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“Insurgent Holidays”: Greece’s Three Annual Days of Political Violence

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September to December is a time of holidays in the West, but in Greece, it is also a time of “insurgent holidays”: three specific dates on which leftists mobilize for large marches in the streets, youth clash with police, and the post-left anarchist underground organizes campaigns of arson and bombings against targets of capitalism and the state. Greece is of course no stranger to mass demonstrations, and it is a point of pride among many Greeks that they enjoy such a high level of political engagement, from frequent protests to an impressive number of publications and media outlets—all signs of a robust democracy. Despite their frequency, most protests and marches in Greece are peaceful, with newsworthy clashes occasionally occurring on small scales. On these three specific dates, however, there is guaranteed to be violence. This article hopes to give a little background on each of these dates, how they came about, and how they are observed annually.(The specific dates covered here are the 18th of September, the 17th of November, and the 6th of December. For reasons of historical context, they will be discussed in chronological order of their origin-events, rather than in the calendar order in which they occur.)

November 17th

In 1973 Greece was ruled by a dictatorial government, sometimes called the “junta” or the “Regime of the Colonels,” which had taken power in a coup of right-wing army officers in1967. Less than a year before the country’s return to democracy in 1974, student occupations of university buildings and increasing protest activity turned into a larger anti-junta movement as the leadership was making small moves towards reforms. This led to the events of November 1973, when on the morning of the 14th students of Athens Polytechnic went on strike in protest against the regime. They were joined on the subsequent day by thousands of Greeks that flocked to downtown Athens in support, but on the evening of the 16th government snipers and security forces started shooting at demonstrators, and in the early hours of the 17th an AMX 30 main battle tank crashed through the university gates as students sat atop of them. The number of Greeks killed in the crackdown is disputed, but it is likely around two dozen, with many more injured.

When democracy and the constitution were restored in Greece many of the political parties that had been banned under the junta such as the communist KKE party were re-legitimized and allowed to participate in elections. Since then, the 17th of November has been observed every year by Greeks from a broad swath of political backgrounds (most of which are left-leaning), from teachers’ unions to left-wing political parties, and of course sizeable blocs of anarchists. The latter typically form up in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia—home to the Polytechnic and a well-known haven for anarchists—and march towards Parliament in Syntagma Square, where they will clash with the ubiquitous riot police in green fatigues with white helmets, gas masks and shields reading ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ, known as the Units for the Reinstatement of Order (MAT). Dozens if not hundreds of arrests are made at demonstrations in cities across Greece, with most of the action taking place in Athens and Thessaloniki. Then in the evening things tend to heat up, with anarchists lobbing volleys of bricks and Molotov cocktails at the MAT, and the MAT responding with incredible volumes of tear gas and crowd-control rounds.

Then there is the way in which the17th of November has historically been observed by Greece’s far- and post-left urban guerrillas. The most infamous of these groups (and one of the originals) takes its very name from the last day of the uprising, the “Revolutionary Organization–17 November,” popularly known as “17N”. 17N was a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that existed from 1975 until their dismantling in 2002. Their first operation would be on the night of December 23rd, 1975, as three unmasked members followed the CIA’s new Athens Chief of Station, Richard Welch, home from a Christmas party and shot him dead in front of his wife and driver. Along with other students, who were dissatisfied with the return to democracy rather than a complete revolution against capitalism, 17N took their energy from the 1973 uprising and went underground to begin a militant campaign of bombings, robberies, assassinations and rocket attacks. After their capture and dismantling, a new generation of urban guerrillas followed in the footsteps of 17N. Though today’s generation of urban guerrillas tends to be comprised ideologically of left-libertarian and post-left anarchists, most of them still pay homage to 17N the group and refer to the Polytechnic uprising in their communications. The overwhelming historical significance of November 17th, as well as the guaranteed violence at the hands of the police during demonstrations that take place annually, are themselves recurring motivations for acts of terrorism in and around that date every year.

