It started, as many days do in Greece, with a trip to the kiosk to buy cigarettes. Still half-asleep, Panayiotis Roumeliotis was surprised to be asked to show his identity card by two young men with shaved heads. It was his first direct contact with the vigilante groups that have become a feature of everyday life in some areas of the Greek capital.
“They were calling themselves the residents association but they were just fasistakia (little fascists),” said the 28-year-old.
Over the last two years, Mr Roumeliotis has watched the central Athens neighbourhood of Ayios Panteleimonas, where he grew up, undergo an ugly transformation. Taking the bus on another morning soon after, a gunshot shattered the back window and a gang of men forced the driver to stop. When the doors opened, they came on to the bus and started to assault the non-Greek passengers. The attackers were wearing T-shirts from the right-wing extremist group Golden Dawn. While panicked people were trying to escape from the bus the men were hitting them with flagpoles.
“They were beating people with the Greek flag,” said Mr Roumeliotis.
When the police arrived they stood off until the thugs had finished. When he asked the police why no one had been arrested one of the officers replied to him: “Why, did they do something to you?”
Formerly a solid middle-class neighbourhood, the economic crisis and waves of new arrivals have changed the area and erased old certainties.
Property prices here have dropped to as little as one quarter of what they were five years ago. The Greeks who could afford to have left. For rent signs are plastered over almost every one of the area’s shabby five-storey apartment blocks. On the side streets among the North African-run mini markets and Nigerian internet cafes, newcomers from West Africa push shopping trolleys full of scrap metal stripped from deserted buildings. Large-scale drug dealing has overtaken an entire street in the neighbourhood. Violent crime has rocketed.
The square in front of the local church, daubed in anti-immigrant slogans such as “foreigners don’t fit in our square”, has witnessed pitch battles between anarchists and Golden Dawn supporters.
Among the Greeks who remain, Mr Roumeliotis’ own circumstances are fairly typical. He was made redundant from the “job for life” that his grandfather had got for him at the state-run airline Olympic Airways. Of his 10 closest friends, eight are unemployed.
Anger against the socialists and the conservatives, who have swapped power since the end of the dictatorship in 1974, has been building to unprecedented proportions. The former airline steward said he would not be supporting the fascists himself, but that other family members may well be doing so.
“People here have been forgotten by the government,” said Mr Roumeliotis. “They have done nothing about immigration.” The skinheads are now talked of as “good boys” who are looking out for their community. What was happening in Ayios Panteleimonas – which has the highest concentration of immigrants in Athens – came to the attention of the rest of Greece when members of Golden Dawn were voted on to its local council.
Until recently, developments in the neighbourhood were seen as dangerous but largely irrelevant to the national scene. At Greece’s last general election in 2009 Golden Dawn, whose members use the Nazi salute and whose party symbol is an adapted swastika, polled fewer than 20,000 votes nationwide. Now as the country goes to the polls on Sunday, national politics more closely resemble those of the embattled area.
Entering its fourth year in recession, Greece now outstrips even Spain for youth unemployment with the new statistics published yesterday showing joblessness among the under-25s at 51.2 per cent. The headline unemployment rate is 21.7 per cent while the real rate is believed to be closer to 25 per cent.
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