The magical land of Lilipoupoli [ ? ] : Instrumentalizing the refugees [Part 2]
The magical land of Lilipoupoli [ ? ]
Instrumentalizing the refugees [Part 2]
If we presume that the chapter involving Golden Dawn has closed, there is still much ink to be spilled in the book on the far-right; particularly regarding the groups and networks that appear at convenient times and at different points on the map, featuring similar characteristics in each region of Greece. In Lesvos, although Golden Dawn has never been able to garner a strong presence, various far-right voices from groups of “indignant citizens” often tolerated by the elected, star in a series of violent and racist incidents: including, attacks on refugees, volunteers and NGOs, journalists and hoteliers, the instrumentalization of religious symbols, and even pogroms.
Disclaimer: The quotes in this text have been indicatively translated to English by Disinfaux Collective and do not represent a direct quotation by the individual referenced. All Greek direct quotes can be found in the original version, available here.
The successive failures of the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government in the management of the refugee crisis contributed to the gradual rise of the far-right in Lesvos, thus, enhancing the patriotic mindset of the local citizens. A turning point for the government policy was the EU-Turkey Statement (2016), which, practically, created a “geographical restriction” within the Greek territory. The main implication of this statement was that refugees remained trapped on the Greek islands until their asylum application was processed.
This context produces a fertile ground for the far-right to thrive, allowing for its integration into the political sphere. Lesvos’ geographical position as a border island and the corresponding policy pursued by elected officials, as well as the diplomatic relations with Turkey, which are occasionally utilized by political parties and the media for the invocation of the “patriotic feeling of the Greeks”, all enacted a central role in the creation of strong ties between the far-right and the elected officials.
At the same time, the state mechanism, especially in Lesvos, proved to be particularly inadequate to handle the situation. Images of abandonment at the mercy of extreme weather events, combined with significant delays in the examination of asylum applications (months or even years) lead to constant complaints about the inhumane living conditions for refugees. The ill-prepared government policy resulted in many refugees losing their lives. The situation worsened during the extreme weather conditions in the winter of 2017 when refugees attempted to fight back against the cold with whatever means they had available.
As the policy of “refugee management” continued to fail, the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government proposed, in March 2017, the creation of closed “hospitality” centres, through the Minister of Migration Policy, Giannis Mouzalas. The closed “hospitality” centres had already been implemented in the past years by ND, a decision that received intense criticism from SYRIZA. In fact, the Minister himself had stated at the time: “SYRIZA denounces the closed detention centres as condemned. I hope that the conditions we will create will not inflict any denunciations”.
Regarding the local government, the election of Spyros Galinos as the Mayor of Lesvos, in 2014, attempts to keep the balance between the local community and the government. He was elected as an “independent” candidate, although a year before he was an MP of the ND party (and an executive of the Independent Greeks party). During his service as an MP, he had repeatedly demanded the decongestion of Lesvos, promoting the social face of the island.
In terms of political impressions, his service can be characterized as particularly complex, as he often came into conflict with the NODE (the local administrative council of ND in Lesvos) and the NODE president at the time, Stratis Karageorgiou, as well as with far-right circles of the island. A remarkable occurrence was the announcement by the NODE of Lesvos (September 2018), in which they criticised the government’s policy on refugees because it “would give birth to the manifestation of extreme phenomena”.
It is worth mentioning that, a few days earlier, S. Galinos had filed a lawsuit at the Prosecutor of the First Instance Court of Mytilene with the following petition:
“To identify and prosecute those who intentionally and in violation of the law spread false rumours and slanders, incite to vigilantism through various social networks, and act violently either alone or in self-organized groups, in order to cause panic, fear, hatred and division among the citizens. They target and threaten ordinary citizens, institutional representatives and the press, in order to spread hatred and racism and to disrupt social peace and cohesion.”
In addition, the Mayor requested an inspection of a series of reports2 that include vandalism, incidents that can be considered hate crimes, the spreading of fake news, as well as threats against journalists.
