Sunday, 13 February 2011


As you'll have guessed, I am beginning to worry a little about the possibility of civil unrest in Greece. I still don't think this is a likely outcome, but it's a high-stakes game.

One possible avenue for this nightmare scenario is the smoldering tension between the native population and the large number of immigrants (604,000 legal and 172,000 to 209,000 illegal ones, as estimated painstakingly here) living in the country. Greece got its first far-right parliamentary party in 2007, just as the golden age of immigrant labour had come to a close for our country, and its first neo-nazi local councillor in the 2010 local elections, the run-up to which was marred by racial tension in some parts of Athens.

More recently, 237 illegal immigrants (frequently rounded up to a symbolic 300, which matches the number of Greek MPs) occupied Athens' Law School, taking advantage of the iconic law prohibiting police from entering any Greek University grounds to launch a hunger strike in protest against the Greek state's unwillingness to acknowledge their long residence in the country as grounds for naturalisation. This inflamed the existing debate between Greece's large liberal left and its equally large nationalist population.

So far, so rubbish. But public debates are not fought on facts or argumentation, but on stubbornness and apologetics. As this brilliant paper demonstrates, public debates are ultimately won by the side that can call upon the largest number of unblinking, unwavering zealots. The trick is not to persuade the 'swing voters' or win the enlightened middle ground. It is to harden the new recruits to one's cause into zealots and sow the seeds of doubt in the hardliners of the other camp, force them to concede they may not be entirely right.

In that respect the two sides of the immigration debate are evenly matched in Greece. However, all of this could change rapidly, given the right sequence of events. For instance: one of our artistic darlings, Stelios Mainas, who, after a long acting career, found nationwide acclaim with 'The Island', lately the toast of Greek hostesses over 40, recently got seven kinds of sh*t kicked out of him by a gang of immigrants while wandering in the centre of Athens. His statements are particularly telling:

"I cannot believe what happened to me. They almost killed me. They were hitting me mercilessly for some time. I could not breathe. The feeling of despair I felt at the time was tragic. I would not want this to happen to anyone else. [...] It's logical that people who are crammed into a square metre would want to vent their anger on their fellow man. I was saved by two Greeks, the only ones in a crowd of 150-200 foreigners, and I say this without any national pride. The State should be present. I wonder how one can justify not looking after one's own."

Mainas is in fact a long-time champion of the immigrant cause, having recently taken part in a high-profile gig to support the Law School 300. He noted in further comments that his attackers could easily have been Greek, but that the centre of Athens has become extremely dangerous.

This kind of turning-point event, if repeated enough times, could trigger a backlash - by weakening the resolve of immigrant sympathisers as it becomes extremely clear that nice, decent and caring people with money and kosher politics can suffer at the hands of immigrants. If this happens, the far Right will smell blood very quickly and it's going to be a matter of time until things start getting ugly.


Getting the measure of anti-immigration sentiment in Greece is difficult but definitely worthwhile. The most recent Eurobarometer survey (carried out in Nov. 2010) suggests that 7% of Greeks see immigration as one of the two biggest problems our country is facing right now and 4% cite it as one of the two most important problems they face in their own daily lives. That's 840,000 and 480,000 Greeks respectively, a veritable army, and both of these figures have roughly doubled since the previous survey, carried out in May 2010. Of course many of these people are not racists, most of them don't mean to cause any harm, and many will be too old to be violent anyway.

According to the European Values Survey of 2008 (data available here), only about 3% of the Greek population (still a cool 360,000 people) had all of the following characteristics:

  • Strongly agreed there are 'too many' immigrants in Greece
  • Spontaneously mentioned they would not want to live near people of a different race
  • Spontaneously mentioned they would not want to live near immigrants or foreign workers
  • Did not spontaneously mention they would not want to live near far-right extremists.
Bearing in mind about a third of these are under 38 years of age, that still leaves 120,000 reasonably young people with some pretty worrying attitudes.