December 6th

Casual observers of the country will recall that from 2009 through to 2013, Greece seemed to be ceaselessly smoldering with often violent protests that would go from morning into the early hours of the next day. Many will also remember that most of the anger fueling these protests came from the brutal effects of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity measures Greeks faced. However, before the contagion of the economic crisis even reached Greece, another event sparked a nation-wide “uprising,” the scale and intensity of which had not been seen since December 1944, as the country was on the brink of civil war (a war it would fight from 1946-1949, and a likely factor in some of today’s political violence). On the evening of December 6th, 2008, a group of teenagers got into a verbal altercation with two police officers from the Special Guards unit in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, when one of the officers fired his service weapon three times in the teens’ direction, striking and killing 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos.

For the next three weeks there would be daily protests, fires, and clashes with police in which hundreds of thousands participated in cities all across Greece. Demonstrations and riots erupted in dozens of foreign cities as the Greek far- and post-left drew solidarity from all around the world. The destruction in Greece at the end of the three weeks was indescribable. Much of downtown Athens’ high-end shopping street, Ermou, had been burnt to a cinder. The rage was felt by people of all political persuasions. Fatal violence at the hands of the state remains an extremely sensitive issue among Greeks, following seven years under the junta.

Greek scholar, Andreas Kalyvas, notes in his piece, “An Anomaly? Some Reflections on the Greek December 2008,” the unprecedented immigrant participation in what he calls the “insurrection” over those three weeks:

Notwithstanding its limitations, contradictions, and failings, viewed from the perspective of the insurgent immigrant, the 2008 Greek insurrection contains a positive constituent moment: the illegal and extra-institutional reconstitution and expansion of citizenship, membership, and community. It is a radicalization of democracy.

(This author has personally witnessed angry Syrian refugees demonstrating alongside their Greek anarchist allies in Athens and Thessaloniki in 2016—though not on one of the dates discussed in this article.) The 6th of December was an outlier among the three dates covered here, in that its first iteration drew diverse crowds, acting on a diverse set of grievances against the Greek state and their lot in Greek society. Today, it is mostly observed by the far- and extra-parliamentary-left, as well as anarchist groups in Exarcheia.

Likely because of its direct relation to police brutality, December 6thoften (but not always) tends to be the most violent of Greece’s “insurgent holidays”. It is also within the recent memory of many Greeks that take to the streets today, and if they did not participate in the actions of 2008, there is a good chance that they were inspired by them. Police typically deploy in large numbers on the 6th, anticipating mass mobilization. Enraged Greeks will clash with phalanxes of MAT police on the main streets of Athens throughout the day, and in the evening the battle becomes localized to the neighborhood of Exarceia—where Grigoropoulos was murdered. The chirping of radios on MAT officers can be heard down the dimly lit streets, as cascades of Molotovs and other missiles fly at them from fluid groups of anarchists and are answered back by the smoking-trails of projectile gas canisters and blasts of crowd-control munitions.

September 18th

Perhaps one of the most shocking outcomes of the 2009 economic crisis in Europe was the rise of Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, and the seats it won in Parliament, along with the growth of its large street-level cadres—known for roaming about clad in black shirts and assaulting immigrants and leftists with melee weapons. The downfall of this frightening political movement would be the assassination of an anti-fascist rapper named Pavlos Fyssas, also known as “Killah P”. On the night of September 17th, 2013, as he sat watching a football match on the patio of a café in a suburb of Piraeus, a member of Golden Dawn, Giorgos Roupakias, approached him and viciously stabbed him. He died just after midnight on the 18th. The murder was considered a professional hit ordered by Golden Dawn’s leadership. The party founder and chief, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was sentenced to prison along with some of his party’s most prominent deputies, Golden Dawn having been tried asa criminal organization by the Greek justice system. For the first time since their ascent to Greece’s third-largest political party, this year they failed to win a single seat in Parliament.

The Hellenic Police were said by some witnesses to have stood by and allow Pavlos to be murdered. Anti-fascists immediately took to the streets of Athens and clashed with the MAT throughout the night. The clashes went on into the next day, and a week after the murder up to 10,000 people took part in demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki against fascism, people in Athens marching on Golden Dawn’s headquarters. Police broke up the march before it reached its destination and tremendous violence ensued between the MAT and the crowd, with dozens of arrests being made. Anarchists carried out a retaliatory hit on November 1st, 2013, in which two members of Golden Dawn were shot and killed and another injured outside of the party’s office in Neo Iraklio (a suburb of Athens).

