By Andy Dabilis
Teacher Eleni Papaelia, 52, said she came to Greece’s Independence Day parade on Sunday (March 25th) to honour her husband, a military officer she said was killed in a helicopter crash. This year she was barred — like other Greeks who weren’t invited to a VIP-only affair — from standing before parliament where politicians, afraid of being heckled or facing violent protests against austerity measures, had the parade to themselves.
Greek citizens were kept away by an estimated 5,000 police who ringed Syntagma Square, the site of frequent demonstrations and riots.
The decision to block the once-public affair stemmed from an incident last year in Thessaloniki, when a ceremony marking the Greeks’ refusal to surrender to Italy at the start of World War II was disrupted by protesters who hooted “traitor” at President Karolos Papoulias.
“They’re not afraid of riots. All they want to do is humiliate and disgrace us,” Papaelia told SETimes as she stood with a group of other Greeks kept away from the reviewing stand area by police, who outnumbered the audience.
Apprehension replaced pomp-and-circumstance, and only a few regiments of soldiers and police — minus wounded war veterans who boycotted the event to show their displeasure at citizens being excluded — marched down streets, where thin ranks of spectators stood and waved wanly.
Security was strong at parades all across the country, and bitter orange fruit trees in downtown Athens — a favorite projectile of protesters — were picked clean ahead of the event.
Papaelia said she was angry at Greece’s leaders. “They want to dissolve us as a nation,” she said.
Standing near her, Demetrios Spiliotopoulos, 65, shook his head at the spectacle of heavily-armed riot police keeping spectators away. “This wasn’t a parade, it was a funeral,” he told SETimes. “Greece is under dictatorship with a parliamentary cloak.”
George Haralambos, 36, who said he’s been out of work for two years — as the austerity measures have created 21% unemployment — said the fears of politicians, some of whom have been the targets of yogurt and fruit attacks, were unfounded and that they had undermined the meaning of freedom by barring Greeks from attending the parade to celebrate what it means.
“We don’t want riots, but we want the true parade,” he told SETimes. “The nationalists are rising in the polls,” he said, pointing to precipitous falls in support for PASOK and New Democracy — the two parties that have taken turns ruling Greece for 35 years and have been blamed for packing government offices with hundreds of thousands of unneeded workers in return for votes.
Outside the University of Athens, several hundred meters from the reviewing stands, Sophocles Markis, 24, handed out flyers in protest and told SETimes, “We feel like we’re exiled in our own country.”