In the same announcement, NODE defended the erection of the Cross in Apellis (built by the island’s far-right, many of them on trial for the pogrom in Sappho Square in 2018), and focused on the “vandalism of busts at the centre of Mytilene”, while ignoring the destruction of a refugee monument in Thermi by well-known far-right supporters. As stated in the NODE announcement, “speakers of the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government would arbitrarily characterize every citizen who reacts as a ‘fascist’ and would even seek legal remedies to stop any voice that resists the prevailing situation!”. In a similar vein, it refers, indirectly, to the legal disputes of journalists with members of the island’s far-right, especially the Balaskas case and the Pazianou case. The NODE announcement, which seemed like an attempt to provide coverage to the far-right voice on the island, caused great controversy with even local ND officials distancing themselves from the announcement.
Ιn the case of the journalist Stratis Balaskas (2016), the court considered the characterization of the headmaster of the 6th High School of Mytilene, Vasilis Makripoulias, as a “neo-Nazi” to be “insulting,” thereby reducing Balaskas’ sentence to three months. Despite the fact that even the plaintiff himself – a defender of nationalism on his personal website and elsewhere – admitted he was a supporter of the National Socialist ideology (once again identifying himself as a “Greek patriot-nationalist”) the court assessed the characterization “neo-Nazi” as offensive, and eventually condemned the journalist.Τhe journalist (who has received many cyber attacks and threats from members of the far-right since then) appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded that his criminal conviction by the Greek courts “had amounted to an interference with his right to freedom of expression which had not been ‘necessary in a democratic society’”. According to the here, the Court ruled that “the Greek courts had failed to balance the journalist’s right to freedom of expression against the headmaster’s right to respect for private life”. Specifically, as mentioned in the Chamber’s judgement, “the courts had not taken into account the fact that the article had contributed to a debate on a matter of public interest”. The European Court concluded that there was a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Convention on the European Convention on Human Rights and held that Greece should pay a substantial sum of money to the journalist in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage, as well as costs and expenses.
The Pazianou Case
In early September 2018, Anthi Pazianou, a journalist in Mytilene, received threats and insults following her report on the attack of two men against a 9-year-old girl in Lesvos. The two men attacked the 9-year-old girl because they assumed she was a refugee child due to the fact that she was wearing a headscarf.
Pazianou reported that she was attacked by extremists who repeatedly lead many illegal actions on the island. The journalist fell under online attacks, insulting her honour, morals, reputation, and professional status, primarily using sexist language. The journalist appealed to the Court and filed a lawsuit requesting the arrest of four people. The authorities arrested two of the four defendants, who were referred by the Mytilene’s Prosecutor’s Office for a regular trial. In September 2016, Pazianou described the following event on her Facebook personal profile:
The pogrom in Sappho Square, in 2018, had serious consequences for the then Mayor, S. Galinos. After the incidents, he sent a letter to the then Minister of Migration Policy, Dimitris Vitsoris, and the then Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection, Nikos Toskas, in which he “condemns the violence wherever it occurs“, without, of course, referring to the political views of those who committed the attacks. In addition, he accused the government of inaction and urged: “Do not make the tragic mistake of attributing the demand for the decongestion of the island and the liberation of Sappho Square to (sic) extremists”. A day after the events of the pogrom, Galinos wrote on his personal Twitter account that “the anger of both the citizens and the trapped immigrants is expected. We tolerate neither far-right elements nor lawlessness and anarchy. Decongest Lesvos NOW for the good of all!” and accused the state that its absence leads to the prevailing of “extreme voices”.
Τhe ND MP, Charalambos Athanasiou, also accused the government of inaction and added, among other things, that “this continuing inaction not only raises the need for the citizens to take matters into their own hands but creates fertile ground for extreme voices to be heard.” Similarly, NODE Lesvos, ironically commenting on the Mayor’s absence that day, referred to the government as the “moral perpetrators” of the pogrom, without finding fault upon “those who participated”. The pogrom of 2018 is a central reference point because it was the first mass, blatant, appearance of organized far-right action on the island.