In subsequent years demonstrations in memory of Pavlos and against Golden Dawn have lasted as long as three days, with thousands of people participating in Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Much of the frustration up until this year, however, has been over the slow pace of the trial to convict key members of Golden Dawn for their role in its criminal activity, and particularly in ordering the hit on Pavlos. Whether the intensity of these annual demonstrations will abate now that the trial has concluded has yet to be seen. Given the tremendous solidarity capital that the left and anti-fascists still draw from this date every year, it is unlikely that demonstrations and some degree of violence between protesters and police will not continue to take place every year on and around September 18th.

Conclusion

As a part of a broader policy to crackdown on what the current ruling party, New Democracy, refers to as a culture of “lawlessness” in Athens and Thessaloniki, the Hellenic Police have been forcefully evicting many of the long-established anarchist squats throughout Greece, including one in Thessaloniki and another on Crete that had both been occupied for nearly twenty years.  The government has also been cracking down on Greece’s “insurgent holidays”.

This year, ahead of November 17th, Minister for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chyrsochoidis, declared that the formal state wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the Polytechnic uprising would be canceled as well as any informal gatherings or demonstrations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that three other major Greek national holidays had been canceled due to the virus as well, and added, “The virus is the enemy and large gatherings are its weapon.” The university rector of Athens Polytechnic declared ahead of the 17th that the campus would be closed and all of its facilities barred to students and the public. Nevertheless, on November 12th, anarchists managed to break into the campus and occupy its main buildings, before the MAT broke into the gates, clashed with them and arrested several people. The anarchists’ intent had been to occupy the campus several days through the 17th. A separate demonstration took place at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki that also led to several arrests. Outraged at the government’s suspension of Greeks’ constitutional right to assemble and protest, the communist KKE party rallied and marched on Parliament. At the end of the day, trucks with high-pressure water cannons were used to disperse average Greeks peacefully assembled in downtown Athens, and several arrests were made throughout the day in Greece’s major cities. There were violent clashes that night between police and anarchists, as there are every year, and a few days later an anarchist cell calling themselves the “Drops of November” claimed a Molotov attack on Sykeon police station in Thessaloniki that took place on the afternoon of the 17th.

Similarly, demonstrations ahead of the December 6th anniversary of Alexis Grigoropoulos’ murder have been banned by the Hellenic Police, and those gathering in violation of the ban could face a fine of between 3,000-5,000 euros. The Minister of Citizen Protection said that he too was prohibiting gatherings, again on the basis of stopping the spread of COVID-19. As of writing this article (December 5th), several people have already been arrested after emerging from the subway station and clashing with police in Syntagma Square. Anarchist groups are calling for action to keep the police from blocking the memorial in Exarcheia where Grigoropoulos was shot, and separate groups such as trade unions are calling for their own demonstrations in memory of the slain boy. If this year’s November 17th was any indication of what Greece’s “insurgent holidays” look like in the time of COVID-19, December 6th will likely be observed with as much intensity as it has been in past years.

Of all of these “insurgent holidays,” November 17th is the most established in national memory and tradition. December 6th is right behind it in terms of enduring significance and the extent to which it will be observed for years to come. Though it is unlikely that the 18th of September will stop being observed now that the Golden Dawn trial has concluded (for the most part), it is possible that the numbers of people drawn to and the intensity of rallies on this day will decline. There is also the likelihood of other such dates emerging in the future, as long as certain segments of Greek society continue to wage war on the government, and on one another.

