes it clear that prior Christian objections to Darwinism could not be sustained. Though he did look and rave like a loony, he sounded eminently reasonable. Until at some point he asked: “But is there any evidence that we Greeks, the chosen people who shone a bright light upon civilisation, have evolved from apes? Is this possible, I ask you? Of course it is not!” At that point I was all ears and eyes. “What could he possibly have up his sleeve?” I wondered.
My incredulity was deepened when the presenter began showing aerial photographs from a mountain near Athens, claiming that they revealed the existence of ancient routes, caves and tunnels. After all the evidence had been laid bare, the masterstroke came: For it was ‘clear’ to him that the puzzle had been solved: Greeks were, unlike the rest of humanity (that had indeed descended from the apes), the descendants of an Über Race of extraterrestrials. I rest my case.
Most Greeks recall ludicrous LAOS-associated narratives of the sort that I just outlined. It is natural, therefore, that many cannot take the LAOS threat seriously. In the greater scheme of Greece’s troubles, the majority feel that LAOS is a sideshow that is here today and will be gone tomorrow. That they found themselves in government as a result of a silly tactic by Papandreou, but that they will return to the margins soon after. This is dangerous claptrap. Official racism-in-power, even if this government does not last long, poisons a whole society in the long term. The serpent’s egg, once it hatches, has the capacity to spread its venom far, wide and deeply. Once unleashed, anti-semitism, as we should know by now, does its work subterraneanly and with poise. Recently, a Muslim PASOK deputy from northern Greece refused to give the new government his vote of confidence. Immediately, LAOS seized upon this in order to argue, through its opportunistic leader, that this was a good thing, as it shows that the Turkish government is unhappy about the presence of true patriots in the new Greek government. Notice how racism is forging divisions within Greek society (turning the Muslim MP into a Dreyfus-like ‘spy’ figure) and, also, creating new rifts between Greece and its neighbours after years of substantial progress in healing them (progress that is largely due to good works by George Papandreou in his previous incarnation as Greece’s Foreign Minister).
1929 ought to have taught us that two things happen after a banking-cum-debt-cum-real economy collapse: First, the common currency shrivels and dies (the Gold Standard then, the euro now). Secondly, racism raises its ugly head, gains entry into government and, before we know it, makes it impossible to find civilised means by which to tackle the crisis. For all the talk of a technocratic pro-European government in Greece, the truth has a nasty underbelly in which the serpent’s egg has already hatched. The world better beware.
Originally published on yanisvaroufakis.eu. Republished with permission.
Image top: Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας.