It was about five years ago when a conference took me to a nice hotel in the center of Athens.
Yet I was uncomfortable with the surroundings. It just seemed there were too many young men hanging out on the street and the nearby park, which the hotel receptionist referred as a “druggie place.” I was only there for a couple of days, but this was the first time I realized the city center of Athens has pockets that are turning into “be careful” zones.
The flipside of the coin is the black-shirted, big-chested “native” Greeks who are against immigrants, gays, Jews, Muslims, leftists, anarchists and drugs. They are cut from the same cloth as neo-Nazis; mind you, they are even anti-German. My first encounter with Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) -- before I knew they were a political movement -- was at a gym across from the same hotel. I could not help noticing all the weightlifting machines were taken by big guys with dark-colored T-shirts and shaved heads. Of course, being a well-educated political scientist, I knew unemployment levels in Greece were high, but why were they in my gym all at once?
I experienced my first culture shock about this different face of Greece when one hulky guy initiated a conversation. Speaking with a British accent, he asked if I was American. Once he understood I was in Athens only briefly, he asked, “How do you guys deal with ‘those’ in Los Angeles?” Those were the guys across the street; those who did NOT look Greek; those with the darker skin; those with calloused hands. I attempted a graceful exit from the gym. My new friend offered to accompany me “for my own good.” He told me he walks the elderly to the stores and banks for their protection. Would I want my grandmother to be attacked by a stranger? No, I said, I would not. “They should all go back to where they came from,” he opined.
It was a hot summer’s day when my extremist friend stopped in front of the hotel and asked: “Do you smell the stench? It is the xeno.” It was just the uncollected trash and maybe some urine, which I accept is not pleasant, but I had never before heard about “the stench of xeno.” It was too much for me. I remember the hatred in his eyes, matched by the fear in mine.
In the May 7 elections, Chrysi Avgi won about 7 percent of the vote, which translates to 21 seats out of 300 in the Greek parliament. They won more than 20 percent of the vote in some neighborhoods in Athens. The residents of poverty-ridden areas voted for the new faces of the extreme party that include a Holocaust-denying leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos. Michaloliakos is not shy in declaring Greece for the Greeks; the necessity of land mines on the Turkish border to keep out immigrants; only those of Greek blood gaining party membership; and most importantly that one is born Greek, one cannot become Greek. He questions the existence of Auschwitz and the gas chambers. He is bold enough to ask interviewers: “Were you there?” Remember, there are “authentic” ultranationalist groups and different breeds of neo-Nazis in almost all European countries -- Greece may be one of the last to join the bandwagon.
A protectionist foreign policy
Chrysi Avgi’s foreign policy platform is protectionist, to put it mildly. After the elections, Michaloliakos shouted, “The Europe of the nations return; Greece is only the beginning.” Not only are eurozone regulations a burden for the Chrysi Avgi leadership, but maybe even the EU passport. Pundits have already stated that Chrysi Avgi is a European problem, and the European Jewish Congress has called for a ban on the party. Chrysi Avgi wants to make sure Greece starts drilling for gas and oil off the coast of Cyprus and other islands, a concern shared by many Greeks. They have made it public that the unresolved sea border issues with some neighbors needs to be handled so that Greece can return to its greatness. In other words, Chrysi Avgi takes it one step further.
If you are not familiar with this political movement, a quick YouTube search will reveal images of Chrysi Avgi with the Roman salute, Nazi chants and a swastika-like logo. It may seem as if they belong to another time and another place -- not in my beautiful EU-member Greece. Nevertheless, they claim to be the “real” Greeks. You can also view some of their favorite pastime activities: attacking immigrants. Muslims praying in a square for Eid is an invitation to be attacked by hulky guys. If you watch such videos, it is highly probable that the attackers are Chrysi Avgi members or supporters. I should note that there are hundreds of mosques all over mainland Greece and the islands; Athens still remains the only European capital without a mosque.