Tom Lord is a researcher, who tracks political violence and militancy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. He took his masters degree in international security studies from Boston University, and presently resides in Washington, D.C.His work can be found on Twitter, @potempkinbrain

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French Senator Allizard: Mediterranean – Theatre for future Europe

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On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by the Modern Diplomacy, IFIMES and their partners, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.[1]

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency OlivérVárhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers, the first to open the floor was French Senator Pascal Allizard, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice President (and its Special rapporteur for Mediterranean issues). Discussing regional issues of the southern Europe, its relations with the black sea and with North of Africa, this is what Senator outlined in his intervention:

As 2021 is the ten-year anniversary of the Arab spring, Senator Pascal highlights that a decade later, the events of the Arab Spring are crucial to the problems of today. Europe should reevaluate the region through European lens. Excellency Alizard criticizes Europe, due to the fact that it tends to take a step back from the region of the North African affected area of the Arab Spring conflict as there is an abundance of issues which are unlikely to be solved with ease. One must still do its duties difficult or not to question the region. Turning a blind eye to the problems there is something that Senator says Europe tends to do to elevate their consciousness.

However, one must look at the problems head-on. The biggest concern is that there is an explosive growth in population, a rise in radicalism and the Black Sea is what separates that northern conflict region of Africa and the Mediterranean coast of Europe.

The Mediterranean Sea is known to be one of the most crucial routes to transport illegal cargo such as drugs, hydrocarbon and human trafficking into Europe, specifically through Spain and Italy. It’s crucial for Europe to have a discussion and plan for this region as it is a necessity to keep Europe safe. The different countries along the Mediterranean must come together to create a cohesive, inclusive yet firm diplomatic strategy to answer all the challenges. The region along the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic area for Europe as there are many ships that come from around the world into those ports.

Senator Pascal proceeded by stating that the eastern Mediterranean region escalated after the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves. It is also the ongoing war in Syria, and the destabilization of the region with yet unsettled situation in Libya (with presence of multiple external players which generate instability).

Senator reminded the conference audience that Europe must also mention the actors in the Mediterranean on the European side;

‘’The European Union is a leading player, at least for the display of its normative ambitions, also for its diplomacy of the checkbook and its discourse on human rights. However, the EU is not a power in the state and sovereign sense of the term, and it systematically curbs the sovereign aspirations of its own member states. The EU does not yet project itself sufficiently as an international actor capable of implementing a foreign policy. The EU appears, I believe, seen from the Mediterranean at most as a soft power which, in word, watches over the balance of power in the region. And the hopes placed in EU policy dedicated to the Mediterranean have been in vain, to the extent that they do not seem effective, neither economically nor politically, at least from my point of view, insufficiently. And if on the northern shore a few countries are interested in the Mediterranean area, we can see that this is not the center of European concerns and that no common vision is really emerging.’’

Unification of that region is vital, because if the Mediterranean nations do not collaborate as a union and show their strength, control of that area could fall into the hands of Turkey, Russia and China. Turkey walks bold on the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone in Euro-Med, which would – if accepted – project its power in the Mediterranean, giving it a more prominent regional political role. Russia, which is once again becoming a key player in the Middle East, in the Black Sea area, in the Mediterranean and even in Africa walks bold too. Lastly, China which mainly projects itself through its trade, investments, and its bilateral agreements is pressing on maritime space too. Lately, Chinese military navy can be also seen.

The navies of the regions are preparing for a hardening of relations at sea in a strategic area where world trade flows, but also now, for the exploration, the exploitation of hydrocarbons. This is why questions of sovereignty are once again emerging, naturally in the sense of our concerns.

Hopefully the new US administration will also pay attention to the Mediterranean Sea and not just the Indo-Pacific. 

The only way to establish more of a grip in the Mediterranean theater is cooperation. This is also the key to success for all the European nations gathered around unified code of conduct and rule of law.

Concluding, Excellency Pascal stated that the European Union must recognize realities of unresolved conflicts that are interwoven, as well as to understand the new challenges that can threaten the very fabrics of the Union: security, demography, unregulated immigration. If not equal to these challenges, the universalist European model might lose its grounds beyond point of return – warned Senator.

*the above text is based on the informal French language transcript as per conference recordings, which may have no intentionally caused minor omittances or imprecisions in the reporting.


