The Mayor of Athens: A Sober Voice in a World of Extremes

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Newly elected mayor of Athens, George Kaminis waves to gathered crowds, on Nov. 14, 2010.

Newly elected mayor of Athens, George Kaminis waves to gathered crowds, on Nov. 14, 2010.

On June 4, George Kaminis, the mild-mannered mayor of Athens, visited Greece‘s Minister of Citizen Protection, Nikos Dendias, to discuss a legislative proposal put forth by the ministry for the regulation of minor demonstrations in Athens. Kaminis, a moderately left-wing former constitutional lawyer, is not one to crackdown on dissent, but he had reached the end of his tether. Retailers and hotel owners located in the city center have long complained about the frequency with which downtown Athens is shut down because of gatherings of a few dozen people (796 with less than 200 participants last year), and of the damage inflicted upon their stores when larger demonstrations get out of hand.

“Everyone has rights—the protesters as well as the store-owners downtown. That’s how parliamentary democracy is meant to work,” Kaminis says, sitting in a plush, high-ceilinged room on the first floor of the mayoral mansion. But Greece’s democracy is not like others. Its politics are starkly polarized between emboldened extremes on the right and the left. The more the country’s economic crisis has deepened, the more each camp has become insensible to—and intolerant of—the demands and values of the other.

(MORE: Why the rise of the Golden Dawn is bad for Europe.)

Athens is a perfect microcosm of this. Never before involved in party politics, Kaminis was drafted in 2010 by a coalition of forces on the center-left and the socially liberal right to run against the unpopular incumbent. His victory was not the only surprise in that election: it was also the first time the neo-Nazi sympathizers of the Golden Dawn party had won seats on the municipal council, a crucial step in their subsequent rise to national prominence. Joining them there were members of three parties of Marxist provenance.

In a climate bereft of consensus-building politics, Kaminis has often found himself in the crossfire. He has drawn the ire of the left for his stance on demonstrations and for the police operations, late last year, against decades-old anarchist squatter encampments in the city center. But he has also been attacked with equal venom by the far right. On Good Thursday this year, he blocked Gοlden Dawn from holding a “Greeks-only” food distribution in Syntagma Square, in front of parliament. In response, one of Golden Dawn’s parliamentary deputies attempted to physically assault Kaminis at a municipal center for the poor near the group’s downtown office. “For me, the fact that both extremes scream at me is proof that I am doing something right,” the mayor says.

The rise of extremist politics in Athens is a symptom of the Greek capital’s unprecedented fiscal and social challenges. Local government before the crisis was considered a bastion of corruption, oiled by central government and EU money. But the terms of debt-laden Greece’s bailouts included drastic funding cuts. Bloated budgets had to be shrunk and Athens, whose central government funding has been cut by 65% since 2010, was no exception.

(PHOTOS: On the road with the Golden Dawn.)

Kaminis achieved a budget surplus in both of his first two years as mayor without sacrificing vital social services, the need for which has soared during the crisis. “We cut elsewhere,” he says. One early target for cuts: the municipal radio station. The station had annual revenues of 300,000 euros and costs in excess of 13 million euros during his predecessor’s tenure. Takis Kambylis, a former journalist who Kaminis appointed as general manager at the station, says: “We couldn’t keep overpaying for people who had three or four other jobs, at a time of mass unemployment among journalists.” Letting many of the big names go made Kaminis some influential enemies in the media, but two years down the line, the cost of operation has been reduced by more than two thirds, and listener figures are up.

Overall, Kaminis has allowed the city’s workforce to dwindle to 8,700 at the end of 2012, from 12,000 two years earlier. “Has anyone noticed any difference?” he says.

One person who has is Themis Balasopoulos, the head of the local government employees union. Balasopoulos, whose union members have been occupying city administration offices in Athens and elsewhere in the country since Wednesday, in protest of bailout-mandated dismissals, has clashed frequently with Kaminis. In fact the mayor accused him on Monday of being behind another attack on him by angry local government workers, which had taken place the previous evening (the union boss denies it). “In the past, the mayor of Athens was always the honest broker between local government workers and the central government,” Balasopoulos says. “Now, in this time of frontal assault on our rights, Mr. Kaminis has neither been with us, nor in the middle; he has been against us.”

The mayor won’t flinch, but he does not just want to be remembered for managing austerity with a stiff upper lip. His biggest challenge lies in uplifting the areas surrounding his mayoral mansion, and down to the districts of Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio. It is the historical center of Athens, and for the last ten years it has been a black hole of drug abuse, prostitution and rampant criminality. Despite a host of legal and bureaucratic constraints, Kaminis is trying to push through a privately-run urban renewal project for Kerameikos and Metaxourgeio, budgeted at nearly 80 million euros, financed mainly through low-interest EU loans.

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Iasson Tsakonas, head of Oliaros, the company behind the renewal project, tells TIME that the mayor, though privately supportive, was initially “very careful not to take a position publicly,” for fear of upsetting the left-wingers in his coalition, who would be hostile to the private sector spearheading such an effort. Since then, Tsakonas says, Kaminis has been more open with his support.

“This is a very troubled area, but also one with enormous potential,” the mayor says. “It could serve as a starting point for the rejuvenation of the city.” His increasingly vocal backing of the Oliaros project is another sign of Kaminis’s willingness to put solutions over ideology. With local elections a year away and with doctrinaire screaming (or worse) the order of the day, his fate will speak volumes about the evolution of Greece’s political culture towards a new maturity.