The instrumentalization of refugees by ND and the role of the far-right
The occasional strikes, the initiatives of local councils, but also the long-established, weekly flag-lowering ceremony further solidify the far-right political hold on the island. At the same time, issues such as the Macedonian dispute and the Katsifas case3, seem to bring the far-right “Free Citizens” faction closer to the local ND officials and members.
The Metropolis of Mytilene called for a rally on the Macedonian dispute in Sappho Square on 1/20/2019. A few months earlier, on 11/18/2018, members of the “Free Citizens” and ND as well as the ND MP, Ch. Athanasiou, all attended the memorial service of Katsifas. It is worth noting that some of the “Free Citizens” members, who were present at the service, are on trial for the pogrom of Sappho Square in 2018.
Prior to the event, rumours kept spreading that the memorial service would be held in a temple inside a military camp. Even though the rumours proved false and the service was ultimately held in a “common” temple, the eventuality of such a move, with all its symbolism, was enough to please many far-right media and supporters of the far-right who rushed to celebrate online. The memorial service announcement was emailed to school units and it was also distributed online by the “Patriotic Movement” faction (later “Free Citizens”).
A series of events demonstrate probable connections of both the Theologians’ Association of Lesvos and the Greek Orthodox Church with the far-right network on the island. A week before the memorial service of Katsifas, the General Secretary of the Panhellenic Union of Theologians, Panagiotis Tsagaris, held a memorial service -again in Lesvos- for Katsifas. Professor Vasilis Makripoulias4 congratulated the initiative.
The events of September 2016 are an illustrative example of how the island’s far-right operates and how ND takes advantage of its presence. On September 11, members of the far-right spread false rumours on social media that the weekly flag-lowering ceremony was prevented by a refugees’ demonstration in Sappho square. Some of these rumours were later reproduced by NODE Lesvos. However, no refugees’ demonstration happened that day. Instead, the cancellation of the ceremony was ordered by the Port Authority for unknown reasons. Reacting to this decision, members of the far-right called for a protest at the next scheduled ceremony (18/9).
On September 19, local residents of Moria protested with demands for decongestion, protection of the agricultural production and livestock of the village, as well as the restoration of the camp’s poor sewage network. Golden Dawn members also took part in the rally, shouting racist slogans against the refugees and against the Mayor, such as “Galinos, you’re a disgrace, take off your headscarf” and “Take them out of Moria and put them on ferries”. During the rally, members of the far-right attacked four antifascist women who happened to be at the spot. According to a reportage covering the events, the men who attacked the women were members of the Golden Dawn participating in the rally that day. The ND MP, Ch. Athanasiou, publicly felicitated the protest, stating, among other things, that he supports their “pure struggle for the saving of our Lesvos.”
The infiltration of far-right elements into the local political scene, as well as the events that took place during the then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ speech, in May 2018, gave ND the chance to accuse A. Tsipras of “characterizing citizens of the islands who were protesting against his political choices as far-right”, without any reference to the far-right circles behind these incidents. Specifically, in the context of PM Tsipras’ visit, the coordinating body of the scientific and professional entities of Lesvos called for a strike and a rally, with demands for the maintenance of the reduced VAT and the decongestion of the island. The “Patriotic Movement” of Mytilene also called for a rally, which resulted in clashes between members of the far-right and the Riot Police (MAT) later that night. Some of them also provoked and attacked photojournalists and journalists, including Thrasos Abraham.
The election of “rebel” Moutzouris clashes with “blue” central policy
The election of the Regional Governor, Kostas Moutzouris created internal divisions in the “blue faction” (for an analysis on the topic see Part 1). Specifically, despite ND’s official support to the candidate Christiana Kalogirou, ND MP, Ch. Athanasiou, supported Moutzouris. Athanasiou’s backing, in combination with the Moutzouris’ relationship with the “Free Citizens” faction and his controversial positions regarding Golden Dawn, prove the emerging presence of the far-right on the island. Moutzouris’ frequent statements regarding the “population deterioration” in Lesvos and his congratulations to the current government for its “deterring migrants” policy seem to be aligned with ND’s ideology and political agenda. However, when it comes to “domestic issues”, Moutzouris maintains an “anti-government” profile, given his opposition to closed camps and his statements about “how much he cares about the Prime Minister’s opinion”.