[1]This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

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Vienna Process: Re-visiting and Re-thinking the Euro-MED

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On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by the Modern Diplomacy, IFIMES and their partners, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.[1]

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency OlivérVárhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers were academics, government and IGO representatives of different yet complimentary backgrounds. Following is the brief, yet not conclusive, overview of the discussed. 

Although not new, the EURO-MED cooperation matter remains a distinguished area where the field of possibilities is immense, and where progress vis-à-vis this transregional collaboration would tremendously impact all involved parties’ crisis management abilities. Thus, re-discussing EURO-MED with, if necessary, a novel overall geometry is rightfully referred to as a both compelling and heat-on point of the agenda by the conference panellists.

Admittedly, the Barcelona Process of 1995 and PEM Convention having entered into force in early 2012 were remarkable initiatives aiming notably at introducing institutional frameworks and promoting deeper economic integration based on the “rules of origin” concept. However, the initiatives did not blossom as was hoped, and this is due to several reasons that keynote speaker Monika Wohlfeld (German Chair for Peace Studies & Conflict Prevention) and Ettore Greco (Vice-President of the Institute for International Affairs) have touched upon during the 8th March international event. Given that our awareness and understanding of the lack of prosperity having surrounded those first initiatives is key to re-thinking, re-calibrating and, in turn, re-engage in an auspicious direction, this piece will be taking you back to the salient message vehicled by Wohlfeld and Greco respectively.

First, Monika Wohlfeld took the floor and opened up by acknowledging the past attempts at reaching cooperation security agreements as well as their relative deficiency up until now. Equally as important to recognize are the causes of such failings: actually, little traction was brought on following the emergence of the first initiatives due to, notably, an absence of lasting peace climate and old relational patterns within the involved regions. The context having been set, she moves onto the juicy bit: the inherent inadequacy of the multilateral approach whose prints are all over the 90s and 2000s proposals. What is more, she brings to the table a counter-approach as the path to engage in: minilateralism.

The aforesaid concept offers an alternative cooperation modus that is more selective, flexible and mostly more conscious of, and focused on, the fact (or rather the reality) that States can participate in various ad-hoc frameworks with fluctuating membership. The latter would then be assessed through case-by-case interests, shared values and pertinent capabilities. In that sense, by contrast to a multilateralist angle, a minilateralist attitude would be oriented towards the sub-regional rather than the international; would be a voluntary undertaking rather than a binding one; would concern fragmented but specialized fields of application rather than general comprehensive ones; would tend to be multi-stakeholders rather than State-centric; and would proceed from a bottom-up thinking rather than top-down. Monika’s suggested shift in approach answers an important need, backed-up by local expert voices, which is that of the serious taking into account of sub-regional diversity in the process. By doing so, the odds of reaching cooperation agreements with MED countries – and moreover the chances of those agreements panning out – would be extremely favourable.

As a matter of fact, Ettore Greco endorsed a consubstantial view in his intervention during the conference. More specifically, he believes that a looser approach based on an empowered co-ownership and greater attention to actual regional dynamics and situational constraints ought to be adopted.

Drawing on the Barcelona Process experience, which rendered apparent its shortcomings and the recent state of deadlock having affected the EURO-MED coop, Greco equally provides alternate lines of thinking. What is clear to him is that the integrationist approach and the idea according to which cooperation should equate to structural convergence makes for an unworkable avenue. Indeed, he also pointed out that one main issue encountered with regard to earlier cooperation models (whether in the Barcelona Process or even in the ERANET Project of 2013) was the transfer and, by way of symmetry, the reception of Western policies in the Middle-East and North Africa. This cannot help but to ring an old bell; that of Watson’s concept of the ‘legal transplant’ and related limits. His famous metaphor of the mountain plant being uprooted and planted back in the desert, incurring changes to the plant’s nature remains particularly striking and timely. This goes to show, or rather to remind some, that purely transplanting policies that are specific to a certain ethos without adjusting to the new local particular context can often prove inefficient.

Consequently, is it well-advised that the EU places more emphasis on, and deploys more energy towards, stability and resilience as goals set out for the cooperation in lieu of democratization along with institutional reforms. That being said, Greco concedes that in the absence of profound transformation – and hence, reforms, to some extent – stability in itself is seldom achievable.

