Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
CHARGE: A policeman ran toward protesters in central Athens Wednesday.
Oleg Popov/Reuters
Protesters threw stones at riot police during clashes in front of the Greek parliament building in Athens on Wednesday.

Will strike and riots bring Greek government down?

Five days of protests, and a nationwide strike Wednesday, have shaken the conservative ruling party.

On an Athens street lined with luxury stores, a small pile of flowers has been laid outside a store owned by the mother of the 15-year-old boy killed by a policeman's bullet Dec. 6. Elsewhere on the street, shops are shut and boarded, victims of five days of rioting.

The violent unrest in Greece – the worst since World War II – may have begun with Alexandros Grigoropoulos' death, but it has now widened into tide of anger over government corruption and perceived economic failure. Greece's ruling center-right New Democracy Party is now fighting to bring order to the streets – and for its own political survival. Calls for the government to step down are mounting.

"The ruling party is numb. It was caught by surprise and in no way responded as it ought to," says Thanos Veremis, a professor at the University of Athens. "And the opposition ... politicians are fueling the anger" for their own gain.

On Wednesday, a nationwide strike led by unions brought the country to a standstill and led to further clashes outside Greece's Parliament. The strike was called long before the events of Dec. 6 to protest the government's economic policies and demand better pensions and higher pay. But the unions are benefitting from anger over the boy's death.

"The Greek people are very furious about the things that have happened," says Maria Yaniris, an opera singer who joined the protesters on Wednesday. "Everything started with the death of the 15-year-old boy ... but personally I don't think this was the basic reason."

"As a country, we have big problems," she says. "Young people have to face a life that is full of uncertainties."

The bulk of the violence is being caused by a comparatively small number of people, mainly anarchists and other radical anti-establishment parties who have now been joined by university students. These loosely organized groups have clashed with police for decades, since the days when Greece was ruled by a military junta between 1967 and 1974.

But the killing of Alexandros escalated that simmering conflict to a new level and angered many youths, who are pessimistic about their future. "The youth are in a bad and worsening situation," says Peter Linardos, an economist for Greece's trade unions. "I've been saying for years that ... we were going to have an explosion."

In the initial days of the conflict, the police took a restrained stance, generally refusing to engage with protesters. But on Tuesday, police frustration began to show. In one incident, police fired warning shots into the air.

Many Greeks are dismayed by the scale of the violence. But there is nevertheless widespread outrage at the police, who are seen as guilty of a pattern of abuse. Skepticism dates to the junta, when police were responsible for torturing people with left-leaning political views.

But the circumstances of boy's death have fed that mistrust. Police say he was killed accidentally by a warning shot that ricocheted, and a lawyer for the policemen involved now says a government autopsy confirms that story. But claims that he was shot in cold blood after an argument have become the dominant political narrative here.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis met with leaders of rival parties Tuesday, calling on them to support his effort to bring order back to the country's streets.

George Papandreou, leader of Greece's Socialist party, emerged from the meeting with calls for early elections.

Desperate to show that it can restore order, Greece's government is sounding a harder note. But the arsenal available to authorities is limited. Greek police have tear gas and shields, for example, but no rubber bullets. And so far, the public is still wary of giving police a freer hand.

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