Greece’s Golden Dawn Crackdown: Can Far-Right Group Be ‘Eradicated’?

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Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

Nikos Michaloliakos, leader of the ultra-right-wing Golden Dawn party, is escorted by police officers to the prosecutor from police headquarters in Athens on Sept. 28, 2013

When Nikos Michaloliakos, leader of the Golden Dawn party, spoke to the Greek media on May 6, 2012 — after it had become clear that his party had gained seats in the country’s Parliament for the first time — he quoted Julius Caesar. “Veni, vidi, vici,” he bellowed at the gathered members of the press, translating the Latin dictum liberally as: “You slandered me; you muzzled me; I defeated you.”

As it turned out, Michaloliakos’ bravado proved premature. On Saturday morning, he was arrested along with several other Golden Dawn parliamentarians and party members and charged with forming a criminal organization. The far-right nationalist Golden Dawn — which in recent years grew into one of the most controversial political parties in all of Europe — is now the subject of a massive political backlash in Athens. Speaking in New York City on Monday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras insisted he was bent on “eradicating” the group’s brand of extremist politics.

According to the report by the deputy public prosecutor, the felonies committed by Golden Dawn members include manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and numerous cases of inflicting grievous bodily harm, among other charges spanning some three decades. As the report observes: “Violence was for the members of Golden Dawn the message and not the means of attaining whatever it was they were pursuing. ” Michaloliakos, the authorities claim, as the top figure in the organization’s command structure, bore ultimate responsibility for this violence.

The report followed swiftly in the wake of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old left-wing musician, who was stabbed by an active Golden Dawn member on Sept. 18. Fyssas’ death capped off mounting anger at the extremist party. Founded in 1987, the vehemently xenophobic group with a conspicuously Nazi insignia existed on the far fringes of Greek politics; as recently as 2009, it polled only 0.3% of the national vote in elections. But in the years following that, the global financial crisis cratered Greece’s economy, leading to soaring unemployment and withering austerity measures mandated by the international community. Golden Dawn’s popularity skyrocketed in an atmosphere of national humiliation, with the Greek voting public furious at the failure of the parliamentary status quo in Athens. Golden Dawn won 7% in both the May and June elections last year. In polls conducted after those elections, it consistently came in third, its projected share of the vote rising as high as 15%. Its emergence on the European stage sent alarm bells ringing elsewhere on the continent, where similar fringe movements — albeit in conditions less extreme than Greece — are also gaining traction.

In the face of the current crackdown, Golden Dawn has rejected the charges — including any connection to the Fyssas murder. A statement on its website on Saturday spoke of “an organized plan” against Golden Dawn by the “employees of the international loan sharks” — meaning a government that had to go cap in hand to Berlin and Brussels for bailouts. Before turning himself in on Sunday, Christos Pappas, a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy named in the indictment as Michaloliakos’ second in command, told Real FM radio station that the “occupation government is engaged in unprecedented illegal acts of persecution against members of Parliament.”

But observers point to Golden Dawn’s own record of illegality. Since Golden Dawn won its first parliamentary seats last year, attacks by the paramilitary wing of the organization and those inspired by it grew both in frequency and brutality. In a recent report, the Greek Ombudsman’s office, a constitutionally sanctioned independent watchdog, recorded 253 racial attacks reported as such in 2012, 222 of which took place from May to December, after Golden Dawn became a parliamentary party — suggesting that the party’s growing clout gave its hooligans a sense of invulnerability and impunity on the street. As the report noted, these numbers are “only the tip of the iceberg,” given that many racially motivated attacks go either unreported or unrecorded. “The failure to deal adequately with such behavior by the proper state authorities sustains the false impression that these can be tolerated,” the report observes.

And indeed these acts were tolerated, by a swelling bloc of voters who saw immigrants as the agents of their misery. Critics also accuse Samaras’ center-right government of pandering to these voters, whom it hoped to win back by cracking down hard on illegal immigration, and meanwhile turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of Golden Dawn. Adonis Georgiades, the Health Minister and a staunch right-winger who moved to the ruling New Democracy party last year from the hard-right LAOS, tells TIME that “there was no delay” in going after Golden Dawn: “There needed to be enough evidence to constitute sufficient proof of a criminal organization. In democracies, you cannot punish intentions but actions.”

But it took the death of a Greek citizen — not reports of dozens of brutalized immigrants — and condemnation from elsewhere in Europe to swing the government finally into action. The decapitation of Golden Dawn through the criminal-justice system, on the assumption that the charges stick, leaves open the question of the future allegiance of the large number of Greeks who voted for the party last year, and the even greater numbers who stated their willingness to vote for it after the elections. Polls since the Fyssas murder show that support for the group is falling, but not collapsing. Meanwhile, popular fury — over austerity, the power technocrats in Brussels hold over Greece and the ineptitude of the ruling elites — remains unabated.

For those reasons, George Pagoulatos, a professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business and a former prime-ministerial adviser, argues that the influence of Golden Dawn will not vanish. “Its momentum is gone, but it will continue to exist for a while, until the recovery gathers stream and begins trickling down to the man on the street,” he says.