ND’s campaign commitments to decongest the islands; create closed camps; apply fast-track asylum procedures; and intensify repatriations, were not carried through. As a result, the far-right continued to gain more ground on the island, as evidenced by the events of January-March 2020 which will be analyzed later. The abolition of the Ministry of Migration Policy as “unnecessary”, its integration into the Ministry of Citizen Protection and its final re-establishment, six months later, as the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum, instantly revealed the current government’s failed policy on migration. In the meantime, more than 23,000 refugees were living in miserable conditions in Moria. During the period before the re-establishment of the Ministry, the government appointed the Deputy Minister of National Defense, Alkiviadis Stefanis, as the special coordinator for all governmental agencies regarding migration issues and the decongestion of the islands. By summer 2019, Stefanis had already set the goal to transport 20,000 refugees from the islands to the mainland by early 2020.
The government’s promise to close the camps in Moria, VIAL, and Samos and replace them with new closed camps were not fulfilled, with the government putting the blame on local obstacles for interrupting its implementation. Ultimately, neither the new camps were constructed nor was the decongestion of the island achieved in the timeframe set by the government officials. Yet, regardless of the failed promises, the election campaign commitments exposed the face of the policy that the ruling party would pursue in the future.
In the meantime (before the re-establishment of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum), prominent voices within the ND circles started interacting with members of the far-right in conferences and other institutional events, increasingly emphasizing the “tough stance” the government must take on refugees. The prominence of the far-right faction within ND and its contradictions with the official governmental agenda, which continued to promote new, open camps throughout the country is confirmed by an array of incidents. The defense of the “barbecue” outside the Diavata refugee camp by the ND MP, Konstantinos Kyranakis; the former PM Antonis Samaras’ obsessive commenting on “illegal immigrants” at the ND congress, including his indirect references to colonization; the locals’ reaction to the relocation of refugees from the islands to the mainland, are indicative of ND’s internal turbulences.
At the same time, the government adopted the policy of “strengthening border guards”, which raised serious transparency concerns. In the aftermath of such policies, illegal pushbacks were documented, and even globally-renowned media outlets reported on transit-camps for transferring refugees as well as pushbacks conducted by the Hellenic Coast Guard. Despite the plethora of evidence, the government has repeatedly denied illegal pushbacks. In early July 2020, the Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, the Minister of Immigration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, and the Deputy Minister, George Koumoutsakos, were summoned by the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament to give explanations for the illegal pushbacks. Although the Greek delegation denied the accusations, the highlight of the hearing was when the MEP of the Socialists accused M. Chrysochoidis of “far-right tactics”, to which Chrysochoidis defensively replied: “In the last elections, we expelled the extreme right” and “they were inside the Parliament, but now they are on trial”.
The “policy of deterrence” for the ‘refugee crisis’ was embraced by the Regional Governor of the North Aegean, Kostas Moutzouris and other local actors on Lesvos, who at first were against the creation of a new closed camp on the island – in conflict with the official policy of ND for ” closed pre-departure centres.” In the second year, they set the decongestion as a condition for entering the dialogue about a possible closed camp. While after the September fire in the Moria RIC, it seemed that the path was open for ND to implement its political agenda without local obstacles.
The government’s failure to meet the expectations led to intense reactions on the island, such as the events of February 2020, which were suppressed by an extensive police force, and the demands for the final cancellation of the construction of a camp in the Karavas area. A few months earlier, in November 2019, the government, through A. Stefanis, proposed (with a map) the construction of hotspots on a desert island – a proposal he revoked a few days later.
