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Outrage and disenchantment in Greece ahead of austerity vote

The protests have become the largest social movement in Greece since martial law in 1974. More than a pushback against austerity, they hint at broad skepticism toward Europe's leaders.

By Staff writer / June 28, 2011

Protesters gestured toward the Greek Parliament during a peaceful rally in Syntagma Square, Athens, on June 19. Thousands rallied against fiscal austerity measures, and denounced politicians.

Kostas Ts ironis/AP

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Athens

The upstart crowd camped out on Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament is like no other in Greek history. Yes, it is rough around the edges. No, it does not have solutions to the years of debt and corruption that have Greece near default. Yet since May 24, the movement organized through social media has continued to swell and turned heads as a new voice of the people, the power of the Greek powerless.

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Critically, it is largely nonviolent. On Tuesday, however, the violent fringes smashed windows and drew shots of tear gas from riot police. But this protest movement has been one of baby strollers and roasting corn rather than molotov cocktails, skinheads, or communist red flags. The only flag is Greek. Trotskyites and Orthodox priests tolerate each other. The usual anarchists and fascist suspects lurk only on the margins.

By mid-June, the gathering – a crazy quilt that shares elements of a tea party caucus, the Arab Spring, an antiglobalization rally, and a Haight-Ashbury commune – had become the largest social movement in Greece since martial law in 1974. These aganaktismenoi, or so-called outraged, earned enough public credibility to nearly end the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou on June 15 as it sought €28 billion ($40 billion) in new austerity cuts.

On Tuesday, public workers began a two-day strike to protest the austerity package that Greek parliamentarians are expected to vote on tomorrow. The deal would clear the way for Greece to receive European Union and International Monetary Fund loans to avoid a default on its sovereign debt. Brussels has taken a hard line, insisting that Greece will default unless it adopts more austerity cuts, including tax hikes, spending cuts, and privatization of government services.

Other peaceful citizens' movements – called "indignants" – have emerged in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. A common theme is skepticism about elite politicians, and skepticism about European Union policies that view austerity as the only way to growth and solvency.

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In Athens, on the sun-drenched square, the Greek protesters may prefigure deeper currents of disenchantment among rising populations of educated, but jobless young people who find something missing in the dream of Europe that burned brightly a decade ago. Many here speak of their protest in terms of an "awakening," or as a new effort to "find the truth."

The 'indignants'

The improbable inspiration of the movements is a 93-year-old French Nazi resistance hero, Stephane Hessel, who came out of retirement last year to write a bestseller titled "Get Indignant!" that laments the loss of ideals and idealism in Europe, arguing that young people should not accept a future predetermined to be bleak and constricted. What's unclear is where the new movements will go.

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