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Greece no stranger to turmoil, civil unrest

Riots and social unrest have swept through Greece following the death of a 15-year old boy hit by a bullet fired by a police officer. The boy had been throwing stones at a police car together with other youths. The police said that ballistic tests on the fatal bullet show that the death was an accident and that a police officer had fired warning shots at the youths, one of which accidentally ended up in the boy's chest after hitting a hard surface. Two police officers are now in custody.

The use by the police of live ammunition - even as warning shots - when confronted by teenagers throwing stones can hardly be justified, but neither can the anarchy and the destruction of property and businesses that followed.

One estimate by the Athens Trading Association showed that the riots have so far cost €1billion. Greek Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos rightly remarked: "The right to hold demonstrations is inalienable but they must not result in the destruction of property."

The mass protests and riots - which are also directed at the government's social and economic policies - have rocked the centre-right Greek government led by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis whose New Democracy Party only enjoys a two seat majority in Parliament and whose government has been trailing in the opinion polls following a number of financial scandals.

There was further bad news after a one-day general strike was called by the country's trade unions to protest against the government's policies.

Greece is no stranger to turmoil and civil unrest. Greece's post-war era has been characterised by sharp left-right divisions and conflicts that left a lasting legacy of bitterness among sections of the population.

They help us understand Greek society and politics today. The Greek civil war between 1946 and 1949 saw an attempt by the communists to take control of the country. The communists did not succeed because of US President Harry Truman's support for the Greek government.

Another dark period in Greece's history was during the right-wing military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974 when the country was ruled by what is known as 'The regime of the colonels'. During this period democracy, political freedoms and civil liberties were suppressed, military courts were established and political parties banned.

Democracy was restored in 1974, and in 1981 Greece joined the European Union (then the European Economic Community), which allowed the country's democracy to be anchored firmly within Europe. However, far left and far right parties still flourished and last year's election, for example, saw the Communist Party get 8.5 per cent of the vote, the Coalition of the Radical Left, 5.04 per cent, and the right-wing Popular Orthodox rally, 3.8 per cent.

The unrest that has now spread throughout Greece is no doubt a combination of genuine protest, hooliganism and radical provocation but the speed with which it swelled must tell us something about the concerns among sectors of Greek society over the way the government is dealing with the country's social and economic issues.

A high unemployment rate among university graduates, a poor perception of the police force, an underfunded and poorly staffed university system, claims of cronyism and nepotism by the political and business establishment when it comes to job opportunities, allegations of corruption, the effects of the global economic crisis and the fact that Greece has a long tradition of vigorous public protest all contributed to this very volatile situation.

Students have played a large role in these recent riots and a constitutional ban on the police entering any university premises is still in force today, which shows that students have a somewhat privileged status in Greek society.

This ban is another leftover from the past as students played a leading role in a rebellion against the Greek military junta in 1973, which led to its collapse a year later. The centre-right Greek government did try and forge a consensus to have the ban overturned but the opposition socialists refused to lend their support.

The attitude of the Socialist Party (Pasok) led by George Papandreou - which consists of both social democrats and populist left-wing Socialists - during this unrest has not been helpful.

Instead of appealing for calm it has urged people to protest against the government and has called on the Prime Minister to resign and to hold new elections. What the country needs now, however, especially in view of the international financial crisis, is stability, level-headedness and a genuine attempt at reform.

The government must ensure that justice is done with regard to the death of the 15-year old boy killed by a police bullet. It also needs to introduce reforms in the police force and the education sector and to concentrate more on job creation and economic growth.

Furthermore, it must clamp down heavily on corruption - Greece ranks 57th out of 180 countries (and 23rd within the EU) in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perception Index.

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