Setting aside the MED inner conflict dynamics over which the EU has very little if no control over, new forms of partnerships should be relentlessly explored and promoted in a world where the concurring, mutually-reinforcing challenges can only be optimally addressed through wider pan-regional operative frameworks. In that spirit, Ettore Greco, as emissary for the IAI, lays out some ground requirements we need to achieve as a roadmap to making successful advances. These are:

  • The promotion of a comprehensive concept of security. That is, one more inclusive and of broader scope – and thereby more realistic.[2]
  • The creation of better synergies between the different cooperation frameworks (NATO-MED dialogue, OSCE MED partnership, Union of the MED) and clarification of each initiative’s own added-value.
  • The involvement of valuable non-EU actors such as Russia or the United States of America.

Those guidelines, whether proposed by Monika Wohlfeld or by Ettore Greco, prove that the re-thinking of the EURO-MED cooperation is a breeding ground already being cultured. Besides, this political activation or mobilization towards re-shaping a functional and tighter cooperation scheme can be observed across the board of regional and sub-regional players directly affected by the issue. But mostly, there is one common thread in the discourses of those airing opinions to lead the best way: acknowledgement of the omnipresent diversity and pluralism at play. Only by factoring in the diversity of the partners and their sub-regions can there be beneficial arrangements and progress be made. This, of course, has to be understood as a central remark directed to the European side of the table. All and any relic of hegemony need be completely done away with, so as to fully respect and integrate the diverse identities in the process. And in fact, this shouldn’t be hard to comprehend and assimilate from a EU perspective considering the various cultural bundles interacting within the EU block itself. What is more, the European Court of Human Rights is King as revering and upholding the national particularism of its Member States – it makes it a point of honour in the crushing majority of its judgements whenever harmony flirts too close with a homogeneity requirement that comes short of negating a region’s tradition.


[1]This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

[2] On that, see the OSCE model proposal

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U.S government’s own negative impacts in eroding human rights and media freedom in Bulgaria

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The US State Department’s annual human rights report is out and just like every March, critical voices and activists around the world rush to their own country’s section to see what’s included and what they can use openly, with the stamp of criticism by the US government.

This year, the State Department’s report on human rights violations in Bulgaria covers the usual ground and what’s publicly known. There were no surprises. The section on Bulgaria includes very prominently violence against media and journalists, and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

What the US government does not include in the Bulgaria section is the US government’s own role in the erosion of human rights and media freedom in Bulgaria through US government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and even the US State Department. This is not something that US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is willing to admit – at least not yet.

Ever since the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Hero Mustafa, stepped into office back in 2019, the US Embassy in Sofia has maintained media freedom as a main theme. And what was not to like about that? Many of us over here cheered. But not so fast.

The US government construes media freedom only in the narrow sense that only speech praising the US government and going after US enemies should be free and protected. “Direct your freedom of speech against them, not us” is not freedom of speech. That’s not a rights-based approach; it’s authoritarianism. This was my first-hand experience with the US government when I was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. This is also my experience with the US government, as I try to spearhead the debate on the joint European position on China, and as I criticize the new US confrontational policy on China in pumping a new unnecessary Cold War with China, while expecting Europe to follow blindly. When the US is provoking China into a military and defense race at China’s own door step, while pointing to the Chinese reaction as “aggression”, hoping to draw Europe also into this, European voices have to speak up and warn about what’s coming on the horizon.

The FBI and the CIA operating under the hat of the US Embassy in Sofia make sure that independent, politically critical voices are kept under check through a variety of illegal means that the US government somehow believes it can allow itself to use on EU soil. The US State Department is happy to tag and sing along with the US intelligence agencies, here in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian authorities are also happy to help the US government in the US government’s repression against progressive, politically critical voices in Bulgaria.

The key take-away for the US government in Bulgaria has to be that the history of US human rights infringements in Europe shows that things like that only drive the transatlantic bond further away, and don’t bring it closer. This is also something that US President Joe Biden is about to learn very soon.

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