I think we can all agree these people are racists. Worryingly, 82% of them would have voted in a 2008 election, a bigger share than we generally see in the more moderate population. The interesting finding, however, is that most of the ones that would vote would not identify with our no. 1 nationalist party or even our major conservative party. Now, bearing in mind this is a very small sample, here's what the breakdown of the racist vote would have been, in 2008 (note that none of the racist vote would have gone to the Communist Party or the Coalition of the Radical Left, our two main parties on the Left): 

This is the current ruling party winning by a landslide, by the way. God only knows what these racist PASOK voters (hardly socialists, of course) are thinking now but I'll bet you they are avid Tro(ma)ktiko readers.

Then again, the number of anti-immigrant activists could rise. By far the strongest determinant of whether a Greek (or any other European for that matter) would say that there are too many immigrants in their country, was the perception of being 'a stranger' in their own country. It's about three times as strong an influence as the statement that immigrants are a 'threat to society'.  As of 2008, an amazing 43.4% of Greeks felt this way. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but it also means we're less worried than the Cyrpiots, the British, the Irish, the arguably distinct case of the Kosovars and of course the ever-tolerant Austrians.  See below (deeper shades indicate greater concern):


  1. I found myself in Macedonia during last weekend's clashes between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian groups over a planned church in the Albanian district of Skopje. Interestingly enough, it's planned to be built on the local equivalent of the Acropolis.

    Therefore, it led to a number of discussions about Albanians and other migrants in Greece - I was making the point that for some reason, our government's failed immigration and rather racist minority policy has delivered some solid long-term integration benefits - where Albanians have largely sought to integrate with the Greek population, send their children to the same schools, eat and drink in the same places and try and buy houses in the affluent parts of the city.

    Therefore, for the sake of clarity, it would be useful to point out that the problem is located mainly with the South Asian and African migrant workers in the country. Which is quite interesting for a Balkan country: a conflict with nationalist tendencies that has nothing to do with our usual habit of criminalizing our neighbour, but rather with things like the standard of living, etc, etc.

    Of course, all the idiots that vote far-right and neo-Nazi would most probably be happy with everyone to gtfo. But if your fears are right and we do get wide civil unrest, it would be interesting to see whether the Balkan migrants in Greece would be affected. My guess is that they won't.

  2. @Manos2:

    For the benefit of Greek readers, or readers who understand some of the nuances of Greek nationalism, I should note that this is a FYROM-agnostic blog. This means that you can call our northern neighbour 'Macedonia' or 'the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' which, to anyone who is not hopelessly cretinous, is the same. You can use the name Skopje for the actual city of the same name but not for the nation.

    Now, to answer your point, I would refer you to my Zeitgeist Vignettes post. Every new wave of immigrants is seen (even by other immigrants) as worse than the one that came before and, insofar as desperation breeds violence and crime, they are.

    I think it's fair to say that nationalist Greeks are suspicious of any large population of immigrants, regardless of origin or generation. Their concern is not how well integrated they are but how many they are and how cohesive they are among themselves. Any population capable of a riot (regardless of whether the majority of said population joins or even supports it) is seen as dangerous.

    Hence, although Albanians in Greece may be 'well integrated' from their own perspective (I would qualify that) or yours, they are a 'threat' to Greek nationalists. In times of unrest, this makes them vulnerable to attack. Once on the receiving end of ethnic or racial violence, most populations will tend to retaliate in kind.

    So, if we hold immigrant behaviour constant, are Greek nationalists likely to cause trouble? According to this paper, Greek 'racism' is mostly constructed in terms of Occupation and Culture: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~cbail/BailASR08.pdf

    The closest comparator to us is Hungary, with whom we share many other concerns these days. I suggest you look at how their immigrant communities are doing. It doesn't look good, btw. In 2009, as their economy plunged, the extremist elements of the Hungarian people went after the country's Roma population, which was a long-standing target, as opposed to other marginalised groups. Then again, Hungary is a net exporter of immigrants, so perhaps this is to be expected.


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