Greek tragedy is that centre is unlikely to hold

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:Corruption and neglect have eroded democracy in its ancestral home, feeding the extremists, writes PETER MURTAGH

WANDERING AROUND a part of central Athens, it’s hard not to conclude that one is in a failed state. The signs are everywhere – and it’s not just the evidence of deprived areas and all one finds in such places; it is also the proximity of such places to others that ooze wealth and prosperity.

All cities, Irish ones included, have areas of decrepitude and visual evidence of inequality. What strikes one about Athens, or at least struck this observer, is both the scale and depth of the contrast. It is not remotely similar, for instance, to the contrast that exists between, say, the Sandymount and Ballsbridge areas of Dublin, and parts of the inner city, north or southside.

Kolonaki is a chi-chi residential and retail part of northeast central Athens that is sandwiched between Syntagma (Constitution) Square – where all the anti-austerity, anti-capitalist riots take place – and Lycabettus Hill, part of the ancient landscape of the city that looks across to the Acropolis.

Kolonaki has cafes, restaurants, upscale bars and cute boutiques that could just as convincingly be located on London’s Bond Street.

These are the places frequented by the very wealthy in Greece, many of whom also have substantial apartments in Kolonaki.

A mere one kilometre away is Omonia Square in the northwest segment of the city, a hub from which radiate several fat, boulevard-type streets. It has always been a bit seedy, shabby and run down but okay for all that. Now, however, much of it is Third World and worse.

Two blocks west of Omonia, there is a short, narrow, tree-lined pedestrian street named Geraniou. On my second morning in Athens last week, I traversed it on my way to a municipal centre for the homeless that had also become a thrice-daily soup kitchen for the destitute. Geraniou has a couple of mobile phone shops, one or two outlets flogging cheap T-shirts and the like, some boarded-up premises and a cafe.

A young woman sitting outside the cafe winked at me, which made me smile. Then a few feet further on, I could see what was really going on: on the four corners of a junction, there were several prostitutes working their pitches, edgily tottering up and down the pavement on high heels, looking for customers, many of whom seemed to be on scooters.

It was 9.30am. People were still on their way to work, or shopping or taking a coffee break.

Coming back to my hotel almost precisely 12 hours later, the scene had changed. Young men and cops were lurking everywhere; faces peered from dimly lit recesses and there was menace in the air. The hookers had disappeared; Geraniou street was eerily quiet.

Nobody was doing anything. But there was plenty going on.

Near the end of the street, a young man got down on one knee beside a parked car. He adjusted the wing mirror so that it was pointing out a bit. Then he leant in, craned his head so he could see the side of his neck clearly reflected. And when the blood vessels bulged enough, he stuck in the needle.

Other junkies were standing around, with that dazed, doped-up look that descends on addicts after a fix. Still others were shooting up – in their groin, arms or feet. (A colleague later told me he had witnessed one godforsaken street addict shoot heroin into a vein in his penis.)

All around these scenes of open prostitution and heroin injecting, there are thousands upon thousands of immigrants, almost all of them undocumented or illegal.

And there are also the small enterprises that follow immigrants in their wake – specialist food shops and others offering goods and services not available from the host community.

Young men, most of them apparently from Afghanistan or Pakistan, hang around with nothing to do.

In this Kabul, or Karachi, on the Aegean, one also sees Athenians going about their business in the inner city, many elderly, most late middle-aged. They have become aliens in their own community. How many of them are bewildered and wonder how their neighbourhood descended into this?

This is the situation in central Athens, along with the wider, related financial crisis that has bankrupted the country, upon which the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn political party feeds.

In the area described here, Golden Dawn activists are wont to beat up ethnically or racially different foreigners, while pointedly helping elderly Greeks with errands to the shops and offering “protection” to small businesses.

If Brecht had been Greek, he would have written a play called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Kostopulous . . .

One doesn’t have to agree one whit with the fascist, shaven- headed bully boys of Golden Dawn to say what exists around Omonia is a searing indictment on Greek governments of recent years – a monument to their corruption, fecklessness, incompetence, lying and lack of humanity for their own people.

Tomorrow those people will have their say in the Greek general election. Unfortunately, the far-right will win seats in parliament; so too will the far left, whose solutions are equally menacing to liberal democracy, and many others who reject the only solution to their problems currently on offer to the Greek people.

The only question in this unfolding saga is: can the centre hold? Somehow, right now, that seems very, very doubtful and things will only get worse for Greece.