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A year of disappointment in Greece

The far-left Syriza coalition promised radical change, but the real action is outside traditional politics

January 27, 2016 2:00AM ET

This week marks a year since Syriza, the radical left coalition led by the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, took power in Greece after elections on Jan. 25, 2015.

They took office heralded as saviors, and then were branded amateurs, radicals, revisionists, traitors and finally just more of the same. The Greek electorate pinned on Syriza its hope that the vicious circle of austerity and depression could break, setting a new paradigm for a Europe that is stagnating in a climate of suspicion and animosity.

To say that Syriza has simply failed to deliver would be an injustice both to their initial efforts and to the plight of those suffering under renewed austerity. Syriza, for all intents and purposes, has killed off the idea of mass movement parliamentary politics for at least a generation. In the process, under pressure from European institutions, they’re also criminalizing the kind of solidarity they promised to protect.

The end of party politics

After the bitter experience of the past year, voters are abandoning parties in droves. A recent poll found that support for all major political parties is plummeting.

But a year ago, I was part of a crowd of thousands that stood outside the gates of the old University of Athens, as Tsipras took the stage to announce that his party had emerged victorious and that they would be forming a coalition government with the populist right Independent Greeks.

These crowds would turn up again and again in support of the government during the negotiations, lighting candles and singing left-wing anthems in front of the Parliament in Syntagma Square.

But after a massive display on the night of July 6, when Greek voters resoundingly voted “no” in a referendum to a deal that would bring more austerity and misery, these crowds dissipated, never to be seen again.

Syriza, under pressure from European creditors, was forced to ignore the result of the referendum. Activists and leftists not only in Greece, but the world over, cried “betrayal” and expressed their anger online with the hashtag #ThisIsACoup.

After signing up for more austerity in a marginally improved deal, Syriza won another round of elections in September. A sense of powerlessness drove many Greeks away from politics all together.

But this withdrawal from party politics hasn’t meant resignation. In the streets, Greek civil society is more active than ever. Antifascist networks, anarchists and others have worked to fill in the gaps left behind by a broke and demoralized state, and they have built something that looks significantly more sturdy.

Promises forgotten

Solidarity networks have been set up to deal with poverty in creative ways. These aren’t just soup kitchens; they’re addressing problems such as lack of access to education and healthcare. They’ve also taken up causes like gay marriage, bringing transparency to the often nefarious workings of the state, and citizenship for second-generation migrants.

A year after Greece was promised radical politics, they have materialized in spite of Syriza, not because of it.

Some of these efforts have been very successful. Civil partnerships for gay couples are now a reality in Greece, and second-generation migrants who were previously denied citizenship under Greek law are now full citizens. But perhaps the most impressive effort has been the massive wave of support for refugees arriving on the Greek islands en route to wealthier parts of Europe.

Greece, arguably the country most affected by the exodus of more than a million people from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, is also the country that has seen the some of the least reactionary policies directed at them.

This is in part because of the rapid response of the solidarity networks, including everything from food and clothing drives to rescue operations, housing and even schooling for refugee children.

Greece came under considerable pressure last autumn to “secure Europe’s borders.” It was even threatened with exclusion from the Schengen customs area. Politicians in Brussels accused Greece of not doing enough to control the European Union’s borders and not accepting help from other European countries.

The EU’s help was, to say the least, inconsistent and slow. Even the fingerprint registration equipment they promised has yet to arrive. As Apostolis Fotiadis, an expert on border policy and refugee movements in the Balkans, wrote in the Guardian “The immigration minister in Athens tells a different story: he claims that he has been waiting in vain for the Eurodac machines required for taking fingerprints; only a few of those promised ever made it to Greece.” The same goes for financial aid and personnel.

The EU meanwhile opted to give away 3 billion euros to Turkey, essentially to convince the government to stop letting people board boats. With almost 3,000 people arriving per day, and dead bodies continuing to pile up, that didn’t exactly work out. Now Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy is blocking such assistance from going forward.

In the end, Syriza backed down again and accepted European “help” in the form of more intervention by Frontex, the EU’s border agency. The agency’s first actions were to arrest volunteers on the islands of Chios and Lesbos for ridiculous charges, from trafficking to possession of small amounts of cannabis, and to close down infrastructure such as soup kitchens and observatories for approaching boats to help those arriving. Frontex also established fast deportation routes back to Turkey, where a recent BBC report showed that refugees have been tortured.

This broke two promises: First, under Syriza, solidarity networks that essentially fill in the gaps for a semi-collapsed central government were supposed to be allowed to operate unabated. Second, human rights and humane treatment of refugees were supposed to be respected. By agreeing to allow Frontex to operate as border police, Syriza is succumbing to Europe’s demands that Greece function as an open-air detention center for refugees.

The final straw is the extension until at least 2018 of Greek detention camps, all of which have come under heavy criticism for the squalid conditions under which detainees live. The government had vowed time and time again that they would be shut down. Now they won’t be.

A year after Greece was promised radical politics, they have materialized in spite of Syriza, not because of it. Syriza continues to proclaim that they will challenge Europe at every turn, but the Greek people have moved on.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe. His work has been featured in The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, Vice, Open Democracy and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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