From the steps of the imposing parliament building, Katherina Sergidou gestures at the swelling crowd that stretches out across Syntagma Square, filling the night sky with defiant chants.
“We’re here to show there are a lot of us,” she says proudly. “A big window has opened – a window of change.”
On the eve of an emergency EU summit aimed at striking an 11th-hour deal to end the stand-off between Greece and its lenders, thousands took to the streets of Athens last night to keep up the pressure on Greece's government, led by the left-radical Syriza, and to show defiance in the face of pressure from the EU and the IMF.
The protest, organised by left-wing parties and trade unions, was also designed as a response to a right-wing protest held in the city at the weekend.
Sergidou, a Syriza member, urged her party to ignore the EU’s “threats” and “say no” to any agreement with the troika. “I believe we have the power to build a society here in Greece where, even without a lot of money, we have our dignity.”
As night fell, young people waved Greek flags outside the old royal palace that houses the parliament, and groups of friends broke out in song. “Democracy cannot be blackmailed”, said one banner. And another: “Agreement = surrender of the people, disgrace for the left”. One elderly man stood silently with his back to the parliament and hoisted a pair of unlocked handcuffs in the air.
“The first six months of Syriza in government has proven that there is no possibility of negotiations with the euro zone,” says Vasiliss Chatjinakis, an activist with the Left Front coalition, an anti-capitalist group and one of many voices pressing Syriza to hold the line.
Chatjinakis believes the government should abandon the talks, impose capital controls and then formally leave the euro. But he fears Syriza will compromise. “Surrender is already happening,” he says.
Vouros Dimitrios (25), who has just finished his medical studies, says he didn’t vote for Syriza but has been impressed with how they’ve held out for a better deal. “I think they’re negotiating a fairer agreement,” he says. “They’re working for the people who voted for them, and I think it’s fairer than the agreement the other parties got,” he says.
With Athens in dire need of funds to avoid defaulting on a €1.6 billion IMF loan that falls due at the end of the month, the spectre of a chaotic exit from the euro zone has led to €3 billion being withdrawn from Greek banks in the past week alone.
Dimitrios doesn’t have much money in the bank, he says, but the loose talk alarms him. “When you say a bank is going to collapse, that can be enough to make it collapse,” he says.
Athina, a student who joined the demonstration to remind Syriza that “we are the people who elected them”, blames big business interests for encouraging a run on the banks so as to hasten the fall of Alexis Tsipras’s party. “Only a minority should worry. If you saw how much money the people here have in the bank, you’d laugh.”
For Athina, staring default in the face isn’t quite as daunting when you have so little to lose. She mentions high rates of deprivation, suicide and unemployment, describing a country that she feels “can’t go on like this.”
Greece’s future may lie in Europe or it may not, but going it alone holds no fear. “We are already a lost generation. If we have to lose a little more for the next generation to have it better, it’s worth it.”