Without coming across any local “barriers”, the government issued a command for the closure of the PIKPA5 camp and the future closure of the Kara Tepe camp (both of which were hosting families, unaccompanied children and vulnerable asylum seekers), in an attempt to “coax” the local community. As such, the slogan “No new camp on Lesvos”, previously supported by the majority of the local ND executives, is replaced by the promotion of the creation of a new camp, a move that carries less political cost compared to the events of early 2020.
Evidence shows that social alliances, formed by financial incentives, continuously fuel the formation and strengthening of a far-right core on the island. Regarding Lesvos, the opposition to a possible VAT equalization of the Eastern Aegean islands with the rest of the country (which would impose VAT increases in Lesvos) is an illustrative example of this entanglement. The opposition was organized by a coordinating body of scientific and professional entities, consisting mainly of executives on the right side of the political spectrum, who utilized racist language to achieve their aim. It is no coincidence that the representatives of the body, repeatedly at the forefront of initiatives against migrants in the past, publicly blamed the outnumbered presence of migrants in the camps for the economic damage the locals have to face. Yet, they only argue against the exceeding number of migrants living in the camps, without referring to their revenues from the catering, guarding and cleaning services for the Moria hotspot, the Kara Tepe camp, and the NGOs, which would be difficult to deny.
Banners to (sic) “De-refugee the island” were employed at every rally against the VAT increase. These mobilizations resonated with hundreds of local residents, who actively participated in the initiatives, even by closing their stores and striking. This resonance offered fertile ground for the coordination and strengthening of members of the far-right who, up to this moment, were hiding in the local unions.
1. “Edo Lilipoupoli” was a children’s radio series that was broadcasting on the Third Program of the Greek Radio from 1976 to 1980, under the direction of Manos Hadjidakis. It was described as a bold initiative and was highly praised for its musical compositions and vivid lyrical content. Due to its underlying political metaphors and daring commentaries of the current affairs of that period, the then government along with popular media outlets accused Lilipoupoli of communist propaganda.
2. In 2018, S. Galinos requested an inspection for the ambiguous reports of the attack on a nine-year-old child (or 29 year old woman, as some of the reports mention) by two men who mistook her for a refugee child because she was wearing a headscarf. Galinos requested the cross-checking of information due to inconsistencies between the reports regarding the victim’s age and clothing description. Amongst others, Galinos also asked for the inspection for reports including the vandalism of the monument to the dead refugees in Thermi by the organization “Kryptia”; repeated threats against journalists; and the constant spread of false news from social media and local media. Additionally, Galinos requested more information about the self-organized groups of so-called patriots who make raids and checks in the area of Gera.
3. Konstantinos Katsifas was killed by Albanian officers on October 28, 2018. On the annual celebration commemorating Greece’s entry to World War II, Katsifas raised the Greek flag in the Bularat (Vouliarates) village, in a cemetery for the Greek soldiers who died in battle. Albanian officers took down the flag and Katsifas reportedly opened fire against them with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The Albanian police pursued Katsifas, who was fatally shot in the exchange of gunfire. A number of reports as well as his personal posts on social media prove his sympathy towards ultranationalism and, thus, Katsifas became a symbolic figure of the far-right ever since.
4. The former headmaster of the 6th Gymnasium of Mytilene in Lesvos, who became known when, during the school’s celebration of the Athens Polytechnic uprising anniversary, he showed a video denying any fatalities during the uprising events. The headmaster is the “neo-Nazi” on the Balaskas case, who maintained a Nazi-related blog on a server of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs (www.sch.gr) until 2013. In his blog, Makripoulias posted articles expressing national socialist views (incl. texts of Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess), and repeatedly reblogged the Golden Dawn newspaper as well as other nazism-related websites. In the past, he has publicly shown (in a tv show) his support for the leader of the 1967-1974 junta, Georgios Papadopoulos, and the dictator Ioannis Metaxas.
5. Pikpa was an independent, open, volunteer-run refugee camp in Mytilene, Lesvos, which was closed after the government’s orders. In October 2020, the police evacuated the camp and transferred nearly 80 people living there to the Kara Tepe (Mavrovouni) camp. Pikpa was targeted many times in the past by local members of the far-right.