Over the past week, Greece has been at the center of international media attention following the incidents of violence that occurred in parallel with demonstrations in Athens and other cities in Greece.
People ask: What lies behind the recent unrest? Will it last? Has the Greek police been ineffective? Can the Greek government guarantee law, order and safety for its citizens and visitors alike?
Let me answer some of these questions.
The riots were prompted by the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year old student, by a police officer on December 6th. In one voice, the entire country of Greece, the government, the opposition and the Greek people, expressed their condemnation, deep sorrow and outrage at this tragic incident. Due process was followed. The two police officers responsible for this horrible act have been brought to justice. One of them was charged with premeditated manslaughter and the other with complicity.
At the same time, unfortunately, a small, marginal group of a few hundred extremists, self-styled anarchists, hijacked this outpouring of grief and used violence to push their agenda, which aims at undermining the rule of law and democracy in Greece. All Greek political parties unanimously condemning the killing of the young student, also condemned the violent acts of the extremists, in the strongest possible terms, calling for their isolation and punishment.
The Greek police was faced with a difficult task: on the one hand safeguard the democratic right of free expression and demonstration, while on the other, protect life and property. The decision not to risk further loss of life by adopting defensive tactics was compelled by the fact that a huge number of the demonstrators were teenagers expressing in peaceful manner their frustration over the killing of their fellow student. We did not want a repetition of the 1992 Los Angeles situation, with tens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. I should note at this point that police tactics will be revaluated when the dust settles.
What is certain is that the Greek Government is determined to protect law and order, and will not allow these criminal elements to go unpunished (at least 350 of them have been arrested). It guarantees safety just as it guaranteed security for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. The Government also made the decision to compensate all those whose property was damaged and provide immediate financial relief and support for businesses and their employees.
We are fully aware of the pressures young people face regarding their future, education and jobs, at a time of an unprecedented global financial crisis. All these years, our efforts to strengthen our economy and implement reforms aim precisely at providing answers to these uncertainties through economic growth and new jobs. Actually, this successful effort over the recent years has made Greece more resistant to the negative consequences of the recent economic crisis by:
- decreasing unemployment from 10.5% in 2004 to 7.4% in 2008 and creating 250.000 new jobs, primarily in the private sector;
- maintaining one of the highest growth rates in the Euro zone, 3.6% for 2008, double the Euro zone average. Furthermore, the most international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, forecast a 2% growth rate for Greece in 2009;
- decreasing the budget deficit from 7.4 % in 2004 to less than 3% of GDP in 2008, releasing more funds for social welfare.
- The Greek Government has also instituted educational reforms in order to modernize the Greek educational system, adjust it to European requirements and make it more competitive in a changing world.
I am confident that very soon the de-escalation of tension, which we are already witnessing, will lead to the return of complete normality. I am also confident that the Greek youth will restore its trust in us, as a partner who listens to their concerns, who will try harder to address their needs, who cares about their future and will work harder to create more and better jobs, better education and more opportunities.