Anyone can be “the xeno” for this group. They are suspected of attacks on Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, various immigrant groups, as well as leftists, anarchists and homosexuals. Plus, their hooligan activities against Albanians, Macedonians and Turkish Cypriots are to be noted. Apparently, several members of the Greek police force are sympathizers of the movement. Yet this does not prevent the group from clashing with the police from time to time.
To be fair, tensions are not one-sided. Chrysi Avgi’s offices and now MPs have been attacked by leftists and anarchists. So there is a strong dislike against the movement from other “natives.” They are the big angry Greek men (I am sure there are women, too, but they are not at the forefront) who are determined to cure their troubles by cleansing their country from all things not Greek, or from the stench of xeno.
The good news is that all Greek parties have refused to work with Chrysi Avgi and there will be another election in June. Some polls indicate that the neo-Nazi party will lose votes in the upcoming election. (Just a note, my prediction is that Chrysi Avgi’s vote will remain the same or increase in June.)
If this is the case, and if this is mostly a protest vote, why should Turkey be vigilant about Chrysi Avgi’s domestic and foreign policy platform? The answer is simple, yet subtle. Extremist parties might not become the “most popular” party overnight, but they influence the platforms of other parties. Mainstream parties of the left and right adopt some of the rhetoric of the extremist parties and alter their own platforms to attract votes. This might look like the end of Chrysi Avgi, which has survived since 1985, but it indicates a subtle success by enabling its extreme rhetoric to infiltrate the mainstream parties. For example, we have already witnessed the opening of detention centers for asylum seekers, such as the Fylakio detention center in northeast Greece, referred to as Greece’s Guantanamo. Another example is the proposed fence on the Greek-Turkish border to stop the influx of immigrants.
Accommodating extremist policies
Now that Chrysi Avgi has gained a European-wide reputation, its rhetoric might catch on faster inside Greece. That might suggest that whoever assumes power in Greece is likely to accommodate some of their extremist policies. We also might see other parties listing candidates in the June elections who are xenophobic. Given the fact that the Greek financial crisis has lingered for well over five years now -- as the Greek exit from the euro seems very likely -- and the austerity measures have hurt the lower and middle classes and hard-working Greeks, it should be wise to consider that Greek foreign policy will be meandering through these rough times with some potential outbursts.
The extremists will not come to power in Greece in the foreseeable future. However, the services they have provided to struggling communities enable a normalization of their extreme rhetoric. This should be a red flag for Turkish policymakers that even though the intentions are good, our neighbor might exhibit some abnormal behavior. Turkey should not fall into the false security of the EU’s ability to control extremist movements. Despite the fact that the EU has provided an amazing example of supra-nationalism for students of international relations and has accomplished significant successes, progress in taming human nature is never a linear line. Indeed, many Greeks I have spoken with -- none can be classified as “ultranationalist” -- express feelings of being stuck between the EU and a hard place.
On the one hand Greece is a transit country and a gateway to the EU’s richer places. On the other hand, strict Schengen policies require all illegal immigrants to be returned to their port of entry. To make matters worse, I believe many Greeks are uneasy with Turkish visa changes. I could not help but notice the concern in my friends’ voices that the burden of immigration is considered too high for Greece; some put the blame on the Turkish approach to the issue. I believe Chrysi Avgi also represents the disappointment with the EU in Greece. Therefore, Turkey will have to make military and political contingency planning as if Greece is no longer part of the EU. The best policy advice, I argue, is the one that arrives on time.
I have been back to Greece several times in the past five years and have not experienced any racist or xenophobic activity. I only have good memories of Greek hospitality. The last time I was there right before the May 2012 elections, we were strolling the streets with an Italian friend who observed that “the city has the smell of fear and havoc.” It was only then that I remembered my shaven-head extremist friend and his scary statement of the stench of xeno. It is my personal hope that no one will ever look at another human being in disgust and feel or speak of the “stench of xeno.” Until then, laws for hate crimes should be in place to keep human nature in check. And Turkish foreign-policymakers should watch Chrysi Avgi’s rhetoric and repercussions carefully and be prepared for further challenges ahead on the Western front.
*Pınar Tremblay is from the political science department of the University of California, Los Angeles. [email protected]